‘Marley was dead; to begin with.’ Hardly an auspicious beginning to any story. So opens Charles Dickens’ immortal tale of the meaning of Christmas spirit and its ability to redeem us.
When Charles Dickens penned A Christmas Carol in 1843 he had already had two great successes with Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby but was living down the burden of a sudden failure with Martin Chuzzlewit; a book which was doing so poorly that paying back his advance from Chapman & Hall would have put him in serious financial straits. The timely writing and publication of A Christmas Carol put an end to his money woes and became a cultural influence.
Dickens gambled on the idea of writing a seasonal story that would catch the imagination of the public. It worked beautifully and since then A Christmas Carol has become the model by which we all celebrate Christmas; with trees, holly, a Christmas feast with goose or turkey, good cheer, and warm family gatherings. Yet what is it about A Christmas Carol that makes it so compelling after 175 years?
Charles Dickens’ has been criticized by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf for being too saccharine and sentimental. This may be true at various times in Dickens’ works, however, it is precisely this pulling at our elemental needs for comfort and companionship that makes A Christmas Carol the story it needs to be. Working at the souls of the hard Victorian society, Dickens highlighted the plight of the common worker. Workers, while employed and paid, were never in surety of continued employment and penury threatened on a daily basis.
The great Dickens revivalist and author G. K. Chesterton sums up A Christmas Carol in his book Charles Dickens stating ‘A Christmas Carol is a kind of philanthropic dream, an enjoyable nightmare, in which the scenes shift bewilderingly and seem as miscellaneous as the pictures in a scrap-book, but in which there is one constant state of the soul, a state of rowdy benediction and a hunger for human faces.’
Chesterton goes further on to state ‘The story sings from end to end like a happy man going home; and, like a happy and good man, when it cannot sing it yells. It is lyric and exclamatory, from the first exclamatory words of it. It is strictly a Christmas Carol.’ Chesterton is comparing A Christmas Carol to the Christmas hymns and songs which are sung, and if not sung, then yelled at the loudest possible volume.
This sentimental volume is what has helped A Christmas Carol achieve its longevity and success. In this, Charles Dickens himself had a hand in. The commercial success of A Christmas Carol and his other Christmas stories had the public clamouring for more, however, his writing schedule would not allow it, so Dickens decided to give public readings of A Christmas Carol. Dickens abridged the story into a reading script and the performances were an unrivalled success. Dickens read the story from 1852 until his death in 1870.
In 2013, the New York Public Library hosted a reading of Dickens’ own script by the great author Neil Gaiman. Hosted by researcher and author Molly Oldfield, the one-time performance is available to listen to on the New York Public Library website.
The performance is quite excellent and Gaiman does an admirable job considering that he is an author and not a stage performer. His cadence and pitch work well in the serious parts but shine in the more humorous moments of the reading. While I wouldn’t want Gaiman to give up writing, I do believe he would do well with any voiceover work.
Returning to the story, the characters of A Christmas Carol, ostensibly something of stereotypes, are fully fleshed and engaging. Each one subtly layering the surrounding characters. Ebenezer Scrooge’s pinched and miserly ways are offset by his nephew’s expansive and generous ones. Scrooge’s unfounded pride in his wealth is highlighted by Bob Cratchit’s impoverished pride in his family. Even Tiny Tim, the symbol of imminent death in the Victorian era who has never laid eyes on Ebenezer Scrooge, who kind and thoughtful of all others in all things serves to contrast Scrooge’s dismissive cruelty.
While Dickens’ characters are good in and of themselves, it is, I think, the fantastical elements that make A Christmas Carol the enduring classic that it is. When the story opens, Scrooge’s London is the same as it has always been; harsh and unforgiving to those that don’t yield to its monetary demands. Poverty is rife and those who have the wealth are not likely to do much to help the impoverished, exemplified by Scrooge’s lines of ‘Are there no prisons?’ and ‘And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?’
So in the early part of Stave One, we expect a story set in worldly Victorian London. That is until Scrooge returns home on Christmas Eve to be first surprised by his door-knocker and then the appearance of Jacob Marley’s ghost. Introducing a fantastic element into a story about Christmas was a brilliant idea on Dickens’ part. It immediately elevates the story out of the realm of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. This at a time when spiritualism and occultism was part of the Victorian way of thinking.
The use of ghosts to travel Ebenezer through time, backwards and forwards, to present to Scrooge his actions and how they have affected, do, and will affect, those around him, allowed Dickens to compress a tale that could take days and years to meander in a real-life story, into a single night. This serves to heighten the Scrooge’s, and thereby the reader’s, feeling of relief and redemption.
The joy Ebenezer Scrooge feels upon waking to find on Christmas Day, not the world changed but himself, compels the reader to feel just the same. The criticisms of saccharine sentimentality are fully realized at this moment and most readers can and will exult in this feeling, Wilde and Woolf be damned. There is nothing wrong with feeling that if Scrooge can change for the better, so can we.
Dickens created characters that we as readers can see in ourselves. We recognize in Ebenezer Scrooge the times we have been less than kind to people for whatever reason, we see in Bob Cratchit the times we have felt weak and vulnerable, and of course in Tiny Tim we recognize our own mortality. Dickens created characters that were at once unique but also universally relatable. It allows the reader, but the end of A Christmas Carol to be open to the message it brings.
It’s this message that had served to keep A Christmas Carol in its exalted position as the most poignant story about Christmas aside from the original story about Christmas. In trying to secure his financial well-being, Charles Dickens helped to shape the Christmas ideals of millions of people around the world by reminding us that at Christmas, if at no other time, it is kindness and thoughtfulness that makes us truly human and that everything else is just window dressing.
After 175 years A Christmas Carol has not become less relevant but more so. At a time when divisiveness is increasing and general prosperity is decreasing, we are in need of the redemption A Christmas Carol offers. With the current state of the world, I expect that A Christmas Carol will remain essential to our Christmas experience.