When I graduated from Washington & Lee, the English department gave me a questionnaire to fill out that asked what improvements could be made to the teaching in the department to make it better for future generations of W&L students. In my answer, I stated that I wished there were courses that focused exclusively on the writings of Franz Kafka and Charles Dickens.
I had a special affinity for Kafka because his writing was exceptionally creative when it came to demonstrating how easily things that appear to be immutable (e.g. unconditional love) can quickly transform into something ugly the moment you cease to provide value. How can you top the opening line to The Metamorphosis when Kafka wrote: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic bug.” As the family comes to regard the bug as a nuisance, we learn how the love for Samsa changes when he goes from being the primary breadwinner to a helpless insect in constant need of support. Funny how you learn so much about human nature by turning a man into a beetle.
The reason why I liked Dickens so much is probably obvious—he is one of the few writers who seems to have a handle on where money belongs in the scheme of an ordered life. It’s no coincident that young Pip’s life in Great Expectations takes a turn for the worse after the line: “I began to contract a quantity of debt.” The arc completes many chapters later upon the reflection: “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one.”
What I found especially admirable about Dickens’ writing is that not only did he recognize the role that debt can play in causing misery, he also possessed the wisdom to recognize that an undue focus on finances also leads to misery. Obviously, Scrooge is the immortal archetype of this insight, but Dickens also touched upon this theme in Bleak House: “The father of this pleasant grandfather, of the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, was a horny-skinned, two-legged, money-getting species of spider who spun webs to catch unwary flies and retired into holes until they were entrapped. The name of this pagan’s God was Compound Interest.”
Like many other writers, especially of his time, Dickens cited Shakespeare as a strong influence on the themes he chose to focus in writing. One of the reasons why Shakespeare’s works endure so strongly across centuries, cultures, and continents is that Shakespeare recognized that humans get locked into stories that involve a great arc for better or worse in the protagonist’s life. Human nature gets aroused when hearing stories of peasants becoming kings or kings becoming peasants—stories of a middle-class man raising a middle-class son do not enflame our passions. Dickens understood this component of Shakespeare’s enduring success well.
The story of a self-loathing pauper that treated his fellow poor terribly and had a moment of metanoia and proceeds to share his scraps with impoverished individuals would not create a storyline that would endure through the centuries. A rich man using his station to inflict pain and misery through his parsimony going on to become an extreme charitable benefactor is a story that endures through the advent of electricity, radio, TV, computers, and smartphones because extreme changes in the arc of someone’s life will always hold our attention.
That is why I am excited to see the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol on Youtube. Is there any better social commentary on how money can be a tool for great good or great evil?