I’ve watched this movie many times over the years, finding different things each year standing out. In recent years I’ve began to wonder if Dickens’ novel and its various adaptations has undermined the social transformation needed to successfully address poverty and its many ills.
Early in the movie, Scrooge is asked to donate money to a charity. The exchange is an interesting one, where private charity is honoured and any collective (state) efforts to address need portrayed, in their essence, as cruel:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
There is no call for adequate social assistance available to all throughout the year, but an effort to appeal seasonally for charitable assistance. Scrooge doesn’t complain about his taxes being used for (albeit far from adequate) relief; just to being asked to make a personal contribution to a charity for short-term help.
Scrooge gives Bob Cratchet a paid holiday—very unusual in 1843 in England. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 that paid holidays were required by law. This was noted both early in the movie, when Cratchet and Scrooge have a conversation about Christmas Day; very similar to a scene that is included in the visions of Christmas past. Scrooge may cut wages upon taking over a business, but he can also go beyond the minimum expectations of staff. Cratchet’s daughter, in domestic service, wasn’t sure she was going to get the day off and had to run to be home for the family gathering. At the Cratchet dinner, Bob Cratchet makes mention that not many of their acquaintances could afford two rounds of the best gin punch. There are hints that Scrooge is not entirely the grasping businessman tradition has made him out to be.
The development of the story, especially the end, is widely known. Scrooge undergoes a change of heart and devotes himself to good works, especially at Christmas. This redemption is quite moving, but at the end of the day the redemption is only on the individual level. There is no indication that people should work together to solve social problems on an ongoing basis; there is no indication that there is a social obligation to care for others. Indeed, any mention of such shared obligation in the movie is critical of the idea. We are not asked to consider solve the problems of poverty by any concept of permanently addressing problems. We are told that we should act individually to address problems, and most generously at Christmas. If everyone acted as compassionate individuals then everything would be good.
We aren’t asked to work together to provide good quality affordable housing or to ensure universal access to good quality medical care. As long as there is a Scrooge then Tiny Tim can get his medical needs addressed. What to do when there such a relationship doesn’t exist isn’t hinted at.
The world would have been better if such a powerful appeal to private charity hadn’t been written. Already there were writers, utopian socialists and others, calling for a more communal approach to both communal and individual needs. We need appeals to our conscience to encourage us as individuals to act compassionately and justly in the world; but if that appeal is all that is offered we as individuals will quickly wear out and the social problems will continue.