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Book review

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

From the famous opening line – “Marley was dead, to begin with” – Dickens announces that this isn’t your everyday ho hum Christmas tale; indeed the full title stakes its claim: “A Christmas Carol: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas”.

But it’s more than that, of course. It’s a story that kicked into life the Victorian version of Christmas (apparently turkey sales rocketed at Christmas, while sales of the traditional goose dived correspondingly). It’s another chance for Dickens to talk about the appalling poverty and deprivation which lived on the doorsteps of his middle class readers: the ghost of Christmas yet to come takes the reader to this scene –

The ways were fouls and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleyways and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth and misery.

Dickens was a marvelous writer, and A Christmas Carol contains many great lines, from Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug”, through Marley’s Ghost’s “I wear the chain I forged in life”, to Tiny Tim and somewhat saccharine “A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears! God bless us every one!”. You can read the scenes even now without our modern detachment hiding their power from us. Even the two children clinging to the second Ghost “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility” still just about land this side of my irony detector.

Ultimately, though, it sets the template for the Christmas tales of redemption. This appears in all our favourite Christmas stories and movies, from “The Grinch” to “Elf” to to “Die Hard”. Like many of these tales the story hangs on the credibility of the transformation of the hero (well, perhaps not with “Die Hard”…). On this re-read, I found Scrooge’s transformation entirely credible. Although only one night has passed in the real world, in the ghostly world Scrooge visits, he spends at least twelve nights in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Present, where the moral is pounded repeatedly into his head:

Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick-beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling me, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and gaol, in misery’s every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.

Perhaps a little over the top to modern ears, but in the renowned psychiatrist Stephen Grosz’s book The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves he talked of using A Christmas Carol to show how we really can change – but the motivation needs to be strong enough. By the end of the second ghost’s visit, Scrooge is ready to change, and by the end of the third, he knows he must. He sees what his death may be otherwise, how his cooling body is picked over for change, how the shirt is literally taken from his corpse’s back in exchange for a few pennies from a rag and bone merchant. Buddhists will spend days meditating in charnel grounds to come to terms with their own death and motivate their change in life. One can but hope that humankind in general does not need the lesson so brutally told.