In praise of A Christmas Carol
What Dickens’ comforting — and discomfiting — Christmas tale lacks in joy, it makes up for in familiarity.
IT has been 170 years since Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was first published, by Chapman and Hall on Dec 17, 1843, but its characters and plot are so embedded in the psyche of readers in the West – and much of English-speaking Asia – that it feels as though the story has been around since the beginning of time.
As Anthony Horowitz writes in his introduction to the latest Puffin Classics edition, even people who haven’t read the book know exactly who Ebenezer Scrooge is – and Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley. Like Fagin in Oliver Twist, Oliver himself and so many of Dickens’ characters, they have a life outside its pages.
I thought I’d read the book long ago. But when my daughter, Molly, aged 10, came home from school with a copy and began reading it aloud, I realised with a jolt that I never actually had.
In many ways, the familiarity of A Christmas Carol makes it a perfect comfort read. My seven-year-old son, Christy, and I were both gripped as Molly read it to us by the fire one cold, dark evening recently. And, at 125 pages, it is short enough to read over one or two cosy sittings. But there is no denying that in other ways, it is the opposite of feel good. As we all know, Scrooge is a bitter and twisted old miser, damaged, like Dickens, by childhood neglect. He cares nothing for the people around him, prioritises material wealth above love and happiness, overworks and underpays his clerk, Cratchit, and detests Christmas, which he views as “a time for finding yourself a year older and not an hour richer”. His former partner, Marley, lies in an unquiet grave, tormented by the consequences of his pennypinching life. Poverty and need, ignorance and want are all around. Not much joy there.
Dickens was aiming to highlight the plight of the poor at Christmas, and the parallels between the Victorian England he depicts and 21st-century Britain are striking – and discomfiting. The charitable fund being set up by the portly fundraisers who knock at Scrooge’s door, looking in vain for a donation, resembles nothing so much as today’s food banks: “Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir,” they tell him. “We are endeavouring ... to buy the poor some meat and drink, some means of warmth.” (“Are there no prisons?” Scrooge replies.) Scrooge himself is running a Victorian version of Wonga from his underheated counting house: no wonder the careworn couple he visits with the ghost of Christmas future are so happy to hear he has died, taking their debts – they hope – along with him.
You could argue that A Christmas Carol is also too scary to be classified as a comfort read. The ghosts – and what they reveal to Scrooge – are genuinely spooky. Even though I knew what was coming, I could not prevent a serious chill going up my spine when the ghost of Christmas past appeared: “The hour bell sounded ... with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy one. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant and the curtains of his bed were drawn. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand ... and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself faceto-face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you ...”
The story is so bleak, too. Dickens pulls no punches when describing the fate that awaits Scrooge if he doesn’t change his ways: he will die unmourned and forgotten, buried in a lonely, weed-choked graveyard, his possessions stolen by his charlady and the undertaker.
“If he wanted to keep ’em after he was dead ... why wasn’t he more natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he’d have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there alone by himself.”
And as ever, Dickens does his best to move us to tears. Who could fail to be affected by Tiny Tim’s deathbed scene with his father, Bob Cratchit? Or by the sight of the boy’s “vacant seat ... in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved”?
But I would say you can always derive great comfort and pleasure from being properly scared, or moved by such brilliant writing. And the final chapter of A Christmas Carol really does warm the heart. You can almost feel the urgency of the last pages as Scrooge, having seen his own grave, wakes up, thrilled to be alive, desperate to make amends and to change the way he lives his life. Dickens is said to have stayed up until 3am writing it. You close the book feeling there is hope for a better future – and there is not much that is more comforting than that. – Guardian News & Media