Monday, December 24, 2007

Book Blogging a Little Early: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I enjoyed reading A Christmas Carol, especially this time of year. I had attempted, once, to read Charles Dickens (Bleak House) and slogged through the first page with no desire to read on. So it was with a bit of apprehension that I choose the book a month ago, but I'm glad I did. And this was the first time I read a book through dailylit.com. Everyday dailylit sent me an installment. Sometimes I read 4-5 of them, requesting the next days installment to be sent right away, and sometimes I would let a few days collect in my mailbox and read them in a one sitting. It was nice using this website since our public library is so small and doesn't keep the classics on hand - you have to borrow them from other branches and it takes a few days to get the book in your hands. I will definitely use dailylit again - maybe for my next book-blog! Anyway, back to the book.

I know there's probably a technical term for it but I enjoy when I writer interjects his own comments into the story. Throughout the telling Dickens (or the narrator) would comment, feeling as if I was sitting in a room listening to a retelling of someone's real past.

You all know the story. The book has been made into countless movies. I rented the 1984 rendition last night (with George C. Scott) and showed it to the kids. They all said the Scrooge McDuck (Disney) version was better!

This is a simple yet profound tale of redemption: a greedy miser so enamored with his churlish ways, dismissing those loving souls around him, scorning charity, but surrounded by love in his family and friends. Even the dead had mercy on him and his deceased partner returned in an effort to redeem Ebenezer from his niggardly ways. Jacob warns him that he would be visited by three spirits. This reminded me of Abraham with God when God's eyes are set on destroying Sodom. Scrooge tries to bargain with Marley:

"You will be haunted," resumed the Ghost, "by Three Spirits."
Scrooge's countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost's had done.
"Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?" he demanded, in a faltering voice.
"It is."
"I--I think I'd rather not," said Scrooge.
"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One."
"Couldn't I take 'em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?" hinted Scrooge.
But the ghost's mission is to bless Scrooge. Much like the parable in Luke 16 with the rich man in Hades wanting the send the poor beggar Lazarus to warn his brothers to do good in this life. But unlike the rich man's end, Marley is able to warn Scrooge.

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"
So Scrooge is visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Through the Past Spirit we learn of Scrooge's broken relationship with his father, who despised his son because he lost his wife when she gave birth. It is only the love of his sister (Fan) that sparks hope for reparation in his relationship with his father.

We also learn of his once-betrothed Belle. They met while Ebenezer was apprenticing at Fezziwigs. They become engaged but Ebenezer will only marry when he has made his fortune. Belle sees a change in Ebenezer, his growing love of money, which dissolves their engagement.

"It matters little," she said, softly. "To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve."

"What Idol has displaced you?" he rejoined.

"A golden one."

Through the Ghost of Christmas Past we see Scrooge's tenderness toward his sister, his admirations of the Fezziwigs' generosity and then the his grief over the loss and Belle. His dour exterior is beginning to soften.

Next comes the Ghost of Christmas present. We visit Fred, Scrooge's nephew and the Cratchit house on Christmas night. We see Scrooge engage as he attempts to play along with Fred, his wife and friends at a game called Similes. We see him comfort in the family fun at the Cratchit's and how he reacts to what others truly think of him. We also visit many homeless and destitute families of Victorian England as the meagerly yet joyfully celebrate Christmas. Scrooge is baffled that in spite of their poverty these homeless fathers and mothers and children embrace one another in love on Christmas. This is quite a contrast to the kind of greeting he received from his father.

I admire Fred's persistent goodness toward his uncle. Despite years or being rebuffed Fred continues to pour goodness and love on Uncle Ebenezer.
"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew. "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure 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. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
When Ebenezer visits the Cratchit house he sees true paternal love, the love Bob has for his children, that he never received from his own father. There is grace and mercy in this household. It draws Scrooge in and his crusty countenance is subdued. Tiny Tim is the key character in this family. He is a crippled child whose heart is full of love and kindness. He reminds me of what Jesus said about who is the greatest in the Kingdom.

"As good as gold," said Bob, "and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
By the time the third Spirit arrives, Ebenezer is fully aware of his past misdeeds. He is prepared for his visit to the future, knowing, yet not wanting to know, where he will be if he continues of his road of selfishness. He has come to that place where he is ready to embrace his penance, to rid himself of that which encumbered him, chaining him to a hopeless eternity. He desires emancipation from his greed, something he admired and approved not three hours earlier.
"Ghost of the Future!" he exclaimed, "I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?"
Scrooge repents, he turns 180 degrees from this past of thoughtlessness, penny-pinching, niggardly ways to a man who loves, gives, and seeks to fill the empty pockets of those in need.

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"
And the story concludes:
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
While doing a google search on all things A Christmas Carol I found a blog on the story and the total Abstinence Principle. This was a teaching from the church that abstinence from alcohol was a biblical imperative. This particular blogger believed that Dicken's understanding of the principle was something much more life-changing:
The Total Abstinence Principle is not avoiding alcohol or any other “vice” but to totally abstain from being bitter, angry, dour, greedy, self-centered, etc. This should be what we strive for even if it seems impossible.
And another site that gives additional understanding of Victorian England (victorianweb.org).
Dickens was a great believer in moderation:
"The widespread assertion that drunkenness was the cause of many evils rather than a result of already existing ones angered him, as if eradicating a symptom in any way dealt with the disease" (Fred Kaplan, Dickens [1988], 198). Although Dickens respected the Temperance movement's goals, in "A Plea for Total Abstinence" (1860) he expresses little patience with those who sought eradicate the consumption of alcohol. His many references to liquor often prompted letters denouncing what appeared to be his advocacy of inebriation. In a letter of 25 March 1847 he answered one such complaint thus:

I have no doubt whatever that the warm stuff in the jug at Bob Cratchit's Christmas dinner, had a very pleasant effect on the simple party. I am certain that if I had been at Mr. Fezziwig's ball, I should have taken a little negus — and possibly not a little beer — and been none the worse for it, in heart or head. I am very sure that the working people of this country have not too many household enjoyments, and I could not, in my fancy or in actual deed, deprive them of this one when it is so innocently shared. (Letter , Nonesuch Press, II: 20-21)

Negus, by the way, is yet another Dickensian punch (see Dombey and Son XLIX and Our Mutual Friend VI); this one consists of a bottle of port or sherry, one glass of brandy, the juice of one lemon, two pints of boiling water, four ounces of sugar, and nutmeg to taste.
If you're interested in playing the games described during the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present at Fred's house, go to seedsofknowledge.com/parlour-games.html Another great Dicken's site with games, recipes and novel summaries is charlesdickenspage.com

I thoroughly enjoyed this Dicken's classic. I have heard that many of our Christmas traditions sprung from the Victorian era. Prior to it's publication Christmas celebrations were in a decline. A Christmas Carol rekindled a joy of Christmas.

The only apprehension I have with this story is the lesson on the surface which says: the most important thing you can do is to be kind and generous and charitable to those around you. This is true but that is not what the Christmas story is about. It is about our Father Creator being the most generous and kind and charitable by sending his Son, becoming a baby, Immanuel (God with us), so we can have a right relationship with our heavenly Father. That is the Christmas story. We have no strength in ourselves to be good and kind 24/7. We are more like Scrooge than we care to admit. I do see that message in Dicken's writing through Tiny Tim and Fred and Bob who plod along through life, beaten up by circumstances yet continuing to hope and believe, treating others as they would want to be treated.

I am more inclined to consider another Dicken's novel and no longer eschew him in the future. My next book (January 25th) will be Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

1 comment:

Valerie said...

Did you know that you read A Christmas Carol in the very same way that readers in Dickens' day did-- in installments! Interesting that technology has brought us (you) full circle.