Today marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (a title commonly shortened). Having bounded to success with The Pickwick Papers, and with Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby under his belt, Dickens was still in the early phase of his career. A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Bleak House were all still to come, and all are masterpieces, but I feel safe in saying that if he’d retired from writing after this, his literary reputation would be secure. It was quickly written and published on December 19, 1843 — then promptly sold out by Christmas Eve. It has joyfully haunted the season ever since, and remains my own favourite Christmas story.
Dickens and his book are often credited with reviving the celebration of Christmas, but in truth he was more riding a wave than leading the charge. Carols and decorated trees, for instance, were already established, and other writers like Washington Irving had explored Christmas in literature. Believing that Christmas had the power to build social harmony and goodwill, Dickens took what was taking shape and amplified it, focusing the energy into a story that has defined the meaning of Christmas for many.
The subtitle and even content might surprise people from places other than Britain; aren’t ghost stories meant for Hallowe’en, not Christmas? The great English tradition of telling such stories at Christmas perhaps hasn’t been widespread, though there are several other literary examples. In A Christmas Carol, the Gothic touch blends rather perfectly with a story of a man’s inner spiritual transformation.
Ebenezer Scrooge has to be one of the most famous names in Dickens’ ouevre, and probably in English literature as a whole. Part of the story’s longstanding success is likely the fact that, from a writer known for creating personalities and characters, Scrooge is one of Dicken’s most realistic. Far from what has been portrayed in many lesser film adaptations, Scrooge is not a stereotype of cruelty. He’s a vividly drawn portrait of a cynic, with a biting sense of humour which he uses to insult his nephew, his clerk, and charity collectors who bother him in his office. The glimpse we get of his childhood later on hints at an upbringing that cultivates this cynicism, and deepens our understanding of his worldview.
This same cynicsim and humour is also his mental armour against the horrors of seeing Marley’s ghost, letting him pretend that he’s only experiencing a bad dream due to indigestion. “You may be an undigested bit of beef,” he famously remarks to the chain-bearing apparition, “a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” But the humour is also a lifeline that gives hope of his redemption. He isn’t truly lost if he can still laugh. Any man who can make terrible puns while the ghost of his dead business partner stands in front of him is a man who can be saved.
Marley’s ghost has come, John-the-Baptist-like, to prepare Scrooge for the coming of the Three Spirits who will save him. But he also establishes the moral universe of the tale, warning that those who do no good while walking the earth may as well be wandering ghosts. Scrooge’s eyes are opened as he looks out the window onto the mist-enshrouded street:
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few…were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ancle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.
It’s often thought, perhaps, that the Spirits convert Scrooge into a good person by frightening him, using scare tactics to force him to change his ways. But this is a very superficial reading. What they actually do is simply to show Scrooge who he was, who he is, and who will be remembered as when he dies. “I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” says the Ghost of Christmas Past when Scrooge complains of being made to feel wretched, “That they are what they are, do not blame me!” The Spirits are truth-tellers and gifts of revelation. By this they — or perhaps some higher power — endeavour to turn this miserly, cynical ghost into a flesh and blood man who can relate properly to other people.
Which includes (especially from the Ghost of Christmas Present) a dose of humility. This Ghost reminds Scrooge of his broad pronouncements against the “surplus population” of the poor, and admonishes him that he is only a human and cannot “decide what men shall live, what men shall die”. He also takes Scrooge round the wide world, showing him his place in it and in humanity; in this panoramic journey, Scrooge takes part in something like the wanderings over the earth by the other phantoms he saw earlier. He is awoken to the fact that, in Marley’s words, Mankind is his business. Ignorance is the enemy, and only by being shown the truth can Scrooge win out the day.
Scrooge loses all humour and puns on the sight of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, which is a little ironic since the Ghost’s hooded and silent appearance is something straight out of a hundred hoary old Gothic tales and the Grand Guignol; it is easily parodied and often is. But Scrooge’s cynicism by now has vanished and never returns as it becomes clearer and clearer that he is seeing that cynical future come true. He sees himself dying alone, in contrast to the death of Tiny Tim who is mourned over and remembered in love. He sees the wealth he strived to accumulate picked over by thieves and all for naught. He sees cynicism for the hopeless and lonely thing it is, and black humour is replaced by existential dread.
Dickens then moves swiftly from the graveyard at night to the bedroom in bright morning, and Christmas is beautifully confused with Easter as we see Scrooge’s ‘resurrection’ to his new life. Having seen what he has seen, and then to be given a second chance, he grows deliriously happy. His black humour from the opening chapter is turned to real joy. That lifeline promised hope that he could be saved, and now that promise is fulfilled; his laughter has become music rather than chalk on a blackboard. Earlier he witnessed phantoms of the dead wandering over the earth and gazing with hopelessness at the living; now he walks through the city as a living, breathing man and involves himself in life. Humanity becomes his business.
There might be a suggestion of ‘justification by good works’ (that bogeyman of Protestant theology) in the moral of the tale, but it’s hard to argue with the truth that we are called to serve the world while we live in it, to not become ghosts among our fellow human beings. To be haunted by the Spirit who redeems and restores, incarnating mercy into flesh and blood and making it dwell among us.
In his Preface to the original edition, Dickens wrote his hope that the story would raise such a “Ghost of an Idea” in his readers: “May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” His novels are usually read as works of social consciousness, and that is no less true of A Christmas Carol. Far from being trite holiday fluff, it engages the imagination and tries to open cynical eyes to the truth of living with each other. It has done this for 175 years and there’s every indication that it will do so for 175 more.