Fairy Tale Elements in Charles Dickens´s Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol
Fairy tale motifs are a repetitive feature of Charles Dickens´s style. Besides gothic, grotesque, comedic, romantic, realist or journalistic elements, fairy tales are mirrored and hinted at by plots like David Copperfield´s Cinderella story, by figures such as Good Mrs Brown, by the constant allusion to the Arabian Nights, or by associated phrases like “[o]nce upon a time” in the beginning of A Christmas Carol. Dickens´s admiration for nursery tales is expressed in stories like The Magic Fishbone or the Christmas Books, and their significance is passionately defended in Frauds on the Fairies. In this article, he pleads for taking and preserving them “as if they were actual fact” (victorianweb.org). Hence, authors who change fairy tales both in form and meaning like his friend George Cruikshank are criticized harshly: “Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him” (victorianweb.org). Even though this statement refers to the changing of a whole nursery tale, Dickens´s own use of fairy plots and parallels, marvellous places and protagonists is not far away from the editing he finds fault with. He cuts off images and plots from the world of the marvellous and transplants them into a realistic context. In A Christmas Carol, these motifs dominate the rational elements and make it A Ghost Story, whereas in Great Expectations, fairy tale elements are inverted to foreground the ironic failure of the protagonist´s dreams. In this essay, Dickens´s usage of fairy tale elements in these two novels will be analysed after naming some features of the fairy tale that are relevant for the following analysis.
According to Steven Swann Jones, the fairy tale is “an originally oral genre” and hence, it mirrors an “oral tradition” (Jones 3). To succeed in his adventures, the hero has to undergo the stage of “threshold crossing” that often corresponds with the entering of “a realm of magic and fantasy” or the marvellous (Jones 15). These magical elements in the fictional universe are “to be regarded with respect and even some trepidation,” but most of all, they are considered “truly and legitimately occurring” (Jones 10). Jutta Eming states that within fairy tales, elements of the marvellous are regarded as ordinary, do not create surprise and always exist within boundaries and rules (Eming 27-35).
Like the other Christmas books , A Christmas Carol relies “on fairy-tale machinery to gain [its] characteristic effect” (Stone 119), but what stands out is the contrast between features of fairy tales and extremely realistic elements. An explanation for this juxtaposition could be that Dickens attempts to mirror the content of the story in its form and style. Scrooge, a personification of utilitarian ideas, rejects everything that is done because of irrational emotions instead of logic. Changing him from a miserable capitalist to a sympathetic human being can only be done by irrational and magic elements. Consequently, the elements of a realistic world are continuously confronted with fairy tale motifs.
Already at the beginning of the story, Dickens lets his narrator point out the coexistence of both elements when the latter stresses that Marley is dead: “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate” (CC45). The reader addressed by the narrator is no typical fairy tale reader, but considered as being suspicious in cases of supernatural happenings. The wording “Once upon a time” marks the beginning of the actual fairy tale, whereas the paragraphs before have the function of presenting Scrooge as a kind of supernatural creature that could easily live in a fantasy world amongst Jack Frost and the Snow Queen: “He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn´t thaw it one degree at Christmas” (CC46). Since the narrator assumes a critical and sceptical reader, who does not take happenings or characters for fact, this exposition is necessary to explain Scrooge´s character. Nevertheless, the oral tradition of the genre is maintained. The narrator´s appeals to the reader evoke the impression of a process in which both the storyteller and the listener participate simultaneously (“Mind!” or “Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did,” CC45).
The elements of the realistic world used in A Christmas Carol help to portray Scrooge as a character who is far away from considering fairy tale guidelines for a compassionate lifestyle. Scrooge represents a hard-core utilitarianism: He lives according to Adam Smith´s theory of the invisible hand (“It´s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people´s,” CC51) and “liberality” makes him frown (CC50). Since every individual should get the place he or she deserves within Victorian society, “the poor and destitute” ought to be placed in “prisons”, “the Union workhouses” and should be punished by the “Poor Law” (CC51). Being a business man, he reduces highly emotional problems to numbers and yes-no-decisions: If the “Poor” prefer to die, “they had better do it”, and if “hundreds of thousands” would die, it would decrease “the surplus population” (CC50-51). Scrooge´s remorseless but deeply rational character makes him finally reject any kind of irrational decision. Thus, he cannot understand that his nephew´s decision to marry his wife was based on love, which is a feeling and consequently “more ridiculous than a merry Christmas” (CC49).
Just like in a fairy tale, the marvellous in A Christmas Carol only occurs within boundaries. The ghosts appear only “when the bell tolls” (CC63), and do not arbitrarily haunt Scrooge.