A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens, a British author who was interested in depicting life in urban areas, describes a nineteenth-century English city undergoing industrialization in his novel A Christmas Carol. Each passage comes from a different part of the book, and together they describe two different parts of the city of London and the two different classes of people who lived or worked in these two neighborhoods. Concerning passage 1, what class, middle or lower, do you think worked in this part of the city? What words from the passage provide specific evidence to support your answer? How did these men benefit from the growth of industry during the nineteenth century? Concerning passage 2, what class, middle or lower, do you think lives in this portion of the city? Why do you think the living conditions were so terrible?
of its own act: by itself
‘Change: Exchange, a street in the business district
merchants: people who sell things; store owners, businessmen
chinked: clinked, made a noise
seals: at this time, people used seals as we use signatures and fingerprints today. Every businessperson carried a unique metal molded seal. To make a paper legal, they put hot wax on it and then pressed their seals into the wax.
wretched: bad, horrible
slipshod: dirty, messy
cesspools: pits for sewage
disgorged: let out; spewed out
The excerpts from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol highlight the ways the geography of the city reinforced class distinctions. Students should recognize that the first passage describes a business environment populated by middle-class and wealthy people, and the second describes a poor neighborhood. They should also recognize that the overcrowding and dirt were not only caused by poverty but also by the massive migrations of people from the countryside into the cities due to industrialization, the same process that made the businessmen in the first passage so wealthy and created a larger middle class. You may also wish to point out that Dickens was a middle-class reformer who helped change attitudes toward the poor. After the New Poor Law was introduced in Britain in 1834, if poor people wanted help, they had to go to places called workhouses where they could, in theory, earn their bread. Workhouses were often located in working-class urban areas; due to overcrowding, they became hotbeds of diseases such as cholera. Driven in part by Dickens’s writing, middle-class engagement in developing solutions through state and scientific intervention also emerged in this period.
. . . The city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it; on ‘Change, amongst the merchants; who hurried up and down, and chinked money in their pockets, and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their great gold seals; and so forth, as Scrooge had seen them often.
. . . The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses were wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.