A ghost story…for the Christmas Season? Aren’t ghost stories and horror for Halloween? Well, not if it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Three spirits? The tormented soul of a business associate? That’s a ghost story.
Not everybody likes Dickens’ books, and the dissenters are fairly evenly split between people who don’t read much in the way of Grand OverAnalyzed Literature and the people who talk literature to death. Fair enough. Victorian Literature is glurge pretty much across the board. Dickens’ works are the worst of the lot–glurge to be sure–but A Christmas Carol has become part of not only Christmas tradition, but of the very language we speak. If you call someone “Scrooge”, what do you mean? They’re a miser and a curmudgeon…but where does the term come from?
You guessed it.
A Christmas Carol.
For those who slept through not only high school English class, but also pretty much every single made for TV movie and holiday commercial for the past [mumble] decades: Ebenezer Scrooge, having buried his business partner Jacob Marley some six Christmases ago, is perforce struggling through the seventh holiday season of Seasons’ Greetings from people who’d not give him the time of day the other 364 days of the year combined with an endless stream of charity representatives with their hands out for yet another donation in the Name of the Season. Having chucked them all out of his place of business on Christmas Eve, and remonstrated with his poverty-stricken lackey, Bob Cratchit, about wasting company time by daring to ask for Christmas Day off, Scrooge heads home. He retires back to his chill bare rooms to huddle by his wanly supplied fire grate with a bowl of gruel, only to find the ghost of Marley plaguing him about Scrooge’s repeating Marley’s own mistake: lack of the milk of human kindness during life forging yet more links onto the chain of misery which will weigh upon Scrooge after his death as surely as Marley’s now weighs upon his tormented spirit, chaining it to earth. Marley vanishes after warning Scrooge of the three ghosts which will visit Scrooge: Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come.
Despite Marley’s implication that the ghosts will arrive on successive nights, the three ghosts manage to appear one right after another to remind Scrooge
a) how he enjoyed Christmas in the past
b) how others enjoy Christmas right now and
c) how others will speak of Scrooge himself should he die right then.
By about half past the third ghost, Scrooge is getting the picture; I’d argue that while he always had a pretty good idea of how people thought of them, until the ghosts came to visit him he didn’t care, or rather didn’t think their opinion mattered. The purpose of the ghosts was to make him realize that he’d given up his humanity for the cold comforts of the well filled vault. Upon returning home from his tour with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, he collapses in bed only to wake with the ringing of the Christmas bells a scant few hours later. Scrooge reforms his wicked ways, gives his clerk a holiday turkey and a raise, and holds the season ever dear.
I’ll admit that of the three ghosts, the one which shows Scrooge his own future creeps me out the most. Imagine finding out that no one cares enough for you to even speak a good word for you after your death? not to mention that your staff can’t wait even for your burial to hock the very bed curtains hanging from your deathbed and nightclothes you were wearing at the time of your death.
At this point, if you’re interested in rereading the book, I’d suggest getting your hands on a copy of the annotated version of the Christmas Carol; enough has changed, linguistically and culturally, that it’s worth learning the background to the story which Dickens assumed his readers/listeners knew. If you haven’t read the book, try the Alistair Sim or the George C. Scott cinema-release movie, or the Patrick Stewart made-for-TV version before reading the book; they’ll both help new readers understand the book a bit better too. (No, I’m not letting you off the literary hook. Go read the book. It really is a landmark work.)
As for other reviews of A Christmas Carol, needless to say it’s been discussed at great length (and very ably!) elsewhere; if you’re curious, start here
…and to all a good night.