Woohoo! This is my final review for Cannonball Read 4, so I wanted to review something related to the holidays and not too long because it’s kind of a busy time of year. A Christmas Carol fits the bill nicely.
Two things struck me as I read this classic. First, while I am quite familiar with the story thanks to movies, TV movies and cartoons of it, I think this is the first time I have actually read the story. How shameful! While the visual representations are (mostly) entertaining, Dickens was meant to be read, and the writing is so delightful, the images so evocative. For example, here is a description of the grocer’s wares in preparation for Christmas: “There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.” I also enjoy Dickens’ humor, which is evident in abundance throughout this short tale. On page one, he tells us of Marley’s death thusly: “Old Marley was dead as a door-nail…. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.” The writing is even better when you read it out loud, and I am struck anew by what a marvelous tale Dickens crafted.
Second, A Christmas Carol is an appropriate follow-up to the last book I reviewed — Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a non-fiction work about poverty and the struggle to survive in the slums while an indifferent over-society in India looks on. Dickens covers similar territory in mid-19th-century England. And I suppose it’s a universal theme, one that any society at any point in history can relate to — grinding poverty, hard work and short lives for some; indifference to their plight and resentment of them from other quarters; the feeling that the poor get what they deserve. But when you look deeper at the real people who are suffering, when you get to know who they are and put yourself in their shoes, you might experience a conversion. One passage that I found illuminating and sort of progressive for the time (the story was written in 1843) is an exchange between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas present. Scrooge and the ghost are watching people carrying their food to the bakers for cooking before their Christmas feasts. Scrooge asks the ghost why they (the ghosts) deprive the poor of access to this service on Sundays, when the bakers are closed. The ghost, surprised to be charged of such a thing, places the responsibility for this where it truly belongs, responding, “There are some on this earth of yours … who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” That’s what I call a timely message!
A Christmas Carol is a popular story that has never gone out of print for good reason — it touches on issues that we can all understand, and with clever, entertaining and witty writing, teaches us a little lesson and makes us a bit more introspective. If you haven’t read it in a while, take an hour or so to do it this Christmas. You’ll enjoy it. And here is a link to the cartoon version that I remember from my childhood. It freaked me out then, but it’s actually quite good. It came out in 1971, features narration by Michael Redgrave and has Chuck Jones as Executive Producer. The animation is cool, in my opinion — it really captures that dark, gritty industrial/Victorian atmosphere.