Wednesday, January 09, 2013

"A Christmas Carol" Charles Dickens


Cosy (adj) 1709
Cosily (adv)1721
Cosiness (nu) 1834
A cosy (nc) 1863

From Jane Eyre hiding behind her red curtain in the opening chapters of her novel, to the kitchen scenes in Wuthering Heights, cosiness is an important trope in 19th century English lit.

Cosiness has two contrasting aspects: the enjoyment of a small interior space filled with warmth, dryness, light, and often food, set against a large space –usually exterior, but not necessarily- which is cold, wet, and dark. Cosiness exists in the creaturely enjoyment of one in the full consciousness of the other. Cosiness cannot be experienced unless the external environment is inhospitably cold, because more than anything, cosiness exists in the contrast between the two. There is no cosiness in the tropics.

By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as 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 though and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn, to shut out cold and darkness...

A Christmas Carol is full of images of cosiness, but these images are not just included for the sake of atmospherics, but are a symbolic indicator of moral and human worth.

Scrooge's miserliness manifests itself symbolically as an inability to create cosiness. He has become permanently frozen: 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...  He denies cosiness to his clerk, who has to try to create it with the aid of one candle; and in his own rooms before the arrival of Marley's ghost, he sits huddled over an inadequate fire: nothing on such a bitter night. Darkness is cheap, reflects Scrooge as he stirs his gruel. From this condition he changes, through the images the Spirits show him, to a capacity for the creation and enjoyment of cosiness, spending Christmas at the end of the book in a cosy nook with his clerk: We will discuss your affairs...over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop. Bob! Make up the fires and buy another coal scuttle....

The text continuously suggests that the real evil of Scrooge and Marley's miserliness – symbolised by the clanking chains and money boxes the latter draws after him – is that it is the wrong use of money. Money should be used to create cosiness, not saved away in vaults. Though the creation and mutual enjoyment of cosiness, people can relate to each other and help each other on a creaturely level.

All his life Dickens waged war against systems: bureaucracy, the Law, the system of poor relief, Utilitarianism, the Church. He saw these systems as obscuring real human fellowship. In an essay called "Two Views of a Cheap Theatre" from the collection The Uncommercial Traveller, written in the 1860s, he castigated a preacher for continuously addressing his audience as 'fellow sinners', writing:  Is it necessary or advisable to address such an audience continually as 'fellow sinners'? Is it not enough to be fellow creatures...? By our common humanity, my brothers and sisters, by our common capacities for pain and pleasure, by our common laughter and our common tears, by our common aspiration to reach something better than ourselves... surely it is enough to be fellow creatures.
His emphasis on cosiness in A Christmas Carol is part of this: it is through shared creaturely comfort that we can arrive at true fellowship stronger than the necessary, imposed, artificial fellowship created by systems.

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Cosiness in the text is also an important economic indicator. The emergence of a capitalist, consumerist society and the growth of the middle classes in 18th and  19th Century England is reflected in the history of the word 'cosy' and its derivations, starting in 1709, and culminating in the use of the word for a consumer commodity: a quilted cover for a teapot.  

In the emerging capitalist society that was Victorian Britain, the ability to create cosiness marked the difference between the middle classes – those who had the wherewithal to radically impact their immediate environment – and the indigent poor, who did not. This is the meaning of the wretched woman with the infant Scrooge sees in the court outside his window, the meaning also of the two children, Want and Ignorance the Ghost of Christmas Present hides beneath his cloak. These are all figures incapable of creating and experiencing cosiness, unless Scrooge can free up his money and use it to create it for them. Spreading the wealth, liquifying it in effect, allows more people to create cosiness, and it's in cosiness that good fellowship and sympathy flourish. Freezing up wealth in capital – another system - as Scrooge and Marley have done, limits the occasions for cosiness, and dehumanizes.

It's interesting how Dickens conflates in this text the two notions of Christmas and cosiness. He does this so successfully, and in terms of the wider culture, so ineluctably, that the two have become almost synonymous. Christmas is the archetypal expression now of cosiness, and every time cosiness is created, it's like a small echo of Christmas. A Christmas Carol, with its images of plenty, of lavish spending on food and light and gifts, with its emphasis on cosiness and its relationship to money, has done much to make it that way. As the literate middle class expanded, Dickens's Christmas books became more popular, even to the extent of becoming consumer commodities themselves. As family readings of the Carol became part of the traditional way of celebrating Christmas, the images of cosiness became something to aspire to, a lifestyle. The image became more important than its original meaning: cosiness as means for fellowship was replaced by cosiness as an aim in itself.

 The enduring image for this commodification of Christmas is the Ghost of Christmas Present. The second spirit depicts elements of the Roman god Saturn, with his sword, his cornucopia-like torch, the pagan elements embodied in the green and fur of his robe, his wreath of holly, his bared breast. At the same time he looks forward to the modern depiction of Santa Claus created in America by advertisers to sell another commodity – soft drinks- in which the original pagan elements have been replaced by the corporate colours red and white.

The festival has become a celebration of conspicuous consumption, rather than a festival of human fellowship, which is how Dickens saw it. The Christ Child has become the Great God of Capitalism; the festival of His Birth, a festival of Shopping.  

1 comment:

thehistoryoftomjones said...

Nice theme and exposition. I think the idea of a cosy Christmas was well done by Washington Irving in his "Christmas" stories at Bracebridge Hall, in `The Sketchbook`.