Friday, December 5, 2008

Are the Christmas books of Charles Dickens Christian? How about Vanity Fair?

What got me thinking about all this was, among other things, Charles Dickens’s second Christmas book, The Chimes (1844), his follow-up to the huge success of A Christmas Carol. I came up with a simple-minded question – are the Christmas books Christian? I mean, I know that’s the background, but how far back? What ethical message do they contain that is not shared by non-Christians, secular or religious? Does Scrooge become a churchgoer? Does it matter?

I’ll just assume that everyone knows how A Christmas Carol goes, and save The Chimes for later. See below on that topic. Anyway, what does Scrooge learn? Be less selfish, more attentive, more charitable, less concerned with money. Who disagrees? Objectivists, please go away.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol right in the middle of the serialization of Martin Chuzzlewit, which is itself a dissertation on and classification of human selfishness. The novel contains a couple of proto-Scrooges. One of the selfless characters likes to play the organ during church, but otherwise the novel seems virtually religion-free.

I don’t know anything about Dickens’s own religious views, and don’t much care to lean more, but the ethics of his books are humanist. That seems pretty clear. Little Nell, in The Old Curiosity Shop, dies in a church. If I remember correctly, it’s an antique Catholic church that's been converted into a dwelling. That may be symbolical of something. This is in a novel that invokes The Pilgrim's Progress, my benchmark for at least one type of truly Christian fiction, by name. The ethics of Charles Dickens, whatever their source, are a long way from those of John Bunyan.

Two of Balzac’s finest stories, neither of which made it into the Big Balzac Blowout, unfortunately, are about the symbolic power of the Catholic Mass. “An Incident in the Reign of Terror” is about persecuted Catholics who secretly perform Mass during the French Revolution; “The Atheist’s Mass” is about just what is says in the title, a dedicated, public atheist who secretly attends mass once a year. Yet in some Balzac novels, there is hardly a reminder that the Catholic Church exists. Balzac seems like a humanist, as well.

I should stick with English or American examples. The Church in France is a tarpit for the outsider. I mean, the basis for Chateaubriand's great post-Revolutionary apology for Christianity is that he likes the sound of the bells. Let me turn to a remarkable letter from William Thackeray to Mrs. Carmichael-Smyth. Mrs. C-S has apparently been complaining that one of the characters in Vanity Fair is selfish, which is beyond hilarious, but anyway, here's part of his reply:

"What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world (only that is a cant phrase) greedy pompous mean perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior virtue... [The selfish character] has at present a quality above most people whizz: LOVE - by wh she shall be saved. Save me, save me too O my God and Father, cleanse my heart and teach me my duty." (Vanity Fair, Norton Critical Edition, p. 699)

I am wary about taking this letter entirely at its face value; nevertheless it was a great surprise to me. This is what I was getting at yesterday, I think, but I fear I have dived into a deep pool. I may have to spend next week splashing about in it.

Rohan Maitzen is going to host a discussion of The Chimes over at The Valve. When she's involved, the Zizek and Derrida stuff seems to stay away, so it should be a friendly and useful discussion. The Chimes has nothing like the perfection of A Christmas Carol, but it is most interesting. 100 pages, including illustrations, in the edition I read. Please join in. Note that this "Christmas" story is set on New Year's Eve, which I guess does put it somewhere in the Twelve Days of Christmas.


  1. I can't be bothered to look any of this up at this time of night, but essentially Dickens' Christianity was a form of humanism. He hated the Old Testament - thought it cruel and inhuman - but believed in the essential morality of the New Testament. So far as forms of worship went, Dickens was drawn to the Unitarian Church - i.e. the church with the least dogma and piety that existed at the time (except perhaps the Quakers). When I say he hated the Old Testament I do not mean he was anti-Semitic. Although especially in the first edition Oliver Twist may seem so, Dickens deeply regretted that, and made amends for it in the rather implausibly good character of Riah in Our Mutual Friend.

  2. I would never be able to guess Dickens's interest in Unitarianism from his books, although that might be because I don't know what to look for. He's sure hard on the non-Conformists, thinks they're con men and fakes, I could figure that much out.