The Book I Read: Charles Dickens Says What? A Christmas Carol

Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry here!

First, I have a supposition, a theory, a hypothesis:

Essentially, we’d have to be living under a rock not to know the story of the famous Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. Right? We’ve seen the Albert Finney, the George C. Scott. We’ve seen the muppets and Michael Caine, the Patrick Stewart, the Bill Murray. We’ve seen the Jim Carrey. A google search revealed that as many as 61 different actors have been filmed as Ebenezer Scrooge. I know you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but somehow this is not surprising to me, and I bet you it’s true. In addition to film after film of the Dickens classic, we’ve all seen or maybe even been in stage adaptations. I think my first experience as an actor was that, in the 6th or 7th grade, I played the ghost of Jacob Marley. But here’s the question: how many of us have actually read A Christmas Carol? My guess is, even though I can only speak for myself, not many of us. I could be mistaken–but I’m guessing it is perhaps the best known least read 19th century novel ever. I mean, Moby Dick is well-known, but outside of Ahab vs. the White Whale, most people don’t know shit about it. But this story people KNOW. It’s in their blood. And that’s amazing to me. I haven’t read it all the way through. So I have spent the first few days or so of my holiday break reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and my essential question going into the project was, how will it be, that experience–how will the story be enriched (or not) for me, by dealing with the original text? What have we been missing, perhaps, by a dependence on or the bombardment by the celluloid window dressing?

Let’s find out, shall we?

If it’s at all of interest to my listeners or readers, I just finished reading the second printing of A Christmas Carol published by the Folio Society in 2007 with illustrations by Michael Foreman from the 1983 printing. Of course, I hope you know this, but just in case, Dickens’ story was first published in 1852 in a collection of short pieces called Christmas Books. What I love about this Folio Society edition, beside the lovely full color illustrations, is that the print is gigantic, spread out luxuriously over 173 pages. In my copy of Christmas Books, it’s a tightly spaced printing on half as many pages–requiring the reading spectacles. This thing I could read without my glasses–if I wanted–from three feet away.

After reading, my first and early gut response is one of surprise at how absolutely close so many of the film adaptations come. And the thing that they get mostly right is the dialogue. Many of these screen plays adopt almost verbatim the conversations in the novel–so all of the well known classic lines are mostly preserved, and reading them in silence or out loud (as I love to do) these voices ring again in our ears the way we remember them from our favorite productions. I can hear Patrick Stewart exclaiming “Good afternoon” no fewer than six times over about two pages of text, turning, at least what we hear in American English as a polite greeting, into a curse–meaning, you know, get the hell away from me. Good afternoon! I don’t know if this is particularly English–or whether it originates with Scrooge, but I remember that my son found this particular expression hilarious the first time he experienced A Christmas Carol when he was perhaps 7 years old–walking around the house good afternooning in his little grade-school bellow.

But there are speeches, that when I read them here on the page, seem unfamiliar and new to me, probably as a result of some serious editing for the screen plays. This one in particular, spoken by Scrooge’s nephew in that first opening chapter, stands out. Ebeneezer’s dismissal of “keeping Christmas”: “Let me leave it alone, then. Much good may it do you! Much good has it ever done you!” is followed by this lovely lecture from Scrooge’s nephew:

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

If this full speech is included in any of the film productions of this story, I have forgotten or remember it only partially, so I single it out here just because I think I have not heard or read a better description of the holiday, or the meaning of Christmas, anywhere else. And I suppose this is the main benefit of reading the piece as opposed to watching it performed and interpreted: the opportunity to allow the words to really sink in. Not to mention just listening and savoring the rhythms of Dickens’ prose–his super-human ability to give complex sentences and sophisticated thought to characters in speech that nevertheless feels natural and convincing. Shakespeare did that. Jane Austen did that. Dickens did that.

Here’s a quick little description of how A Christmas Carol is laid out, structurally speaking. Its composition follows exactly the pattern of the story as we know it, in five chapters, or, as Dickens has named them, “staves,” the first being the Jacob Marley visit, the next three being the visitations of the Christmas spirits, past, present, and future, and the last being Scrooge’s ultimate redemption and rehabilitation, titled, oddly enough, and irreverently, “The End of It.” Again, the structure Dickens has set up has been religiously adhered to by every retelling of this tale–as far as I know. It is a simple, exquisitely clean structure.

You know, I think what I want to do here, for the rest of my little holiday special blog/podcast, is to simply share some of the joy I experienced in reading this complete text (I think, for the first time in my life) by looking at a single favorite passage or two from each of the five “staves” of A Christmas Carol.

This first one, the announcement of Marley’s doornail deadness and the initial introductory description of Ebenezer’s character is so fun, is so cleverly drawn, is so rhythmically alive, so immediately engaging. If nothing else, Dickens’ genius is revealed here as an absolute master prose stylist. And his gift at immediately invoking an atmosphere; here it is at once playful and deadly.

I can’t help thinking of the Robyn Hitchcock song when I read Stave II, featuring the Ghost of Christmas Past: “I’m the man with the lightbulb head.” This spirit has a lightbulb head–or, at least, underneath his cap. The description of this Ghost is a weird one, and I’d love to share it with you, but trust me. Check it out. I want to get to the next passage–before which the Spirit has shown Ebeneezer Scrooge a series of Christmases from his past–which begin happily enough, but become bleaker and bleaker until this culminating scene–the excruciating break-up scene.

This is essentially, almost the concluding passage of Stave II, but it’s the most significant moment, a heartbreaking moment, when young Ebenezer’s avarice finally cuts off from him this one opportunity for happiness with the young woman he loves. And already, Scrooge’s cold heart is beginning to transform: “‘No more,’ cried Scrooge. ‘No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!'”

In Stave III, the ghost of Christmas present, the jovial one, the giant one, leads Scrooge on a kind of whirlwind tour of the neighborhood and, miraculously, the world–but zeroes in on two particular present day scenes, maybe the most significant of which is the Cratchit residence, where Scrooge meets, or becomes aware of for the first time, the sickly and handicapped Tiny Tim. After thier glorious but modest dinner, and the presentation of the pudding, they make a cozy half circle around the fire. Bob proposes a toast to Scrooge, which, temporarily harshes the room, but all is well shortly thereafter as the children goof around, the family shares a holiday libation, and Tiny Tim sings a little song “about a lost child traveling in the snow.” The narrator gives us this final description of the family, a description for which might be captured on film visually, but perhaps not without losing this exact sentiment:

There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye on them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.

How unremarkable this family is, and yet, Scrooge sees in this scene the profundity of people who simply enjoy each other’s company, who are not grasping and striving, who are content–perhaps the truest form of human happiness, to be who they are in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

One more scene from Stave III must be referenced–one that, for me, all along in my experience of this story, has been the most haunting and disturbing of all. The Spirit begins to age and deteriorate before Scrooge’s eyes, reveals that his life is compassed by this single day and then he will be no more–and in this moment, Scrooge notices something moving underneath the Sprit’s voluminous robes. Again, we’re all familiar with the scene, but the language in this passage, for me, surpasses what can be achieved visually with this particular image. Check this out.

In Stave IV, the penultimate chapter of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the terrifying ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who appears very much like the Grim Reaper, who doesn’t speak, but only points. Early in the chapter, before Scrooge visits the Cratchit family, mourning the loss of Tiny Tim, and before ultimately visiting his own tombstone, he is shown a body covered in a shroud. Here’s a passage that you will not find translated into film, as Scrooge is tempted to remove but resists removing the cover to reveal the identify of the corpse:

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honored head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and the pulse are still; but the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!

No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge’s ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, gripping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!

Something often missing from any film or stage play, and something that can be provided almost exclusively by literature, in fiction and in poetry, is character in THOUGHT. And perhaps this is the most significant thing almost always wanting when great fiction is translated to the screen–that whole interior landscape is gone. I think this is one passage above that points to the richness that might be found in reading A Christmas Carol as opposed to watching. But the imagery in this story lends itself so well to film, and it has been captured so wonderfully so many times. It’s almost like Dickens was writing for film. How many of Dickens novels, at this point, have NOT been filmed? The man was prolific–and yet there may be only a few titles of his that were never translated in this way.

Finally, we come to Stave V of A Christmas Carol. It’s the shortest chapter and it moves quickly through the iconic moves. Scrooge wakes up in love with his own bedposts. He doesn’t know what day it is. He is amazed to find out its Christmas Day, that the spirits, who were supposed to come in three consecutive nights, managed to get the whole job done in one–and thus begins a regular festival of good cheer all the way up to the closing sentence, where Tiny Tim’s words are echoed at last: “God bless Us, Every One.” What I found most astounding about this last chapter was how moved I was by it, AGAIN. Reading it out loud last night in my kitchen nook all by myself it was a concerted effort to avoid weeping–and what struck me most was the way in which Dickens has brought to life the sheer and utterly astounding joy that has returned to the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. Listen to this:

There is a film, which I have not yet seen, a biopic about Charles Dickens called The Man Who Invented Christmas—a story, according to the trailer, of Dickens’ process of creating and then publishing A Christmas Carol. The film looks intriguing and fun—but this title seems, to me, totally apropos. With a minimum of, hardly any I’d say, religious proselytizing, it might be fair to say that the story of A Christmas Carol is primarily a secular one. The holiday, for good or bad, has become highly secularized. Santa and all that hooey notwithstanding, it feels to me that, the majority of us who continue to celebrate the holiday but hold very loosely to its religious aspects, hold on tightly nevertheless to the ethics, the morality, the values represented in Dicken’s short novel. It has indeed become for us the true meaning of Christmas.

Thank you so much for reading and/or tuning in. So long. Happy holidays and Happy New Year. Enjoy your winter. Be kind. Cheers. 

Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry here:

1 Comment

Filed under Literature, The Book I Read, Writing and Reading

One response to “The Book I Read: Charles Dickens Says What? A Christmas Carol

  1. doncolburn

    Michael (and Annie), you’ve done it again. I’m running late, already one podcast behind just when I thought I was catching up. Missing deadlines in a way you’d think my alleged career would have taught me not to. (Also not to end a sentence on a split or half-absent infinitive. Jeez.) But thank you both for that now-prior podcast. Another knockout by the Book Guy. Now, right now, I’m gonna go for the Dickens one, while I can claim (in the Pacific Time Zone) that it’s still Christmas. Speaking of which, hope yours was Merry.

    Now cover your ears, Michael, while I speak directly to Annie. Isn’t the Book Guy wonderful? How does he do this? You know, besides picking wonderful subjects and brilliant books to pair with other great books.

    Cheers to you both for the good work to come. You have readers, and listeners, and fans.

    Don in soggy Portlandia

    ________________________________

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s