On Reading “A Christmas Carol”
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it…Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
So begins, arguably, the most famous literary Christmas tale written in the last two hundred years. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has been printed and reprinted countless times. It has made its appearance on stage and screen. It has been set to music, reproduced in innumerable languages, and even told by cartoons and muppets. And it all begins with an introduction of two unlikely characters: an undead man and an unliving man. A ghost who must warn the stubborn living and the living who is determined to ignore the stubborn ghost. Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge were a likely, miserly pair of businessmen while alive, but were an unlikely pair once Marley died. It is clear how much Charles Dickens reveled in telling their story. And yet I may never have know this. After all, I had never read the story in Dickens’ own words.
I have always loved the story of A Christmas Carol. I am still warmed by the late nights on Christmas vacation watching the bitter, curmudgeonly Scrooge harassed and harangued by Marley and his fellow Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come. Whether played by Reginald Owen or George C. Scott, Michael Caine or Jim Carrey, Ebenezer Scrooge is the iconic representation of merciless greed. With each depiction, we encounter a unique artistic rendition of Ebenezer and his story as interpreted by actors, directors, and masters of technology and animation. It is all so brilliant. And yet, at times I wonder: How much of Charles DIckens is lost in the telling and retelling of his story? To answer this, we simply need to return to the story written in Dickens’ own hand.
Upon reading A Christmas Carol, I learned a few things. Charles Dickens is a very engaging writer. Avoiding long lapses into irrelevance, he paints a keen portrait of his characters. Surely there are writers who can marvel you with their lengthy, dramatic descriptions of a character that you could never have imagined. And then there are rare others, like Dickens, who can describe someone who immediately generates a thought in your mind and a feeling in your marrow that, indeed, “I know that person.”. Who is “that person”? More often, than not, it is ourselves. Albeit a bit exaggerated, Dickens paints a portrait of figures who resonate with us simply because they carry traits we most admire and detest in ourselves. Dickens is a skilled interpreter of human nature…and his readers know it. On introducing Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens lamented:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
Exclamation points, a run-on series of adjectives, fragmentary sentences, and mixed metaphors fill his description. And, do you know what? No actor has portrayed Scrooge better than Dickens’ own words. “I know that guy.” That is all I can say.
Charles Dickens’ words can entrance. The myriad renditions of A Christmas Carol attempt (more or less successfully) to jar or shock with their portrayal of Marley’s Ghost, or especially, the grim, wraith-like Ghost of Christmas yet to come. But consider Dickens’ own creation of the dark, haunted cavern of Scrooge’s lonely late-night room:
“[Scrooge] sat down again. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house.
This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.
The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.”
Further, when Scrooge is face to face with this chain-fettered ghost and business partner, Jacob Marley, only Dickens can betray Scrooges’ deep discomfort:
“‘Why do you doubt your senses?’ [asked Marley regarding Scrooges' disbelief in him]
‘Because,’ said Scrooge, ‘a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’
Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre’s voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones.”
Perhaps Charles Dickens’ greatest strength lay in the exacting moral of his story. All too often, the cinematic representations of A Christmas Carol lose their way by overemphasizing the surreal or sinister nature of Jacob Marley and the three ghosts who follow him. This is especially true in the age of computer generated special effects where the beleaguered Marley, the sumptuous Ghost of Christmas Present, or the menacing Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come unfortunately overshadow the deeper story of Scrooge. And what is that deeper story? It is Dickens’ original and infinitely vital point: In the Christmas season devoted to the selfless love of a God-become-Man, we are charged to love our neighbors as ourselves. Nothing should stand in the way of this – especially greed and pride. Again and again, Dickens’ brilliant prose declares this:
Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, to Scrooge:
“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost:
“‘You are fettered,’ said Scrooge, trembling. ‘Tell me why?’
‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on my own free will, and of my own free will. Is its pattern strange to you?’”
“‘But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,’ faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’”
“‘At this time of the rolling year’, the spectre said, ‘I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!’”
Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present
[Referring to Scrooge's claim that the poor and criminal class in society would die off as part of the "surplus" population]
“‘Man,’ said the Ghost [to Scrooge], ‘if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child [Tiny Tim]. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
Time passes. Scrooge’s past, present, and ultimately hideous future unfurl before his eyes. Ghosts, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Scrooge’s lost love, Scrooge’s sister, Scrooge’s nephew, and Scrooge’s visions of himself all play a role in teaching Ebenezer Scrooge who he has been, and, more importantly, who he should be. The climax of the story portrays Scrooge begging the violently muted Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come for a second chance:
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
And so, as the countless film versions would remind us, A Christmas Carol ends warmly with a renewed Scrooge carrying a newly robust Tiny Tim on his shoulder down the gay London street. And effectively, according to Dickens, that is true. But the written story renders central the greater lesson of Ebenezer Scrooge. In truth, as flawed humans, we all commit, or run the risk of committing, Scrooge’s mistakes. We are consumed with our own worries and concerns. We forget to recognize the instructive role of our past, the important awareness of our present (remember the Ghost of Christmas Present’s constant refrain:”Know me better, man!”), and the consequences these both have for our future. The future can be unforgiving if we neglect the lessons of the past and the opportunities of the present. As such, we are not called to make explanations or excuses. Rather, we are called to use our present moment to show mercy and to love others as we first have been loved. It is as simple, and as hard, as that.
Charles Dickens was a genius. His writing is engaging, his plot is entrancing, but most importantly, his message is essential. This Christmas turn off the television, walk away from the stage, and curl up with the original Christmas tale, A Christmas Carol. You never know. It just might change you.