Book review: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens Previous item Book review: “Being Peace”... Next item Book review: “Glitz” by...

Book review: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Over the years, I’ve written about Scrooge and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol several times.

In 2014, I published an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune, titled “Was he Scrooge or St. Scrooge? You decide.”  A year later, I had an essay in National Catholic Reporter, headlined “The conversion of St. Scrooge.”

I’ve always been struck at how the word “Scrooge” is used in everyday language.  It has to do with a miser, a skinflint or, as Dickens described the character at the start of his novella:

Oh! But 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 had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

Ah, yes, that Scrooge. 

I guess the bad Scrooge, that “covetous old sinner,” is a lot more engaging than the good Scrooge — or, as I’ve described him, St. Scrooge — after he’s undergone his conversion experience.  A happy man is simply happy, a tortured soul can be tortured in myriad ways, and perhaps that’s the attraction.

Meeting good friends

I mention that here in passing because, after re-reading A Christmas Carol, I want to focus on Dicken’s art and language.

I suspect that I’m not the only one loves to come across again favorite lines from the book, whether while reading or watching a performance of the story.  It is as if meeting a good friend, a fine and interesting companion.

Such as the opening words:

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

That’s get your attention.  So, too, will the conversation that Scrooge has with his nephew Fred:

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! what right have you to be merry? what reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? what reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

And then there’s the exchange Scrooge has with Marley’s ghost and his attempt to persuade the ghost (and himself) that the ghost does not exist:

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

And, from the second to the last paragraph:

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.

Good friends, all, and many more.

“Forgotten the way out”

But, this time, when I was re-reading A Christmas Carol, I found myself particularly enjoying less famous, less familiar turns of phrases, descriptions and observations from the great storyteller. 

Consider, for instance, the author’s description of the newly jovial Scrooge’s laugh:

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long, line of brilliant laughs!

Dickens is an intrusive writer, in the best of ways. 

What I mean is that he’s not averse to stepping into his storytelling and expressing his own feelings (or, at least, an authorial version of his feelings), such as what he says here about Scrooge’s laughter.  He shows an almost giddy delight, a surprised delight, at what his “covetous old sinner” has turned into.

Another example has to do with the building where Scrooge lived in a chamber that had once been occupied by Jacob Marley:

They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices.

Dickens is obviously having fun playing with his metaphors here, seeing the structure as a young house getting lost and forgotten and now dreary and dark and empty but for Scrooge.

In both of these, it is Dickens as narrator who is speaking to the reader. 

That narrator’s voice, though, is lost when the story is performed on stage or on screen.  In some cases, a few of the narrator’s lines can be put into the mouths of the story’s characters, but there’s not a lot of room for that.

“Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats”

It’s Dickens’s own fault.  His story is so sharply delineated, and his dialogue is so sparkling, that it carries itself without the literary grace notes of his descriptions and authorial comments.

All the more reason to relish them in this latest re-reading, such as when Scrooge climbs his wide stairway after having a disturbing vision of his door knocker:

Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that: darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

How miserly is Scrooge?  So miserly that he likes darkness because “darkness is cheap.”  It’s a line that adds to the story, but it’s followed a few sentences later by a description of Scrooge’s fireplace that, I am certain, Dickens included simply because he enjoyed so much detailing its oddities and sheer inappropriateness for the miser:

The fire-place was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures.

There were Cains and Abels; Pharaoh’s daughters, Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures, to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up the whole.

I love the line of the butter-boats and angels like feather-beds. 

And, later, I love the references to the Ghost of Christmas Present sprinkling Christmas cheer on anyone who is open to feeling the spirit of the season, such as a lamplighter, all alone as he does his work:

The very lamplighter, who ran on before dotting the dusky street with specks of light, and who was dressed to spend the evening somewhere, laughed out loudly as the Spirit passed: though little kenned the lamplighter that he had any company but Christmas!

And such as the crew on a ship on “the black and heaving sea”:

They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.

I found the reference to having “a Christmas thought” particularly touching since it suggests that there is a certain kind of thought that one should have at the holiday, one that is more generous and kindly than perhaps at other times of the year.

“Shining fatness”

Finally, let me end with another example of what I suspect is Dickens writing as much for his own enjoyment as for the pleasure of the reader.  It has to do with the scene that Scrooge sees along the London streets with the Ghost of Christmas Present.

People are shoveling off their house tops and calling to each other and laughing, and the world seemed filled with joy and good-feeling. 

Indeed, even the fruits and vegetables at the fruiterers’ was “radiant in their glory.”  Chestnuts and pears and apples and bunches of grapes.  And, for me, the hero of the extravagantly opulent display of abundance is….

There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.

The shining fatness of Spanish Friars and winking at girls passing by.  Dickens could tell quite a story.  And he could enjoy doing so.

Patrick T. Reardon


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