Saturday, December 3, 2011

Tiny Tim and the Role of Disabled as Object Lessons

A Brief Excerpt from
A Christmas Carol
a Ghost Story of Christmas

By Charles Dickens (first published 1843)

So Martha hid herself, and in came little Bob, the father, with at least three feet of comforter exclusive of the fringe, hanging down before him; and his threadbare clothes darned up and brushed, to look seasonable; and Tiny Tim upon his shoulder. Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!

"Why, where's our Martha?" cried Bob Cratchit, looking round.

"Not coming," said Mrs. Cratchit.

"Not coming!" said Bob, with a sudden declension in his high spirits; for he had been Tim's blood horse all the way from church, and had come home rampant. "Not coming upon Christmas Day!"

Martha didn't like to see him disappointed, if it were only in joke; so she came out prematurely from behind the closet door, and ran into his arms, while the two young Cratchits hustled Tiny Tim, and bore him off into the wash-house, that he might hear the pudding singing in the copper.

"And how did little Tim behave?" asked Mrs. Cratchit, when she had rallied Bob on his credulity, and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart's content.

"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."

Bob's voice was tremulous when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty.

Let me just begin by saying that A Christmas Carol is one of my all time favorite stories. If you are not yet familiar with Dickens' original, I will be so bold as to recommend it; no movie adaptation, no matter how well done, can capture the skill of Dickens' wit and word-craft.

Part of the reason I love the book is, also, the story of its own creation. Dickens started out, in February of 1843, trying to write a political pamphlet describing the hardships of poor children working in the tin mines of Cornwall. But he came to realize that what he really needed, in order to motivate people to change their society for the better was art, and a well-told, emotional story, rather than logical arguments, facts, figures, and political slogans. Charles Dickens had such faith in his story that he paid for its publication himself, and while it didn't earn him the monetary income he was hoping for at the time, his story did work at least some magic on the culture, and has been credited with making people fall in love with the idea of Christmas all over again, when the traditions had been all but forgotten, except by a few cultural historians and "folklore geeks." What writer wouldn't dream of having such a legacy?

However, it is the story's very power and popularity that makes Tiny Tim such a problematic character. It's an odd thing about human beings, that, no matter how much true life experience we may have, we are unlikely to give it much credit, until we see it reflected back to us in the form of a story. Tiny Tim, having such a central, symbolic presence in a story that has been told over and over, for almost 170 years, is, arguably, the most consistent image of "What Disability Looks Like," how the Disabled should behave, and how Society, as a whole, should respond to the presence of Disability.

In many ways, Tiny Tim reflects the early origins of the word monster: as an omen or warning from the Divine to the citizens of the city. His frailty and disability, made visible by his crutch and iron brace, served as a "warning" that the industrial capitalism of England, at the time, was leading the society into social sin. And the vision of Tiny Tim's empty stool and abandoned crutch, as revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be, was a personal warning to Scrooge himself about his own death.

Inside that broad allegorical framework, Tiny Tim displays nearly all the beliefs about disability that are held by the able-bodied privileged, and are reiterated in nearly every 'human interest story' on the news. The message is, that as Disabled People, we need to be as "Good as gold, and better," and to do that, we should welcome the stares and pity of strangers, and accept that our primary role in life is to Inspire Others (especially the able-bodied), by being sweet and spiritual at all times, and, especially, in the end, to Overcome our Disability, in the end, by being cured, and leaving our crutches and our braces behind. I also note that, except for his one line: "God bless us-- every one!" we never actually hear Tiny Tim speak in his own voice, but that everything we know about him we learn through his parents' (primarily his father's) emotional response to his existence, and that, within his own family, Tiny Tim is depicted as a Beloved Burden.

This last facet of the Tiny Tim trope is reflected in our modern, public discussions of "Disability Policy" when the family members of the disabled are treated as the Ultimate authorities, but the experiences of the disabled, themselves, are ignored or discounted.

As wonderful a story as A Christmas Carol is, it's important to remember that it is fiction, and that Tiny Tim is an allegorical figure-- and does not reflect the actual lived experiences of people with disabilities.


Wikipedia article: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at Project


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