Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

Original illustration from A Christmas Carol of the Ghost of Christmas Present


What can be said about Dickens’s linguistic virtuosity beyond calling it ‘inimitable’? Perhaps all that can be done is to put ‘Wow!’ in the margins of the text or adjacent to a citation’ (J. Hillis Miller)

I spent yesterday afternoon under a blanket with a hot water bottle reading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  I’ve read this book, I don’t know how many times, and I never get tired of it. When I was younger, only the death of Tiny Tim in the Christmas future caused me shed tears, but these days I read with a lump lodged constantly in my throat, crying my way through Fezziwig’s party and the Cratchitt’s dinner and Scrooge’s final redemption.  I also watch the BBC adaptation with Patrick Stewart every year on Christmas Eve and I’ll cry again then.  I have to teach it this year, so let’s hope I can hold it together for that.

I wonder why this story still has such emotional power.  Its politics are conservative, it celebrates the dominant values of Victorian society (home, heterosexuality, marriage, family), it treats women as little more than sexual objects and doesn’t even call for any radical social change.  Dickens seems to be campaigning for a more benevolent form of capitalism in which rich people engage in charity, which isn’t a very realistic solution.

But on one narrative level, its lure is quite simple. This is a story about renewal, about getting a second chance in life.  Actually, I remember seeing an interview with Patrick Stewart in which he bursts into tears when he tries to talk about this aspect of the text.  The Christmas Carol, it seems, can make even Captain Picard cry.

Like the best Christmas fictions, the Carol is powerful because it’s built on terrible darkness. Scrooge is standing at the edge of the abyss, not only the abyss of social isolation and lonely death into which he will fall if he doesn’t change his ways, but also the abyss of poverty and degradation, the “ignorance” and ”want” that people like him depend upon.

What I noticed most this time around was the emphasis on memory.  This is a story about a man who has forgotten how to feel and in order to be redeemed, Scrooge first has to learn how to remember.  In particular, he has to remember what it feels like to be a child (Dickens believed that our moral and spiritual welfare is dependent on keeping in touch with childhood).  With its strangely intimate narrative voice (“standing in the spirit at your elbow”), A Christmas Carol puts us in touch with the heightened empathy and emotional response associated with childhood.  Is this capacity something we lose as we grow older, or is it beaten out of us? A Christmas Carol encourages us to indulge in the remembrance of feeling.

Cross posted to Flaming Culture