I’ve been trying to make it a yearly tradition to read Charles Dicken’s perennial novella once a year each December. I haven’t succeeded thus far. The only reason why is because I have a hard time dedicating time to rereading old books I love when my new book stack is covering 4 shelves on my book shelves. Thankfully this year I listened to Audible’s production of it! It’s voiced by the blissful voice of Tim Currey and he brings a soft, English touch to a Victorian classic!
A Christmas Carol is my favorite kind of story. It’s the story of one man’s quest to learning how to become a good person. It’s the kind of story embodied by great films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day. In these stories, a desperate man is taken outside of his element and given a new view on life by a supernatural event. From this series of events, he awakens a new man who is born with an innate love for people and society.
The lesson of these books is a classic spiritual lesson: the external life is more important than the internal life. When we put aside our petty priorities, selfish intentions and egotism, we allow ourselves to connect with other people and foster a truer joy that brings about a life worth living.
A Christmas Carol is certainly the forbearer to a lot of retellings and reimagining. There have been dozens of films and parodies based on the story in the last century. This is the kind of book I love to mull over. It’s not the deepest book ever written. For the most part, it wears its symbolism on its shoulder and makes its themes quite clear. It’s never making the reader second guess what it’s telling you. It is a story though were the elements take on new meaning upon consideration.
The story is one of the most famous ones in the English language. An old man who hates Christmas is haunted on Christmas Eve by four ghosts who teach him the true meaning of Christmas by showing him visions of his past, present and future. Through this experience, he’s given a profound and sudden spiritual transformation that rebuilds him and fills him with a deep joy for life and people that he had lost to a lifetime of bitterness.
Reading it for a second time, I started mulling over new elements of the story I hadn’t given as much attention to the first time. The things that most stood out to me were the ghosts themselves and the nature of his transformation.
I remember the first time I read the book how impacted I was by Scrooge’s earnestly. That’s a weird sentence to say out loud but he’s a lot more sensible and less intentionally cruel in the book than most of the film adaptations of his story which play him up as an ogre. The book makes it clear that he is casually cruel and unsympathetic but everything he says is logical. There’s an internality to his character here that you might not totally get from A Muppet Christmas Carol or any of the parody adaptations of the story.
At times, his rapid overnight transformation seems a bit rushed. The other characters in the story themselves are completely shocked by how much of a change he makes over night and at times the change seems quite rapid. Upon reflection though, a lot of that transformation happens just in the first interactions with the first Ghost: the Ghost of Christmas Past. We’re shown just how far Scrooge has fallen from an idealistic young man full of love and energy into the ghoul he is as an old man. In these depictions, Scrooge comes to terms with just how different he is from the young man who lost love and idealism to a challenging life and career.
That realization shocks Scrooge into a state of joy and disbelief. From there, the rest of the story is about expanding his horizons outwards. This ends up being the source of his internal transformation. As opposed to the ghoul we might see in a parody of such a character, Scrooge is shown to be a humanistic character who has lost his ability to relate to others and find joy in other people. By putting him back in touch with the part of himself that was able to love others, his horizons begin to expand. He gains the ability to be sympathetic to his contemporaries. From here on out, he is taught the terrible situation of his co-workers and shown the very real cost of a lifetime of sin.
The ghosts themselves also feel much more intentionally symbolic than I’ve generally given them credit for. The ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is naturally the most enduring and obvious symbol as a silent specter of death looming over Scrooge’s shoulder. It’s not hard to understand what he represents. He’s cold, silent and only exists to lead Scrooge to his own conclusions by showing him what might happen.
The Ghost of Christmas Past and Ghost of Christmas Present though feel a lot deeper upon second reading than I would’ve recalled. The first ghost seems to embody a glowing peaceful angel while the second ghost takes the form of a gluttonous lord in the air of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. The latter is made more interesting by the fact that he carries with him “Want and Ignorance” as embodied by two children created by man’s sins who follow him at all times and cling to him.
In this sense, these two ghosts take on additional weight via their portrayal. The motherly guardian angel and the joyous powerful lord haunted by the weight of sin do well to visualize what challenges they pose to Scrooge who fears them regardless of their actual threat. Ironically, Scrooge doesn’t start getting brave in front of the spirits until the final ghost who’s form is actually terrifying.
Considering that these ghosts seem to be agents of the Christian God, some of the metaphysical elements of the story also started coming into focus for me upon this reading. The ghost of Jacob Marlow most affected me during this read of any of the ghosts. This poor soul, evidently trapped in purgatory or Hell, is mostly left to his fate. He’s the clear representative of what could happen to Scrooge’s soul if he fails to repent.
There’s something tragic to his character and the reality that he’s beyond redemption. Such a fate begs the question of why this series of events is transpiring to begin with. Is this series of events his doing? Has he pleaded to God in the same way that Beatrice pleads to Mary in The Divine Comedy to protect the soul of Dante? Is this series of events instigated by God to save his wandering son?
That question is probably irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. This is primarily a redemption story solely for Scrooge who clearly needed to be saved. In that, it remains a masterpiece! It may not hold the weight and depth of some of Charles Dicken’s longer literary works like David Copperfield but A Christmas Carol is enduring because the book effortlessly captures the challenge of personal transformation and meaning. It is, at once, haunting and joyous. It’s cruel and loving. It warms the heart and isn’t afraid to ask the reader hard questions.
If you haven’t read the original A Christmas Carol novella, I would suggest finding a copy this holiday season and reading it. It’s a brisk five chapter book from one of the greatest authors of Victorian England and well deserves it’s place in culture.