It could be argued and has been argued that, after Shakespeare, Charles Dickens is the finest writer in the English language. His works have forged their way into the canon to such a degree that it is much more difficult to know which of his novels to leave off the recommended reading list than it is to choose which to include. Each of us has our favourites and each invariably begs to differ with his neighbour’s choice. True, in terms of pure brute statistics, we would be forced to concede that A Tale of Two Cities is most people’s favourite because it is usually listed as the bestselling novel of all time, with sales exceeding 200 million (though Don Quixote, which is excluded from official statistics and has never been out of print since its first publication four hundred years ago, has probably sold more copies).
Those who are justifiably skeptical of the claim that the bestselling is necessarily the best, might point to a poll conducted by the Folio Society, a de facto private members club for bibliophiles, as a more objective way of judging the best of Dickens as opposed to the most popular. More than ten thousand members of the Society voted in 1998 for their favourite books from any age. The Lord of the Rings triumphed; Pride and Prejudice was runner-up; and David Copperfield was third. Why, one wonders, was this particular Dickens classic selected ahead of Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or Bleak House? Who can possibly know? It’s a mystery as insoluble as that surrounding Edwin Drood in Dickens’ last, unfinished work. In any case, and irrespective of these populist and elitist judgments, none of these Dickensian heavyweights wins my vote as Dickens’ greatest work. That accolade belongs, me judice, to the diminutive genius of A Christmas Carol.
Originally published in 1843, A Christmas Carol is sandwiched chronologically between Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, much weightier tomes. Yet Dickens’ ghost story not only punches beyond its weight but outpunches its heavyweight rivals. Switching metaphors, the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, like a genie released or unleashed from a bottle, escapes from the pages of the book to charm the collective psyche of the culture. He is a literary colossus who, without the benefit of eponymous billing, has emerged from Dickens’ imaginary menagerie as a cautionary icon of mean-spirited worldliness. Serving as a “mirror of scorn and pity towards Man,” which Tolkien considered one of the chief characteristics of all good fairy-stories,[*] Scrooge has shone across the generations as a beacon of hope and redemption, as powerful parabolically as the Prodigal Son of which he is a type.
The story begins with the cold hard fact that Jacob Marley is “as dead as a door-nail:”
There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot…literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.
The connection with Hamlet at the very beginning of the novella has a deep significance which the whimsical tone should not obscure. In Shakespeare’s play as in Dickens’ story the ghosts serve to introduce not merely a supernatural dimension to the work, but a supernatural perception of reality. The ghosts reveal what is hidden to mortal eyes. They see more. They serve as supernatural messengers who reveal crimes that would otherwise have remained hidden. Their intervention is necessary for reality to be seen and understood and for justice to be done. Thus, in connecting Jacob Marley’s ghost to the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Dickens is indicating the role and purpose of the ghosts that he will introduce to Scrooge, and to us. They will show us not only Scrooge but ourselves in a manner that has the power to surprise us out of our own worldliness and to open us to the spiritual realities that we are prone to forget.
It is, however, not only the ghosts who teach us timely and timeless lessons but our mortal neighbours also. It is, after all, worth remembering that the first visitors that Scrooge receives are not ghosts but men. His nephew waxes lyrical on what might be termed the magic or miracle of Christmas:
‘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….’
There is no need to remind Scrooge’s nephew of the necessity of keeping Christ in Christmas! He knows that it is venerated because of its sacred name, Christ-Mass, and because of its sacred origin in the birth of the Saviour. How can anything associated with Christmas be separated from its sacred source and purpose? The very thought, as expressed in the nephew’s after-thought, is plainly absurd. Scrooge, ironically, does not disagree. He has no intention of celebrating the Feast while ignoring its sacred name and origin as do most people in our own hedonistic times. He does not want to celebrate it at all. After complaining that his nephew should let him keep Christmas in his own way, the nephew reminds him that he doesn’t keep it at all. “Let me leave it alone, then,” Scrooge replies.
The other facet of the nephew’s defence of Christmas that should not go unnoticed or unheeded is his reminder to his uncle that the poor and destitute are “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” This is not merely a memento mori, which, for the Christian, should always be a reminder of the Four Last Things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—but is a reminder that we are not homo sapiens, smug in the presumption of our cleverness, but homo viator, creatures or “passengers” on the journey of life, the only purpose of which is to get to heaven. Furthermore, our fellow travelers, sanctified by their being made in God’s image, are our mystical equals, irrespective of their social or economic status, whom we are commanded to love. They are not “another race of creatures bound on other journeys” but are our very kith and kin bound on the same journey of life as we are. The inescapable truth, inextricably bound to the great commandment of Christ that we love the Lord our God and that we love our neighbour, is that we cannot reach the destination that is the very purpose of life’s journey without helping our fellow travelers get there with us. The lesson that A Christmas Carol teaches is that our lives are not owned by us but are owed to another to whom the debt must be paid in the currency of self-sacrifice, which is love’s means of exchange.
A Christmas Carol is, therefore, as might be expected of a meditation on the spirit of Christmas, a literary work that operates most profoundly on the level of theology.
Let’s conclude our own meditation on this most wonderful of stories with a further consideration of its theological dimension, especially with regard to the nature or supernature of the ghosts. Marley’s ghost, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is clearly a soul in purgatory and not one of the damned. This is clear from its penitential and avowedly Christian spirit and its desire to save Scrooge from following in its folly-laden footsteps. When Scrooge seeks to console him with the reminder that he had always been “a good man of business,” Marley’s ghost wrings its hands in conscience-driven agitation. “Business!” he cries. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
If Marley’s ghost is the spirit of a mortal man, suffering penitentially and purgatorially for its sins, the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet To Come are best described as angels. They are divine messengers (angelos, in Greek, means “messenger”). More specifically, they might be seen as Scrooge’s own guardian angels, as can be seen from the first Ghost’s description of himself as not being the Ghost of Long Past but of Scrooge’s own past.
The final aspect of A Christmas Carol which warrants mention, especially in light of its poignant pertinence to our own meretricious times, is its celebration of life in general and the lives of large families in particular. The burgeoning family of Bob Cratchit, in spite of its poverty or dare we say because of it, is the very hearth and home from which the warmth of life and love glows through the pages of Dickens’ story. At the very heart of that hearth and home is the blessed life of the disabled child, Tiny Tim, which shines forth in Tiny Tim’s love for others and in the love that his family has for him. His very presence is the light of caritas that serves catalytically to bring Scrooge to his senses. After his conversion, Scrooge no longer sees the poor and disabled as being surplus to the needs of the population who should be allowed to die, as in our own day they are routinely killed or culled in the womb, but as a blessing to be cherished and praised. For this love of life, even of the life of the disabled, especially of the life of the disabled, is at the heart of everyone who knows the true spirit of Christmas as exemplified in the helplessness of the Babe of Bethlehem. “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
This essay originally appeared in Chronicles (2014) and is republished with gracious permission.
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