Everyone knows ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The tale of the frightfully avaricious Scrooge, the impecunious Bob Cratchit and his effervescent Tiny Tim is all but inescapable during the holidays. There have been countless stage productions and films, including the new Disney version, and everyone has heard a thousand and one times the famed exclamation from the crusty old codger: “Bah, humbug!” Indeed, I don’t believe any single word has ever been so wholly and incontrovertibly connected with one character as ‘humbug’ is with Scrooge. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is ubiquitous come December, and with good reason – nothing encompasses the spirit of the season in quite the same way.
But when was the last time you actually read ‘A Christmas Carol’? That thought struck me about two weeks ago, as I was stuck sick in bed, feeling miserable and decidedly un-festive. I’ve been in a very Dickensian mood lately and, between re-reading ‘Great Expectations’ and starting ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, I fished out my copy of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and re-read the story very swiftly — it’s quite short, particularly by Dickens’ standards — marveling as I did so. Because of the book’s familiarity, we often forget it’s power, which is no less potent now than it was upon first perusal some 166 years ago.
My initial impression was of the story’s eeriness — I believe Dickens somewhat missed a calling as a writer of macabre fiction in the style of Edgar Allan Poe. Marley’s clanking ghost is far more chilling in print then he could ever be on film or stage, his appearance tinged, of course, with the innately Dickensian hint of bizarre comedy. The spirits of Christmas are vividly described — I found I’d completely forgotten what the Ghost of Christmas Past even looked like — and the scenes of Christmases both past and present are so sharply evoked that I newly appreciated the loveliness of Dickens’ prose:
“…they stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavement in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses: whence it was mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snow-storms…The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.”
- Chapter 3, The Second of the Three Spirits
The strength of the book, though, is of course in its message, which still leaps out and grabs the reader by the throat with a surprisingly strong grip, even if you’ve heard the tale a hundred times. Each of us, despite all the good we may do or feel, can most likely identify the odd Scrooge-like moment in our own lives, and Dickens meant us to squirm a little with guilt as we read. Yet, there is of course redemption for old Mr. Scrooge at the end and so, the author intimates, redemption for us too, for whatever small failings we have accrued over the year. The story is, ultimately, one of transformation, and of the power of good locked within even the crustiest and most irredeemable hearts.
As with much of Dickens’ work, there are natural parallels we can always draw to the present. The author lived in a time of extraordinary poverty and exceeding avarice, an era of swindlers and dupery, when the poorest were left to wither in the mud and fog of London’s streets and the debtors were locked securely behind iron bars – a fate Dickens knew all too well from his own past. His novels and stories are littered with morality, the triumph of good in the face of the wicked, the struggle of the oppressed against their detractors, and ‘A Christmas Carol’ is perhaps the most thickly laced with meaning. G.K. Chesterton once said, ‘a good novel tells us the truth about its hero’ and Dickens’ tale does just that, leading us with cathartic intent to find in ourselves the fundamental qualities, both good and evil, of Ebeneezer Scrooge. It’s an optimistic reminder of our own humanity, and how easy it is to reclaim it through even the simplest and most insignifcant acts of good. Dickens intended to drive home a clear message with his tale of holiday and humbug and I believe that he succeeded more wildly than he could have ever imagined in 1843.