Friday, December 24, 2010

Positive feminine traits prevail in "A Christmas Carol"

I have loved Charles Dickens' novella "A Christmas Carol" since I was a little girl. I was perhaps five or six years old when I was first introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge, the Cratchit family, and the three famous ghostly visitors.

That's what made it so cool -- it was a ghost story at Christmas. The supernatural element of the story is what I found most irresistible.

"A Christmas Carol" has become a seasonal icon. Everybody knows the story. Even though Dickens could not have foreseen the invention of television or film -- the story is so masterfully written that it has successfully undergone many adaptations that will continue long into the future.

But, where are the women in Dickens' classic tale?

In the introduction to her paper "Dickens and the Daughter of the House," Hilary M. Schor says, "Feminist criticism has not been kind to Charles Dickens, scorning what Orwell referred to as 'legless angels' -- good daughters like Little Nell, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson, and all their dutiful ilk."

I must confess, I am not acquainted with these women. I'm not a particular fan of Dickens, and "A Christmas Carol" is his only work I've ever read.

I'm not into Victorian literature -- and I admit it freely.

In "A Christmas Carol," the women are in the background, which was typical of the times in which it was written. First published in 1843, the story predates the Seneca Falls Convention by five years. And, it wouldn't be until passage of the Married Women's Property Act of 1882 -- some 39 years later -- that English women would have the legal right to buy and sell their property. Under the law, women were given separate legal identities and could sue and be sued. They were also responsible for their own debts.

What "A Christmas Carol" does show us is the value of the feminine qualities of kindness, compassion, nurturing and care when they are practiced by both women and men.

In the story, the deep love of Bob Cratchit for his family, poignantly illustrated when he weeps over Tiny Tim's death in Scrooge's unaltered vision of the future, shows his vulnerability, but does not negatively feminize his behavior or criticize it as such.

Another character, Scrooge's nephew, Fred, refuses to indulge in mean-spirited criticism of his uncle, even when egged on by his friends and wife. Rather, Fred expresses acceptance of Scrooge's curmudgeonly ways and still believes that, deep down, there is good in Scrooge because his mother -- Scrooge's sister Fan -- loved him.

Fan, sometimes called Fran, is a significant figure in Scrooge's time travel journey into his past. It was Fan who played intercessor between Scrooge and his estranged father producing a kind of healing in the relationship. Negotiating the patriarchal social norms of the era could not have been easy. It is later said of Fan that she had a large heart, a testament to the power of her love and compassion.

There are also some strong female personalities who jump out of the background to make their voices heard.

Belle, Scrooge's one-time fiancee, also shows great insight and power to speak her own mind. She sees Scrooge's "changed nature" as he is influenced by greed. She tells Scrooge he, "fears the world too much," and breaks off the relationship at a time when a woman's status is determined by marriage.

Mrs. Cratchit is a woman who speaks her mind. She can't comprehend her husband's sentimental toast to his stingy boss and makes her disapproval and dislike of Scrooge known. At the same time, she is shown to be a shrewd household manager, by acquiring a goose for the family dinner at a bargain price.

Martha, the Cratchit's oldest daughter, exemplifies a time before constructed childhood.
She works in a millinery to help support the family.

Different adaptations -- although basically true to the story -- take artistic license with sex and gender.

For instance, the ghost of Christmas past is often depicted as a woman, but in the original story appears as something like a little boy with the face of an old man.

In the end, it is only when Scrooge adopts a care-focused approach to life that he reaps the rewards of redemption. And to Dickens' credit, he does not negatively feminize after the transformation has taken place.

To achieve the best of our human nature, we must seek to incorporate both positive feminine traits and positive male traits into our personalities and behaviors. This is true androgyny, which has more to do with practice than it does with appearance.

Happy Yuletide.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great analysis of the novel, and there are not many analysis of A Christmas Carol which take into consideration the role of female characters and feminism. This helped a great deal in a preparation for my Victorian Lit. final. Thanks a lot :)

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