December 22, 2003,
Everybody knows the story of A Christmas Carol. We've seen the stage productions, the TV specials, the movies the thing has been filmed more than 200 times. Some folks have even read the book, by Charles Dickens. Yet it may also be one of the great unread books in our culture, because the story has become so well known that we don't feel the need to bother.
A few people are probably even in my weird predicament: I think I read A Christmas Carol years ago. But I'm not totally sure, and in my mind's eye the role of Ebenezer Scrooge is played by George C. Scott. The Ghost of Christmas Past has refused to materialize and clear things up.
So I recently decided to read A Christmas Carol again. Or for the first time. Whatever.
You should, too, because it's a great book. Dickens composed A Christmas Carol in the fall of 1843. He wrote it in a hurry but then he wrote everything in a hurry, knowing what an advantage it is to be a writer who not only writes well but also writes fast. The book was published shortly before Christmas and sales were phenomenal. Profits were low, however, because Dickens had priced his gilt-edged volume at a mere five shillings so that all might afford it, even those working on Bob Cratchit's measly salary. Yet Dickens raved about the result. "A most prodigious success," he called it, "the greatest, I think, I have ever achieved."
Dickens wrote a number of highly regarded books Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities but this brief one is his best known and best loved. It also single-handedly created a new genre of popular literature that still thrives today: the Christmas book. Recent bestsellers like John Grisham's Skipping Christmas and Richard Paul Evans's The Christmas Box owe everything to Dickens. There probably wouldn't be a Grinch if there hadn't first been a Scrooge.
After the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote a special Christmas story or essay every year between 1843 and 1867 (with one exception). He never duplicated that initial achievement, but then nobody else has, either. In a way, it's been downhill from the peak of Mount Crumpit ever since.
Reading A Christmas Carol now reminds me of the old joke about the guy who encounters Hamlet for the first time: "It's a good play," he says, "except for the clichés."
Think of all the clichés A Christmas Carol has given us: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future; Tiny Tim announcing "God bless us every one"; and, of course, Scrooge spitting out his famous invective, "Bah humbug!"
The book also has one of the great opening lines in English literature: "Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."
Then, as fate would have it, Dickens offers us a subtle apologia for clichés:
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. 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.
A Christmas Carol isn't an especially conservative book, but there's no arguing that Dickens buried a conservative sentiment in the heart of this paragraph. The phrase "dead as a door-nail" was as much a cliché to Dickens as it is to us. It is possible to think of an innovation that improves upon that old standby. But "dead as a coffin-nail" doesn't have nearly the same ring. It seems better in theory, but it fails to work as well in practice: This, in fact, is the essence of liberalism. Old Marley simply needs to be "as dead as a door-nail." He can be no other thing.
Maybe one of those 200 or so films has tried to give life to this little Dickens nugget. I can't imagine it working well. A Christmas Carol is eminently adaptable, but people who don't actually read the book are passing up something special.
Another example: When the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives in Scrooge's bedroom, the narrator injects himself into the story: Scrooge, he says, "found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew [the curtains]: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow."
I am standing in the spirit at your elbow. It's impossible to read these words and not lift your eyes from the printed page and look to see if there's anybody in the vicinity of your elbow. Even then, when you see nothing, can you really be so sure that nothing's there? It's an effect only literature can realize. Sound goofy? Well, then you're too much of a rationalist. "My own mind is perfectly unprejudiced and impressible on the subject of ghosts," Dickens once said. "I do not in the least pretend that such things cannot be."
One of those clichés from Hamlet springs to mind: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Many other fine moments can only be experienced in the book.
Here's an early description of Scrooge, and an example of first-rate writing: "He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel has ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster."
And here's another bit I like, after Scrooge has become a new man: "Shaving was not an easy task, for his hand continued to shake very much; and shaving requires attention, even when you don't dance while you are at it. But, if he had cut the end of his nose off, he would have put a piece of sticking plaster over it, and been quite satisfied."
Dickens is sometimes called the greatest English novelist. I'm not sure I agree, but it's hard to deny that he has given us one of the most enduring books in our language or any language. So don't just watch A Christmas Carol read it, before the Ghost of Christmas Future has to tell you what you've missed.
Is that him standing in the spirit at your elbow right now?