Two nights ago, in honor of the season, I picked up Christmas Books of Dickens, a volume I bought at my library’s fall book sale. The first story was, of course, A Christmas Carol.
I last read A Christmas Carol a year or two ago, and reading it again I was struck anew by what a masterpiece it is. I’m not referring only to the ingenuity of the story, or the immortal characters; I don’t mean only Dickens’ wonderful tribute to the Christmas season, or his incomparable excoriation of greed, selfishness, and the love of Mammon. The whole story flows with skill. Dickens’ mastery flashes out in a thousand glints.
There is the eloquence of the dialogue. So much of it is profound. When Scrooge begs Marley to “speak comfort” to him, the Ghost replies, “I have none to give. It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.” You could stack up ten standard Hollywood movies that, all put together, did not carry as much meaning as that one reply.
Where not elevated by truth, the dialogue is still elevated by intelligence. Even Scrooge, irascible old doubter, makes his rejoinders well. “You,” he tells Marley’s Ghost, “may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
There is Dickens’ use of adjectives. An old rule of thumb in writing is that when it comes to adjectives, less is more. Dickens did not obey this rule. Nineteenth century literature is probably more suited to abundant adjectives than twenty-first century literature. But more than that, Dickens was a great writer; he knew better than to waste words. Consider the string of adjectives he applied to Scrooge: “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”
Each word sharpens the portrait of the old sinner.
Then there is Dickens’ ability to give character to almost anything he turns his pen to. There are many excellent examples of this in A Christmas Carol, but I will limit myself to three. For the first, Scrooge’s home, to the extent he could be said to have one: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with the other houses, and forgotten the way out again.”
Second is Dickens’ description of Norfolk Biffins (a kind of apple): “There were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”
Finally, Scrooge himself: “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage to him in only one respect. They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.”
Lastly, there is Dickens’ subtle humor: “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 – say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance – literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.”
Now my last quotation, when Scrooge is waiting for the Ghost of Christmas Present to appear: “Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it.”
As such an old and well-loved story, A Christmas Carol can be read online. Merry Christmas – ’tis the season.