This is the time of year when we as a culture talk the most about Dickens. And we talk exclusively about A Christmas Carol and all its countless adaptations. (The best of which is unquestionably The Muppet Christmas Carol.) Something about a Victorian Christmas is held up as the ideal, truest experience of Christmas—the tree, the family dinner, giving to those less fortunate. And Dickens is the quintessential Christmastime Victorian, with his noble poverty, redeemed misers, and schmaltz-riddled Tiny Tim.
So when we talk about Dickens during the holiday season, there’s this strange gap that opens up: on the one hand are the families who go to see performances adapted from A Christmas Carol because it’s wholesome holiday entertainment, and on the other hand there are the bookish types who look at the slim volume with its moralistic premise and dismiss it as hackneyed sentimental claptrap.
For the latter, I would like to recommend Great Expectations as Dickens’ modern, moody, cynical Christmas book—especially when read with A Christmas Carol in mind.
Please allow me to explain why.
In Carol, Scrooge deserves every comeuppance he gets. He’s a man of severe moral and emotional failings, and only a night spent time traveling saves him from becoming a cursed ghost like Marley after his death. The problem of the novel is a straightforward one: Ebenezer Scrooge should stop being a jerk.
Ebenezer Scrooge is also the one with all the money, so getting him to stop being a jerk also means he starts throwing huge wads of cash at philanthropists and buying prize geese for his overworked, underpaid employees. This ties in rather nicely with the consumerist agenda of secular Christmas, where being nice to people means buying stuff for them. And in turn, adapting the story for stage and screen can look like nothing more ambitious than an easy way to earn a quick buck.
Where A Christmas Carol really diverges from the modern sense of Christmas, though, is family relationships. On Scrooge’s travels he sees many families who struggle financially, and many who do not—but all those families care for each other and are happy to be celebrating together. In contrast, modern approaches to Christmas often regard it as a gauntlet to be run or a battle to be waged. There are lists of guidelines for “surviving” the holidays with family members, as though visiting Aunt Myrtle’s were akin to going over the top into No-Man’s Land, with hard candy instead of bullets and fruitcakes as mines.
Now look at this scene of Christmas dinner from Chapter 4 of Great Expectations, emphasis mine:
Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the table-cloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain. No; I should not have minded that, if they would only have left me alone. But they wouldn’t leave me alone. They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me. I might have been an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena, I got so smartingly touched up by these moral goads.
It began the moment we sat down to dinner. Mr Wopsle said grace with theatrical declamation — as it now appears to me, something like a religious cross of the Ghost in Hamlet with Richard the Third — and ended with the very proper aspiration that we might be truly grateful. Upon which my sister fixed me with her eye, and said, in a low reproachful voice, `Do you hear that? Be grateful.’
`Especially,’ said Mr Pumblechook, `be grateful, boy, to them which brought you up by hand.’
Mrs Hubble shook her head, and contemplating me with a mournful presentiment that I should come to no good, asked, `Why is it that the young are never grateful? ‘ This moral mystery seemed too much for the company until Mr Hubble tersely solved it by saying, `Naterally wicious.’ Everybody then murmured `True!’ and looked at me in a particularly unpleasant and personal manner.
This is definitely more like Christmas as we talk about it in the twenty-first century: a gathering of querulous elders who question our life choices and view our ethics and politics with suspicion. Young Pip is essentially condemned to prison by the dinner guests—even though they have absolutely no evidence of moral turpitude.
Gift-giving is also more complicated in Expectations than it was in Carol. Pip steals food to give to Magwitch the convict, who is famished; it’s both an act of charity and an act of theft, and it has repercussions that echo years forward into both characters’ future. Recent events like the Regretsy/PayPal fiasco and the annual reminder that the Salvation Army discriminates against lgbt people are similarly complicated acts of seasonal giving, and good intentions do not necessarily translate into real-world help.
So fear not, cynics! There is a Victorian Christmas book for you, too—one free of tinsel and easy answers, where good intentions are still the paving-stones of the road to Hell, where moral decisions are murky at best and impossible at worst and nobody at all is redeemed in the end.
And if that fails, there’s always the Grinch.