Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Christmas Carol & Other Christmas Writings: Review

My first installment for the Christmas Spirit Challenge—A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings by Charles Dickens was just what the doctored ordered to get the Christmas season off and running. Although I have seen all sorts of adaptations of the famous Dickens story (everything from the Muppets to Scooby Doo to Fred Flintstone to Patrick Stewart [my personal favorite] to the classic 1951 version with Alistair Sim and the 1970 version with Albert Finney and Alec Guinness), I had never read the original story. I didn’t realize what I was missing…and what the various adaptations had added.

Reading the story would have been worth it for the initial description of Scrooge alone. There’s nothing like a Victorian writer for giving a complete description:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

And, of course, being so familiar with the story…it was like coming home when I was sinking into it. Dickens in A Christmas Carol is so much more delightful than the Dickens of Great Expectations (which I read and hated in high school). It was very comforting to watch Scrooge’s transformation as the Spirits made him visit his past, present and future. The party and dancing at Fezziwig’s was given much more attention than is usually the case in the films…and the descriptions were captivating. I also felt Scrooge’s true sorrow at his behavior as he witnessed the “present” Christmases of the Cratchit family and the other poor folks that the Spirit of Christmas Present presented him with. It is truly wonderful to watch Scrooge become human and join his fellows in celebrating Christmas. It would be nice, indeed, if everyone would keep Christmas all year round as Scrooge vows to do. There is a reason that this story is a classic.

The shorter pieces, “Christmas Festivities” and “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” which appear before A Christmas Carol in this collection (and, presumably, which appeared in journals prior to Carol’s publication) have elements that are found in the longer work. The family gatherings in “Christmas Festivities” are reminiscent of the party at Fred’s house and the transformation of the Sexton clearly echoes the transformation which Scrooge undergoes. Each of these shorter stories is a pleasant read, but it in the Carol that Dickens’s ideas are fully fleshed out.

The Haunted Man & the Ghost’s Bargain is another tale of transformation. Redlaw, the central character, is a chemistry teacher who broods on the evil which has been done to him and grief he has experienced in his past. One night, near Christmas, he listens to his servants talking of their good memories despite their circumstances (particularly of Philip…who has seen “87 years!” and had many things to overcome) and he falls into a particularly deep brooding state. A shadowy phantom of himself appears and offers him the chance to forget all the wrongs from his past. With this “gift” comes the power that will pass the “gift” on to those Redlaw comes in contact with. The result? Peace and happiness as Redlaw expects? Not so. Redlaw and those he comes in contact with fall into a wrathful state of universal anger. All but Milly, one of Dickens’s purely good female characters and a young boy that Milly has taken in who has known nothing but evil treatment until now. Finally, Redlaw—seeing the damage his “gift” has wrought—begs the phantom return and remove the gift. It is done…but only Milly’s goodness can counteract the anger and bring everyone back themselves. And it is Milly who presents Redlaw with the moral of the tale: "It is important to remember past sorrows and wrongs so that you can then forgive those responsible and, in doing so, unburden your soul and mature as a human being." Redlaw takes this to heart, and like Scrooge, becomes a more loving and whole person. Just in time for Christmas.

“A Christmas Tree” is a weird little story. It begins with the narrator sitting before a Christmas tree and reminiscing about his past Christmases…all the toys and presents of the past. Most of these presents seem to have scared him in some way. These memories give way to several stories of ghosts—ghosts seen by the narrator or by those he knows. And in the middle off these ghost stories the narrator informs us that he is dead. “But it’s all true; and we said so, before we died (we are dead now) to many responsible people.” I’m still not sure that I know what the point of this piece was.

“What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older” is also an odd little piece—talking about the changes in our views of Christmas as we age. The best part is this quote: “Therefore as we grow older, let us be more thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth.”

The final short piece, “The Seven Poor Travellers,” is nice story of a Good Samaritan. The narrator, a traveler himself, discovers that there is a house that welcomes six poor travelers (neither “rogues nor proctors”) to spend the night free of charge and gives them four-pence each. Now, as the housekeeper in charge of the house tells the narrator, four-pence doesn’t go very far in buying the travelers their dinner. So, the narrator decides that since it is close to Christmas he will provide a feast for the six travelers who spend that very night in the house. It is a nice little story about a man who sees a way to do a good turn for others and does it.

All of these stories showcase Dickens’s talent for description. Carol carries it off best with the descriptions of the various spirits and the scenes that they reveal to Scrooge—not to mention that initial description of the man himself. Some of the shorter pieces go on a bit too long, particularly when you consider that the story is much shorter than Carol. And in The Haunted Man Dickens outdoes himself…going on for two whole pages describing what winter is like when Redlaw is in his home. “When the wind was blowing, shrill and shrewd, with the going down of the blurred sun. When it was just so dark, as that forms of things were indistinct and big, but not wholly lost. When sitters by the fire began to see wild faces and figures, mountains and abysses, ambuscades and armies, in the coals. When….” And this goes on, as I said, for two pages. Some of the descriptions are very apt and effective, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Rating this collection is a bit difficult. I will rate it in sections and then give an average for the whole. Four and a half starts for A Christmas Carol—a nearly perfect piece of work. The Haunted Man and the shorter pieces garner three and a half stars. This gives the collection as a whole a four star rating. Overall, a great beginning to the holiday season.


Unknown said...

Being an avid Charles Dickens fan it is sad to admit that I haven't read "Christmas Carol" or the other stories. After your review I will definitely pick it up. And "Great Expectations", maybe give it another try, I find it was a masterfully written book, delightful in all the right places.

Birdie said...

"But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"

I can't help but hear this in Gonzo's voice. LOL
I LOVE this book! and I'm going to read it Tuesday just after watching Die Hard. Gotta kick the season off proper-like, ya know? hehehe

Thanks for the heads-up on the other tales. I've got some different ones in my collection, including The Chimes. I'm excited to read that one.

This is a great review. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Come to think of it, I have probably seen all the different adaptations, but never actually read the story either. Lets not forget all the wanna-be movies that have spawned from this: Scrooged! and such like that.

I will have to look for a copy of this for the Christmas Spirit reading challenge too!

Thanks for posting this.