Rereading Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

I’m transported miles away from to-do lists and shopping malls.

Karen Norris/Staff, inspired by Arthur Rackham

Each December I reread Charles Dickens’s 1843 classic “A Christmas Carol,” and every time, for different reasons, it moves me deeply. I picked the book out of a remainder pile at one of the big chain bookstores in the 1990s, and it sat untouched on my shelf for years. I found it again about 10 years ago when searching for an antidote to the usual holiday frenzy of buying and getting and doing.

“A Christmas Carol,” like Handel’s “Messiah” and Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” is such a reliable holiday chestnut that it’s easy to take it for granted. Modern readers might find some parts of the book mawkish or too sentimental, but Dickens knew what he was doing. He understood how to wring sympathy from his Victorian audience, and how to influence public opinion toward the social reform that lies at the heart of his tale.

The emotions in “A Christmas Carol” are as outsize as any melodrama, but in Dickens’s masterful hands, I’m swept along, as eager as ever to witness Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from unfeeling miser to warmhearted benefactor. The three ghosts who haunt Scrooge on the night before Christmas are not only peddling cautionary tales, but also teaching him how to live more generously and with kindness toward his fellow beings.

I’m in thrall to the words of the ghost of Scrooge’s old business partner, Jacob Marley, who comes to warn Scrooge of the arrival of the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. Scrooge asks Marley why he is shackled and receives the chilling reply: “I wear the chain I forged in life. 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?”

Like Scrooge, I find myself looking around, metaphorically speaking, to see if I, too, am weighted down by fetters of my own design. It’s a powerful moment early in the story, and it sets a tone of self-reflection that is clearly warranted in the case of Scrooge. Marley’s ghost is tormented by the “incessant torture of remorse” for the fact that in life he never lifted a hand to help others, so focused was he, like Scrooge, on making money. Now, he wants to save his partner from a similar fate.

Dickens is not only commenting on one particular old skinflint; he’s indicting an entire society for failing to look after the poorest and neediest, especially children. Originally, Dickens had wanted to write a pamphlet called “An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” but wisely discarded this idea, reasoning that people were more likely to absorb his message if it came wrapped in an entertaining story. He wrote “A Christmas Carol” in less than six weeks, and it was an immediate success. The book helped sway public attitudes toward the poor.

As a writer, I stand in awe of Dickens’s prose. I enjoy its circumlocutions and switchbacks, the comic and the sly asides, and the boisterous excesses. But more than any other reason, I reread “A Christmas Carol” to feel. I want to run through the gamut of emotions that Scrooge experiences as he cowers in fear, weeps with remorse, and finally laughs with joy.

I want to be reminded that we all have the power to “render [others] happy or unhappy,” as Scrooge observes to the Ghost of Christmas Past. And I long to see my world through transformed eyes as Scrooge does when he goes for a walk on Christmas Day and finds that “everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk – that anything – could give him so much happiness.”

By the time Scrooge promises his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, a raise, and we’re apprised of the fact that Cratchit’s son Tiny Tim did not die as was foretold, there’s not a dry eye in the house.

When I reread “A Christmas Carol,” I’m transported miles away from to-do lists and shopping malls. I won’t say that I escape the seasonal bustle for long, but when I return to it, I feel better for having spent time in pleasant company; I’m more hopeful and perhaps a bit less jaded. As people said of the reformed Scrooge, “he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

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