The Transcontinental Disability Choir: A Reconsideration of Tiny Tim, Charity, and the Good Cripple
A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, has become a Christmas classic. Chances are high that most of us have read it, read adaptations, seen it performed on stage, or seen it on film. In some households, people make A Christmas Carol a family tradition, and it's supposed to be a feel-good, inspiring moral tale which brings the family together for the holidays.
The tale seems especially timely now, as we struggle with worsening economic conditions and the gap between rich and poor seems to be growing. The haves and have-nots alike are reading or watching A Christmas Carol this year and it seems hard to escape the parallels with our own society. There's a reason that the story is still compelling over 160 years later.
Dickens wrote the novel in response to the horrific conditions he saw around him. The book was a sharp indictment of the Poor Laws which shifted the approach to social welfare in Britain, and was meant to remind readers of the humanity they all shared. Rather than condemning the poor to “doom,” Dickens felt that society should be taking steps to help them, and A Christmas Carol was a moral tale meant to tug at the heartstrings of readers.
The story revolves around the enlightenment of a wealthy man, as he sees spectres of the past, present, and future which illustrate the hardships of society. Fear is struck into him, and he's converted into a kind, generous man who reforms his ways. A Christmas Carol, of course, uses people to drive this Very Special Enlightening experience, in much the same way that modern poverty education campaigns display images of starving African children to evoke emotions in viewers.
“God bless us, every one!”
It's one of the most iconic lines in the tale, with Tiny Tim saying it not once, but twice. Even people who haven't read the book often know the line, and they also know Tiny Tim, of course, the plucky cripple who is the embodiment of cheerful suffering. Tiny Tim is the ultimate Good Cripple, and he was an instant hit in the Victorian era. Contemporary reports inform us that audiences whipped out the handkerchiefs for the affecting death scene when the book was read aloud. Who can forget the tragic scene in which Tim's death is evoked by the presence of his abandoned crutch?
Bob Cratchit, his father, is the embodiment of the Noble Poor; he may be underpaid and struggling to make a living, but he is humble and loyal. He is, in other words, the right sort of poor. Both Tim and Bob Cratchit are troped characters being used in the service of a greater good. Exactly like poor folks and people with disabilities are used today; tragedizing their lives is supposed to be acceptable because it's in the service of something greater, which is promoting charity.
There's a word for this: tragiporn (or tragi-porn). It involves the exploitation of people and circumstances deemed “tragic.” Oh, but it's all for the greater good. The graphic detail, the lingering over the aspects which people are supposed to find upsetting and horrifying, these are used to advance a cause. In Tiny Tim's case, he was meant to make readers feel ashamed for condemning children to suffering.
It's critical, for the sake of the narrative, that Tiny Tim be a Good Cripple, and that his father be a member of the Noble Poor. The story wouldn't work as well if Tim was unhappy, or bitter, or angry, or if his father insisted on better wages, or threatened to quit and find better work. Both characters are, in fact, not supposed to stand up for themselves at all, because this deprives readers of the opportunity to imagine rescuing them, and therefore would have undermined the core message of the story, which was a plea to reform Britain's approach to poverty while inciting Britons to participate in charity.
We see this attitude today, too. People with disabilities and the poor are expected to be well behaved, grateful, and submissive. They are not supposed to fight for themselves, because this destroys their image as nebulous figures of tragedy who deserve pity and charity. To recognize them as human beings would be to admit that they should not be treated as idealized icons.
Charity can be a form of distancing; one can donate to charity and rest assured that one's part has been done. This attitude is in fact so entrenched that governments use charity as an excuse to cut social services, expecting charities and societies to take on responsibilities which actually belong to the government. Actually working with the subjects of charity, instead of patronizing them, requires work.
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