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A Christmas Carol and the Power of Art

Art has the ability to inspire us and captivate our imaginations like nothing else can. You experience this when seeing a particularly powerful film, where the story and characters take you to a different emotional place. Whether viewing a classic like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life or a current movie such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence, you are affected viscerally in a way only art can prompt. A painting can be transcendent as well. Henri Nouwen was so moved by Rembrandt’s visual interpretation of The Return of the Prodigal Son that he wrote a book based on the impressions he saw in the work.

Although it appeals to just one sense, music can move us as well. Why do we stand at a live performance of The Hallelujah Chorus? Is it tradition or something much deeper that causes us to rise in reverence? Why does a familiar song immediately bring past emotions into the present? It’s the power of the art.

And then there’s literature. Whether true or made up, the stories found in books have the power to not only inspire, but to also bring about actual change. A fine example is A Christmas Carol, the perennial favorite tale by Charles Dickens, one of literature’s most familiar and acclaimed writers. His novella about a miser and a family in Victorian England has resounded emotionally with readers and audiences since it was first published in 1843.

I had the opportunity to see a fine stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol produced by the South Coast Repertory in Orange County, California. The familiar plot of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge being confronted by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future came alive and touched my heart in all the right places. And it wasn’t just the sweetness of Tiny Tim’s familiar phrase “God bless us everyone!” that got to me. The effect went deeper, to the part of me that sometimes aches for the poor and downtrodden.

In fact, Dickens wrote his story in response to his own distress over the plight of England’s poor, particularly in London. At the time two million people lived in the city, rich and poor alike. Besides the filth and horrendous living conditions found in the form of horse manure, chimney smoke, and raw sewage pouring from the gutters into the public water supply, the city’s laborers were paid a pittance. Children in particular were often destitute and powerless, cast aside or placed in workhouses. And if they did work, they were treated like slaves.

This 1840s setting for A Christmas Carol shows a society that isn’t just indifferent to the poor, but hard-hearted. In Dickens’ story, when Scrooge is asked to contribute to a fund to help the indigent, he replies, “Are there no workhouses?” Besides, Scrooge continues, if the poor die, it will solve “the surplus population problem.” This one line in the story, far from a benign piece of dialogue, was Dickens’ direct response to the philosophy of Thomas Robert Malthus, who believed famine, war, and disease were acceptable ways to “check” over-population.

Dickens could have spoken out against such horrific ideas and practices with political ferocity. Such a response certainly has its place, but its effect is sometimes muted by the zealousness of the speaker. Indeed, Dickens occasionally gave speeches about these matters. But public rhetoric is no match for a great story to bring about introspection and change, and that’s exactly what Dickens did in A Christmas Carol.

Rather than ranting against the indifference and mean-spirited attitudes of the day, he channeled his outrage by creating one of literature’s most memorable characters, placing him in an absolutely charming story that is wholly believable, even though it is populated by supernatural creatures.

As soon as it was published, A Christmas Carol began to touch people, so much so that six months after its publication the 1844 Factories Act decreed that 9-13 year-olds could only work nine hours a day, six days a week. That may seem like a small step to us today, but in that era it was viewed as massive reform.

Such is the power of art, especially when it appeals to our innate desire for redemption and hope. If you think about it, the story Dickens told in A Christmas Carol is a beautiful reflection of the even bigger story that surrounds us at this time of year. Like Dickens’ story, the Christmas Story is populated by supernatural creatures and brings a message of redemption and hope: that otherwise indifferent and mean-spirited people can be changed into those who, like the transformed Scrooge, desire to serve rather than be served.
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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.