Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens

For a number of years now, I have made a tradition of watching A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart. I do not recall the first time I watched the movie, but it became an instant favorite. I will go so far as to say that the movie changed my life for the better in that through it I was able to gain the will to redeem my own self. I watched it during a troubled time in my life where I needed it. It is to me a powerful story about the ability of human beings to change themselves for the better. Although I have watched movie numberless times -- through several Christmases and during the year, even when Christmas was far away -- I have never read the story that inspired it. I decided to amend that this year.

The story is a familiar one: I would wager most people in the west have heard of it. They have at least heard the name Scrooge, and many people might remember that he was visited by ghosts and realized the "true meaning" of Christmas (as if there's only one). I remember as a child that Dickens "A Christmas Ghost Story" did spook me as a ghost story -- what with its doorknobs changing into the howling faces of dead people and spirits wandering about. During this past Thanksgiving break, I sat down and read the story -- and oh, what a story!

Old Marley was as dead a doornail. Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. 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.

A Christmas Carol is the story of one Ebeneezer Scrooge, the partner of the late Jacob Marley and something of a miser. Dickens writes that his heart was so cold that the winter wind did not bother him and the summer sun didn't warm him up -- so cold that everyone around him avoided his company. John Irving introduced the story in the copy I had, and he writes that although we see Scrooge as a caricature that Dickens was attempting to convey an accurate depiction of Dickensian England's heartless "robber barons". Scrooge likes profit -- so much that he doesn't bother repainting his firm's sign after the death of Marley, and snaps at his clerk (Bob Crachit) for attempting to burn coal.

Having introduced Scrooge as a selfish, spiteful old miser, Dickens begins his "Christmas ghost story" with peculiar things happening to him. A spectre of a hearse goes before him; his door-knob changes into the face of his late partner, howling at him; the portraits on his fireplace change into portraits of Marley. Finally a ghost appears -- the image of Marley, transparent and clothed in his funeral apparel -- but with additional elements, that of cash-boxes and money registers trained to him. Scrooge is at first skeptical, maintaining that he could be seeing things -- his senses could be fooled by undercooked food -- "A blot of mustard, a bit of moldy cheese...there's more of gravy than grave about you, friend".

Marley (after convincing Scrooge of his existence) warns Scrooge that unless his heart changes, he is in for a fate like Marley's -- to roam the Earth without rest as punishment for his selfishness. "It is required of every man," the ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death." Scoorge is perplexed that Marley is being punished -- he was a good businessman. Marley replies (in one of my favorite lines) "Business! Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business!"

Marley informs Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts as part of his reclamation. The next three parts of the story concern the visits of the three ghosts -- the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. Each ghost takes Scrooge places and forces him to examine his life and the consequences of the decisions he has made. The Ghost of Christmas Past particularly upsets Scrooge. Bit by bit, we see Scrooge being slowly changed -- his heart slowly thawing. By the time he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, he is determined to not let certain things happen.

"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!" cries Scrooge as he and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come approach a grave. Upon seeing his own name, Scrooge insists that he is not the man he once was -- "I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall shrive within me! I will not shut out the lessons that they teach! Oh, tell me that I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

With those words, Scrooge finds himself in his bed -- alive -- on Christmas day, and begins to live with the spirit of Christmas for the first time, making amends to his fellow human beings. It is to be a wonderful story of human redemption -- of the power of the human will to change one's self for the better, to rise above that selfishness that comes to easily and to reach out to one another. Dickens' prose is marvelous, as is his use of symbolism. I highly recommend the story to you -- it's only a little over a hundred pages -- and declare it this week's Pick of the Week.

One quotation -- this from Scrooge's nephew Fred in response to Scrooge calling Christmas a humbug.

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, " returned the nephew [of Scrooge]: "Christmas, among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round [...] as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good, and I say God bless it!"

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