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A Christmas Carol and Other Stories

December 21, 2014

I’m a sucker for those Facebook posts that ask, How many of these classic novels and works have you read? I click through to them and check my progress all the time. As I browse through the lists, I inevitably find ones I know very well but never really read. A couple years ago I was rather surprised to realize “A Christmas Carol,” one of the most popular things Charles Dickens ever wrote, was one of those I’d never read. Since I’ve been on a Dickens kick—one a year—for several years now (see my thoughts about The Pickwick Papers), I decided it was high time to read his Christmas stories.

9780375758881I’d picked up a nice volume of stories from our local library’s used-book sale, and decided to save it for the end of the year, when the Christmas message would be most appropriate. After all, I know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge—because of the wonderful movie version I own—as well as I know all the other Christmas movies I watch every year. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t  share a little more about the movie versions of “A Christmas Carol,” since so many people nowadays know the story through them rather than by reading Dickens’s words. The book I’d found had an introduction by John Irving, and even he suggested that discussion of “A Christmas Carol” has to include a nod to the film versions that everyone knows so well.

When I was little, I remember being scared and then bored by a black-and-white version on TV. Or maybe it was the Mr. Magoo version that bored me. But those versions, cartoonish or scary or boring, were how I learned the story. Then, in the early 1980s, I stumbled on the best version ever made. It starred George C. Scott and brought the story to life for me in a way very few productions of anything ever had before or since. Before I get carried away about how much I love this TV production, I will let Louis Bayard, a much better writer than I, explain why it’s the best version ever. A few years back he wrote a wonderful essay on Salon about the story and I love his essay so much that I read it every year before I watch the DVD. (So I’m a bit anal and OCD, so sue me.)

So, having a great deal of love for the story without having read Dickens’s original, I had some trepidation about actually cracking the cover of the book and reading the story. Not to worry, though: The story bears up quite well! All of my favorite lines and scenes are here, especially in Scrooge’s office with his nephew Fred and Bob Cratchit (although he’s not named until later in the story), with Mr. Fezziwig’s family, and when the redeemed Scrooge shows up at Fred’s for dinner. Some of the oddities of the film productions are a little more understandable now, since they were simply being faithful to the written words, for example, when Scrooge tries to smother the Ghost of Christmas Past with the cone she (he?) wears.

I must say, however, that I found the Dickens of “A Christmas Carol” much less precise than I’ve come to expect in the novels. The descriptions seem less evocative than I’ve grown used to, and the sentences seem to ramble without purpose—as opposed to the rambling sentences that always carry you to a delightful chuckle or exacting observation of a character.

This less purposeful writing rambled even further in “The Chimes,” the second story in the collection. Honestly, I couldn’t say what exactly happened to Trotty in this story. I think he experienced some supernatural, out-of-body event such as Scrooge had, but the descriptive passages were full of vagueness about how exactly it came about. From what I could tell, Trotty had the chance to see how his daughter and friends would fare in life if he were to die on the present Christmas Eve. Once he was convinced he’d died and all is lost for his daughter, he was brought back to the present and given another chance to make the best of his life.

Although all three of these Christmas stories exhibit some sort of supernatural phenomenon that brings about a reckoning for the protagonist in order to allow for his redemption, “The Haunted Man” I found much more interesting than “The Chimes.” The protagonist, Redlaw, is so devoted to a life of the mind that his spirituality must be awakened, yet the Phantom takes rather drastic measures to do so: he removes Redlaw’s memory of any sorrow in his life. This story is one I should reread, as I had such trouble following what exactly was happening and who was who. But the idea of an intellectual needing the prodding to attend to his sorrow and spirituality intrigues me.

So if my comments here seem vague and unhelpful, blame it on Dickens. Or maybe it was because I kept falling asleep over the stories. Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t say they’re the best of Dickens, but they’re worth trying out, especially at Christmas.

(This will go into the Likes list, since I love “A Christmas Carol” but the other two stories would probably be on the Meh list.)

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