The Popularity of A Christmas Carol: Excessive Sentimentalism or Powerful Storytelling?
I guess I would have to agree with Charles Dickens' detractors who say that he was too long-winded, that he should have learned to cut to the point of almost anything he was writing about a little quicker. I agree with them—but then, so would Dickens himself. There is a story about him, told by Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author who grew up to write Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. She was only twelve when she approached him on the train between Portland, Maine and Boston and started a discussion about his books, listing what she liked and then mentioning that he should have cut "some of the very dull parts." In response, Dickens roared with laughter and pressed for further thoughts on the subject of what she might think dull. Now, it could be considered just common politeness for a grown man to give a twelve-year-old critic his full attention, patronizing to let her call him dull; on the other hand, when a child could see what was excessive, he would have no choice but to take heed.
Fortunately, he was able to avoid the problem of wordiness in his novellas by working in a form so short that it never has time to be excessive. This is never truer than in A Christmas Carol, which lends itself to quick scene changes. Still, this book brings up the next most common charge levied against Charles Dickens: that of cold, manipulative sentimentality. He has been called the Norman Rockwell of literature, a technical stylist who says the things that he (rightly) thought his audience wanted him to say.
For those like myself who think that critics have no business blaming a book for being popular, Dickens was a good, interesting, vivid writer first. Yet I can see the other side's point—that too much of what he did was driven by popular opinion and not by artistic standards.
I think that what saves Dickens from the charge of excessive sentimentalism, in A Christmas Carol and in general, is the fact that he was always willing to balance life's joy against its misery. This would be an easier point to support with the life stories presented in the longer books, such as David Copperfleld and Great Expectations or especially Bleak House, but it stands even with a commercial enterprise like the story of Scrooge. He took risks that were clearly not popular in order to round out his vision of the world.
Considering the charge of sentimentality, the first thing to get out of the way is the simple, obvious fact that nobody had or has any deeply held hatred for Charles Dickens. Not only are those who raise questions about his work too sensible to try to dismiss him as a fraud, but they probably don't even feel good about taking sides against him. As G. K. Chesterton, himself a powerful and interesting novelist, noted, "In everyone there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death and that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens."
Ironically, A Christmas Carol happens to play off of all of the elements Chesterton mentioned. It has the baby—Tiny Tim—who, though able to verbalize his saintly philosophy in whole paragraphs, still has to be carried around on his father's shoulders like an infant. It teases readers' thirst for sunlight throughout from the foggy afternoon at the start to the beams shining from the head of the Spirit of Christmas Present to the sooty darkness of the coal mines to, at last, the "Golden sunlight" that pours down on the reformed Scrooge when he throws open his shutters on Christmas morning. Moreover, it clearly has death—other figures of death through the years have matched the frightening quietude of the Ghost of Christmas Future, but none has surpassed it as a representative of fate's no-nonsense certainty.
There are certainly some grim moments presented in this story, the kinds of details that are avoided by true commercial sentimentalists who today cheapen our sense of the time by using phrases like "Victorian Christmas" or, worse, "Dickensian Christmas" to hawk their merchandise. For one thing, Scrooge is really pretty evil....
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