Did Charles Dickens effectively raise awareness on the issue of poverty and the effects of the poor laws in A Christmas Carol?

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While Dickens' A Christmas Carol, an enormously popular book, did raise public awareness of the problems of poverty in England, it was not effective in producing poor law legislation that changed the conditions of the poor.

Before writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens had been shocked by his tour of a school for poor children in London and by the scenes he witnessed of children toiling in tin mines in Cornwall. He decided to write a political pamphlet calling the public's attention to the sorry plight of impoverished young people. Instead, he dropped that plan and wrote a fictional work meant to change people's minds and hearts: thus A Christmas Carol was born.

Several Dickens scholars have noted how little impact A Christmas Carol had on changing the poor laws. In 1834, these laws had been altered to offer people even less support than before. Professor Malcolm Andrews, editor of a Dickens journal called The Dickensian, writes as follows:

 "Although in his journalism and novels he attacked specific targets ... it's hard to trace any direct consequences on reformist legislation in any of those areas to Dickens's influence."

Likewise, Professor Hugh Cunningham of the University of Kent contends

  "that while Dickens "helped create a climate of opinion", he did not articulate a "coherent doctrine" of how society should be reformed - and ... the author was at times as much in danger of being seen as a conservative as a radical."

A Christmas Carol is a classic example--perhaps THE classic example--of how Dickens could be viewed as a conservative who deliberately avoided articulating a political solution to the problem of poverty. The answer Dickens proposes in this book to the alarming suffering brought on by industrialism is nothing other than private charity. A Christmas Carol argues that private charity will arise if people, primarily the rich and well-to-do, soften their hearts and conjure kind thoughts that lead to compassionate action. People will do so, as we see in A Christmas Carol, by remembering the past: kindnesses done to them when they were younger, the generosity of others, and their own more idealistic youthful hearts. When the ghost takes Scrooge back to his own youth, he sees a reflection of his better self and remembers how he has benefitted from the generosity of others. This reminds him to show mercy to the needy.

Second, the rich should open their eyes in the present and become aware of the miseries all around them, as Scrooge is forced to do when the ghost whisks him to the poor Cratchit home. There, Scrooge's heart is moved by the sickly Tiny Tim, whose family cannot afford even to buy him proper food. 

Finally, Scrooge's trip to the future reminds readers that they too will die, and that perhaps it is best to be remembered as person of generosity and compassion rather than have others rejoice that you are dead.

Dickens was opposed to the trade union movement and similar collective action on the part of the lower classes (see Edmund Wilson's The Wound and the Bow). He believed that changing hearts and minds on an individual basis would bring about social change, and that change needed to come from the top down, from the upper classes, not from the bottom up through lower class political movements.

A Christmas Carol's failure to articulate a political program to bring about change and to ensure, in a systemic way, that more resources were provided to poor children led to the book's lack of political effectiveness. However, it is and was a wildly popular work that did generate small acts of charity on the part of the upper classes.

It's telling that when A Christmas Carol's impact is discussed, most emphasis is placed on its influence on how we celebrate Christmas in the U.S. and England. This is a far cry from influencing the political system to change the status quo. 

Read the study guide:
A Christmas Carol

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