A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, published on 17 December 1843 to almost immediate popularity and acclaim, is one of those books that is so happily ubiquitous that you feel as you must have read it.
So intimately familiar with the story are we, thanks to countless reinterpretations on TV and on film – and yes I will happily admit my favourite iteration is A Muppet Christmas Carol – and so well-known are characters like Scrooge and Tiny Tim and phrases like “God bless us every one”, that you assume you have a pretty good handle on the Dickens’ ageless story.
The surprising thing is, and really it shouldn’t be since books and film/television are wholly different mediums and thus elements of the story get left out of any adaptation, how much more is in the book that you might be familiar with.
“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, not wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast the advantage over him in only one respect. They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.” (P. 3)
The essential story is pretty much as we all remember it, written in the luminously rich and fulsome style that Dickens is rightly celebrated for – Ebeneezer Scrooge is a miserly nasty rich man with no time for the welfare of others such as his employee Bob Cratchitt or his upbeat nephew who finds through the visit of the chained-up ghost of his old partner Marley and the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future that he has not only led a cruel, nasty and dehumanising life but that his actions are going to cost him dearly on an eternal scale after death, and those in his orbit a similarly punitive amount whilst on earth.
It’s a good old-fashioned Victorian morality tale that’s written with such fervour and passion, and such scorn for the prevailing social conventions of the day such as poor houses and debtors’ prisons, that you can help but be swept up in Dickens’ enthusiastic writing style.
This is most in evidence when Dickens describes each and every stage of Scrooge’s transformation through the visits of three very different Ghosts.
We are all familiar with the before and after moments, but what’s missing from the many TV and movie adaptations is how deep and profound these changes are, how seismically they seize Scrooge almost immediately who, when he is lifted from the myopic, self-interested morass his life has become, becomes painfully and tearfully aware, to an ever-escalating degree, how much he has failed to live a good life, one that benefits others and not just himself (and honestly, as Dickens makes all too painfully clear, not even him in many ways).
The pain and horror as he witness how his thoughtlessly cruel actions have affected people like his ex-fiancee, Bob Cratchit and his family, and countless others including the men who come collecting for charity, and then the ecstatic joy that seizes him when he realises he can make spectacular amends are an absolute delight to read.
Truly a delight.
Dickens uses such extravagantly rich language in A Christmas Carol that reading the book is like sitting down to a fine festive feast.
However, unlike many a Christmas lunch where excess is guaranteed and too much of a good thing a common cause of regret, Dickens judges his loquaciousness pitch perfectly, offering a story that is intensely rich and emotionally resonant without becoming overbearingly earnest or polemic.
Yes we come to understand how wicked and lost Scrooge is, and how much he has transgressed and thus how great his turnaround is, but it is never over the top, always erring to damning or celebratory depending on where you are in the book but never to the point where it all feels fantastically unreal.
It is, of course, exactly that in one sense with the Ghosts representing elements of time and humanity in ways that are anything but the same old repetitions of the everyday.
“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.” (P. 125)
For all the otherworldliness of much of the story, you can’t help but come to appreciate when you read Dickens’ superlatively-poetic words, just how deeply-rooted in humanity the entire book is.
Even Marley, who arranges for the Ghosts to visit in what is surely a massively magnanimous gesture from beyond the grave, especially since he won’t benefit a jot from Scrooge’s turnaround, represents every person who puts themselves out for other.
Given Dickens upbringing, which included a stint in a shoe-blacking factory when he was a child to help pay off his father’s debts, a period which played a key role in informing the acutely socially-aware outlook of his adult life (what his biographer Michael Slater called “deep personal and social outrage”), the book’s focus on redemption and following Christ’s encouragement to look after “the least of these” entirely makes sense.
As does Dickens’ decision to put an enormously heartfelt – you can tell in every word that he is writing from massively impactful personal experience – message about using Christmas as a meaningful opportunity for giving.
He reasoned, and quite rightly too, that people are more inclined to heed such an important message in a rousingly immersive story than a stridently polemic article, a line of reasoning that bore fruit with a sustained and sizable uptick in giving to the poor following in the wake of the publication of A Christmas Carol.
Above all though the book, that became one of Dickens’ most popular works, is simply a beautifully-inspiring story well-told that is a joy to read, even in its darker, crueler earlier passages, full of rich detail and delightful turn of phrase that captures with exquisitely affecting truthfulness the real meaning of Christmas in a way that many others have struggled to match.