Seasonal lessons from Dickens


Though we may not think of it in these terms because it has become so familiar, such an icon of the season, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is a wonderful model of a fantasy novel. There are so many TV and film versions (many of them not that great) that it may be difficult to remember exactly why the story has become such a favorite, why it is more than just a mawkishly safe holiday ritual. For me it has always been a remarkable narrative, one that both taps into something special about the season itself, and functions as a truly extraordinary story in its own right.

            However skeptical I am of the story’s various filmic incarnations (not all, by any means: several have real attributes), it’s worth remembering just why the story has proved so durable. Let me offer a few possible reasons which might be worth bearing in mind as we work on our own stories.

1. Plot.

The overall trajectory of the narrative—that of an old man’s reclamation through a process by which he has to confront the choices he has made in his life—is positively archetypal. Few stories are as satisfying as those in which we see a protagonist becoming happier by becoming better.

2. Dramatic scenes.

Christmas Carol is packed with the kinds of episode any novelist would kill for. Think of Scrooge’s first encounter with the ghost of Jacob Marley with his chain and his chin wrapper, and the idea of the London night crowded with similar specters. Picture the exuberance of the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party, the grim pathos of the Cratchett family’s poverty, and the menace of the Ghost of Christmas yet to come gliding ominously through the grave yard (an image to which JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling, among others, owe a considerable debt). Remember the power of the humbled Scrooge finally going to dinner with his nephew, Fred, and his final mock outrage at Cratchett for being late for work before promising to raise his salary.

3. Narrative voice.

One of the things we lose most in the TV/film versions is Dickens’ own voice, and it is worth going back to the book for this alone. It is true that this kind of style—omniscient, unlimited 3rd person with a penchant for playful grandiloquence—is a little out of fashion these days  (though I think that writers like Terry Pratchett come out of the same tradition) but there’s much to be learned here. There’s a careful precision of expression, a wry humor, and a pithiness in the book’s socio-political and economic critique which complicate and deepen what would otherwise be merely sentimental.

4. Emotive content.

Speaking of the sentimental, it takes a particularly hardened cynic to be unmoved by the plight of Tiny Tim, or the loss of Scrooge’s sister, Fan, because their emotional weight feels real, embedded in the world of the story. Such things have proved easy to Disneyfy, partly because Victorian London has become a remote and exotic world to us, but for Dickens and his readers the grim world of the Cratchetts and the old women who pillage Scrooge’s chambers after the death scene the third spirit foresees, were all too real, and indicative of urgent social problems.

5. Character depiction

Scrooge is surrounded by a gallery of striking characters all carefully personated and complex, though many of them are no more than background for a single scene: the flirtatious Mr. Topper, the proud, protective and fierce Mrs. Cratchett, the business man who will only go to a funeral if a lunch is provided: nice, humanizing specifics which keep things from becoming overly simple and stop the story turning into allegory.

            Scrooge himself may be one of the most recognizable characters in literature but that doesn’t make him one dimensional. On the contrary, long before his reformation we glimpse the vestiges of the man he once was. It has hardened over the years, but there’s wit and humor in Scrooge still, as when—for instance—he tries to tell Marley’s ghost that he’s an illusion brought on by bad food: “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you.”

            And Scrooge isn’t just a miser. He doesn’t delight in wealth, or even spend it. What he has become is plausibly rooted in his psychological history. He’s damaged by his past, by his scarred childhood, by an earned lack of faith in other people and a fearful impulse to self-preservation which is defined by isolation. His transformation into the man who ends the book isn’t glib, a response to platitudes or abstract ideas, but the result of an extended confrontation with the circumstances of others and with the insistence of his own mortality. Powerful stuff.

6. Imagination

Again, the story is now so familiar that it’s hard to recover just how imaginative the tale is, but think of everything it pulls off: spirits of Christmas, each with his own unique character and appearance. Ghostly visitations which are both trial and education. A dark twist on the old fantasy of showing up at your own funeral. Even a version of time travel. All of this written—astonishingly—in 1843.

7. Great lines

A sampling:

“Every idiot who goes about with ‘merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?..If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

“This boy is ignorance. This girl is want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy…”

“Oh God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.”

The clerk observed that it [Christmas] was only once a year. “A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty fifth of December!” said Scrooge.

“Bah Humbug!”

8. Theme and message

For all the upbeat-nature of the story’s conclusion, the book is driven by powerful thematic concerns with real world issues, and though these tend to become a vague decision to be full of the festive spirit in filmic versions, the book stays grounded in those issues. They give the book weight, and they reinforce a crucial idea, that a good story doesn’t need to sacrifice principle in order to please its readers, and that there’s a special potency to books which are driven by a thoughtfully presented sense of righteous purpose.

So at this festive time of year I urge you to look back at Dickens’ masterpiece, not just as a rumination on the season but as a literary masterpiece with real lessons for those of us who attempt to follow in his fantastic (in both senses) footsteps. And as we head into another new year of writing I’ll close with one last Dickensian echo:

“God bless us, every one.”


16 comments to Seasonal lessons from Dickens

  • Thanks for a great post. You’ve made me want to go back and reread the book! I’m always struck by the ghost of Christmas to come–even in the Disney Scrooge McDuck version! I watched “A Wonderful Life” last night for the first time in years. There is a high level of cheesy, but it really is moving, too. The same idea–the main character is happier because he gets better (or in this case, realizes how good he is)–is present.

  • Unicorn

    I’ve always loved the book, and having it pieced down like this makes me really appreciate it. Thanks for a great – and timely – post. It’s true that the classics become so familiar that we forget how good they really are.
    Merry Christmas, everyone

  • Lance Barron

    Let me echo pea faerie. Thank you for showing us these important lessons in Dickens’s “little ghost story”. I’ve decided to re-read it for the story and for the instruction. Another interesting adaptation was Mr. Magoo’s.

  • Thanks guys. I nearly didn’t bother posting today because I didn’t think anyone would check in, so I’m glad it found some enthusiastic readers! And if you don’t already know it, check this out:

    A beautifully executed animation that manages to capture the feel of the book in about twenty minutes (The youtube version is in 5 minute installments).

  • That’s a great analysis.

    Have a very merry Christmas!

  • Great stuff, A.J. The story has taken on iconic status, which is great, but which also tends to compress it’s complexities into something flat and seemingly simple. Thanks for this reminder that there is so much more to the story than we tend to remember.

    And here’s hoping that someday our work is compressed and flattened in the public mind, too….

  • Tom G

    Excellent post. A Christmas Carol is one of my favorites, and every year I tend to watch every version of it presented on TV as well. As you said, some are better than others.

    Merry Christmas (or Happy Christmas, if you prefer)

  • Wonderful, AJ. As I read your post, I realized that I’ve never actually read the original Dickens tale. Something else to add to the TBR pile. 🙂 Have a great holiday everyone.

  • AJ, I *loved* this tale when I was younger, but I had forgotten so much, including this wonderful line!
    “Every idiot who goes about with ‘merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

    I do believe that Jane will have to use it if I ever write her a Christmas short story!

    I am so glad you posted today! Happy Merry, everyone!

  • More thanks, as much for checking in as for commenting! And best wishes to all for the holidays.


  • PS For those of a sci-fi bent and a craving for new CAROL adoptations, keeps your eyes open for the brand new Doctor Who version airing Christmas night on BBC America. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Ghost of Christmas Past was played by a one of the former Doctors? My vote wold go to Chris Eccleston who could muster both the necessary fun and the menace no sweat…

  • AJ,

    Great post! If you’re interested in a deeper study of this novella, you might be interested to read the short story Dickens wrote before it where we see many of the early themes he expands upon in A Christmas Carol. It’s called “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” and it first appeared in the Pickwick Papers in 1836. We have a copy of it in a collection of Christmas stories, but I found this link with the entire text on-line so you can read it for yourself.

    Happy Holidays!

  • I hadn’t thought of this book as a fantasy, but it makes sense. What an eye-opener. Wonderful post, AJ. *glances at the clock / time stamps* And Merry Christmas, everyone!

  • Thanks Jophn. I’ll check that out!

    Have a great Christmas Moira, and all.

  • AJ,

    Great! Do let me know what you think. 🙂

  • Thank you for reminding us why Christmas Carol is the classic it is. Sometimes when a great story gets told over and over, it loses its original complexity and power. I imagine a whole course could be made of revisiting the classics of literature.