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Charles Dickens: ‘Humbug’ and hope

Many people know me as an optimist. While it’s true that I do my best to focus on the good in life, and can often make the best of a bad situation, my internal feelings can be more complicated. Paradoxically, I find that I tend to exhibit a sunny outlook while simultaneously possessing a deeper cynicism. Sometimes I can’t help but feel helpless in the face of vast problems like economic inequality or climate change.

At first, I thought this internal conflict was just a product of the place and time in which I live. On top of the ups and downs of my immediate personal life, technology also gives me access to stories of struggles and suffering from around the world. As Andy Samberg joked at the Golden Globes this weekend, “the world is and always has been a nightmare—it just seems worse now because of our phones.”

But Charles Dickens might say otherwise. Although he never owned a smartphone, Dickens was acutely aware of countless social problems. And though we often tend to think of Dickens as a kindly storyteller with an excess of larger-than-life characters, we don’t always remember that he was also a tireless reformer. Born in 1812, Dickens worked in a factory as a child and later became a reporter in the House of Commons. With a past as a child laborer and as a journalist with a front row seat to the inner workings of government, Dickens set out as an author to expose a different societal ill with each new work.

Even though he created an entire corpus exposing issues from the treatment of orphans to the failings of Victorian philanthropists, Dickens still found limits to his own capacity to maintain a sense of optimism. This struggle was reflected throughout his works in a single phrase: the famous “bah, humbug!” best known as the catchphrase of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”

My first exposure to Scrooge was in the form of Donald Duck in the Disney animated version, but I decided to revisit the original text of”A Christmas Carol” during the holidays. The novel is filled with vivid imagery of the holiday season in 19th century England, from carolers to overflowing baskets of chestnuts. I was most struck by the sheer amount of indifference it would require to actually turn up one’s nose and say “humbug” to charity workers asking for donations or to a warm meal with family.

“Humbug” appears in other works, too: the word is also found in Little Dorrit and David Copperfield. In the former, Ferdinand Barnacle, whose family controls an ineffectual and useless government office, argues that sometimes indifference and inadequacy are just the way of the world: “a little humbug…and everything goes on admirably, if you leave it alone.” In the latter, Miss Mowcher, a stylist, is first disenchanted with English society; exasperated, she declares that a set of cut fingernails is more useful to her than “the whole social system.” But later, she gives up her cynicism for a “refreshing humbug” instead.

In its clever little way, “humbug” summarizes a complex emotion, a mix of apathy, lost faith, complacency and lack of conviction. Dickens especially struggled with these emotions in his later career. Despite his image as a family man, he had an affair and never became very close to his children. Instead, he began to put all of his energy into his writing, and when he died of a stroke at age 58, mid-novel, many saw it as a sign that he had worked himself to death. To Dickens, the high-minded optimist with a relentless energy, the apathy of “humbug” had become a proxy for evil.

In some sense, though, I don’t believe that “humbug” is evil at all. Rather, it’s a reminder that optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. We say “humbug” to convince ourselves that we don’t care about a tough situation. However, in the example of “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge really did care. He just needed a little push from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future to remember that he cared, and always had.

Similarly, I’ve come to realize that often the feelings of cynicism or powerlessness are just signs that I care deeply about something. When I become exasperated by daunting global warming statistics, I remember that my frustration stems from a deep appreciation for the natural world. When I sigh about the government shutdown, I know that it’s because I just want our government to support its people more effectively.

It’s not always easy to stop saying “humbug,” but I feel comforted knowing that Charles Dickens didn’t stop saying it, either: he just channelled it into his characters, inspiring a spirit of reform in countless readers. And at the risk of sounding like an optimist, I think I’m going to start hearing downbeat sighs of “bah…humbug,” as signs of hope instead.

Special thanks to Matthew Redmond for his expertise and perspective on the life and works of Charles Dickens.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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