To Raise the Ghost of An Idea

I am not a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but I do love A Christmas Carol. It’s a story told with great economy: Dickens wastes no time in establishing how awful Ebenezer Scrooge is. And the trope of spirits showing Scrooge shadows of his life and the London around him is ingenious. It allows Dickens to neatly combine the biographical details that made Scrooge the miserable bastard he became with the compulsion he needs to reform himself and wrap the whole thing up in about 100 pages. (I have an edition without illustrations that totals 68 pages.)

Dickens wrote the book in roughly two months, and he financed the publication himself. Impressive, but I get the impression that no one, least of all Dickens, cast a critical eye over the final manuscript before it went to press. How else to explain the random tangent Dickens goes on in just the second paragraph:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Funny? Sure, but if I were editing A Christmas Carol, I’d cross that out straight away.

This is not an isolated example; for such a short story, there are a number of digressions and asides to pad out the book. In many cases, I’m willing to give them a pass, because it usually adds colorful detail to the picture of English Christmastime that Dickens is painting.

But sometimes, he goes off the rails in utterly ridiculous ways. For example, there is no scene creepier in this ghost story than the part where Dickens the narrator ogles Scrooge’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter:

The consequences were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to one of them. Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn’t for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn’t have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn’t have done it; I should have expected my arm to have grown round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.

That’s what a stalker says! A stalker says that. Perhaps Dickens ultimately realized it, since he cut that part out of his edited text for public readings.

Although I’ve read A Christmas Carol dozens of times, I think it was years before I read it closely enough to pick up on a lot of the details Dickens packs into the book. Part of the reason why is because I have seen so many of the various adaptations that I had a tendency to gloss over scenes that weren’t universally included in them. Certainly it took a long time for it to dawn on me exactly what was going on in this passage:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

He left the room, and went up-stairs into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face. He was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a version of A Christmas Carol that depicts that.

Dickens can be rightfully accused of making Tiny Tim ridiculously angelic, but then Scrooge is awful to an exaggerated level as well. Dickens uses Tim’s death to make the point that even the greatest good can be destroyed by unchecked evils like avarice, ignorance, and want.

The final Stave of the book features some of Dickens’ most expressive and joyful writing. When Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, he says, “I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby.” Dickens describes Scrooge embracing all the trappings of the Victorian-era English Christmas with a child-like exuberance that is a lot of fun to read. And that’s really the reason why I’ve read A Christmas Carol so many times: as Dickens catalogs and defines in lush detail the joys of the holiday season, he gets me into the Christmas spirit every year.

Note: I wrote this post six years ago for an old blog and am republishing it because there are plenty of Scrooges out there right now who need to be visited by Spirits.