Ana Garza G'z and Adam Pottle
DECONSTRUCTING PITY: DICKENS'S TINY TIM AND THE SYMBOLISM OF CHRISTMAS
The holiday season is rife with symbols. Candy canes, reindeer, mangers, snowflakes, stockings, menorahs, Christmas trees, presents, dreidels, wreaths, lights…the list is endless. Some of these symbols come to us through religion; others come to us through cultural mediums such as literature, television, film, theatre, and music.
One of the most prominent cultural holiday symbols is Tiny Tim, and this article deconstructs Tim's symbolic value, incorporating poems, fiction, and memoirs by Barbara Crooker, Mark Burnhope, Lizz Schumer, Adam Pottle, and Lori-Ann Tessier.
It is no doubt a tradition for many families, as it is in ours, the editors', to hunker down in front of the television or around the storyteller and enjoy once again Dickens's classic tale A Christmas Carol. In returning to the story, we inevitably return to Tiny Tim Cratchit, whose fate ultimately decides Scrooge's fate, and whose pitiful situation and lamblike innocence inspire Scrooge toward charity and goodwill, particularly toward those we perceive to be less fortunate.
On the surface, Tim symbolizes the simple joy and gratitude of being alive. That is the positive and beautiful thing about him. We hear his active crutch knocking on the floor; we see his family cherish him in the face of mortality. As Mrs. Cratchit asks her husband how Tim behaved in church, Bob Cratchit delivers his famous speech with a trembling voice: "'As good as gold…and better….He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant for them to remember, upon Christmas day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see" (Dickens 1384). And when the Cratchit family sits down to Christmas dinner, Tim exclaims "God bless us every one!" (1385). Tim genuinely wishes everyone the best in life. So when he dies in Scrooge's vision of Christmas Yet to Come, that optimism is gone, leaving Scrooge—and the viewer/reader—crushed.
The problem with symbols is their simplicity. In his 1992 deconstruction of yellow ribbons and American flags, George Carlin said, "I consider them symbols, and I leave symbols to the simple-minded" (Jammin' in New York). To people in the field of disability studies, Tiny Tim presents a rash of difficulties. Because Tim is such an enormously popular character, people are often inclined to impose Tim's characteristics onto people with disabilities. This approach is called "symbolic interactionism," which, as Ato Quayson states, "operates on the assumption that 'people do not respond to the world directly, but instead place social meanings on it, organize it, and respond to it on the basis of those meanings'" (Albrecht quoted in Quayson 204). In other words, when people encounter someone with a crutch, they do not see that specific person; they see a variation of Tiny Tim. Such interpretations, as Barbara Crooker's poem demonstrates, can be quite harmful.
The Air is Full of Knives
This poem is stuffed with ominous images: knives, needles, icicles. Even the crystal snowflake seems sharp-edged and menacing. Crooker sees her grandson as a Tiny Tim figure due to his allergies and his fragility, which suggests the pervasiveness of Tim's symbolic value. It can be stretched to accommodate just about any vulnerable youngster...or any disabled person, period.
Symbols are terrifically insidious. Because they are so simple, they are often widely circulated, and almost impossible to expurgate. Tim is a mechanism of Scrooge's salvation; he is not, as Markie Burnhope's poem shows, a complex person.
Burnhope shapes his poem like a bisected Christmas tree, as though he is cutting open the symbol and showing what lies within. He underscores Tim's innocence and sweetness, particularly with the last three lines: the singing pudding, the sugar lifting the burden. It is that sweetness that we indulge in every holiday season, obscuring our ability to see things, especially people, as they are.
We do not know what became of Tim's education, his love life, or his ambitions. We do not know if he and his siblings fought, or if his parents scolded him for staying out too late, or if Scrooge hounded him to ensure he was healthy. Such questions are left to us to answer in our imaginations. In Dickens's story, the only outcome we know of is that he does not die. Dickens's phrasing, "Tiny Tim, who did NOT die" (1404), bears echoes of the popular disability slogan "We are not dead yet!" as well as the advocacy group Not Dead Yet, suggesting both the pervasiveness of Tim's symbolic impact and the continuous efforts of people with disabilities to reduce that impact. Just because one is not dead does not mean that one is living, or living well. Lizz Schumer's poem responds to Tim's lack of complexity; in doing so, she provides a satiric antidote to Tim's angelic nature.
Tiny Tim, that virtuous sot. "God bless us everyone," waving his crutch in the air like a preacher's bible, bowing his head as he prays and sings, voice like an angel, but not from his little plot on the hill because Scrooge (God) saves us all.
We know the story; know the boy.
Invalid: 1. (n) A person made weak or disabled by illness or injury.
No other Cratchit had a modifier.
See also: Beguiling Fred
Tiny never made it to a man, although he did not die, said Dickens. Invalidity doomed him if Scrooge did not.
See also: Tiny (cripple)
Tiny could have danced or railed. He could have screamed in pain. But Scrooge would not have heard him. Symbols, cut, don't bleed.
God bless us everyone, he said. And doomed himself and all of us, a life of invalidity or worse, of inspiration.
Do it for the cripple, the wonky-winged angel who sings on dad's shoulder, whose funeral plot is picked out and yet — sing for the cripple who has the right motives, who dares not stagger outside of his frame.
Don't bend. Don't break.
See also: Frame (cage)
Why aren't you more like Tim?
Symbols have a way of marking and fossilizing the distance between the person who gives meaning and the meaningful object. For Scrooge, Tiny Tim is a reminder of what must be prevented: the disease and dependence that comes from poverty and industrial exploitation. Tiny Tim's survival and recovered health are the evidence of Scrooge's lasting change of heart. From Scrooge's point of view, therefore, the relationship between benefactor and boy is both clear and satisfying. For Tim, however, the relationship is very different. It is built around what Carol J. Gill describes as "misconceptions about the experience of disability and conflicting values between disabled and nondisabled peoples about what constitutes a worthy life" (366). More concretely, Tim Cratchit is two people. On the one hand, he is the person he understands himself to be: the child who beats on the dinner table with the handle of his knife as the Christmas goose is carved, the boy who will probably peel and mash potatoes like his brother when he is old enough, and the young man who will likely help his mother or sisters meet piece work quotas by the fire. On the other hand, he is the symbol Scrooge knows and relates to, the frail, dependent being that inspires and measures generosity of spirit in those who can bestow it. Perhaps in those moments when "he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things" (Dickens 1384), Tim Cratchit is aware of these two selves. We don't know since none of the characters is developed with any depth. The point is that Ebenezer Scrooge is not and will likely never be aware of any part of the youngest Cratchit that is inconsistent with the symbol. Adam Pottle captures this uneven relationship and divided self beautifully.
Eulogizing Ebenezer Scrooge
Master Tim Cratchit sits at his father's desk, his cane leaning against the wall, the office door closed and locked against the solemnity of the day. Pencil in hand, he scrutinizes his eulogy for Mr. Scrooge, lately passed from living to be ninety-seven years old. "How fitting that such a great man lived so long," wrote the newspapers. "Oh, what a void has been left by his passing," cried the people of London, who dropped roses and wreaths on the steps of the Scrooge and Cratchit counting house.
Tim mutters, scratches out a whole phrase and writes another in its place. Voices burble below him: the dozens, maybe hundreds of people who've come to pay their respects to Scrooge, all of them awaiting the appearance of the legendary "Tiny" Tim Cratchit, whom it is said Scrooge had pulled from the snapping whorl of death, the boy whom Scrooge had cured of his infirmity so he could go on to become one of the most successful young financiers in London.
Tim holds the crumpled and re-crumpled papers close to his face, his fingers ripe with pencil smudges. He reads aloud the phrase, "We must find new saints," and huffs, and lays down his speech and his pencil.
"I no longer want to be part of his story," he says, "nor do I want any part in continuing it. Why must this burdensome task fall to me?"
He slaps the desk, takes up his cane and walks to the window. The pale sunlight humbugs its way through the frosted pane. Down below, in the garden in front of the house, the mourners gather, their black clothing curt upon the February snow. The trees are bare but for beads of ice on their frail outreaching fingers, their bark stiflingly engulfed by the cold, their branches rattling like old hearts attempting to awaken. The bushes form small bulges in the snow, distant hints of future bloom.
Tim shakes his head. "I know none of these people," he says. "Yet they all know me, through Scrooge. Ah, Mr. Scrooge. Forgive me, sir, but there were so many times I wanted to tell you to mind your own damn business. My leg is not your leg. My health is not your health. Yet you doted on me as if it was. You hung over me so much a crevice sloped upon my shoulder for your heavy hand to rest. Whenever I lurched or stumbled, you were there to stifle my fall. I am grateful for what you've given my family, but there must be limits to a man's generosity. How often I questioned the extremes of your magnanimity. What man so dotes over a child not his own? What drove you to such lengths? You never explained. You merely maintained your severely doting eye. The year I was thought to have the consumption, you never left my bedside. You sobbed and groaned, crying out to the spirits that they not take me, that you'd done everything they'd asked of you. In that instant you frightened me, and from then on I watched you with a more discerning eye. You so wanted me to be your friend, your personal cupid, and in my youth I obliged, sharing with you the (edited) details of my days at school and expressing my gratitude whenever I could. But even as I outgrew my leg brace and, eventually, my crutch, you never ceased. My ruddiness never quelled you. The speed with which I negotiated even the most difficult obstacles never discouraged you from visiting me every day. The jealousy among my brothers and sisters! They would say, 'Why does Scrooge talk with Tim so often, Mother? Why does he get all the gifts?' I witnessed the slow degeneration of my family's values. Oh Peter and Martha! Oh Belinda, Agnes and Micah! How the perfumes of Piccadilly sullied your pristine spirits! Mother never answered these charges, nor did Father. They were content with things as they were and so did not want to stir the pot, so to speak (though since we've become wealthy Mother's hardly folded a sheet, let alone stirred a bloody pot). And now I must eulogize you, Mr. Scrooge. I must canonize you in the minds of the London public. They think I became a success because of you. Did you plant my mathematical abilities in my head? Did I endeavour to employ my talents to count money and separate columns of accumulated interest? No one asked me whether I wanted to teach, or join a charity, or manage a poorhouse. No one asked me if I enjoyed being a financier. They saw my clothes, my house, my silver-burnished cane, and that was enough. Oh, you poor mourners! If only you understood the dilemma I face. How I wish I could scatter these pages amongst you and be done with it! What shall I do? Shall I present to you a portrait of the man you idolized, or a portrait of the man who frustrated me? Shall I remain mired in the life you've built for me, Mr. Scrooge? Or shall I gather all my valuables and catch a coach to the country, away from London's choking air, away from the anxious expectations of an entire populace?"
Tim returns to the desk, groaning brisk and high against the swelled volume of the voices downstairs. The pale sunlight squeezes, wrenches, scrapes through the frost-latticed window. He drops his cane on the floor and resumes editing. To the end of "We must find new saints" he adds "or, failing that, become our own saviours."
This selection is full of distance and isolation, two other features that characterize relationships between people with and without disabilities in Gill's discussion. Tim Cratchit, all grown up, is alone in a room while outside a crowd of people is waiting for him to write Scrooge's eulogy. They know him, as Scrooge did, but he does not know them as Scrooge never knew him. His memories ring in the void between his family before and after Scrooge's largess, and his emotions range between the self he knows and the one Scrooge took credit for. He brings the two Tims together in the final line, not merging, but affirming that the one he knows best is real and deserves some of the credit for the man he has become.
For the flesh and blood Tiny Tims of the world, living as someone else's moral lesson is hard work. S. E. Smith points out that Dickens morality tale uses people—like Tiny Tim, the "embodiment of cheerful suffering" and "the ultimate Good Cripple," and Bob Cratchit, "the embodiment of the Noble Poor," "humble and loyal"—to drive Scrooge's Very Special Enlightening experience. "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," and "tragedizing their lives is supposed to be acceptable because it's in the service of something greater, which is promoting charity." In other words, the lives of people with disabilities make sense when they fit a framework that is familiar, but for that framework to hold up, people with disabilities can only be a certain way. We've looped back to two ideas we've mentioned earlier, "symbolic interactionism," the imposition of Tim's characteristics onto people with disabilities, and the degree to which we interact with what we expect rather than with whom we meet. Lori-Ann Tessier comments on this experience from the perspective of the person with a disability.
Out from Underneath Tiny
I was raised to be Tiny Tim: cute, sweet, brave and uncomplaining. Not to mention ready to relieve the suffering of others. Tiny Tim was a sensitive lad because he knew what it was to suffer and it made him empathetic. I was the same. I remember one of the last times I was in the hospital for surgery, I had a roommate who had severe CP and was unable to speak. Throughout the night when she was uncomfortable she vocalized, but nurses did not respond, so I would get out of bed to go get them. Despite the fact that I was having surgery myself the next day I needed to help someone else in need.
In my twenties I hated to see him: that stereotype that was also me. I hated myself. I resented him and Pollyanna, and all the other brave uncomplaining sick kids and disabled kids because, despite how I looked on the outside, I was angry. In college my roommate frequently told me "stop being a wallflower!" (How I hate that expression). You get the picture…lack of confidence and assertiveness. I was as flat as a flower on a wall. Also, because I am very short, my friends would refer to me as cute and pat me on the head, which pissed me off but I put up with it. Occasionally I protested but could not put my ovaries behind my complaint, so it went on.
I wanted to break out of this mold and in some ways I have. I have gained in assertiveness and confidence over the years. I have found a voice through writing poetry, specifically when I write about my disability, where I can be who I want and express my anger. I would hope that those who know me would say I was a three-dimensional person who happens to have a disability.
Like it or not though I just can't shake that "nice girl" image. I can't let go of the feeling that nice girls don't get angry (although I would tell anyone else who said that that it is not true). I know I won't get by on my looks so I better have a good personality. My personal impression, furthermore, is that people don't want to be around chronic complainers particularly if they are disabled. It makes people uncomfortable. To those who ask if I am in pain I will say "sometimes" but I rarely tell the truth about that unless they are a professional whose job it is to listen to me tell it like it is. This attitude has cost me over the years in depression and substance abuse. I would advise people to be real and not go my route.
However, I am no longer Tiny Tim. After spending one time too many climbing the last few stairs into my mother's house on my hands and knees because there was no railing, I told her I would not come for Thanksgiving unless she got a railing. (She got one right away). I file official complaints when someone passes me by for a job because of my disability or in some other way violates my civil rights.
In my middle age now I can accept that I am that nice person and I don't hate myself or Tiny Tim for it. Perhaps it is just my personality I was born with, which was encouraged by those around me. Either way, it is who I am today and I have come to believe that in the long run it is better to be nice (and to be sober).We are all in this together so God bless us everyone!
Tessier's reflection—which juxtaposes the human realities of anger, pain, and complaint with the optimism and sweetness of the symbol that defines her for others—fits neatly into Smith's explanation of why Tim Cratchit needs to be a good cripple. "The story wouldn't work as well if Tim was unhappy, or bitter, or angry." He and his father "are, in fact, not supposed to stand up for themselves at all, because this deprives readers of the opportunity to imagine rescuing them," a relationship that involves far less than the sort of relationship of mutual understanding enjoyed by equals. Even in the present day, "People with disabilities and the poor are expected to be well behaved, grateful, and submissive." As nebulous figures of tragedy, they deserve pity and charity. "To recognize them as human beings would be to admit that they should not be treated as idealized icons." It would mean treating them as complex individuals, indistinguishable from us.
This holiday season, some of us, including the editors of this response, may read Dickens's tale or watch an adaptation and cry when Tim dies. We cannot help it. Dickens is a master of the sentimental narrative, and there's enough of ourselves in Scrooge and in the Cratchits to get caught up in what Tim is for everyone but himself. In that moment, we must be mindful that symbols can inform reality, but we must resist their power to distance, oversimplify, distort, or alienate, and we must always keep them separate from flesh and bone people, for as Schumer writes, symbols do not bleed.
Carlin, George. Jammin' in New York. HBO. 1992. Netflix. Web streaming service.
17 November 2014.