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.
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.
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
“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.
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.”