Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Christmas Carol

Many times when we fill out forms on the internet, such as Facebook or MySpace or any number of social sites we are asked questions about our likes and dislikes including “favorite music” and “favorite books”.  I have a hard time of it when it comes to favorite books or authors.  Honestly, what qualifies something as a favorite?  Is it the book I have enjoyed the most or the most often?
In the latter case that would clearly be Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  I have read this book nearly every year of my life since I was in 5th grade somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is a tradition of mine.  It is a ritual.

Do I enjoy it?  Of course I do.  Dickens’s longer works, such as Great Expectations or Oliver Twist (which I confess I never finished reading) are often, in my opinion, superfluous with respect to the word count.  Dickens could turn a phrase, but too often I find that the phrase turned is lost under the word-hoard unleashed upon each chapter.  If brevity is the soul of wit, then Mr. Dickens was too often soulless.

This is not true of A Christmas Carol.  In Carol Dickens demonstrates a grasp of storytelling that belies the apparent size of the book, if one were going by previous works by Boz.  Observe the passage below from the first chapter of the book, where nephew Fred is trying to convince Uncle Scrooge to come to Christmas dinner:

            “Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.”
Scrooge said that he would see him—yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.

To me this is Dickens at his best.  I find the work so thoroughly enjoyable that not only do I read it every year, but I make it a point to watch at least 2 versions of the tale on telly as well (one of which is ALWAYS Scrooged starring the incomparable Bill Murray).  I collect versions of the tale and critique them.  I truly love this story and recommend it to all who enjoy a good tale, easily read and easily enjoyed.

A general introduction to the work

First published in December of 1843, A Christmas Carol was preceded by some of Charles Dickens’s more famous ‘serious’ works such as Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, and Nicholas Nickleby.  Despite being shorter by far than previous works, it was not much different in tone or purpose.  Dickens believed in exposing the class horrors of the Victorian Era in his writing and did so again in Carol.  The character of Ebenezer Scrooge, so well-known to modern literature, was not unlike other ‘villains’ of Boz’s work in that he is a covetous, grasping, hard-hearted businessman; a character ripe for attack from the liberally-minded author who once worked in a bootblack factory as a boy to pay off his father’s debts.  We have every reason to believe that Dickens did believe in goodness of the human spirit, when properly guided of course, and wanted to appeal to the better natures of his readers with his work.

A Christmas Carol is at once a ghost story and a morality play.  Many of the traditions that are now held dear in Commonwealth countries and America owe their popularity to Charles Dickens and his “Ghostly little book” that put a happy secular face on a post-Puritanical solemnity during the Yule-tide.  The influx of European elements from Germany and Scandinavian countries was thoroughly mixed together, like a Christmas pudding, and turned out into the event we know today.  Throughout the book Dickens borrows some of his normal wordy style, but pares it down to a manageable fare for the reader’s feast as he describes with succinct but powerful prose the traditions of “his” England and “his” Christmas, traditions which he bequeathed to us all.

The book is short, a novella really, and divided into 5 chapters (called ‘staves’ in the contents) beginning with “Marley’s Ghost” and ending with “The End of It”.  A quick Google search for “ghost of Christmas (past/present/future)” will yield a plethora of hits, but it is worth noting that within the table of contents Boz refers to these figures as “spirits” of Christmas, not ghosts (they are, however, called ghosts within the chapters themselves, several times).  This is important as these were not meant to be ghosts (the spirits of deceased humans) but indeed ‘spirits’ as is used for supernatural beings that have never been human, such as fairies and gnomes.  These are the “concepts”, the “ideas” of Christmas and thus not fixed to any single human concept, but are part of the ideal, the very quintessence of the season.  Like Father Christmas himself, these are the icons, the beliefs of the people and so more angels and devils than wisps of animating force left behind in the mortal world.  The message is clear, for Dickens was not the sort of man to use a word casually; these are the very stuff of the season itself, boundless and bounded, timeless and timely, glorious and sordid as appropriate.

Join me, won’t you, as we explore A Christmas Carol as a book and in some of its film adaptations in the coming days, and as always, keep your Yule Log lit.

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