- "Another Man from What I Was":Enchanted Reading and Ethical Selfhood in A Christmas Carol
In march 1843, faced with the hellish conditions in which many of Britain's child labourers worked, Charles Dickens devised a plan. Rejecting his initial idea of a non-fiction pamphlet that would present the facts to the public,1 he threw his efforts behind the work that became A Christmas Carol (1843), which he insisted would "come down with twenty times the force—twenty thousand times the force—I could exert by following out my first idea" (Letters 461).2 Dickens, advocating for the continued survival of "fancy,"3 believed that readers engage with fiction through a certain kind of reading—the kind we might label enchanted or even uncritical—and that this way of reading would encourage his readers to invest enough in his tale to aid the poor.4 His readers would learn along with Scrooge: taking the trip through past, present, and future, which resembles a novel-withina-novel, readers would, like Scrooge, become immersed enough in the text to undergo change. Jettisoning blandly rational appeals, Dickens hoped that fiction—or, I will argue, an enchanted mode of reading—would be key to social progress, twenty thousand times more powerful than facts. In other words, Dickens believed he could enchant readers into a consideration of ethics.
Dickens's hope for how his book would work on its audience cuts directly against long-held assumptions about reading. When Paul Ricoeur designated the "school of suspicion," for example, he identified a strain of reading that guarded against the text so as not to absorb bad ideologies or ethics (32).5 Yet recent reconsiderations of other modes of reading and what they might offer to literary studies have been more receptive to Dickens's approach. Indeed, his investment in enchanted reading strikingly resembles some of the questions and priorities that have come to dominate literary studies. Dickens anticipates recent modes of engaging with reading, such as Rita Felski's call for "richer and deeper accounts of how selves interact with texts" (Uses 11).6 Beyond simple anticipation, however, Dickens's method offers a viable account of how selfhood functions in reading. Scrooge undergoes a transition from suspicious reading to enchantment, a transition that calls up many of the questions literary scholars have been asking about reading modes, the hermeneutics of suspicion, reparative reading, uncritical reading, [End Page 271] and ethics. This transformation of reading styles offers a practical response to the ways in which selfhood is implicated, but often left unexplored, in contemporary discussions about reading. What kind of self does Scrooge need to embrace in order to enact his moral conversion? How does his experience with the ghosts, which I argue is a form of reading, refashion him into a more ethical self through enchantment? In addressing these questions, we see that alternative modes of reading—those that have been categorized as recuperative, reparative, uncritical, or surface—produce new forms of selfhood through enchantment.
This essay operates on the premise that Scrooge experiences the ghosts of the past, present, and future much in the same way that readers experience a novel. As I will show, something akin to Andrew Miller's optative mode is at work here: Scrooge envisions alternate lives (his own and others') and regrets his behaviour. But Scrooge's conversion is interpretive as well as emotional; his very orientation toward the stories depicted by the ghosts shifts over the course of Christmas Eve. The miser who begins as a paradigm of suspicious, guarded reading soon becomes enchanted by his story, immersed in its content, and subject to its ethical work. Through this process of becoming enchanted, Scrooge becomes open to his community and thereby involved in it. Examining the models of reading—both suspicious and enchanted—that appear in A Christmas Carol shows Dickens experimenting with what Charles Taylor calls "porous" selfhood (41). Enchanted reading, in Dickens's articulation, can generate alternative ethical positions by embracing a new model of the self, one that is more ethical because it reconceives the boundary between self and other. The transformation of Scrooge's reading practices, then, offers an...