Man and Meat: A Christmas Carol’s Cannibalistic Menace in Historical Perspective
This post has been contributed by Lydia Craig.
First the villain and then the hero of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), the cold-hearted and wealthy businessman Ebenezer Scrooge initially refuses to empathize with or financially contribute towards the nourishment of London’s poor until bullied, enlightened, and reformed into charitable generosity by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future in the space of a single Christmas Eve. Whereas the first of these ghosts presents Scrooge with the recollection of his past poverty, parental neglect, and the delicious, merry hospitality extended to him by his generous former employer Mr Fezziwig, the second and third graphically and visually portray Scrooge’s actual physical consumption by the starving poor if he fails to furnish them with sufficient sustenance – specifically, meat. Used primarily to describe characters’ shriveled, healthy, or gluttonous appearance, Dickens’s extensive meat imagery acts as a doling-out measure for how much meat should be allotted to each person regardless of their financial status. Considering that the repeal of the ban against importing meat from Europe, specifically beef and pork, had been enacted the previous year under Sir Robert Peel’s administration, I argue that in addition to resisting repressive Sunday laws and the total abstinence principle in this novella, Dickens strongly endorses providing more meat to London’s poor as a corrective to ill health, weakness, and the threat of violent class revolt.
Just prior to Dickens’s writing of A Christmas Carol in October of 1843, an increase in the price of meat due to poor manufactures had resulted in low consumption of meat in England from 1842 through the early part of 1843 (McCulloch 274). Taken in conjunction with the Corn Laws (1815-1846), which imposed restrictions on the import of grain, higher meat prices meant that while the nation’s butchering capacity should have allowed for a ratio of 122 lbs. of cow and hog meat per individual, the poor were forced to largely go without this food source, exacerbating their impoverished situation. While the Corn Laws temporarily remained in effect, the prohibition against the importation of animals was lifted on July 9, 1842, requiring an import duty of twenty shillings a head on oxen and bulls, fifteen shillings on cows, three shillings on sheep, five on hogs, etc. According to John Ramsay McCulloch writing in June 1843 on the subject of “Cattle” for A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation, the repeal “certainly was one of the most important inroads that has ever been made on the prohibitive system, and reflects the greatest credit on the administration of Sir Robert Peel” (274). However, McCulloch expressed doubt concerning the measure’s effectiveness, observing, “The benefits of the measure are rather of a prospective and negative than of an immediate and positive description…it will no doubt prevent or be a great obstruction to any oppressive rise in future in the price of butcher’s meat in this country; but we doubt whether it will do more than this” (Ibid). While lamenting Parliament’s refusal to allow the importation of corn, he does welcome the move as a check against price inflation: “Though the new measure should not lower the price of butcher’s meat, it will, at all events, prevent its farther increase, and enable provision to be made for the wants of our rapidly increasing population” (276). By bringing Scrooge to the recognition of his own duty to provide the poor with meat on Christmas Day in a year in which its price skyrocketed, Dickens makes a political argument for the holiday as a permanent, social state of mind, advocating charity’s role in bridging the wide gap between the different foods available to the rich and to the disadvantaged.
Consciously, Dickens equates human bodies with the bodies of animals, which, through being subsumed into hungry stomachs, can potentially confer physical vigor and alertness impossible to achieve otherwise. Audrey Jaffe has noted, “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” (Jaffe 262). Coming as it does in Stave 5, this remark of Scrooge’s reflects his final acceptance of the ghosts’ didactic message and resolution to fill empty, ailing bodies with plenitude. In Stave 1, when asked by two charitable (and portly) gentlemen “to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth,” Scrooge refuses (A Christmas Carol 836). After Thomas Malthus, Scrooge instead famously advocates death by starvation as a necessary measure to “decrease the surplus population” (837). As scathing as Dickens can be towards the wealthy who withhold sustenance and basic comforts of life from the poor, he also critiques those who also deny themselves. Though Scrooge could easily purchase meat for himself and others, part of the close-fisted meanness of his character is his willingness to deny himself meat, crouching over gruel to combat his cold instead of something heartier like beef-tea.
In his description of Scrooge and his late partner Marley, Dickens differentiates between good, hearty meat derived from animals one might find on a farm and the meat of strange sea creatures. Whereas the first is “red-blooded,” the second appears to denote bloodlessness, unusual coloring, hard exoskeletons, and alienation from the rest of one’s kind, as apparent in his comparison of both businessmen Scrooge and Marley to seafood. When first described, Scrooge is “as secret, self-contained, and solitary as an oyster” (833), locking himself away from enjoyment of life and other people despite his nephew Fred’s attempts to bring him out of his shell by inviting him to dinner. Similarly, when appearing as a ghost, Marley’s face has “a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar” (838). Later on in the story, seafood makes a more positive collective appearance as the “barrels of oysters” in the Ghost of Christmas Present’s feast; in a singular sense, however, the oyster, considered lower-class nourishment throughout the nineteenth century according to historians, as well as Dickens’s own Sam Weller (Graham 69), represents a miser’s unhealthy, self-imposed meat deprivation that literally shrivels his own body and countenance as he starves others of heartier, more expensive butcher’s fare. During Dickens’s lifetime, however, oysters began to “transcend their low status” and be sought after by both high and low (Rossi-Wilcox 242), a circumstance particularly widespread in America, as Dickens gleefully observed a year before A Christmas Carol in American Notes (1842) (73). The old social meaning of oyster consumption by the English poor still could be recalled, however, as evidenced by Dickens’s own Sam Weller’s statement in Pickwick Papers (1837) that “poverty and oysters always seems to go together…the poorer a place is, the greater call there seems to be for oysters” (156-7). Consequently, in this novella, Dickens seems to give preference over seafood to fowl, pork products, and beef, the kinds of meat available to the lower class as special delicacies only at Christmas.
One of the biggest shocks to Scrooge’s selfish isolationism occurs when he observes the open-hearted goodness and generosity of the Ghost of Christmas Present, a being who revels in freely dispensing meat, drink, and seasonal spirit. Notably, the ghost’s throne is primarily composed of various meats, chiefly delicacies, which are literally forced upon startled Scrooge’s gaze as he confronts the “surprising transformation” in “his own room”:
Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door. (A Christmas Carol 856)
Plenty, therefore, is majorly dependent on a surplus of meat in various forms. This emphasis on meat intensifies during the preparations for the Cratchits’ meagre Christmas feast. After Master Peter and the two young Cratchits return with the mouth-watering goose “in high procession,” (861) it is carved in a breathless manner expressive of the family’s longing for the rare treat:
At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast, but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issues forth, one murmur of delight arose all around the board…There never was such a goose…Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. (862)
Described in titillating detail, the act of carving the goose and the family’s excessive anticipatory reaction to meat appears more than pathetic, demonstrating their difficulty in affording such a rare dish despite Bob Crachit’s constant, unremitting labor in Scrooge’s freezing office.
Throughout the novella, those who can afford plenteous meat are described in meaty imagery evoking surplus and fat, functioning in stark contrast to the shriveled, cannibalistic poor denied protein. The first linkage between the act of eating meat and devouring human flesh appears in Stave 3. When Cratchit proposes an unlucky toast to Scrooge, his wife takes him to task, refusing to credit the miserly employer with furnishing them with their meagre goose. “The Founder of the Feast indeed!” cried Mrs Cratchit, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it” (863). The imagery of her retort, figuring Scrooge as consuming a piece of Mrs Cratchit’s brain, introduces the possibility of cannibalism instead of ingesting animal meat. Scrooge himself is described in Fred’s game of Yes and No as “an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal…lived in London, and walked about the streets, and wasn’t made a show of, and wasn’t led by anybody, and didn’t live in a menagerie, and was never killed in a market” (868). Financially secure, Scrooge is not taken, imprisoned, slaughtered, or made to be meat; he instead appropriates the poor’s income and limits their meat consumption, introducing decided tension into his characterization by others. A further note of unease is introduced with the Ghost of Christmas Present’s revelation of the flesh-and-bones pair, Ignorance and Want:
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. (869)
This boy and girl are described in animalistic imagery as “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish…” with pinched and shriveled features (Ibid). Directing Scrooge’s attention to the boy and girl, the Spirit warns him of the Doom that awaits if these degraded human specimens are not fed, one that has not only national implications, but also holds particular menace for Scrooge’s physicality. Unless he recognizes the poor’s hunger and takes steps to address it, Scrooge himself may be appropriated for edible consumption, symbolizing the possibility of underclass revolt if repressive wage ceilings and importation bans are not lifted.
Ultimately, Scrooge’s future body becomes a site for such gratification of appetite immediately upon his demise in Stave 4, firstly as an occasion for celebratory dining, and secondly as the disturbing site of appetite and gluttony by a variety of scavenging vermin, animal, human, and even vegetable. Described as having “a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock,” the red-faced gentleman at the Royal Exchange will attend Scrooge’s funeral if “a lunch is provided…I must be fed” (870-1). Clearly and visibly surfeited with meat, this gentleman’s gluttony acts as a revealing contrast to the desiccated piles of meat offal lying in the den of infamous resort where the late Scrooge’s stolen effects are sold for a pittance. This place contains “masses of corrupted fat” and “sepulchures of bones,’” remnants of the “iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal” that are brought there by the desperate (872). Meanwhile, Scrooge’s abandoned corpse lies in a chamber where “a cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the heart-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Scrooge did not dare to think” (875). If his body survives the vermins’ united onslaught, cat and rat as natural enemies both yearning for a taste of the departed miser, it will become a food supply for the earth. Dickens describes Scrooge’s first impression of what he will soon learn is his final resting place: “Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place!” (877). If Scrooge does not reform and generously provide meat to the London poor, in the form of turkey for Bob Crachit’s family, his physical body will serve to gruesomely feed a variety of bottom-feeders after death and eventually, as meat fertilizer for graveyard vegetation.
If London’s poor are given meat, this restorative measure will deprive the graveyard of its future human feast, including Scrooge and Tiny Tim, a savvy investment in animal fat that the miserly businessman clearly understands and is not slow to carry out. Immediately upon being reprieved by the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge sends a boy to the Poulterer’s for “the prize Turkey,” which, being the lad’s size and consequently difficult to transport, is conveyed to Bob Cratchit’s in a cab (879-880). Since in consequence the earlier goose feast Scrooge witnessed in company with the Ghost of Christmas Present never occurs, Mrs Cratchit does not execrate Scrooge or give him a piece of her mind, and the Cratchits presumably gorge themselves to surfeit. Scrooge provides the charitable gentlemen with a cheque to buy more meat for the poor, and then dines on his nephew Fred’s excellent dinner before returning to work to surprise Bob Cratchit the next day with offers of financial assistance. In a positive conclusion to the meat metaphor, Scrooge lives as a benefactor of the Cratchits and society for the rest of his life, overseeing and financing Tiny Tim’s recovery to full health and mobility, commencing with the gifted turkey. Investigated in terms of the historical context of its composition, Dickens’s meat metaphor reveals the author to have been keenly and relevantly political in choosing such imagery, insistent that more meat and charity in conjunction might save the nation from widespread starvation and lower-class revolution.
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