About Charles Dickens’s Book “A Christmas Carol”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Brad Leithauser about Charles Dickens’s book “A Christmas Carol”:

Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is an evergreen delight for a host of reasons, not least for its length. It’s the ideal, modest size. The book’s events—which track the elderly, prosperous, stingy Ebenezer Scrooge’s psychic transformation from grouchy bear to purring pussycat—unfold in the course of one night. And, likewise, the book can, and should, be consumed in a single night, preferably Christmas Eve. Scrooge’s clock and the reader’s were meant to align.

In the book’s fictional world, Scrooge’s stunted soul is redeemed after serial visits from four ghosts, each conveying messages of fear and censure. In another, factual world (the one you the reader inhabit), Scrooge’s night is best devoted to marveling at how compactly, how richly and deftly, Dickens lays out his tale of a pitiable man’s salvation. If everything goes well, the evening’s two prime participants, Scrooge and you, wind up at the same juncture: releasing tears of joy.

Scrooge is described as rocklike—a skinflint—but there is abundant water within this stone; tears flow generously in “A Christmas Carol.” The book might be subtitled “The Man Who Learned to Cry.” Scrooge’s first visitor is the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former business partner, buried seven long years before. In clangorous fashion, dragging his chains, Marley’s ghost outlines Scrooge’s upcoming evening, in which he will suffer visits from the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The book’s first sentences are: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” Categorical as this sounds, the reader in due course comes to grasp a startling, contrary truth: Marley is more alive than Scrooge. To lie eternally in a graveyard is to be less dead than to harbor a buried, unresponsive soul while yet breathing—embittered Scrooge’s fate.

Though “A Christmas Carol” is Dickens’s most celebrated creation, it was but one of five such novellas prepared for the holiday season, eventually assembled as the “Christmas Books.”

They compose a charming quintet, bristling with Victorian bustle, and in their gladsome heyday they were an exploding, near-annual phenomenon. Beginning in 1843, ending in 1848, each book arrived for Christmas. They were the new Netflix series of their time, a platinum LP, a YouTube viral sensation—they were precocious blockbusters, even if the term wouldn’t emerge until almost exactly a century later. The books were keenly awaited, speedily purchased, tirelessly discussed, variously performed. “The Chimes,” second in the series, generated five different stage adaptations within weeks of publication. “The Cricket on the Hearth,” the third, spawned an astonishing 17.

Unseen spirits abound in Dickens’s Christmas books. These are not disembodied feelings but determinate creatures, gesticulating at the rim of consciousness. While four ghosts are introduced to Scrooge by name, he is also granted a vaster vision, of an airborne world more frenzied and teeming than our own:

Scrooge followed to the window, desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. . . . The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

Similarly thronged is the atmosphere of “The Chimes”: He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed.

Hence, in both novellas solitude means company; nobody’s truly alone. Naturally, it’s tempting to regard such spirits as the native companions of the born novelist, who with each breath imbibes invisible, poignant stories.

Later in life, Dickens befriended Hans Christian Andersen, whose marvelous fairy tales offer a world of enchanted animations—talkative, opinionated animals and household implements. Dickens brings us “quarrelsome” kettles and “terrified” clocks and an “entertained” cricket. “The Haunted Man,” the last of the Christmas books, recalls Andersen’s spookiest and loveliest tale, “The Snow Queen,” in which young Kai grows remote and cruel after the Snow Queen lodges ice in his eye and heart. Dickens’s haunted man likewise turns cold and unpitying. He has beseeched a ghost to relieve him of his most painful memories, his “sorrow, wrong, and trouble,” but it turns out that pain is the midwife to empathy. Without it, we’re barren.

Each Christmas novella chronicles a “reclamation,” despair giving way to hope, to restored faith in humanity. In “The Chimes,” perhaps Dickens’s most impassioned plea for charity toward the poor, the aging and debt-ridden Trotty Veck, dismissed by the high and mighty as a mere errand boy, questions the ultimate worth of the destitute and miserable. But neighborhood church bells pump out a contrary tune. They sing “The voice of Time cries to man, Advance!” and Trotty, after a dreamlike vision of his own death, eventually responds, like a Victorian George Bailey, with an “I am grateful!” In “The Cricket on the Hearth” a man learns to tame his murderous impulses on discovering his wife’s infidelity, only to perceive that she has been—no surprise here—faithful throughout.

In their time, both “The Chimes” and “The Cricket on the Hearth” often eclipsed the fame of “A Christmas Carol.” But in the 21st century, it becomes apparent that we need a better term than success to convey just how successfully “A Christmas Carol,” outstripping its fellows, has captured the collective imagination. The story is everywhere—translated into movies, plays, commercials, costumery, spin-offs, spin-offs of spin-offs. “A Christmas Carol” has to be the most beloved novella that anyone, anywhere, anytime ever concocted. Page for page, it may be the most pregnant prose ever dreamt up by a novelist.Though it may sound like a Scroogelike proposal, “A Christmas Carol” is perhaps best appreciated once we remove most trappings of Christmas from it. Yes, read it on Christmas Eve, but it ultimately belongs not to the holiday season but to the rest of the year, especially those unlit stretches when holidays run sparse. Its theme—maybe the greatest of all novelistic themes—is timeless and uncalendared: the rebirth of the soul.

I’ve spoken of the tale’s copious tears, but there’s nothing indiscriminate in their dispersal: They’re the cleansing tools of a keen psychological portraitist. The first person for whom Scrooge weeps is, significantly, himself. The Ghost of Christmas Past reveals an abandoned schoolboy—young Scrooge—and the old man trembles and softens, touched to the quick. The book’s final sentence is “God bless Us, Every One!,” but for Scrooge to attain such a lofty perspective, to espouse an embracing humanity, he must first contend with his own life-long rations of self-disappointment and self-disgust. Only then can he extend clemency to the cold city’s other unfortunates, notably the cheerful crippled boy, Tiny Tim, who delivers the story’s envoi blessing.

Scrooge’s four ghostly visitors terrorize him, as even nowadays they terrorize children braving them for the first time—and as they still, in a dim echoing manner, terrorize the child within all the grownups who loyally cherish the story. Yet by the long night’s end those spirits prove to be instructive and benevolent, and the lesson they illustrate is a profound one: The finest gift any ghost can give us is to bring us back to life.

Brad Leithauser, a poet, novelist and critic, is the author, most recently, of “Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry.”

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