“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
— A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
I’m sure you remember studying at least one of his novels in school or college. A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Bleak House come to mind immediately. Being an English major, one could never earn that degree without at least one piece of Dickens being analyzed and appreciated. Recently, Masterpiece Classic has done wonderful adaptations of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.
But of all his great works, my favorite is still the little ghost story novella he wrote in 1843, the ultimate yuletide tale, A Christmas Carol. Have you ever read it? Of course, we all have watched it countless times throughout our lives, whether on television, in the movies or on the stage, but have you actually read it?
“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round —
apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging
to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time;
the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by
one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures
bound on other journeys.”
—Nephew Fred to Ebenezer Scrooge
A few years ago, I found a beautiful version Barnes & Nook Books had put out in 2003 and decided we would read it aloud as a family the week or so leading up to Christmas to put our heads in the right places as we jettisoned toward the big day.
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.”
More powerful even than Alastair Sim’s heartfelt apology to Fred’s wife (which does not happen in the book, but makes for a lovely moment on film), Dickens’ words cut to the heart of the holiday, as all around him, the chasm between the haves and the have nots had grown cavernous. It is a lesson as relevant today as in his.
That is what great literature does, don’t you think? Opens our eyes (and hopefully our hearts) to the experiences of others. Holds a mirror up to our collective faces and exposes the flaws. Challenges our society to better itself.
In gratitude to you, Charles Dickens, for reminding us at least once a year what is truly important.