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Clare Walker-Gore, Dickens and Disability at Christmas, or Why Tiny Tim did NOT die

2015 November 6

Front cover of Dover Thrift edition of 'A Christmas Carol'

Front cover of Dover Thrift edition of 'A Christmas Carol'

Whether or not we are inclined to accept F.G. Kitton’s provocative claim that Dickens was “The Man Who ‘Invented’ Christmas”,[1] there is no doubt that Christmas is a happy time of the year for the Dickens enthusiast. Suddenly, Dickens is everywhere – or rather, A Christmas Carol is. On stages and screens up and down the country, Scrooge will be saying “Bah humbug”, as Dickens’s place in the cultural imagination is annually reasserted. For the scholar of Dickens and disability, however, this brings with it a rather less happy resurrection. Tiny Tim and his “active little crutch” is an essential part of A Christmas Carol, his catch-phrase, “God bless us, every one!” almost as familiar as Scrooge’s misanthropic snarl. Although Tim takes up relatively little space in the text, he is its emotional centre: Scrooge feels “an interest he has never felt before” when he asks “if Tiny Tim will live”, and we understand instinctively (if by no very compelling logic) that the plucky little boy will die unless Scrooge discovers the Christmas spirit. Lo and behold, when Scrooge reforms, his reward is that “Tiny Tim did NOT die”.

Nor has he. Not for nothing does Martha Stoddard Holmes begin her seminal study of disability in the Victorian novel, Fictions of Affliction (2004) with a discussion of Tiny Tim.[2] He has triumphantly outlived every other disabled character in Dickens’s work, and even the novel which contained him, embodying the paradigm of disability that has dominated cultural representations of disabled people for well over a century.

Tiny Tim in 'The Muppet Christmas Carol'

Tiny Tim in 'The Muppet Christmas Carol'

Within the novel itself, the reason Tiny Tim exerts such power as a sentimental spectacle is that he wholeheartedly embraces this role. He tells his father Bob Cratchit “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.” He doesn’t just allow readers to look at him and be moved by him; he invites them to do so. As “a cripple”, he has the power to remind onlookers of Jesus’s charity to the vulnerable – especially at the time when Jesus’s incarnation as a vulnerable child is remembered – and to inspire them to imitate it. In this sense, his “little crutch” is indeed “active” – but active in stimulating the activity of others, not on its own account. It is the impossibility of his being really active on his own behalf that makes his efforts so irresistibly cute, and gives Scrooge (and the reader) such power over him. Tim cannot live unless Scrooge’s heart melts; he cannot survive without our pity.

The images below replicate exactly this structure of feeling. The first is the front page of a membership form for a charity for disabled children, The League of the Brave Poor Things. It shows its crest, a crutch and sword, and its motto “Happy in my Lot”. These clearly echo Tiny Tim’s resignation and cheerfulness, his acceptance, even embrace, of neediness. Its name is only effective if you accept that disabled children are, simply by dint of being disabled, both ‘brave’ and ‘poor’. The Jerry Lewis telethons in America went on using disabled children in a similar way until 2010. The boy in the image I have used here, Ben Mattlin, grew up to be an author and disability activist who was none too keen on having being presented as (literally) a poster boy for hopeless cases, pointing out that there was not really any reason why he shouldn’t grow up.[3]

League of the Brave Poor Things membership form

League of the Brave Poor Things membership form

League of the Brave Poor Things membership form

League of the Brave Poor Things membership form

Except, of course, that it is the conditionality of the poster’s statement – “If I grow up” – which constitutes its emotional pulling power. Just as Tim needs Scrooge, so this boy needs the viewer to donate money in order to have any chance (or so the poster implies) – and the idea of his growing up is distant, prospective. The wording of the poster implies that actually he will always be a child – unless his disability is cured. Disabled adulthood is thus held at bay.

Similarly, it is impossible to imagine Tiny Tim when he is no longer tiny. As a child, he is the perfect ‘cripple’: he has no sexuality; the question of his place in the labour market is not raised; he is not expected (even in 1843) to be self-sufficient, so his dependency is unproblematic. Tiny Tim is the perfect image of a disabled person for a culture which wants disabled people to be both appealing and undemanding, inspirational yet unobtrusive – which wants them, in a word, to be Tiny.

Yet the antidote to such images, as well as their source, is to be found in Dickens’s novels. He was also the creator of Miss Mowcher, the beautician in David Copperfield whose dwarfism leads others to mistrust her, and who explicitly takes the hero (and by implication her creator) to task for making stereotyped and prejudicial judgements about her, admonishing David to “Try not to associate bodily defects with mental…except for a solid reason.” In Our Mutual Friend, the bearer of the “active crutch” is the spiky doll’s dressmaker, Jenny Wren, self-proclaimed “person of the house” and worldly-wise, self-supporting business-woman. Although these figures are long dead in the popular imagination, perhaps the time is right for their resurrection. Every year Tim reassures us that he cannot live without us – but it might be time we decided that we can live without him.

[1] F.G. Kitton, “The Man Who ‘Invented’ Christmas”, Traveller (November, 1903), 35-36.
[2] Martha Stoddard Holmes, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture, Corporealities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), pp. 2–3.
[3] http://benmattlin.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/jerry-lewis-legacy.html

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