A Christmas Carol—Charles Dickens

[I decided to re-read this classic 1843 novella in two halves, writing about the first half before reading on.]

9 December 2018
Stave 1, Marley’s Ghost and Stave 2, The First of the Three Spirits
Like everybody, I’ve been familiar with this story since childhood. And not long before I first actually read it at the age of 18, I’d become captivated by the 25-minute adaptation by the genius animator Richard Williams. His version not only makes use of all the most famous lines, it also conveys in visual form, more or less perfectly, Dickens’s descriptions of Scrooge’s impossible experiences. Live action film versions, before CGI, simply couldn’t do this… but that’s a different issue. What made this formative for an inexperienced reader—seeing, then reading—was the insight it offered into what great writers of fiction can do. All the extraordinary sights in the animation—just like all those in the 2009 CGI version starring a motion-captured Jim Carrey—are already there, on the page. It sounds obvious, but bear with me. I was a great fan of art-house cinema at that time, and I remember saying to a friend, wonderingly, that novels do some things better than movies. (A Christmas Carol wasn’t the only thing I was discovering just then.)

And re-reading it now has brought something home to me. Dickens, very consciously I think, wants to advertise precisely this aspect of the writer’s art when he has the first Spirit show Scrooge ‘his younger self, intent upon his reading.’ This isn’t all he shows. ‘Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt…. “Why, it’s Ali Baba!” Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy.’ Just for a moment, the reader is wrong-footed. An outlandish-looking man with an axe really has just arrived. Clearly not—but in this universe, there is no dividing-line between the ordinary reality of the school-room and what is happening in the young Ebenezer’s head. That’s what reading does. By implication—there’s a lot of sleight-of-hand going on here—the writer is a magician, able to provide an alternative reality. In the 21st Century, we have CGI. At a cost of millions, it does what the writer does for the price of paper and ink.

It’s a thought that Dickens develops further, six years later. Another lonely boy finds refuge from his sadistic stepfather with Roderick Random and half-a-dozen other fictional characters he lists in one long sentence. The older David Copperfield looks back wonderingly: ‘I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch,’ and he is a heroic Captain while Murdstone’s rages go on around him. Powerful things, fictions, important things that not only create a new reality but help readers to create themselves. As the Spirit shows Scrooge, these are amongst the many things that he has lost sight of. Dickens the magician wants us to believe that this isn’t just a conjuring trick his readers fall for. Fiction makes us who we are—and starving ourselves of it is harmful to the soul. In the world of A Christmas Carol, like so many truths we might not be so sure of in our own, it’s irrefutable.

Irrefutable truths. ‘I have always thought of Christmas time … 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.’ This, in one sentence, contains everything we need to know about Christmas. It’s part of the longest speech made by Scrooge’s nephew, the first time we meet him early on, and we know he must be telling us what the rest of the book is going to prove. Hearts will open, graves will be looked into, literally, and Scrooge will realise we’re all in this together. He will not die a desiccated, cruelly mean-spirited old man, but become the life and soul of the party. Best of all, as everybody knows long before they read this for the first time, Tiny Tim won’t die. Christmas can’t do it on its own, as Scrooge has proved for decades—and as the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals beneath his robe in a section I haven’t reached yet. But, with a little help, we’ll believe it can happen.

Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is just one of several callers at the counting-house in the first scene. Bob Cratchit is there with his fire that ‘looked like one coal’ when two portly gentlemen waste some of their time on Scrooge and his wintry jokes about workhouses and prisons. Carol-singers arrive, and Scrooge plays a prank from the dark side on them, intending to scare them half to death. We follow Scrooge to his rooms in an otherwise deserted building, and he tries to ignore ghostly signs of things to come—the knocker that morphs into Marley’s face, the hearse that he sees preceding him up the wide staircase that shows the house to be a mere shell of its grand old self—but it’s difficult. Redundant bells, still in place from a more prosperous time of servants, jangle for who knows how long, and stop.

Then Marley arrives. Scrooge gamely tries to argue the phantom out of existence… and I wonder if his awful indigestion joke, that there’s ‘more of gravy than of grave’ about the ghost, is a sign that this man isn’t as desiccated as he thinks. Even his exchanges with the visitors to the counting house have a sort of gruesome wit about them—somehow, despite only ever being as negative as he can, he wants to engage. Maybe it isn’t that he’s lacking in warmth, it’s just that he cultivates the opposite. As we are told, ‘he iced his office in the dog-days, and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.’

Of course, I know where the story’s going, that Scrooge is redeemable—I’m bound to be looking for signs that such a turnaround is feasible. In this world, if not our own, it is. Dickens might call Scrooge ‘a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,’ but we’ve only got his word for it. Sure, we get some bits of pantomime-villain dialogue as well, but otherwise no back-story at all. Dickens has shown long before 1843 that he knows how to create irredeemable evil—Fagin, Ralph Nickleby (and his brothers-in-nastiness Squeers and Gride), Quilp…. But with Scrooge, all we have are Dickens’s deliberately over-the-top descriptions and a few encounters in his office. We’ve been shown nothing of the suffering brought about by the likes of Dickens’s true villains. In those other novels we are shown everything, and we know for certain that a regiment of Spirits would have had nothing to work on with any of them. They’d have given up, because they don’t inhabit the world where those men live their pathologically squalid lives. The Spirits live in a different universe altogether, and so does Scrooge. We’re happy to believe in it for a short while—but we know it’s only for Christmas.

Where was I? The arrival of Marley’s ghost, wonderfully evoked with its clanking chains and the head-bandage that allows his jaw to drop to his chest when he takes it off, like something from The Living Dead. Dickens has time for a better joke than the one about gravy when Scrooge, ‘looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.’ Maybe it’s all been ‘Bah, humbug’ up to now, but within minutes of Marley’s arrival, Scrooge is gagging for some kind of a turnaround. The ghost of his old partner has used the oldest trick in the book on poor old Scrooge, placing before his eyes better than any pre-Reformation depiction of Judgment Day, the threat of a hellish eternity carrying the pain of fruitless regret. This, coupled with Marley’s offer of something he wasn’t lucky enough to receive himself—a second chance—has Scrooge eating out of his hand. ‘You were always a good friend to me,’ he says. And in spite of not relishing the idea of three hauntings, he is ready for whatever they bring.

This is the point about his coming redemption. Marley might have had to resort to hard-won supernatural powers to get into the room, but Scrooge himself is an open door. He has no defences because Dickens has given him no guiding philosophy. Scrooge in his office, with his hissably nasty remarks about the poor, is a cartoon hate-figure—The Simpsons’ Mr Burns is a direct descendant. His anti-poor mindset, like his phrases, is taken from stock. That reference to Malthus and his pretended confusion about the workhouses belong in the first ten or so pages of the book. By page 20 he’s left all that behind. He already completely understands what Marley is about: he ‘glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable.’ By page 30, six lines after his arrival at his childhood village, he is beset by ‘a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys.’ Seconds later, he has a tear on his cheek. This is what I mean by Scrooge as an open door—the spirits hardly have to work on him at all, just remind him where he went wrong. (Imagine Ralph Nickleby in the same situation. When he is transported back through the years after noticing a family resemblance in his niece Kate he suppresses the thought immediately and carries on with his plan to use her to his own advantage.)

What the first Spirit does now is show him the stages of his downfall. Except, no, this is Dickens’s sleight of hand again. What we are actually shown is a succession of joyful moments. That first arrival in the childhood village, the fictional characters as real as reality itself—then, not a concentration on the young Ebenezer’s loneliness, but on his sister Fran’s wonderful news about their father’s far from plausible change of heart. Fast forward to the Fezziwig Christmas—and, still, not a sign of that decline into grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous sin. Instead, here’s Ebenezer, the apprentice who still appreciates the good things, joining in four solid pages of festivities. The decline, when it comes, is a short hop and skip—the fiancée’s account of his growing love of ‘gain’, and the young sinner-in-waiting mouthing the unattractive lines Dickens has written for him. We can hear him on track for the attitudes we witnessed in the office—but Dickens isn’t attempting psychological realism. Scrooge, we are told, lost his mojo in his early twenties, take it or leave it. We take it, of course, because we’re enjoying the ride. In fairy tales, people’s characters can easily turn on a sixpence.

15 January
Staves 3 and 4, The Second and Third Spirits and Stave 5, The End of It
Wonderful. It’s always wonderful, whether it’s this novella—which I realise I haven’t actually re-read for over ten years—or some other version. When there’s a fiction of any kind whose outcome we know will be positive, most of the satisfaction comes down to how the author brings us to that point. In life we never know for certain what the outcome will be, but with some fictions we do know, and we’re happy with it, so long as the author does it cleverly. How can Tiny Tim not die, and, if there is a hell—and of course there is, Marley has shown it to us—how on earth can the grasping, scraping (etc.) Scrooge avoid it? Well, Dickens stacks it so that Tim survives, and Scrooge… well, we know. Bless. Or, as Tiny Tim would have it, God bless us, every one. Because…

…the thought has struck me, after all these years, that Scrooge’s main role isn’t as a misanthropic villain but an Everyman. Only once in the second half of the book does Dickens portray him as a pitiless usurer, when the third spirit shows him an honest young couple celebrating that his death will relieve them of an intolerable debt. Their burden, and therefore Scrooge’s guilt, is presented as real enough. But by now, we’re distanced from such an image of evil. We haven’t been brought face-to-face with this degree of reality before, and besides, the man that we now know Scrooge to be would be no more capable of carrying them out than you or I would. Old Scrooge, boo, but new Scrooge—he’s one of us. As he dances with delight on Christmas morning, we’re dancing with him.

Scrooge an Everyman? When he is so horrid to poor Bob Cratchit, says those terrible things, and is missed by absolutely nobody in the future that is offered up by the third spirit? I think Dickens manages it by being really careful about how and when he presents Scrooge’s misanthropic side. I’ve already mentioned how, after 20 or so pages, we never see it again in Scrooge’s own present. Once he’s accepted that Marley has only come to help him, any reference to his misanthropy in the next two chapters is either in the past—shown by the first spirit, in Scrooge’s final conversation with his fiancée, and quoted by the second when he rebukes Scrooge with ‘Are there no prisons?’—or in satirical, often good-humoured references to him. For Fred at the Christmas party—if not for his wife, who is more severe—Scrooge is a figure of fun, a curmudgeon rather than a villain.

The third spirit’s chapter is different, containing nothing positive at all except the spirit’s gruesomely ironic response to Scrooge’s wished-for ‘emotion caused by this man’s death’ as the young couple celebrate it. It’s a dystopic vision, with self-serving City men, a grasping underclass of petty thieves and unscrupulous pawnbrokers, and a death mourned by nobody. Scrooge, of course, doesn’t realise who the dead man is, only how universally disliked he is. The misanthrope is a frequent presence in Stave 4, but either the offstage subject of other people’s conversations, or dead. And, crucially, he is never named. We know who the dead man is, but Scrooge doesn’t—and it becomes another distancing device. It’s quite right that Scrooge only understands the truth in the appalling burial-ground, because it brings us back to that line of Fred’s very early on, that we are ‘fellow-passengers to the grave.’ Scrooge, having ignored that fact for most of his life had doomed himself to come to his own grave bereft of any fellow-passengers at all. It’s a life, he now realises, without any of the love the first and second spirits have shown him in so many vivid ways.

The reader knows by now that the future being presented to Scrooge isn’t going to happen, and that we know before he pleads his case with the third spirit that he is a changed man. When he does make his case—‘I am not the man I was’—we are entirely on his side. The misanthrope, to the limited extent that he ever was, is no more. He is rewarded on the next page, and so is the reader, by that ridiculous little frisking dance that sets up the final chapter on Christmas morning. Aside from the first few pages of the book, Dickens’s favoured third-person omniscient narrative has always been limited to Scrooge’s point of view. Every step, flight and transformation of the way we are with him, and at the end we are able to share his joy.

What else? The Ghost of Christmas Present offers a vision as celebratory as the previous spirit’s revelation of Fezziwig’s party, beginning with four pages of  ‘Holly, mistletoe’ and the rest in Dickens’s uproarious description of the scene out on the streets on Christmas Day. However much poverty and hardship there might be, from the Cratchits’ Christmas to the hovels of miners on some nameless moorland, everyone we see is full of love for everyone else. Twice, Scrooge witnesses toasts to himself, by the two most generous men he knows. Their wives remind them that he is not worthy of it, and it would be hard to disagree—but, in this universe, the men are the ones who have got it right. It’s the power of Christmas, as Dickens keeps reminding us in the second spirit’s voice, and through that magical essence of Christmas he keeps sprinkling on people. But a lifetime isn’t only for Christmas and, as the third spirit brings home to Scrooge, this day only shows the way to all the others in the year.

It’s the neatest trick in this particular book. Dickens had written before about the way that on Christmas all enmities can be forgotten. But his time, he is able to equate the easy generosity we might all be able to feel for a day with the need to live a life of genuine fellow-feeling. I wrote early on that Fred’s line about Christmas sets up the whole story, and I haven’t changed my mind. Dickens presents a glorious celebration of how Christmas can make us all better for a day—but he isn’t only doing that. He incorporates this idea seamlessly into an entertaining parable of repentance and redemption. Of course, Christmas gets the last word—we have it confirmed, just before Tiny Tim’s final blessing, that Scrooge knew how to celebrate it—but this is only the icing on the Christmas cake. In the long paragraph leading up to this, we learn how Scrooge has finally learnt how to live—‘as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the good old city knew.’

My goodness. Even the dystopic London of Stave 4 has been transformed. If Scrooge is an Everyman, he has been one from the start—Dickens has him mouth common responses to the plight of the poor, not make them up from some well of his own wickedness. When the third spirit shows him the world he inhabits, it’s divided into innocent victims, like the young couple and the Cratchits, and repulsive chancers (just like the old Scrooge) on the make. But in the universe of this story, change is possible, and one man’s redemption becomes everyone’s.

The power of love, eh? And the power of a storyteller at the top of his game.