Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Bob Cratchit: Whiny Ingrate
As Christmas Day nears and the country is now officially mired in a recession, one's mind turns to thoughts of A Christmas Carol, a holiday tale defined by hard economic times as symbolized by Scrooge's poor, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit. Yet, upon looking at the story with fresh eyes and through the lens of today's skyrocketing unemployment, one can't help but find Cratchit a wholly unsympathetic--if not downright despicable--character.
Although Cratchit is known for his diffident nature in light of his unpleasant circumstances--taking life on the chin while he and his family get it up the ass--the reader can tell he hopes for a better future, one involving regular meals and perhaps names for the two of his six children who don't have ones in the book. And, yes, on the surface this may seem a thoroughly admirable and acceptable outlook for the character. But does Bob really have it so bad? After all, this was Victorian England, where children were thought of as a potential substitute for coal and people were thrown into debtor's prison for taking a penny but not leaving a penny. This was an era where factories would work employees 25 hours a day thanks to a glitch in Greenwich Mean Time and people were oft paid in metal dross, which could then be exchanged for a whipping. Women were perceived as chattel, children were considered office supplies and the working man was as expendable as the pandas factory owners would throw into the furnaces to fuel their elephant ivory polishing machines.
And during this horrible, hardscrabble time where the best the lower classes could hope for was Scarlet Syphilitic Cholera Disease, we have Mr. Bob Cractchit, who by comparison has the world hanging by a string of gold. To wit:
* Full-time employment
* Walking-distance commute
* Ready access to office stove
* Time off--with money!--for Christmas Day
* His very name means "money" ("Bob" being another term of "shilling")
* Children at precisely the right age to toil in mills or--in the case of his eldest daughter--milliners.
* The comforting sense that his financially unwieldy family of eight will soon be cut down to a far more manageable seven.
* Owns a white comforter that doubles as both a bedspread and a sports coat!
* Has a roof over his head and either wood or scattered thatch under his feet.
* They toast on Christmas, meaning spirits or at the very least some form of liquid is well within their economic means.
By all accounts Bob represents a flourishing "middle class" in Dickensian England, one where there's a job waiting at day's start and a more than likely chance of living to see night's close. And with a daughter working for a hat maker, a son about to earn a full five-and-a-half shillings a week for accepting his inescapable fate and even a second daughter who might one day have what it takes to suck a man dry of his wages next to the Victorian equivalent of a Dumpster (ie. open street), Mr. Cratchit is well on his way to a financially secure future.
So next time you read--or more likely, watch--A Christmas Carol, waste not a tear for "poor" Bob Cratchit. Instead, reflect on the audacity of a man who has it all and yet still feels wanting in life. Bob Cratchit, you truly are the whiny ingrate of English literature.