Tuesday, September 1, 2009

238. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

July 2009
History: This book was first published on 19 December, 1843 with illustrations by John Leech. Dickens called it his "little Christmas Book". Originally written in six weeks under financial duress to help Dickens to pay off a debt while he was writing Martin Chuzzlewit, the tale has become one of the most popular and enduring Christmas stories of all time.
Plot: Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after the death of his business partner Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge and his downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit are at work in Scrooge’s counting-house. Scrooge's nephew, Fred, arrives with seasonal greetings and an invitation to Christmas dinner, but Scrooge dismisses him with "Bah! Humbug!", declaring that Christmas is a fraud. Two gentlemen collecting charitable donations for the poor are likewise rebuffed by Scrooge, who insists that the poor laws and workhouses are sufficient to care for the poor, and that "If they would rather die than go there, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." As he and his clerk prepare to leave, he grudgingly permits Cratchit one day's paid holiday the following day, but tells Cratchit he must be there the morning after Christmas all the earlier—otherwise, there will be a deduction from his wages.
Scrooge returns home to his cheerless rooms, and a series of supernatural experiences begins. His doorknocker appears to transform into Marley's face; a "locomotive hearse" seems to mount the dark stairs ahead of him. Finally, all the bells in the house ring loudly, there is a clanking of chains ascending the stairs, and the ghost of Marley passes through the closed door into the room.
The ghost warns Scrooge that if he does not change his ways, he will suffer Marley's fate, but Scrooge's fate would be even worse. Marley has arranged Scrooge's only chance of redemption: three spirits will visit him on successive nights, and they may help change him and save him from his fate.
Scrooge awakens to hear the tolling of the twelfth hour which he finds confusing being certain he was up until past two. After an hour of foreboding terror for Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Past, a strange mixture of young and old, male and female, with a light shining from the crown of its head, appears at the stroke of one. It leads Scrooge on a journey to some of his past Christmases, where events shaped his life and character. He sees his late sister Fan, who intervened to rescue him from lonely exile at boarding school, and, recalling his recent treatment of Fan's son Fred, Scrooge feels the first stirrings of regret. Finally, he is reminded how his love of money lost him the love of his life, Belle, and the happiness this cost him. Furious, Scrooge turns on the spirit and tries to snuff it like a candle with its cap, only to find himself in his own bed, struggling only with a bedpost. Exhausted and confused, he falls almost immediately asleep. Then he hears many noises that wakes him up out of a sound sleep.
Scrooge wakes again at the stroke of one, confused to find it is still night and by the peculiar passage of time. After a time, he rises and finds the second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, in an adjoining room, on a throne made of Christmas food and drink. This spirit, a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur, takes him through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace. They observe the meagre but happy Christmas celebrations of the Cratchit family and the sweet nature of their "forgotten" son Tiny Tim, and when the Spirit foretells an early death for the child if things remain unchanged, Scrooge is distraught and wishes to change the future. He is shown what others think of him: the Cratchits toast him, but reluctantly, and "a shadow was cast over the party for a full five minutes." Scrooge's nephew and his wife, Clara, and Friends gently mock his miserly behaviour at their Christmas party, but Fred maintains his uncle's potential for change, and Scrooge demonstrates a childlike enjoyment of the celebrations.
They travel far and wide, and see how even the most wretched of people mark Christmas in some way, whatever their circumstances. The Ghost, however, grows visibly older, and explains he must die that night. At the end of the visitation, the bell strikes twelve. The Ghost of Christmas Present vanishes and the third spirit appears to Scrooge.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes the form of a grim spectre, robed in black, who does not speak and whose body is entirely hidden except for one pointing hand. This spirit frightens Scrooge more than the others, and harrows him with a vision of a future Christmas with the Cratchit family bereft of Tiny Tim. A rich miser, whose death saddens nobody and whose home and corpse have been robbed by ghoulish attendants, is revealed to be Scrooge himself: this is the fate that awaits him. Without its explicitly being said, Scrooge learns that he can avoid the future he has been shown and alter the fate of Tiny Tim, but only if he changes. Weeping, he swears to do so, and awakes to find that all three spirits have visited in just one night, and that it is Christmas morning.
Scrooge changes his life and reverts to the generous, kindhearted soul he was in his youth before the death of Fan. He anonymously sends the Cratchits the biggest turkey in the butcher shop, meets the charity workers to pledge an unspecified but impressive amount of money, and spends Christmas Day with Fred and his wife.
The next day, Scrooge sees his clerk arriving late and pretends to be his old miserly self before revealing his new person to an astonished Cratchit. He assists Bob and his family, becomes an adopted uncle to Tiny Tim, and gains a reputation as a kind and generous man who embodies the spirit of Christmas in his life.
Review: The story is so familiar we almost forget the point. Even in our old age it is not too late to change. Even in our old age it is not too late to live the life which is our birthright.
Opening Line: “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
Closing Line: “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless us, every one.”
Quotes: “Bahhh, Humbug.”
"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.''
Rating: Mediocre.

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