A CHRISTMAS CAROL is one of best known stories in the world. It is the archetypal tale of the regeneration of the human spirit that touches all who come across it. A CHRISTMAS CAROL, in the tradition of a winter’s tale of old, is now part of the fabric of Christmas itself. The story, of course, centres on the solitary Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited one Christmas Eve by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is told that if the spirit within man doesn’t walk forth among his fellow men in life “it is condemned to do so after death”. Marley, the herald of the tale, then tells Scrooge that Scrooge has been given a chance to change his solitary ways. To this end, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future will haunt him over the Christmas season. On Scrooge’s magical journey, he sees what in life he has been blind to for so long. Confronted with images of his past, present and future Scrooge reaches a crisis point, yet by being allied and conjoined again with all aspects of his life that he had previously been unwilling to see, Scrooge becomes a new man, reborn of himself or quite a baby, as he excitedly notes. Now he can embrace the world instead of shy away from it.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about A CHRISTMAS CAROL essentially looks at the themes and ideas of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Fancy and Imagination examines how Scrooge has to change his very way of thinking in order to become his new self. Memory and Remembrance looks at the importance of reflection in Dickens’s work, especially his writing concerning Christmas time. Life as a Prison takes one of the strong underlying metaphors of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and sees how Dickens applies it to many aspects of the story. Time examines the great theme of the tale and asks what exactly does Scrooge mean when he says he must live “in the Past, the Present, and the Future”.
Charles Dickens is not just one of the great imaginative writers of all time he is also a superb storyteller. As a narrator, Dickens is second to none. The way he tells a story makes his audience, albeit in the privacy of their own armchairs, think they are sharing the tale with a group of friends. The famous phrase Dickens uses to describe the nearness of the Ghost of Christmas Past to Scrooge – as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in spirit at your elbow – brilliantly sums up the intimate style Dickens as the ‘Narrator’ creates for his audience. Dickens’s deliberately conversational turns of phrase suggest a closeness that makes the event he is describing appear as if it is taking place there and then, right in front of you. It is dramatic narrative writing at its very best. But you’d expect that because Dickens was not just a writer of descriptive prose but also an actor and performer. Not surprisingly therefore his ‘readings’ of his work, especially of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, became legendary theatrical events.
Just as Ebenezer Scrooge needs to be reborn so too do stories. The life-cycle of birth, death and regeneration at the centre of so many mythological tales is as much a need for the stories themselves as it is for the heroes who feature in them. Therefore all story-telling traditions have an obligation to retell the tale. And that retelling across the generations can – and should – take many forms. A CHRISTMAS CAROL borrows heavily from the classic life-cycle myth. It centres on a man who is reborn ‘a child’ on a snowy winter’s Christmas Day. Scrooge’s response to his new-born self is as child-like as it could be: “I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby”. But before that rebirth can take place, as is the case with many living things in winter, the man, Scrooge, must die. Not literally of course – few myths are ever literal, but the man that was Scrooge must die in order for the new man to come alive and live in past, present and future. This is achieved by seeing a vision of the future wherein Scrooge’s own dead body is unwatched, unwept, uncared for. So, although last Christmas we may have read or seen how Scrooge was converted, that is not enough: for last Christmas is not this Christmas and so the story must be told again. Christmas, whatever the year, in the story-telling tradition obliges us to go back to see how Scrooge was the lonely and isolated miser and relive his story again. And in the telling of the story of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, as with all great myths, the audience and story-teller should share not just a wish to hear it all again, but a distinct need .
Just before Scrooge’s door knocker becomes the face of Jacob Marley, the narrator tells us the ‘fact’ that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including – which is a bold word – the corporation, aldermen, and livery. What is called ‘fancy’ here we would probably refer to as ‘a creative imagination’ or perhaps even ‘the machinations of an inventive mind. The story-teller though isn’t quite giving us all the facts for later in the story we discover that Scrooge once upon a time had one of the most creative and inventive minds of any of Dickens’ characters. Scrooge was playful, his imagination active and inventive; he lived in a world of fantasy and had, to borrow a famous line from Wordsworth, that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude.
‘Fancy’ (imagination) is a major theme running through much of the work of Dickens. Writing in the first issue of his magazine HOUSEHOLD WORDS (30th March 1850) Dickens set out in “A Preliminary Word” his views on the importance of imagination for his readers:
No mere utilitarian spirit, no iron binding of the mind to trim realities, will give a harsh tone to our Household Words. In the bosoms of the young and old, of the well-to-do and of the poor, we would tenderly cherish that light of Fancy which is inherent in the human breast; which, according to its nurture, burns with an inspiring flame, or sinks into a sullen glare, but which (or woe betide the day!) can never be extinguished. To show to all, that in all familiar things even in those which are repellent on the surface, there is Romance enough, if we will find it out: to teach the hardest workers at this whirling wheel of toil, that their lot is not necessarily a moody, brutal fact, excluded from the sympathies and graces of imagination; to bring the greater and the lesser in degree, together, upon that wide field, and mutually dispose them to a better acquaintance and a kinder understanding – is one main object of our Household Words.
These words of Dickens are echoed in the closing lines of HARD TIMES, where we are given an insight into the values of Sissy Jupe from the circus as she grows up into adulthood: happy Sissy’s happy children loving her; all children loving her; she, grown learned in childish lore; thinking no innocent and pretty fancy ever to be despised; trying hard to know her humbler fellow-creatures, and to beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights, without which the heart of infancy will wither up, the sturdiest physical manhood will be morally stark death.
Had Ebenezer been son and heir to Sissy Jupe it is doubtful whether he would ever have become a ‘scrooge’, the lower case noun that ever since the Dickens story denotes miserliness and worldly isolation. His fancy’, his creative imagination, would surely never have died under the loving care of Sissy Jupe.
Ebenezer Scrooge, though, did not have an idyllic childhood. So few characters in Dickens do. Dickens tells us he spent his early life as a child away from home in a school. He was never even welcome at home during the holidays, including Christmas. But at least Scrooge had his friends’ with whom to share his winter days. And when Scrooge is taken back to that lonely school room by the Ghost of Christmas Past, he once again meets those friends:
“Why, it’s Ali Baba!” Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. It’s dear old honest Ali Baba. Yes, yes, I know. One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy. And Valentine,” said Scrooge, “and his wild brother, Orson; there they go. And what’s his name, who was put down in his drawers, asleep, at the Gate of Damascus; don’t you see him? And the Sultan’s Groom turned upside down by the Genii; there he is upon his head. Serve him right. I’m glad of it. What business had he to be married to the Princess.” Scrooge simply created his ‘friends’ from his reading. They became as real to him as the boys to whom he waved goodbye on Christmas Eve.
Dickens as the narrator then reminds his readers of the ‘fact’ that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London by bringing to mind city folk: to hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed. Dickens then follows the excitement of old Scrooge seeing the young Scrooge with a literary allusion to someone else who found himself isolated and alone:
“There’s the Parrot.” cried Scrooge. “Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. “Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?” The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t. It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running for his life to the little creek! Halloa! Hoop! Hallo!”
These stories and books of Scrooge’s were also favourites of the child, Charles Dickens. Numerous references to Ali Baba and Crusoe populate his writings. As so often with the leading player in the fiction of Dickens, there is much of the author in their character.
Exactly why Scrooge was neglected and kept permanently at school is never made clear, though Fan’s reference to their father being so much kinder than he used to be suggests that Scrooge’s father, rather like so many fathers in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, preferred their children away from home even at Christmas, safely locked in a school that offered ‘No Vacations’.
At least though, Scrooge had had his reading and his imagination through those isolated years. However, and we are never told why, by the next scene from Scrooge’s past some years later, Scrooge was not reading now. What we are told in an introduction to the scene, a description that suggests a sort of cinematic fast-forward decline over time, is that the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Scrooge knew no more than you do. He only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was, alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays. Perhaps, as with the untended room, Scrooge’s fancy and imagination simply decayed.
One way of looking at A CHRISTMAS CAROLis to see it not as a fairy story with ghosts and time travel but as a re-awakening of that once great but now lost imagination of Scrooge. The awakening is slow but inexorable. The narration sets the scene with descriptions of buildings that are, as if, alive:
The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.
And even the fog helps in creating an atmosphere of invention: The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. It is no surprise, perhaps, when Scrooge begins to see things that are not there. Even an old door knocker.
When Scrooge does see Marley’s face in the knocker we are told: To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. As Scrooge climbs the wide staircase to his rooms he thought he saw a locomotive hearse going on before him in the gloom. Half a dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge’s dip. A trick of the light is rational explanation but all the time Scrooge’s mind is tipping more and more toward seeing things that aren’t there or possible for a “man of the worldly mind”, as Marley later calls him. And when Marley’s ghost does arrive he continues to fight against his senses but, like Robin Crusoe, “the man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t”.
Just before the arrival of the first Ghost we are told Scrooge went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and the more he endeavoured not to think, the more he thought. Marley’s Ghost bothered him exceedingly. Every time he resolved within himself, after mature inquiry, that it was all a dream, his mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, “Was it a dream or not?” Throughout the whole of the next three sections we are constantly informed that Scrooge thought, or pondered, on what was happening. What is being reborn here, even if it is all a dream, is not just an imaginative mind but a thinking mind, capable of thinking about the past, people, responsibilities and a whole host of other issues that make one alive. For Dickens the creative imagination helps and leads to thinking of the broadest kind, a theme central to HARD TIMES where empathy for others and the creative imagination are so carefully interwoven.
As well as being a parable about social awareness and spiritual reclamation, A CHRISTMAS CAROL is also about the importance of imagination in our lives. Had Scrooge never lost his power of fancy perhaps he might have kept alive the child within him that could laugh, play games and make merry. More importantly, imagination and the ability to create people would have given him an empathy for his “fellow travellers to the grave”. Even if the Ghosts were all a dream, what a dream it was. It awoke his inventive mind, inspired him and brought him once again to ‘life’ through the power of thought, imagining and fancy.
A piece in HOUSEHOLD WORDS, entitled “The Amusements of the People,” and written at the time of the Great Exhibition, summarizes the author’s belief: There is a range of imagination in most of us, which no amount of steam-engines will satisfy, and which The-great-exhibition-of-the-works-of-industry-of-all-nations, itself, will probably leave unappeased. HARD TIMESwas serialized in HOUSEHOLD WORDS in 1854. One of its main themes is fancy and how the ability to fancy connects you with the lives and feeling of others.
The famous opening speech of Thomas Gradgrind in HARD TIMES sets out the non-imaginative factual education:
“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.”
Sissy Jupe, a child of the circus, who has been brought up on fanciful stories, is questioned as to what sort of pattern for a carpet she would choose. She suggests one with flowers. This does not go down well with the new educators of fact:
“You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.”
Louisa Gradgrind, daughter to Mr. Gradgrind, the believer in fact, has been brought up not to ‘wonder’:
When she was half a dozen years younger, Louisa had been overheard to begin a conversation with her brother one day, by saying “Tom, I wonder” – upon which Mr. Gradgrind, who was the person overhearing, stepped forth into the light and said, “Louisa, never wonder!” Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder. Bring to me, says M’Choakumchild, yonder baby just able to walk, and I will engage that it shall never wonder.
Sissy and Louisa are friends. However, Sissy’s new education, in fact, as is seen when Sissy tells Louisa:
“For instance, Mr. M’Choakumchild was explaining to us about Natural Prosperity.” “National, I think it must have been,” observed Louisa. “Yes, it was. But isn’t it the same?” she timidly asked. “You had better say, National, as he said so,” returned Louisa, with her dry reserve. “National Prosperity. And he said, Now, this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this a prosperous nation? Girl number twenty, isn’t this a prosperous nation, and a’n’t you in a thriving state?” “What did you say?” asked Louisa. “Miss Louisa, I said I didn’t know. I thought I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine. But that had nothing to do with it. It was not in the figures at all,” said Sissy, wiping her eyes. “That was a great mistake of yours,” observed Louisa. “Yes, Miss Louisa, I know it was, now. Then Mr. M’Choakumchild said he would try me again. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was – for I couldn’t think of a better one – that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too.”
Unlike Scrooge, Sissy never lost her ability to think beyond statistics to the world of the real people who are starved to death. Eventually, Scrooge will see through the fantasy of the worlds of the three Ghosts that people and not mathematics lie behind the equations of the educators of fact. Had he never lost his fancy as a child to create real people just from books he might never have lost the ability to see real people, living and breathing human beings, in the statistics in his newspapers.
One theme common to all Dickens’s Christmas Books is the beneficial nature of memory. Dickens’ first Christmas writing was “A Christmas Dinner”, published in 1835 as “Scenes and Characters No. 10 Christmas Festivities” in BELL’S LIFE IN LONDON (and later in SKETCHES BY BOZas “A Christmas Dinner”). Dickens’ theme, though he was then only in his early twenties, was already memory:
Do not select the merriest of the three hundred and sixty-five for your doleful recollections, but draw your chair nearer the blazing fire – fill the glass and send round the song – and if your room be smaller than it was a dozen years ago, or if your glass be filled with reeking punch, instead of sparkling wine, put a good face on the matter, and empty it off-hand, and fill another, and troll off the old ditty you used to sing, and thank God it’s no worse. Look on the merry faces of your children (if you have any) as they sit round the fire. One little seat may be empty; one slight form that gladdened the father’s heart, and roused the mother’s pride to look upon, may not be there. Dwell not upon the past; think not that one short year ago, the fair child now resolving into dust, sat before you, with the bloom of health upon its cheek, and the gaiety of infancy in its joyous eye.
By reminding the reader not to remember, what Dickens cleverly incites are recollections of the past, both good and bad.
Later in life came “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older” published in 1851:
We had a friend who was our friend from early days, with whom we often pictured the changes that were to come upon our lives, and merrily imagined how we would speak, and walk, and think, and talk, when we came to be old. His destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime. Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!
The Ghost of Christmas Past is the incarnation of Christmas memory, specifically Scrooge’s memory. And like thoughts lost in recollection, the Ghost changes form, from second to second:
For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.
And at the end of the sequence the Spirit of Time past seems to be all the memories of Scrooge in one: He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.
Memory elicits from Scrooge his first emotional response. In Scrooge’s visitation to his school, although Scrooge denies it, there is a distinct tear:
“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”
Scrooge muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.
“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.
“Remember it!” cried Scrooge with fervour – “I could walk it blindfold.”
“Strange to have forgotten it for so many years,” observed the Ghost. “Let us go on.”
Once reminded of his forgotten self, Scrooge cries again:
They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.
However, Scrooge’s memories are not all painful. At the Fezziwig party, the narrator tells us that Scrooge acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. These happy memories, of course, connect with the present, especially the unhappy way Scrooge treats his own clerk.
Memory is incited by the senses. At the visit to his school Scrooge was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten. In the sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Present one of the senses that triggers a recollection is smell: there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods.
Another sense is hearing, especially music. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is a sentimental platitude, but who hasn’t heard that special tune and immediately thought back to a person or event? In a visit to a ship far out to sea the narrator says: every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.
But music and its recollection has even greater powers. Scrooge hears a simple tune played by his nephew’s wife and his mind is quickly return to his sister Fan:
Scrooge’s niece played well upon the harp; and played among other tunes a simple little air (a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes), which had been familiar to the child who fetched Scrooge from the boarding-school, as he had been reminded by the Ghost of Christmas Past. When this strain of music sounded, all the things that Ghost had shown him, came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton’s spade that buried Jacob Marley.
Strange not to have listened to it for so many years.
Scrooge, like the Haunted Man in another Dickens Christmas story, is shown the benefit of painful memories. Even these must never be shut out. At the mourning of Tiny Tim, there is an understanding that his memory will help unite the family and make it stronger:
“I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim – shall we – or this first parting that there was among us.”
“Never, father!” cried they all.
“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”
“No, never, father!” they all cried again.
“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”
Mrs. Cratchit kissed him, his daughters kissed him, the two young Cratchits kissed him, and Peter and himself shook hands. Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God.
The past and memories in A CHRISTMAS CAROLare never in isolation from either the present or the future. The Fezziwig memory makes Scrooge think of the present and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and the memory of Tiny Tim is anticipated as, in the future, a way of bringing a family closer. So when Scrooge says he will live in past, present and future part of what he is saying is that memories shall never again be set aside and they will enrich the present and enhance his future. Scrooge renews the present, and the present in the future, through memory of the past.
The image of the world, and the life one lives in it, as a prison is a repeating metaphor in the work of Dickens. John Dickens, Charles Dickens’s father, spent several years in Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison and during part of this time Charles, then aged only twelve, was sent to work in a shoe-blacking factory. The literal imprisonment of his father combined with Charles’ own sense of entrapment in the factory left psychological scares that never truly healed. During Charles’s final Christmas, just a few months before his death, Dickens used the address of the factory in a party memory game.
Perhaps because of these unpleasant childhood experiences Dickens never felt entirely free. Even as a rich man he continued to work, against the medical advice and that of friends, because he believed he needed the money. Not unlike Scrooge, Dickens felt an unending need to be free of financial worries; but after the sort of deprived childhood experienced by Dickens (and indeed by Scrooge) that sort of freedom is hard to believe in.
Scrooge is trapped in an isolated and lonely existence. According to the narrator, Scrooge is as solitary as an oyster. He resides in a suite of rooms that seem to have had their own life of entrapment: He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again. Even Scrooge’s final resting place is a kind of prison: A churchyard. Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place! Scrooge not only lives in his own prison, he also puts others in a prison ‘cell’ at his work: The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters.
The most famous image in A CHRISTMAS CAROLof entrapment is the chains of Jacob Marley:
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge trembled more and more.
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable.
The chains though have a social message and are not just there for the sake of gothic horror:
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the Phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour, by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
Other phantoms are also fettered like Marley:
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
In a frightening image, rarely introduced in any film or theatrical version of the story, Dickens depicts Jacob Marley enclosed in his own ‘infernal atmosphere’ : There was something very awful, too, in the spectre’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.
But Dickens often works in counter-point and antithesis. The images of entrapment in the story are counter balanced by images of freedom, especially the presence and appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present:
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me.” Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air.
‘Loose’, ‘free’, ‘disdaining to be warded or concealed’, ‘ample folds’, ‘open hand’, ‘unconstrained’ – all words and phrases suggesting freedom from any confinement.
In the end Scrooge does become free. And Death’s hand proves not to be a strong as Scrooge’s will to live: In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him. Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate aye reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Charles Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL is one of the most loved stories of all time. And ‘Time’ and how we understand it is one of its major themes. In the story as told by Dickens, time collapses. The time Scrooge is away with Spirits is not as in most film adaptations suggest just one night but in fact, as Dickens makes clear, the whole Christmas season of twelve days, if not longer. Dickens tell us:
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 men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, 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.
When Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning he genuinely has no idea what day it is. When he asks a boy outside and is told today is Christmas Day Scrooge says “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can.” Sometimes this can be misinterpreted as meaning, especially in film versions working in real time, that the Spirits could change Scrooge’s nature all in one night. But as Dickens is at pains to tell us that our concept of real time has no relevance in this story:
It was a long night, if it were only a night; but Scrooge had his doubts of this, because the Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together.
The time Scrooge is away with the Spirits cannot be measured by minutes, hours or even days and months.
It is clear though that that is exactly how Scrooge does think of time, as something that should and can only be measured by the ticking clocks and the chiming of bells on the hour, both heavily featured in the original narrative. One of the most famous exchanges concerns the cost of time to a man of business:
At length the hour of shutting up the counting-house arrived. With an ill-will Scrooge dismounted from his stool, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant clerk in the Tank, who instantly snuffed his candle out, and put on his hat.
“You’ll want all day to-morrow, I suppose?” said Scrooge.
“If quite convenient, sir.”
“It’s not convenient,” said Scrooge, “and it’s not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound?”
The clerk smiled faintly.
“And yet,” said Scrooge, “you don’t think me ill-used, when I pay a day’s wages for no work.”
The clerk observed that it was only once a year.
“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” said Scrooge, buttoning his great-coat to the chin. “But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning.”
Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, though offers Scrooge a different perspective. He sees Christmas time “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.”
This view of time is more conceptual than literal. Part of the journey of Scrooge is to learn to think of time more in this way. So although Scrooge visits his time past, his time present and his time future, and is fundamentally changed by each of them, what really matters is that to be the complete ‘Scrooge’ he must live, as he says himself, “in the Past, the Present, and the Future”. So when Scrooge says, “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me” what he is really expressing is the need of mankind on his and her individual life journey to be at one with all aspects of their personal ‘selves’ and also in communion with all other ‘selves’, our “fellow-passengers to the grave”, as Fred describes them. If this new thinking is achieved time will be always be measured by love and not by the numbers on a wall clock.
In some senses what Dickens is describing is almost a New Age spirituality and philosophy. In practice the legacy of Scrooge’s redemption in the story is simply found in his willingness to greet and share a ‘Merry Christmas’ with all those he meets. The old Scrooge, of course, refused to do this and it damaged him. The new Scrooge, who lives for a while outside of time, sees all the connections of his life and of his life to others and so becomes a changed man. He becomes a man of the community in communion with his fellow souls.
Doubtless he changed some of employment and financial practices along the way, but the focus throughout the Dickens original story is for Scrooge to think and feel in a spiritual and communal sense about the true purpose of his time on this earth. To concentrate on asking, as some do, what exact changes did Scrooge make in his day to day business dealings misses the point of the story. What Scrooge learns from his experience is not just the need to connect to himself but to seek out humanity in all its manifestations and, as Dickens notes, he found that everything could yield him pleasure. Scrooge gains not so much a moral, social or even religious conscience but more a new spiritual understanding. Dickens tell us Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. That knowledge is a special way of seeing the world. And our place and time in it.
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