Mr. Fezziwig's Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of  Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/1.html
Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/1.html

One of my Digital Humanities classes is working on a digital archive of A Christmas Carol. In addition to encoding and annotating each stave, they will be creating introductions to the text, to John Leech’s illustrations, and to a few key early 20th-century adaptations (from the first film version (1901), to Edison’s adaptation (1910), and Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore’s radio play (1939) to a TV version narrated by Vincent Price (1949). I will spare you the rationale for these particular choices (“why no Victorian theatre adaptations?” you ask, to which I say “is there no copyright? Are there no license fees?”) and will zip right along).

I have given many Victorian Studies lectures in Digital Humanities classes. I am a Victorianist by training and passion, and while Digital Humanities classes tend to focus on digital methods and building as a methodology, they rely on a deeply humanist engagement with the material and cultural past. In short, the humanities part of Digital Humanities mandates that DH projects, while D, must be about and through H. This time ‘round, I decided to give the students a contextual lecture about class, the workhouse, and early Victorian childhood, with a little excursus on early-Victorian Christmas traditions (or lack of them—Cratchit and his daughter Martha only get to pick their employers’ pockets, as Scrooge put it, on the 25th of December and not on the day before or after, as they might have 100 years on). Not all my students have a background in Victorian literature and culture, or even in English, but the child Dickens, Tiny Tim, and indeed, even junior Scrooge, make for very sympathetic lecture material, so all went well.

I hadn’t expected that the class wouldn’t find the novel funny. Which they didn’t. Not a whit (or wit, if you will pardon me the pun). This afforded me the perfect opportunity to continue our discussion about close reading and distant reading. Distant reading is the practice of algorithmically discerning patterns in a single text or in a corpus. The class had done some distant reading using the Voyant tool set for visualizations, but in the context of an undergraduate classroom it turns out that humour requires real close reading.

It is easy to skip over what Scrooge leaves unsaid in his dismissal of his nephew:

“‘Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.’
Scrooge said that he would see him—-yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first” (10).

Furthermore, the contemporary meaning of intercourse can obscure just why we should be tickled by the novella’s concluding lines:

“[Scrooge] had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards” (166).

Even though I was glad to have the opportunity to talk about close reading, I was puzzled by the students—as a rule engaged and conscientious readers—missing the jokes. What’s not to love in

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail” (1)?

I think I have found a culprit, or rather culprits. None of the other adaptations that the students had been watching and hearing were humorous. The adaptations from the second half of the 20th century, which we weren’t addressing in class, with Alastair Sim’s bulging eyeballs and Miss Piggy’s karate chops are pleasingly zany (say what you like about the Muppet Christmas Carol’s conflation of the narrator with Charles Dickens, Gonzo-as-Dickens’ delivery of the all-caps closing vociferation that “Tiny Tim did NOT die” is delightful). The Edison film, however, doesn’t make one smile, and Lionel Barrymore with his flat east coast accent breaking through his attempt to sound British (backed, best of all, by earnest American carolers), is suitably heartwarming but is far too staid to be funny. While the Price version is campy it cuts out Scrooge’s Spirit-related abstemiousness. I can tell that distant reading won’t help me here: why do Dickens’ jokes end up on the cutting room floor in the adaptations of the first half of the 20th century?

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4 thoughts on “Close Reading Christmas Comedy

  1. Thanks for a great post, Connie. The screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol that I grew up with wasn’t the Alistair Sim or even the Muppets (which seems like an oversight, now that I think about it) but a made-for-tv version on VHS tape with George C. Scott as Scrooge (www.imdb.com/title/tt0087056/). After watching it nearly every Christmas with my family until we no longer bothered hooking up the VCR, two things related to your post stand out in my memory. One is that Scott played Scrooge’s humour to the max, such that even the unredeemed Scrooge seemed jovial and avuncular, less like Scott’s General Patton and more like his General Turgidson. The other thing was that IBM must have bought up all the advertising space when we first taped it off one of the American networks, and every single one of the ads was for IBM personal computers circa 1984. I wonder what a digital humanities class would make of that today.

    But to your bigger question about what happened to Dickens’s jokes, I wonder if it has something to do with his elevation to the top of the Victorian literary canon. Comic writing rarely wins canonical status for playwrights and novelists, it seems, and so-called serious literature is defined by, well, seriousness. That kind of thinking can distort how we remember the careers of writers, and predispose modern readers to overlook comedy where they’re not prompted to expect it. A more mundane explanation, of course, is that jokes are often so contextual that they don’t survive over historical distance, especially if they need a footnote to make sense to modern readers. But that doesn’t explain the moments, as you describe, when the text just connects and delivers a belly-laugh decades later. When we read humorous texts from earlier periods, how much of “getting the joke” is successful interpretation, and how much is readerly collaboration?

  2. I must say, I love the idea of letting students know that they are in readerly collaboration with Dickens. I don’t want to stand up in front of the class, waving my arms and crying, “this is comedy folks,” but don’t like to leave Dickens pulling at his collar (or better yet the sweet and funny Master Peter who “getting the corners of his monstrous shirt collar (Bob’s private property, conferred upon his son and heir in honour of the day) into his mouth, rejoiced to find himself so gallantly attired, and yearned to show his linen in the fashionable Parks”) groaning, “tough room.”

    I can’t resist weighing in on the IBM question. The MacIntosh computer (of the Ridley Scott “1984” ad fame) went on sale in January of 1984. Perhaps IBM was trying to make up for 1984’s lost sales.

    1. Good catch on the 1984 connection, Connie — I hadn’t thought of that. And I love that image of Dickens pulling at his collar awkwardly like a Vegas standup before a tough room! “I’m here all week, folks; try the buffet…”

      Somewhere out there must be a good history of early home computer marketing campaigns and their discursive strategies. I just looked up one of the ads on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LR1Xvvch18) and noticed a couple of connections to the main topic of your post, one being the use of comedy to defuse anxiety about technological complexity. Oddly enough, the tone and white-background of this IBM ad isn’t all that different from Apple’s “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” campaign in more recent years.

      A more substantial late-Victorian link, which might be interesting to explore with a class, is IBM’s use of Chaplin in this ad, which I believe they did throughout this campaign for tv and print media. As soon as I saw Chaplin’s Tramp character in this ad using an IBM PC to cope with a mounting pile of records (which the voice-over glosses as “data”), I thought immediately of the famous assembly-line scene from Modern Times. Though that film was released in 1936, it’s very much a critique — a brilliantly pointed one, if you watch the whole film — of technologies and social conditions that took shape with the industrialization of the 19th century, which gives us a link back to the object of much of Dickens’s social campaigning. Perhaps there are some Victorian literary antecedents to that Modern Times scene — though the relentless mechanical pace that the scene depends upon seems only representable in film, a medium whose own basic mechanisms hadn’t changed all that much between the late 19th century and 1936. (This is starting to sound like Daniel’s line of country…)

      Speaking of machines, another irony in the use of Chaplin for an IBM ad is the fact that his most overtly political film, The Great Dictator (1940), satirized Hitler and his regime, whose information infrastructure depended partly on the punched-card technology and computing expertise of one of IBM’s German subsidiaries. In light of these connections, to find the Chaplin of Modern Times and The Great Dictator appearing in an IBM ad is darkly ironic, and highlights some of the strange continuities in the technological discourses that run from the 19th century to the present. As the historian of information Ronald Day has pointed out, modern information culture is very good at forgetting its own history. What always surprises me is how much of that forgotten history leads straight back to 19th-century industry and its aftershocks.

  3. Oh my goodness Alan, you have sent me into an IBM spin. I didn’t know that there were so many IBM Charlie Chaplin advertisements. Ronald Day holds: the ads are almost eerily self-aware—one (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4oRVGbf9s0) even bills the IBM AT as “a tool for Modern Times”— and yet strip the Chaplin character of any political critique.

    Now I’m curious about the company’s attempt to ensure its own employees’ esprit du corps. Apparently IBM’s had a corporate band since 1916, and full IBM songbook http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/music/wav/everonward.wav

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