Preferred Citation: Christ, Carol T., and John O. Jordan, editors Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.

Spectacular Sympathy Visuality and Ideology in Dickens'sA Christmas Carol


Spectacular Sympathy
Visuality and Ideology in Dickens's
A Christmas Carol

Audrey Jaffe

In a well-known essay, Sergei Eisenstein describes literature in general and Dickens in particular as cinema's predecessors because of their evocation of visual effects. Literature, Eisenstein writes, provides cinema with "parents and [a] pedigree,. . . a past"; it is "the art of viewing."[1] What Eisenstein construes as aesthetic development, however, may also be regarded as a persistent "regime of perception in Western culture—one in which appeals to the eye play a significant role in the production and circulation of ideology.[2] An emphasis on visuality, whether literary or cinematic, promotes spectatorship as a cultural activity. But such an emphasis also reinforces, and thereby naturalizes, forms of spectatorship already inscribed in the social structures within which particular cultural representations are produced. The idea of a continuity between literature and film may thus be significant less for what it reveals about the genealogy of cinema than for what it tells about the role of visuality and its literary evocations in defining, reinforcing, and disseminating some of Western culture's dominant values.

A Christmas Carol (1843) is arguably Dickens's most visually evocative text. In its detailed attention to and elaboration of surfaces, its reliance on contrasts between darkness and light, its construction as a series of scenes (a structure reproduced in the images the spirits exhibit to Scrooge), and particularly its engagement with a dynamic of spectatorial desire, the story is an artifact of, and an exemplary text for understanding, the commodity culture Guy Debord terms a "society of the spectacle"; the mechanism of Scrooge's conversion is, after all, spectatorship.[3] Projecting Scrooge's identity into past and future, associating specta-


torial and consumer desire with images of an idealized self, A Christmas Carol elaborates what I wish to argue is the circular relation that obtains between, on the one hand, spectacular forms of cultural representation, and, on the other, persons, objects, or scenes invested with ideological value and thus already surrounded in their cultural contexts with an aura of spectacle. Moreover, an understanding of the story's representational effects helps explain spectacle's peculiar power as a vehicle for ideology. For while A Christmas Carol anatomizes the relationship between an individual subject and spectacular culture, it also unfolds as an allegory of the subject's relation to culture in general—to the realm Clifford Geertz defines as "an imaginative universe within which . . . acts are signs."[4]

A recent revision of A Christmas Carol illustrates the story's circularity. At the end of the film Scrooged (1988), the character played by Bill Murray, who is involved in making a television version of Dickens's story, steps out of television space and into cinematic space to address the viewer "directly." The point of this shift is to frame television space as fictional by seeming to move into a more "real" space, and the point of his address is to direct spectators to do the same: to become engaged with the world beyond television. In telling viewers not to watch television, however, Murray's character reinforces the idea that some medium is needed to send them that message. Implicit in the directive to leave fiction behind and move into the world, in this film and the text on which it is based, is the claim that the way to the world lies through representation.

In presenting Scrooge with images of his past, present, and future lives, Dickens's spectacular text seeks to awaken his sympathy and direct it to the world beyond representation. As a model of socialization through spectatorship, the narrative posits the visual as a means toward recapturing one's lost or alienated self—and becoming one's best self If it fails to explain how the process occurs—how sympathy emerges from identification, and identification from spectatorship—it nevertheless asks its readers' assent to this series of effects. And if, as I argue, Scrooge's sympathetic self emerges from his relation to representation, such is also the implied effect of the reader's relation to the scenes of A Christmas Carol, given the text's explicit analogy between Scrooge's activity and the reader's (the narrator notes, for example, that Scrooge is close to the Spirit of Christmas Past as the narrator is to the reader, "and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow").[5]

Dickens's text, by linking visual representation to the production of individual sympathy and thus, ultimately, to social harmony, both participates in and reinforces the perceptual regime to which Metz refers.


For at stake in the story's appeal to visuality is not just the assertion of a connection between spectatorship and sympathy but also a definition of spectatorship as a means of access to cultural life. Paul Davis has used the term culture-text to describe the rewriting of the Carol to reflect particular cultural and historical circumstances.[6] I wish to argue, however, that the story deserves this name because it identifies itself with culture: it projects images of has come to stand for, and constitutes an exemplary narrative of enculturation into the dominant values of its time.

A Christmas Carol tells the story of a Victorian businessman's interpellation as the subject of a phantasmatic commodity culture in which laissez-faire economics is happily wedded to natural benevolence.[7] And, in a manner that would be appropriate for a general definition of culture but is especially suited to a spectacular society, the story articulates the relation between the subject and culture as a relation between the subject and representation. Scrooge gains access to his former, feeling self and to a community with which that self is in harmony—and, not incidentally, he saves his own life—by learning to negotiate the text's field of visual representations. In the pages that follow, I show how cultural "frames" embedded in the story's images invite the spectator's identification, collapsing sympathy into an identification with representation itself, and how, by making participation in its scenes dependent on such identification, the story constitutes both its idealized charitable self and the ideal subject of commodity culture. A Christmas Carol reconciles Christmases Past and Christmases Yet to Come, that is, by conjuring up an illusion of presence.

The story's ideological project—its attempt to link sympathy and business by incorporating a charitable impulse into its (male) readers' self-conceptions—underlies its association of charitable feeling with participation in cultural life.[8] A narrative whose ostensible purpose is the production of social sympathy, A Christmas Carol resembles those scenes in eighteenth-century fiction in which encounters between charity givers and receivers of offer readers a model of sympathy.[9] Although such scenes had an instructional function, directing readers from the text to the world beyond it, they also engendered strictly "literary" feeling; texts intended to "inculcate . . . humanity and benevolence" provided "a course in the development of emotional response, whose beginning and end are literary."[10] What I have described as a certain circularity in representations of sympathy is thus not new in the nineteenth century. But from the eighteenth-century novel's scenes of sympathy to the scenes of A Christmas Carol, the sympathetic text has both widened its scope and


tightened its grasp on the reader; it has moved from displaying virtue to incite imitation and teach judgment to a relatively select audience to profoundly manipulating the reader's visual sense in what is, in effect, the mass marketing of an ideology about sympathy.

In the Carol, then, the subject is not the man of feeling but the man who has forgotten how to feel; the potential charity giver no less than the beggar requires socialization. Not simply a representation of benevolent acts or an exposition of sympathy's pleasures, Dickens's text situates its readers in the position of the man without feeling in a narrative whose function is to teach him how to feel, and it appeals to them by manipulating visual effiicts in a manner that mirrors Scrooge's own interpellation through spectacle.

The story opens on a world shrouded in fog that gradually dissolves to reveal Scrooge working in his countinghouse. Here, as in numerous other scenes that evoke contrasts between darkness and light or in other ways emphasize appearances, the story draws attention to its own surface and its control over visual techniques (what Metz calls "mechanisms of desire")—its power to let readers, positioned as spectators, see or not see.'[11] In doing so, it seems to create spectacle out of a grab bag of projective or framing devices that it implicitly describes as the property of literary texts. But while suggesting that literature can transform any reality into spectacle, the story focuses chiefly on objects, persons, and scenes that are already spectacular in Victorian culture: invested with cultural value and desire. As the story seems to spectacularize the real, that is, it in fact reinforces the desirability of a series of culturally valorized images and contributes to a sense that nothing—exists at least, nothing worth looking at—outside those images.

Spectacle depends on a distinction between vision and participation, a distance that produces desire in a spectator. The early parts of Dickens' story dramatize the elder Scrooge's identification with images of his youth and associate the effect of those images with that of literary texts. The scenes of Scrooge's youth possess an immediacy that the Spirit of Christmas Past underscores by warning Scrooge against it: "These are but shadows of the things that have been,' said the Ghost. 'They have no consciousness of us'" (71). But the text emphasizes the "reality" of these "shadows," reinforcing that emphasis by insisting on the reality of an even more removed level of representation: the characters of Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe, products of young Scrooge's imagination, not only appear in the first scene but are "wonderfully real and distinct to look at" (72). And their realism seems both to produce and testify to the spectator's ability to identify with representations; ex-


claiming about the adventures of these fictional characters, Scrooge "expend[s] all the earnestness of his nature . . . in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying," his face "heightened and excited" (72). Subsequent scenes produced by the spirit similarly evoke desire and compel identification. The scene of Fezziwig's ball takes Scrooge "out of his wits": "His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self"; he speaks "unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self" (78). If Scrooge's relation to the scenes from the Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe is analogous to his response to other scenes from his past and both are analogous to the reader's relation to the text of A Christmas Carol, then literature is here imagined as spectacle, and both are defined as compelling identification while precluding participation.

Although temporal distance and fictionality separate observer from observed in these scenes, the story's emphasis on the realism of what is seen blurs the difference between a spectacularity literature finds and one it creates. Similarly, what the spirits choose to represent as "scene" is often, in effect, already one. Davis amply describes the story's construction as a series of scenes, its use of dream and projection, and its allusions to popular Victorian images (65–66). But its scenes are also related to what Mary Ann Doane calls "scenarios": constellations of persons or objects charged with cultural significance, they are images of images displayed to evoke desire in a spectator who recognizes the values embedded in them.[12] The scenes of Scrooge's boyhood friends, for instance, compel spectatorial desire through their temporal distance and through Scrooge's evident, immediate pleasure in apprehending them. Indistinct as they are, however, they serve chiefly to signify youth and boyhood fellowship and to gesture toward an idealized preindustrial world in which work resembles play. In the description of Fezziwig's ball, similarly, desire is signaled by absorption, the disappearance of the spirit and Scrooge while the scene is being described. But desire is also inscribed in the display of the dance itself, with its stylized emphasis on couples and courtship. Encoding specific cultural values in visionary scenes, surrounding with a golden or rosy light the images that convey them, the story identifies those values with light—and vision—itself and ultimately, as I argue below, with what it calls "spirit."[13]

Encoded in these scenes, then, are some of Victorian culture's dominant values—youth, boyhood fellowship, heterosexual desire, and familial pleasure—their naturalness asserted by means of a strategy that identifies seeing with desiring. For embedded in the scenes are screens of their own: cultural frames that define the contents as desirable. In perhaps


the most powerful example, a scene after the ball, the narrator models desire, moving into the spirit's position and, imaginatively, into the scene itself. He supposes himself one of several "young brigands" playing a game at the center of which is a young woman who might in other circumstances, it seems, have been Scrooge's daughter.

As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn't have done it; I should have expected my arm to have grown round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, . . . in short, I should have liked, I do confess to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value. (81–82)

The merging of narrator, spirit, and Scrooge in the speaker's "I" is the narrative's characteristic way of dramatizing the power of its own representations. And the subject of the passage—the impossibility of touching an image whose status as image provokes the desire to touch (and holds out a promise of "value")—might itself serve as a definition of spectacle. But this seductiveness is a function not only of the image's status as representation but also of what Laura Mulvey calls the "to-be-looked-at-ness" of what is represented.[14] What prevents the narrator from touching the woman's skin—the "skin" separating spectator from spectacle—defines both the reality of what is seen and the spectacle's condition as representation; the combination of desire and inaccessibility hints, as well, at woman's status in the real as representation. By framimg the scene as fantasy, the text seems to create what it in fact reproduces: the woman's spectacular quality.

Projection also makes the idea of touch—of breaking the skin of representation—seem faintly—transgressive here. But what is presented is already transgressive in Victorian culture: the image's desirability and untouchability draw upon, and translate into visual terms, the imagined desire of the father for his daughter. Spectacle's necessary distance thus echoes and encodes other prohibitions against touch, prohibitions marking gender codes and familial relations. Desire is both barred by these prohibitions and inscribed in them; participating in that desire, observers become complicit in the scene's cultural dynamics.

Along with mode of representation and content, temporal distance gives the images of Scrooge's past an inherent spectacularity. But what the story offers as everyday reality—Christmas Present—possesses the same projective or illusory quality. It is as if, in order to make Scrooge


and the story's readers desire the real, the text has to offer not everyday life but rather its image: everyday life polished to a high sheen.

The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by. . . . There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed. . . .

Figs are "moist and pulpy," French plums "blush in modest tartness"; there are "Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner" (90). These objects carry the same erotic charge as the woman in the game-playing scene (and desire is once again modeled, in the image of watering mouths); they also similarly suggest temporal distance, with the spectator positioned as not yet in possession of what he sees. But they have these qualities not because they are framed as projections, although they appear in the scenes shown by the Spirit of Christmas Present, but because they are behind a screen already in place: the shopwindow. As in the earlier scene, what the text situates within its literary and phantasmatic frames is already, culturally, framed. Indeed, the idea of "framing" Christmas Present has as its premise the proposition that the real is only desirable—in fact, for Scrooge only visible—when made into representation.[15]

It makes sense, then, that one of Victorian England's most important sites of value—the home—also appears as image, framed by a perception from without that invests it with longing. There is no difference between the frame imposed by the spirit's presence and what a passerby in the streets would ordinarily see:

[A]s Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cosy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. . . . Here, again, were shadows on the window-blind of guests assembling. . . . (99)

The representational frames Dickens uses to set fantasy apart from reality—the dynamics that give A Christmas Carol its mythic or fairy-tale


quality—turn out to be fully operative in the "real" world: for Scrooge and the spirit as they walk through the streets, the world is a series of such frames, of windows and projective screens.

The reality Dickens (re)presents is thus already encoded as spectacle; it is "to-be-looked-at." The text, by emphasizing the "real" quality of its projections and the projective quality of what it offers at the level of the real, dissolves any sustainable difference between the real and the image. Structuring desire through the imposition of "artificial" projections, on the one hand, and showing that desire is already structured by such projective screens as windows and blinds, on the other, the story effectively demonstrates that the real already possesses the quality of image and shadow—if seen from the point of view of someone positioned outside it. And defining the real as spectacle, the text inevitably positions readers outside it. Focusing on objects already fetishized visually (women, home, and food) and framing the already culturally framed, the story defines reality as spectacle—what one watches and remains outside of; investing its representational surface with desirability, the story turns its readers into spectators and positions them outside everything. At Christmas (and perhaps not only at Christmas), the story seems to say, the world is an image; moreover, it is an image in which spectators seek to see themselves.[16]

This imperative to locate the self within the story's spectacles, associating as it does the representation of the self with the story's other representations, ultimately defines sympathy in the Carol in spectatorial terms, as a relation to representation. Scrooge typically loses himself in the "reality" of what he sees, imitating, for instance, the younger Scrooge's manifest identification. The story presents his watching of these scenes not only as the production, witnessing, and loss of self in spectacle (and, analogously, in reading) but also as the taking on of the image's desire. But the scenes prompt compassion as well: Scrooge's identification with his former self leads to sympathy for that self and, in turn, to sympathy with others, and not only with images. "There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all," he says after witnessing the first scene of his boyhood self (73). The narrative of the development of fellow feeling offered here makes the two kinds of sympathy (identification and compassion) appear continuous, as if the opening up of a space between the self and its representation produces a general desire to identify, which can then be detached from the self and shifted to some other identity. Indeed, throughout the story the presence of visual representation is identified with the presence of Scrooge's former self (the sight of


Fezziwig's ball renders him "unconsciously" like his former self), and representation takes on a nostalgic quality, as windows or screens define a temporal distance between observer and observed. The scenes of Scrooge's past always possess more "presence" than he does; the younger Scrooge has a natural ability to identify with representations that the older Scrooge recovers as soon as the scenes are presented to him. In several ways, then, the story ties the ability to sympathize with images to the restoring of a past self to presence.

Positioning Scrooge as a reader and interpreter of cultural scenes, Dickens's story recalls Geertz's definition of culture as a system of signs to be read. But reading in A Christmas Carol includes an element of internalization—or, more precisely, what Louis Althusser calls interpellation, a process he imagines "along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: 'Hey, you there!'" In this theoretical street scene, "the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject ."[17] As Althusser maintains, the individual can respond to the policeman's hailing only if already a subject. According to this narrative, if Scrooge learns his lessons with astonishing quickness, he does so because what is represented as learning in fact demonstrates that in his heart he knows them already. Reading, for the spectator of the story's scenes, is staged as the recovery of knowledge the reader once possessed.[18]

Althusser dismisses the narrative structure of his illustration; for the sake of "convenience and clarity," he writes, he has presented in sequential form what "in reality" is not sequential (174). But Dickens's location of spectatorial desire in the speaking commodities behind the shopwindow suggests that the structure of Althusser's example has some significance for the capitalist subject. The images of Christmases Past invite Scrooge's identification and imitation, but access to their reality is blocked by their status as representation. The objects Scrooge sees in the "real" world, however—such as the Norfolk Biffins that ask to be "carried home in paper bags"—are conscious of the spectator, and they explicitly invite participation in the form of possession. Visual representation inscribes the spectator as absence or lack and, in their fullness, these images emphasize that lack. But the relation between spectator and image is reversed, as these commodities call out to the spectator to complete them.

In the scenes of Christmases Past, Scrooge's (and by implication any spectator's or reader's) relation to representation is articulated as absorption and self-loss: to supplement his lack, Scrooge desires the pres-


ence projected by the image. But the images in the window are presented as desiring the spectator, now the consumer, whose completion of the scene depends on recognizing and identifying with their desire. Indeed, the logic of Dickens's speaking commodities seems contradictory at first. When one desires the objects that "speak" to one, the speaking appears to manifest either the external world's acknowledgment of one's individuality (as if, when a commodity says, "Hey, you there!" something essential about the self is being confirmed) or a recognition that the self requires something beyond itself to become individual or complete. In fact, this narrative may be said to display the same "convenient" logic as Althusser's, demonstrating that the individual who becomes a subject already is one. But the apparent contradiction might also be said to elaborate modern capitalism's construction of a temporally diffuse, or narrativized, subject—the kind implicit in the temporal division and reconstruction of Scrooge's life. For such a subject, that is, only the moment of consumption offers an illusion of presence, giving the self that consumes the opportunity to coincide, phantasmatically, with the idealized and temporally detached self projected into the object consumed. In a never-ending narrative of self-creation and transformation, commodity culture works its effects by making its subjects feel incomplete without the objects they may purchase to complete themselves. Through the purchase of commodities, spectators become present to themselves, expressing an identification with representation and perhaps, like Scrooge, seeking the presence projected in images of a former self.[19]

The story's speaking commodities thus literalize and dramatize Scrooge's implicit relation to representation throughout the story. All the scenes Scrooge is shown "speak" to him, positioning him as spectator and as desiring subject. But unlike the other images he sees, the commodities provide him with something to do, enabling him to participate in the circulation of representations the text defines as participation in culture.[20]

By the time Scrooge gets to the third series of scenes shown to him by the spirits, he has become an accomplished reader. He knows he should seek some meaning, as well as his own image, in these scenes, and he does so with confidence.

Scrooge was at first inclined to be surprised that the Spirit should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial; but feeling assured that they must have some hidden purpose, he set himself to consider what it was likely to be. . . . Nothing doubting that to whomsoever they applied they had some latent moral for his own improvement, he resolved to treasure up


every word he heard, and everything he saw and especially to observe the shadow of himself when it appeared. . . . He looked about in that very place for his own image. . . . (113)

But his image does not seem to be there; instead there is the shrouded body and a conversation about the profits that can rightfully be made from it, given the way the living person had profited from others. "I see,I see," says Scrooge, thinking he has absorbed the lesson. "The case of this unhappy man might be my own" (117). In a moment, however, the thankful distance implicit in the conventional Christian formula for sympathy—"there but for the grace of God"—is exposed by a too literal literary identification: the case of this unhappy man is his own. The scene projected by the spirit is now the place Scrooge doesn't want to identify. The text teaches not only the need to project the self into the consciousness of others but also the potential unpleasantness of doing so: the desire not to be in the other's place.

And that desire points toward what occupies the position of the real in this text: the images that pose an alternative to the story's scenes of cultural value. For although the story collapses the difference between reality and illusion, turning both into image, the scene of Scrooge's death (and indeed all scenes in which Scrooge appears as his present-day, undesirable self) signifies the real, pointing as it does toward the end of the narrative of Scrooge's actual life rather than toward the ideal life that will replace it. "Yet to come," like serial publication, seems to promise plenitude; Dickens's text dramatizes what Metz calls the ability of cinematic representation to construct a spectator who both identifies with an image and feels temporally distant from it—who, paradoxically identifying with his image, can only "catch up with himself at the last minute" (96). But Christmas Yet to Come projects a grim scene by contrast with the seductive images offered previous to and alongside it. Scrooge is offered the end of the series, the inevitable consequence of a life lived outside the representations presented to him and to readers as life, or as cultural life—indeed, as the identification of the two. A Christmas Carol accomplishes its interpellation of its readers, not, finally, by modeling spectatorship in the person of Scrooge but rather by identifying culture with images and scenes to be absent from which is, effectively, not to exist. Scrooge's death is a metaphor for his absence from representation; more powerfully, it is a metaphor for his absence from culture, defined as representation—as a series of images and structure of significations in relation to which, as he learns to "read" them, his own image takes on meaning. His death realizes and teaches him to


fear the absence from the world of representations he—and we—have been shown.[21]

Dickens's text doubles, by framing, the scenes the spirits project or otherwise show and cultural frames, the windows of shops and of homes. Habituating readers to frames and focusing on the already spectacular, it presents the real as a series of images that exist even in the absence of any visible picture-making technology. Moving its frames in and out of visibility, the story reproduces the logic of the relation between cultural representation and ideology, in which frames are sometimes literal—in pictures, literary texts, or movie screens—and sometimes appear as an inherent effect on objects and vision. A Christmas Carol thus provides an anatomy of the way in which, in a print culture and even more emphatically a "society of the spectacle," cultural values become manifest in—and as—a collection of images. More precisely, they become a way of seeing, in which the real is filtered through cultural frames that precede any particular manifestation of it. Making the Christmas spirit visible and presenting visibility as a threat, the story dramatizes the coerciveness inherent in a culture's ability to endow certain artifacts, persons, and activities with "presence." The conversion of Scrooge's feeling provides an analogue to the story's apparent commodifying power: while alluding to the recovery of the natural, both reveal the absence of anything outside the frames of culture.

The culture from which Scrooge has been absent is, of course, commodity culture; his failure to participate in human fellowship is signaled by his refusal of, and need to learn, a gift giving defined as the purchase and exchange of commodities.[22] The need for conversion that the text stresses and the form that Scrooge's awakening takes resemble what Thomas Haskell has described as the social discipline and character modification effected by modern capitalism, which created the cognitive conditions that made humanitarianism (in particular, the abolition of slavery) possible, conditions such as the development of conscience and the necessity of living "partly in the future," anticipating the long-term consequences of one's actions.[23] For Haskell, the conditions for humanitarianism were created by the "lessons" of the market (551).

Scrooge lacks, Marley's ghost informs him, "the spirit within him [that] should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide" (61). The awakening of this spirit promises him affective relations where he previously had none, as well as improved business prospects. Scrooge's ability to project into past and future teaches him, and is concurrent with, his ability to project himself into the consciousness of


others; both skills indicate possession of a spirit that travels far and wide—a spirit of capitalism, or capitalist sensibility.[24] The investment commodities require in this text is the same as that invited—indeed, compelled—by spectacle (and by literary identification): each attests to the possession of a dispersed self capable of being in several places at once. As the story illustrates in an exemplary fashion, the extension of self required by A Christmas Carol 's humanist ideology also characterizes the capitalist subject's relationship to representation.

Dickens's text implies further connections between capitalism and the spirit that travels far and wide, reintroducing circularity as a characteristic of capitalism's projective effects. Like women, home, and food, the poor in Dickens's text are projections or spectacles of the already spectacular; fittingly, the images most frequently cited as evidence of the story's affective power are the children displayed by the Ghost of Christmas Present, allegorical figures named Ignorance and Want. If, in Haskell's formulation, capitalism produces a spirit that travels far and wide, it also creates the distance between classes that makes such traveling necessary, incorporating distance into daily life and turning immediate surroundings into allegorical figures or projections.[25]

The story's most famous icon, Tiny Tim, figures sympathy in an economy of representation and consumption. Scrooge's macabre remark that the Cratchits' Christmas turkey is "twice the size of Tiny Tim" associates such plenitude with the object of sympathy in a manner that has become paradigmatic for A Christmas Carol itself. Producing and exemplifying the feeling that leads to the gift, Tiny Tim appropriately enough imagines himself, at one point, as sympathetic spectacle: "he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple" (94). Cratchit's family dines off the image that has become, for Dickens's text, the emblem of an inexhaustible fund of sympathetic capital.

And the name for that capital, here, is "spirit." The gift is a visible manifestation of spirit, of a reader's willingness to enter into and identity with the text's circulation of representations. Indeed, this identification helps account for the story's apparently limitless capacity for transformation. Capturing the commodity's potential for sympathy, the story constitutes itself as an endlessly sympathetic commodity, its variable surface reflecting an unchanging ability to embody readers' and spectators' desires.[26]

The marketing of A Christmas Carol extends the story's sympathetic relation to its public even further, If vision's ability to evoke presence serves as a primary way of naturalizing ideological effects in the Carol, the story's annual return may be said to perform the same function by


making specific feelings and activities, including reading or viewing the story itself, seasonal imperatives. The "Christmas book" naturalizes literary production, linking text and author to holiday and season—a season already bound up with ideas of resurrection and eternal presence.[27] With the "deaths" and rebirths of Scrooge and Tiny Tim echoing its annual return, the story associates the idea of Christian renewal with its own form of production. And in a manner that further associates natural life with textual production, Scrooge's life—its ending rewritten by the reader-spectator, who thereby becomes his life's owner and producer—displays all the malleability of the serially published text. Indeed, Scrooge's exchangeable identity, and the story's emphasis on Christmas as a time when identities become exchangeable, may have given both Dickens and Christmas new currency by revealing the fungibility of self and time implicit in both Christian conversion and modern consumer culture.

A capitalist sensibility is perhaps most evident in the story's external and internal refusals of temporality: in the identification with a time of year that ensures its annual return and in the offer to Scrooge, to its readers or viewers, and, theoretically, to the poor themselves of an endlessly repeatable cycle of failure and recovery, figured as an alienation from, and reacceptance into, an ever-forgiving culture. The reader-spectator who identifies with the Christmas spirit identifies with a culture in which that spirit will always be necessary; the self as image is a renewable self, forever holding out the possibility of a new ending. Such an interpretation depends on the idea, not that the story has no effect on the external world, but only that such an effect is never conceived as an ending; it is, rather, part of a cycle to which the story's own representation—now a part of the culture it represents—also belongs. For Dickens, the term "spirit" jokingly yet insistently signals the weakness of the boundary between the invisible and the visible—and warns of the likelihood that the former will manifest itself as the latter.[28] Thus A Christmas Carol returns annually and, more often than not, visibly, with an emphasis (and a relentlessness) it has itself projected. In the story's identification with Christmas and in the repetition this identification ensures, the "culture-text" promotes its own endlessness as well as that of the culture it has helped to create.


Spectacular Sympathy Visuality and Ideology in Dickens'sA Christmas Carol

Preferred Citation: Christ, Carol T., and John O. Jordan, editors Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.