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December 23, 2013

Dickens's ideals resonate today

PLATTSBURGH — Charles Dickens made an indelible mark on the world when “A Christmas Carol” was published on Dec. 17, 1843.

The story of the redemption of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge after he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet-to-Come became an instant sensation in staid Victorian England.

But, more importantly, Dickens and “A Christmas Carol’ sparked social change that is still felt 170 years later.

“He wasn’t a revolutionary. He believed in capitalism. But with it, you have to have a heart to alleviate suffering,” said Dr. Elaine Ostry, a Dickens expert and English professor at SUNY Plattsburgh.

‘SUPERSTAR’

When the author was 12, his father was sent to debtors’ prison, along with the rest of his family.

Dickens had to work under dismal and harsh conditions in a boot-blacking factory, which stirred his passion to help the poor and influenced his later works.

He became a parliamentary reporter when he was 17, gaining life experience and infusing his later writing with the observations he made and lessons he learned from those situations.

His first book, “The Pickwick Papers,” was released in 1836, when he was just 24.

“He became a superstar from the time he was first published,” Ostry said. “The interesting thing is he had a character in there that was very Scrooge-like, a prototype for ‘A Christmas Carol,’ so this idea had been percolating for a long time.”

‘HUNGRY ‘40S’

She said the story of Scrooge was instantly and wildly popular with readers because it so accurately reflected England’s economic and social struggles of the time.

“In fact, they called it ‘The Hungry ‘40s,’ when people were flocking to cities to work in factories where they were not treated so well,” she said.

“These were the negative effects of early capitalism, and there was no social safety net, not like we have now for security. People were pretty much on their own.

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