Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

The Ghost of Christmas Past – Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol” Part IV

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball Hand colored etching by Jo...

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball Hand colored etching by John Leech from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Deutsch: John Leechs Illustration Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scrooge wakes to the clocks striking 12:00am.  He thinks this is strange because he did not go to bed until 2:00am.  Who knew Jacob Marley had kept him up that late?  The book says he touched a “repeater” to confirm that this time was indeed correct.  This is apparently a pocket watch capable of vibrating the hour when touched for use in the dark.  Scrooge lays in bed for an hour and precisely at 1:00am (as foretold by Marley) the Ghost of Christmas Past pulls back the bed curtains Scrooge happens to be facing at the time.  Dickens says the ghost was as close to him as he is to the reader and clarifies by pointing out that he is standing in the “spirit at [the reader’s] elbow”.

I am not sure what Dickens means by the phrase “standing in the spirit at your elbow.”  I do not think he is addressing future generations who might read this story because it was in the original version when Dickens was very much alive.  Nor do I think he means his energy is infused in the writing because a reader holds the book in his hands not his elbow.  Perhaps the phrase is intended to elicit the eerie feeling in the reader that there are unseen spirits at work in the room in order for the reader to relate to Scrooge’s experience.

The Ghost appeared amorphously both old and young at once.  Its voice was soft and gentle.  When asked it identified itself as “The Ghost of Christmas Past.”  “Long past?” asked Scrooge.  “Your past,” responds the ghost.  The ghost emitted a bright light like a flame and carried an extinguisher under its arm.  Scrooge asked it to wear the cap and the ghost asked accusingly,

Would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow!

The accusation had the desired effect.  Scrooge was humbled and asked forgiveness.  He then asked the ghost its purpose for being there to which the ghost replied it was there for Scrooge’s welfare and reclamation.  The ghost then tells Scrooge to walk with it.  Scrooge protests that he is mortal and liable to fall but the ghost reassures him and they leave together.

Suddenly they are transported to an old country road.  Scrooge remembers he was a boy there.  The ghost tells him what he sees are shadows of things that have been without consciousness.  Scrooge’s immediate reaction is happiness.  There was something about his childhood that brings him release and allows him to let his guard down.  But there is also something about his childhood that brings him deep sadness.  This sadness results from abandonment.  We see him as a child sitting alone in the classroom of his boarding school reading while the other children went home for Christmas.  The elder Scrooge remembers the characters in the books as companions.  At the same time he has compassion for this inner child of his sitting alone.  This compassion makes him wish he had been nicer to the caroling child he chased away earlier that night.

“Let’s see another Christmas,” says the ghost.  Scrooge then sees an older version of himself in the school alone again at Christmas.  This time he is not reading but nervously pacing the room.  Without warning his younger sister, Fan enters the room.  She has come to bring him home.  “Father is so much kinder,” she tells him.  We now know that Scrooge was rejected by his only living parent.  The ghost and Scrooge talk about Fan and how she frail but with a big heart.  Fan is of course Fred’s mother who dies some time later.  This is another abandonment which is perhaps part of the reason why Scrooge rejects Fred’s overtures.

Next the ghost takes Scrooge to the warehouse of the master to whom he was apprenticed named Fezziwig.  This memory also brings forth happy emotions in Scrooge.  He fondly remembers Fezziwig and his associate Dick Wilkins who was apparently attached to Scrooge.  Scrooge and Dick prepare the warehouse for a Christmas Eve party.  The people arrive, dance, eat and celebrate.  By all appearances young Scrooge joins in the festivities and enjoys himself.  In a few dramatizations young Scrooge meets his love interest Belle in this scene.

While viewing this scene, old Scrooge is able to remember the joy he had felt as a young man.  The ghost remarks that it “was a small matter” to make all these people happy as Fezziwig could not have spent much money to host this affair.  Scrooge quickly retorts that it was not the money but rather that Fessiwig had the power to make him happy or sad and his work heavy or light and he chose to make him happy and his work light.  Instantly Scrooge thinks about how he has treated Bob Cratchit and feels remorse.

The ghost remarks that its time grows short (implying it is beholden to supervision as Marley’s ghost did).  In the next scene the ghost shows Scrooge his former self and Belle in his office.  Belle is releasing him from their marriage contract because Scrooge has had a changed heart.  At what point did Scrooge’s heart change?  At some point the wounds from his childhood abandonment caught up with him.  He could no longer trust the world as Belle accused him and so he retreated into the safety of money.  Perhaps this patter he plays out on Belle is the same or a similar pattern his father played out on him.

Scrooge extinguishes the Ghost of Christmas Pa...

Scrooge extinguishes the Ghost of Christmas Past. Original 1843 illustration by John Leech (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ghost shows him one shadow more.  Belle is now married with children and living a happy life.  There is an older daughter that captures Scrooge’s imagination.  He imagines that he might have had a daughter with Belle who in turn might have been a “spring-time in the haggard winter of his life.”  In this image, Belle’s husband mentions that he saw Scrooge alone in his counting house and that his partner was dying.  At this point Scrooge becomes upset and demands the ghost remove him from this scene and haunt him no longer.  The ghost then becomes bright at which point Scrooge seizes its extinguisher cap and attempts to extinguish it but fails to do so entirely.  Suddenly he finds himself back in his room.  Exhausted, he returns to his bed.

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A Ponderous Chain of Events – Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol” Part III

When Scrooge closes his office for the night he has a conversation with Bob Cratchit about not working Christmas Day to spend with his family.  I suppose on the year this story takes place Christmas did not fall on the weekend.  Bob protests it is only once a year but Scrooge finds this argument unconvincing.

[I]t’s not fair.  If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound … And yet … you don’t think me ill-used, when I pay a day’s wages for no work… A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!

In the end Scrooge relents and sends Bob Cratchit on his way.  In the book Scrooge proceeds to a tavern to eat dinner and read the newspapers.  In most dramatizations of the story this scene is omitted.  I always had a strange fascination with this scene.  This is Scrooge’s down time after work where I assume he unwinds a bit.  It could offer a little window into his personality.  What did he eat?  Did he have an alcoholic drink with dinner?  The book does not answer these questions.

After the tavern Scrooge heads back to his dark, empty house where he sees the face of his former partner Jacob Marley in his doorknocker.  He is startled at first but then dismisses it as a hallucination.  Up in his bedchambers, he takes his gruel and then sees Marley’s face in the tiles around his fireplace.  This he also dismisses as a humbug.  Then the bell on the wall begins to ring.  When it stops he hears chains clanking up the stairs.  By this point Scrooge is understandably frightened but continues to disbelieve his senses.  Even when Marley’s ghost appears before him he still does not believe it.

Marley’s first task is to get Scrooge to admit that he believes in him.  It is an interesting question, why is it so important that Scrooge believe in Marley’s ghost?  Is it because, if Scrooge does not believe in him he will have no power to change Scrooge?  Is this akin to a belief in God as a prerequisite to salvation and if so why does it matter what Scrooge believes so long as he changes?  In the end Marley screams at Scrooge and terrorizes him into believing thus solving the issue.

Then Scrooge asks Marley, “why do spirits walk the earth and why do they come to me?”  To which Marley explains, “It is required of every man … that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen … and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”  This description suggests that Hell within this context exists within the material world and not as a separate place.  Marley goes on to explain that he “wears the chains [he] forged in life.”  Each link was forged from all of his sins of commission and omission.  He also says he is permitted only a little time to converse with Scrooge suggesting that his punishment is directly supervised.

Scrooge does not understand why Marley deserves punishment because he was a good man of business.  Marley cries, “Mankind was my business!”  He then makes reference to a “blessed star,” again suggesting a Christian universe but as always in this story indirectly.  Finally he reveals his purpose to Scrooge.  Marley’s purpose is to help Scrooge escape his fate.  This begs the question why Marley was not given the same chance to escape his fate?  Was there no other ghost with compassion for Marley?  Does Scrooge live within a solipsistic universe?

Next, Marley spells out the program by which once completed Scrooge will transform himself and escape Marley’s fate.  He tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts on three successive evenings.  I am not sure why Marley tells him this and yet the ghosts appear to him all in one night.  Perhaps Dickens had an idea in mind that was not fully realized in the story.  It feels that way.

At any rate, Marley exits through the window.  Outside Scrooge sees other fettered ghosts wailing in misery.  He tries to dismiss it with a “humbug” but aborts the effort before completion.  He then goes to bed and immediately falls asleep thus setting the stage for the three ghosts.

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The Ghost of an Idea – Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol” Part I

Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street.

Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I tried reading “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens to my kids (ages 10 and 7) but we did not get very far.  The language is not very kid friendly.  Dickens dances around the ideas he is trying to convey especially in the beginning.

The tangent he goes off on about the door nail is a good example.

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.

I love the line “the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile.”  It is true.  Ideas bubble up through our societal and historical subconscious making elegant connections and if we discard them or tamper with them they undermine the social fabric.  Kids, of course, want to be read a more straightforward story, which is too bad because I love the book.

I suppose my kids will have to be introduced to “A Christmas Carol” the way I was.  That is, by watching one of the many dramatizations produced over the years.  I think the first one I ever saw was a cartoon version.  I remember watching TV lying on my parents’ bed one afternoon around Christmas time.  I was alone and it felt cozy.  There are so many images in this story that make the outside world dark and cold but the inside is lit and warm.  The best version I ever saw was the version where Patrick Stewart played Ebenezer Scrooge.  The actors were appropriately cast.  Whereas, the worst was the one where George C. Scott played Scrooge.   He did not convince me that Scrooge was a terrible man.  Also, the actor who played Bob Cratchet appeared too well fed and philosophical for the role.  There was also a musical version I remember liking but it has been so long since I have seen it I am not sure I would like it still.

In the opening paragraphs, Dickens goes on and on about how Marley was dead and that this must be understood if anything good was to come from the story.  I have often wondered why Dickens thought the reader would have a problem believing that this particular character was dead.  My suspicion was that this phrase, “Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that,” popped into his head and inspired him to write the story about a dead character reaching back from beyond the grave to affect matters in the material world.  Perhaps Marley was originally intended to be the main character before Scrooge revealed himself to Dickens through the creative process.

Really the first four or five paragraphs can be removed without taking anything from the story.  It seems to me that Dickens was brain storming here and arrived at what the story is really about in the sixth paragraph, Scrooge and his redemption.  But then, I suspect there were a few turns of phrase that Dickens became attached to (like “the ghost of an idea”) and left them in.

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