14 December 2016

Dickens and His Ghosts

One of my co-workers asked the other day, Which is your favorite Christmas story? I said, the original, meaning the Nativity. I've always loved the Christmas Eve church service, the lessons and carols. The narrative from Luke, "Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."
Thinking about it, though, I realized that there's a lot to choose from, and the chiefest of these is A CHRISTMAS CAROL. It was a personal favorite of Dickens, and he performed it both publicly and for his family year after year, playing all the parts, taking all the voices, acting out every flourish. He was quite the spell-binder, by most accounts - his children loved it - and it must have been something to see. The story itself has amazing durability, and survives almost any adaption. (One of my own personal favorites is the animated Disney version.) What accounts for its staying power?

Well, first of all, it's a ghost story. There are four of them, remember. Most of us would say three. But the first to visit is Scrooge's dead partner, Marley, and he sets the tone, foretelling the spirits who are to come, past, present, and future. Dickens, then, shows his hand, he lets us know what to expect, even if he doesn't reveal all his cards, Like any skillful conjurer, Dickens uses a succession of reveals, each effect providing a shiver of recognition.

And it's a story of redemption. We suspect Scrooge will save himself, of course, but most of the fun comes from his adventures along the way, not his getting there. It's his resistance to the pull of his own feelings that gives the story its tension. If we were absolutely sure he'd give in to his better nature, we'd be looking behind the curtain. We pretend to be surprised, every time. It's more satisfying that way.

I think there's also a hidden force behind A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Dickens was always very aware of social injustice, and his age saw a lot of it. Children at risk, from poverty, from sickness, is one of the currents in the story. Dickens' own humiliation, when he was a boy, his father in debtors' prison, and the hated blacking factory (which experience figures in both COPPERFIELD and OLIVER TWIST, too), his long-lasting sense of victimhood. A CHRISTMAS CAROL is sentimentally effective because it's at first terrifying.

Lastly, the story's subversive. We sympathize with Scrooge, in some sense. Christmas has become a sort of pathology, all that crappy music on the radio, and the cheesy sales promotions. Who isn't a little gleeful to see it disdained? On the other hand, Dickens had a big part in making Christmas what it is today. It was the Victorians who created our Christmas, although they emphasized a generosity of spirit and the "context of social reconciliation" (the historian Ronald Hutton), not its commercial aspects.

So, in keeping with the season, let's say God Bless Us, Every One, and a Merry Christmas to you all.


  1. Yes. A CHRISTMAS CAROL resonates. Nice article.

  2. I used to teach A Christmas Carol and I always enjoyed it and so did the students. Alas, it is more relevant than ever!

  3. Dickens, sadly, wasn't a prophet, just a chronicler, and times have not changed.... Sigh...
    I love A Christmas Carol: my personal favorite is Alistair Sim in "Scrooge" and I have deep fondness for "The Muppet Christmas Carol". Sorry, I hang on every line out of Rizzo's mouth.

    Dickens wrote a number of Christmas/New Year's stories. (I covered "The Chimes" one year here, and coming up will be another one on the 22nd.) But they all have more or less the same message: Terrible social conditions; heartless public policies; redemption through humility and charity. God bless us every one!

  4. Thanks for an enjoyable post, David. I was a huge Dickens fan my twenties--I read almost all of his novels, including almost-forgotten ones such as MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT, but it's been much too long. Your column reminded me that I need to re-read some of them. Thanks for the holiday gift!

  5. For our grade school play, my dad built moneyboxes from galvanized steel sheets he tack-welded, cut a coin slot in each and bolted on chains. He dumped in a handful of slugs from electrical boxes and voilĂ , they clanked nicely when dragged across the school stage.

    Footnote: Not only did Disney give a nice tribute to Dickens with their version of A Christmas Carol, Walt named Donald Duck’s stingy uncle Scrooge McDuck.

  6. Now that was an interesting take - the subversive angle! As someone who writes capers, I struggle a lot with making a protagonist who is on the other side of the law, yet sympathetic to readers. And yet, you show how Dickens did this well - Scrooge was, in fact, subversive, and I expect we admire him for that. The happy ending helps, too! (My books always have a happy ending.)


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