The images of Christmases Past invite Scrooge's identification and imitation, but access to their reality is blocked by their status as representation. The objects Scrooge sees in the "real" world, however--such as the Norfolk Biffins that ask to be "carried home in paper bags"--are conscious of the spectator, and they explicitly invite participation in the form of possession. Visual representation inscribes the spectator as absence or lack and, in their fullness, these images emphasize that lack. But the relation between spectator and image is reversed, as these commodities call out to the spectator to complete them.

In the scenes of Christmases Past, Scrooge's (and by implication any spectator's or reader's) relation to representation is articulated in terms of absorption and self-loss: to supplement his own lack, Scrooge desires the presence projected by the image. But the images in the window are presented as desiring the spectator, now figured as consumer, whose completion of the scene depends on recognizing and identifying with their desire. Indeed, the logic of Dickens's speaking commodities seems contradictory at first. When one desires the objects that "speak" to one, the speaking appears to manifest either the external world's acknowledgment of one's individuality (as if, when a commodity says, "Hey, you there!" something essential about the self is being confirmed) or a recognition that the self requires something beyond itself to become individual or complete. In fact, this narrative may be said to display the same "convenient" logic as Althusser's, demonstrating that the individual who becomes a subject already is one. But the apparent contradiction might also be said to elaborate modern capitalism's construction of a temporally diffuse, or narrativized, subject--the kind implicit in the temporal division and reconstruction of Scrooge's life. For such a subject, that is, only the moment of consumption offers an illusion of presence, giving the self that consumes the opportunity to coincide, phantasmatically, with the idealized and temporally detached self projected into the object consumed. In a never-ending narrative of self-creation and transformation, that is, commodity culture may be said to work its effects by making its subjects feel incomplete without the objects they may purchase to complete themselves. Through the purchase of commodities, spectators become present to themselves, expressing an identification with representation and perhaps, like Scrooge, seeking the presence projected in images of a former self. Sympathy with representation, then, links sympathy as compassion with the construction of the subject as spectator and consumer.

Dickens's speaking commodities thus literalize and dramatize Scrooge's implicit relation to representation throughout the story. All the scenes Scrooge is shown "speak" to him, positioning him as spectator and de siring subject. But unlike the other images he sees, the vide him with something to do, enabling him to participate in the circulation of representations the text defines as participation in culture.

By the time Scrooge gets to the third of the series of scenes by the spirits, he has become an accomplished reader. He knows he should seek some meaning, as well as his own image, in these scenes, and he does so with confidence. "Scrooge was at first inclined to be surprised that the Spirit should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial; but feeling assured that they must have some hidden purpose, he set himself to consider what it was likely to be. . . .[N]othing doubting that to whomsoever they applied they had some latent moral for his own improvement, he resolved to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw; and especially to observe the shadow of himself when it appeared . . . . He looked about in that very place for his own image" (113). (pp. 38-40)

Related Materials


Jaffe, Audrey. Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction. London and Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol

Last modified 5 December 2004

Last modified 8 June 2007