What was Charles Dickens modeling when he gave us "Tiny Tim"?
"'As good as gold,' said Bob, 'and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.'"
It is Christmas, and so our television screens will be filled with one of literature's most enduring portraits of disability, Tim Cratchit in Charles Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol
Tim has a small part in the book, but it is a powerful one, even before the pity inducing film performances of the 20th century. But, after debating with a friend
on Twitter over whether Tim was a "positive" or "negative" for the disability community, I wanted to separate Dickens' Tim from Hollywood's Tim, because they are somewhat different characters - different in crucial ways.
The first difference stems from both time and intent. The book Dickens wrote at the start of the second industrial revolution was an indictment of early capitalism, barely less "radical" politically than the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
which would appear just five years later.
In Dickens' story Scrooge's capitalism runs over everyone and everything in its path, it is as malevolent to the well-born as it is to Tim and his family. Tim might be there to heighten sympathy a bit, but really, he is just another voice protesting for a more humane world. When Hollywood, or the British film industry, retold the tale before and after the World War, it became more Christian than political, and more sympathetic than angry, and Tim's position within the story changed.
"The image of the Tiny Tim gained popularity in the 1940's and 50's
when charities focused on finding cures for disabilities such as polio. They realized that pity opens wallets, so they began poster child campaigns. These campaigns played on society's fear that this thing, this disability, this horrible tragedy, could very easily invade their homes. Unless, of course, they sent in money to find a cure. The undertone of these campaigns was clear: G-d forbid you end up with a disability like the child on the poster. You're life will no longer be worth living; you'll be less then human (Shapiro, 1994)."
Tim gets prettier in these films, cuter. Of course everyone does. In the 1938 Hollywood version
Bob Cratchit is fat
. Capitalism has no longer run amok, rather, we are telling a story of charity, and charity needs the 'poster child.'
So the film Tiny Tim is sweet, high-voiced, pretty, and pathetic. But is that the character Dickens described?
To me, the literary Tiny Tim is something very powerful - especially in the context of his time. Whatever Tiny Tim's "affliction" - kidney disease is the most speculated
- Tim was a fully embraced human in this story, when all across Britain, northern Europe, and the United States society was beginning to dehumanize those who could not 'compete
.' The first "school" (asylum) for "idiots
" was opened in Paris in 1841, with various other separated facilities appearing along with industrialization over the next 30 years. Tim was not
separated. He fully participates in the life of his family. He even participates "as a male" - going to church with his father and brothers, not staying home with the females as they prepare the Christmas dinner.
And unlike so many "defectives" of the period developing as Dickens wrote, Tim has a voice. A clear, respected voice. This may not sound like much today... unless you've ever attended an American IEP conference or its equivalent in other nations... but in 1843 it was perhaps as radical as Dickens' call for redistribution of wealth.
Dickens is also decidedly less "romantic" about the ending. Though films often end with a "cured" and robust Tim, all Dickens will say is, "Tiny Tim, who did not die." There are no promises of "normality" here, only promises of humanity.
The visions of disability matter, and they need to be brought out into the open, and discussed. I like to use Edward Scissorhands
as the classic example of trying to drag "the disabled" into "normality" by making them "heroic servants." I'd love high schools to do The Elephant Man
- the play
- rather than hold "carnival game"-type disability awareness weeks. (Compare it to the very different film
as well). I saw a fabulous college version of Richard III
a few years ago with Richard as a "contemporary" disabled man. In a wheelchair, constantly stared at by an unblinking video camera.
But we can begin this Christmas, in our homes, to explore those visions, and the divides between sympathy and empathy, and between victim and human. I see Tiny Tim as a great step forward for 1843, and sadly, in many ways, a great step forward today. But it is not a big enough step either way.
- Ira Socol