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This guide accompanies the following article: Preston, Shale. ‘Existential Scrooge: A Kierkegaardian Reading of A Christmas Carol’. Literature Compass 9/11 (2012): 743–751. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2012.00909.x

Introduction

I wrote this article because I disagreed with the overview of existentialism that Walter Kaufmann put forward in his 1956 book Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Penguin, 1989). This book, an anthology of existential writing, is intended to tell “the story of existentialism” (12). However, from the outset, Kaufmann makes it clear that it is his story of existentialism:

An effort to tell this story with a positivist’s penchant for particulars and a relentless effort to suppress one’s individuality would only show that existentialism is completely uncongenial to the writer. This is not meant to be a defense of arbitrariness. A personal perspective may suggest one way of ordering diffuse materials, and be fruitful, if only by way of leading others to considered dissent. (12)

Kaufmann then goes on to claim that in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1864 work Notes from Underground we hear a completely “new voice” singing “an unheard-of song of songs on individuality” and while this song of individuality is completely wretched and repellent it is nonetheless for the highest good (12). Further, Kaufmann writes: “I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written” (14). Immediately after this, Kaufmann goes on to write about the reputed ‘father of existentialism’, Søren Kierkegaard, who “was dead nine years when Notes from Underground was published” (14) however because Friedrich Nietzsche had apparently avidly read Notes from Underground in 1887 and did not get to read any of Kierkegaard’s works, Kaufmann claims that it is “better to reverse the strict chronology” (14) of existentialism and start with Dostoevsky.

To my mind, however, Charles Dickens’s 1843 work A Christmas Carol is actually the best overture for existentialism ever written owing to its anticipation of existential ideas (albeit in fictional form) and it makes more sense from a chronological perspective because it was written 6 months before Kierkegaard wrote his seminal 1844 work The Concept of Anxiety. My article therefore takes up Kaufmann’s challenge and sings a hitherto unheard-of song of “considered dissent”.

Further Reading

Despite the fact that I disagree with Kaufmann, it is worthwhile reading his work Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. A useful guide to existentialism is Robert G. Olson’s An Introduction to Existentialism (New York: Dover, 1962). Another book length guide to existentialism is John Macquarrie’s Existentialism (Penguin, 1973). However, in this work, Macquarrie makes a rather unfortunate contention about the role of ‘place’ in terms of the emergence of existential thought:

The existentialist style of thought seems to emerge whenever man finds his securities threatened, when he becomes aware of the ambiguities of the world and knows his pilgrim status in it. This also helps to explain why existentialism has flourished in those lands where the social structures have been turned upside down and all values transvalued, whereas relatively stable countries (including the Anglo-Saxon lands) have not experienced this poignancy and so have not developed the philosophizing that flows from it. (60)

I would like to think that my article (in linking Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to the existential style of thought) serves as a corrective to this kind of limited thinking.

Useful Links

International Kierkegaard Information: http://www.utas.edu.au/docs/humsoc/kierkegaard/

Søren Kierkegaard (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy): http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/

Syllabi

Ideally, this article could be used to generate debate about the chronology of the existential canon and the role of ‘place’ in terms of the emergence of existential thought. Is it really the case that writers from Anglo-Saxon lands did not develop an existential sensibility? So too, how can it be said that the social structures were not turned upside down in Anglo-Saxon lands at the time that existentialism flourished? Charles Dickens’s early life alone (i.e. his childhood stint as a “young gentlemen” in a blacking warehouse) stands as a poignant testament to the fact that social structures were in tremendous flux at the time when the school of thought which is now known as existentialism emerged.

I would like to see this article represented in a general course on Literature and Philosophy or in a Literature and Philosophy course examining the Victorian period. In relation to the latter course, other texts could include Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Signs of the Times’, excerpts from Jeremy Bentham’s work, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and The Subjection of Women, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and George Gissing’s The Odd Women.