Sunday, December 30, 2018

December's Book: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Magic Realism* (1843 - 93 pp.)

A Christmas Carol is my first Dickens book reviewed on this blog, and my first in general since January 2012's Bleak House review. Dickens's authorship is one of two things those two books have in common. The other is the division of an estate; in A Christmas Carol, it is the pillaging of protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge's estate, whereas in Bleak House it is the estate dispute of Jarndyce v Jarndyce that trudges through the Court of Chancery. A notable difference between the books is their sheer length. Bleak House has, depending who you ask, between 355,936 and 377,076 words. A Christmas Carol only has approximately 30,000 words.

A Christmas Carol, like all of Dickens's works, is now in the public domain. The copy I read is from Elegant Ebooks, and includes all the original John Leech illustrations.

The protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley. Marley's ghost is haunted by chains and moneyboxes due to Marley's intense greed in life, a trait also seen in Scrooge. Examples of Scrooge's greed include the pittance he pays his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his stern refusal to spend Christmas with his nephew Fred. Marley warns Scrooge that Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts; if Scrooge does not heed their words, Scrooge's ghost's fetters will someday be even heavier than Marley's. (24) The Ghost of Christmas Past is an eerily childlike figure who guides Scrooge through his childhood and early career. The Ghost of Christmas Present starts as a man en-robed in green, who demonstrates to Scrooge the poverty of London and how its citizens cure Scrooge for refusing to help them, before wilting toward frailty. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a foreboding, Deathlike creature (sans sickle) who remains silent while Scrooge is doomed to see his future if he does not change. Given my long-standing tradition of refusing to spoil books unless it is absolutely necessary, I will let you read the above-linked copy of A Christmas Carol to see whether Scrooge succeeds.

The bleak conditions of early Victorian London come through, which makes Scrooge and Marley's avarice all the more offensive. When confronting the wretched children Ignorance and Want, the Ghost of Christmas Present claims they are fit for prisons or "workhouses". (67) Child labour diminished and then disappeared in London after then, but the ghost's casual reminder of 1843 conditions is jarring to the 2018 reader. The Cratchits' poverty is virtually expected by comparison, despite the tragic starvation of Tiny Tim according to the ghost: "What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."** (56)

Although a Scrooge is the popular culture term for a miser, reflected in media from DuckTales to Scrooged, Scrooge is a sympathetic character through the last two-thirds of the book. Although the reader never sees the modified future, it is assumed the future has improved for Scrooge, and Scrooge never successfully says the word "humbug" after page 21. For Marley, whose ghost is weighed down by chains and moneyboxes, the future is not so bright. Perhaps a miser should be called a Marley.^ As A Christmas Carol opens: "MARLEY was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." (7) One of A Christmas Carol's enduring messages is that nearly anyone's fortunes can improve with time.^^ Marley ran out of time but Scrooge did not.

Popular media and grief counsellors typically warn against living in the past. After learning from the three ghosts, Scrooge proudly exclaims, "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" (84) The great memories of Scrooge's business and relationship successes early in life propel him forward to a greater appreciation of his present, which, in turn, may grant him a better future. Perhaps for Scrooge, living in the past works?

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

*I do not usually append a footnote to a book's genre, but then, this is the first time I have seen A Christmas Carol associated with magic realism. According to Wikipedia's entry on magic realism, though:
Magical realismmagic realism, or marvelous realism is a style of fiction that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements. It is sometimes called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fablesmyths, and allegory. "Magical realism", perhaps the most common term, often refers to fiction and literature in particular,[1]:1–5 with magic or the supernatural presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting.
A Christmas Carol's contemporary London setting and procession of ghosts cross the everyday with the supernatural. Dickens's naming of the children Ignorance and Want mirrors Edmund Spenser's naming of various characters in The Faerie Queene, for example, as morality plays entered into incarnate characters.

**The Victorian literary device of conserving resources through children's deaths, morbid as it is, is not limited to A Christmas Carol. Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) presents an even darker version.

^Implications of a miser being called a Marley for the movie Marley and Me are likely to be unfortunate at best.

^^See also Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene III, when Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius because Claudius has just prayed. According to the logic of the play, killing Claudius before he prayed could damn him, whereas killing him after he prayed gave him a better chance to be saved. Claudius's reprieve is only temporary, of course.

Back to A Christmas Carol: Bob Cratchit's fortunes literally improve due to the raise Scrooge gives him.

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