Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens

Who says a book needs to be a new release? Certainly not those of us at Guys Lit Wire.

This one has the benefit of being out of copyright and therefore available for free download on pretty much every platform you can think of, though being a bit of a traditionalist, I prefer an actual book. There's a lovely, slim, leather-clad volume available quite reasonably at Barnes & Noble, but today, I'm going with the Candlewick Press edition illustrated by P.J. Lynch, since it was close at hand.

Perhaps you've seen one of the (many) film versions of this story, from the Muppets to Patrick Stewart to Vanessa Williams to Bill Murray (in Scrooged) to musical versions and animated versions (including Mr. Magoo, Mickey Mouse, and one with Jim Carrey). They are all good, in their ways, but nothing comes close to the humor of Dickens's writing, and the conversational tone of the narrator.

Here, for instance, is the start of the story, from "Stave One: Marley's Ghost":

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. 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.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead.

To be sure, the book starts slowly, in part because our narrator insists on grounding us in both the fact of Marley's death, and the reality of Scrooge's miserable existence. It's not that he's miserable because he has a hard life; no - he has chosen to be miserly and mean, and to refuse love and charity, or even common courtesy. All of it is important background so that we, like Scrooge, can be taken aback by the ghostly visitors to come, and perhaps changed a bit by their actions.

Once the book gets going, it goes full-tilt, with Scrooge being visited by a number of ghosts. First the aforementioned Marley, then the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, in their turns. Along the way, he reconnects with some of the kinder bits of his background, and finds himself interested in the goings-on of the world, rather than solely in his money-lending and accounts. His transformation is ours, and, I would argue, is much-needed in this year, perhaps even more than usual, given the current political climate.

First, Scrooge looks back at history - specifically, his own history, which shows him to be a neglected child who nevertheless found things to amuse him, and rediscovered his appreciation for things like Christmas parties, and his sorrow at having allowed greed to drive away the woman he loved (whom we see having a pleasant, merry life at the end of Stave Two). Second, he sees the world as it really is outside his own experience: the hardship of his clerk, Bob Cratchit; the merriment of his only living relative, his nephew, Fred; the ways in which many people celebrate the holiday despite having little to rejoice about. The Spirit adds his blessing everywhere they go. Before he leaves Scrooge, however, there's an interesting discussion of worldly problems, and specifically of the danger of ignorance.

"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!"

"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here."

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

"Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." . . .
The final spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, never speaks. It doesn't need to, since by the time it arrives, Scrooge is already chastened and desirous of being a better person. Still, he seeks the lessons the spirit might teach, and learns how things will unfold unless he changes his behavior permanently. In some film versions, including the animated one with Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge, the future is presented as absolutely terrifying, largely through visuals. In the book, the horror is more subtle, as Scrooge realizes that no one will mourn his death, and that some may, in fact, have reason to profit from it or celebrate it.

The fifth and final stave returns Scrooge to the world of the living, now a thoroughly changed man who immediately sets out to make amends as best he can with his employee, his family, and the rest of the world.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

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