Classic Books: A Christmas Carol

future

‘Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ‘But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

This book has been parodied and reimagined so many times – I even remember a Sid the Sexist version in Viz comic – that it’s good to reread the original now and then, to remind yourself of how fantastic the story is.

Firstly, for a book specially written for Christmas, Dickens’s novel is unashamedly secular. There are ghosts and a kind of hellish purgatory, but no God. People say that we in the decadent twenty-first century have neglected the religious aspect to Christmas; Dickens neglected it even back in 1843, and his book is no worse for it.

We associate Dickens’s true meaning of Christmas with social justice, and thinking of others beside yourself. Michel Faber discusses this in his excellent essay:

Dickens was aware that capitalism was fuelled by the labour of poor people, and he was passionate in his belief that society owed them a share in the plenty.

The heartless exploitation of the underprivileged enraged him. In all his work, he argues not only that we as individuals have a duty to care for our less fortunate neighbours, but also that governments and institutions must be exposed and shamed whenever they fail to show adequate compassion. In our own era, when the arrogant behaviour of global empire-builders and corporations is causing ever-mounting distress among the world’s poor, we need to pay attention when Scrooge compliments Marley on having been “a good man of business”. The ghost, shackled to the useless baggage of his own greed, bemoans his failure to understand that the whole of humanity should have been his concern. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The point here is the connectivity of humanity. Like it or not, society is more than just individuals and families, and every person’s action affects at least someone else – sometimes tragically. Thus in a possible future, Scrooge’s decision to pay Cratchit at a miserly level leads directly to the death of the clerk’s son.

‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, ‘tell me if Tiny Tim will live.’

‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost, ‘in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.’

”No, no,’ said Scrooge. ‘Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.’

‘If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,’ returned the Ghost, ‘will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’

Throwing Scrooge’s words back in his face has the desired effect: shatters the businessman’s abstract utopian capitalist theory, and replaces it with an awful knowledge of the consequences of his actions.

Yet as Faber points out, A Christmas Carol isn’t a straight socialist novel any more than it is a straight religious novel. It is a story of rebirth, one of the seven basic plots. As Faber puts it:

The real secret of A Christmas Carol’s essentialness lies not in solemn preaching but in the dark, joyous energy that drove Dickens to create. It lies in the weird magic of Scrooge’s adventures, the awesome visions of the Spirits, the gruesome hinge of Marley’s jaw. And, most of all, it lies in the real truth about Scrooge’s change of heart – a truth much deeper than the conventional explanation, that he learned he must be a nicer, “better” person. Yes, Scrooge does change in this way. But that doesn’t explain why he ends the novel cavorting in impish glee, giggling and playing pranks. He could, after all, have remained the same gloomy old man, except more generous with money. The real miracle of his transformation is that, at long last, he’s capable of having fun.

Dickens valued morality, but what he really worshipped was merriment – the buzz of making other people happy, of making a moment glow, of dancing a jig for no particular reason. The greatest tragedy he could imagine was an existence devoid of excitement or playfulness, a biding of time on the way to the grave. Fun, for him, was the only compensation for death, the dismal inevitability of which preyed constantly on his mind. Scrooge’s triumph is that he stares his own corpse in the face, and, instead of despairing, defiantly resolves to enjoy the gift of life to the full.

The point is not about politics or religion but how we live our lives. Scrooge is a bad bastard at the start of the book (although he does have a certain style) but as the long night wears on, our sympathies gradually swing towards him. Scrooge’s lengthy back story, with its solitary childhood and lost love, illuminates his real problem: he is a bastard because he has never truly lived.

Dickens’s message is that it is never too late to live life to the full. No matter how much of it has been wasted or how bad things are, it is never too late. There’s a line I always associate with the book but appears only in a film adaptation: ‘the knowledge that his whole life lay before him, and that it could be changed.’

For all of us, the magic of A Christmas Carol lies in that knowledge: that we may alter the shadows of our futures, and sponge the writing from our headstones.

(Image copyright Nancy Holliday)

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2 Responses to “Classic Books: A Christmas Carol”

  1. Going down the Diogenes « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] Dickens, Conan Doyle is a writer whom everyone knows of but few actually read these days. Well, Sherlock […]

  2. ‘A drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’ « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] hoping Phil Woolas receives a visit from three spirits this Christmas […]

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