Among the millions of stories that have been published since the invention of the printing press, there are just a few dozen that seem necessary. A text may be superbly written, exquisitely subtle, deeply meaningful, but still seem like a luxury extra, something we add to the already well-stocked store of our reading experience. Very few stories embody a human truth so definitively that we cannot think of the truth without remembering the story, and cannot imagine how people ever got by without it.
A Christmas Carol is such a tale.
Charles Dickens invented Ebenezer Scrooge in 1843, which is quite recent as essential narratives go. Fables like that of Cain and Abel, the Tortoise and the Hare, Prometheus, and the Prodigal Son are thousands of years old. Myths and holy scriptures contain most of our primal scenarios. A few of Shakespeare's plays, written in the late 16th century, have embedded their characters in the dictionaries of our language: we may refer to a modern-day Romeo or Shylock just as we may call someone a Scrooge. But Shakespeare's plots and characters were adapted from older sources. By recycling pre-existing material, Shakespeare seemed to endorse a view common in his time, which has become even more entrenched in the 400 years since: that all the truly essential stories are already in the bag.
And yet, on rare occasions, in defiance of the odds, writers have delivered surprise gifts that are both new and indispensable. Mary Shelley managed it with Frankenstein; Robert Louis Stevenson gave us Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; George Orwell succeeded twice with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Dickens, popular though he has always been, almost didn't gain admission to this select company. His big, "major" novels - the ones admired by critics, analysed by academics and adored by his fans - don't quite qualify as essential; they are merely great. But A Christmas Carol, a novella that Dickens knocked off in a few weeks while wrestling with the gargantuan Martin Chuzzlewit, struck a chord so resounding that it's still instantly recognised by millions of people who will never read his magnum opuses.
The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge was first published in an affordably priced, luxurious edition bound in red cloth, with gilded edges and hand-coloured illustrations. Dickens, who had fallen out with his old publisher and was in financial trouble, paid all the printing costs himself, hoping to pocket a fortune in sales. The book was indeed a hit, but its extravagant production values meant that Dickens made very little profit from it, and the market was soon infested with pirated editions, which Dickens fought expensively to suppress. Despite the bitter taste of this experience, Dickens was gratified by the book's popularity and wrote many more Christmas stories and meditations, principally in the magazines he edited, Household Words and All The Year Round. Eventually, the pressure drove him to grumble, whenever the festive deadline approached, about having to "clear the Christmas stone out of the road", but there is no taint of drudgery on the tale of Scrooge. It was brought into the world by a spark of inspiration, and its fire has gone on burning long after the others have turned to embers and ashes.
The novella's full title is A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. The fact that Dickens chose to celebrate Christmas with that most un-Christian of things, a ghost story, is typical of him. Religious piety was not his forté. In A Christmas Carol, there's one rather self-conscious aside about how we should "venerate" the festival's "sacred name and origin", and also a far-fetched assertion that it's good to be a child at Christmas because that's "when its mighty Founder was a child himself". Aside from these perfunctory gestures, Dickens leaves Jesus alone and concentrates on what excites his imagination most: death, grotesquery, poverty, indignity, death, clownish pranks, death, dancing and food. Oh, and did I mention death?
The novella's famous first line, "Marley was dead, to begin with", establishes many things at once. It avoids the grandiloquent rhetoric many people might expect of the opening paragraph of a Victorian novel, in favour of a terse, muscular address. It allows Dickens to indulge his love of topsy-turvyness, insisting that what sounds like a story's end is in fact the beginning. It delivers a gentle shock to those readers who might have expected a Christmas story to begin in a festive spirit. It promises supernatural fun, because it comes straight after the chapter title "Marley's Ghost", a tip-off that Marley can't be quite as dead as the narrator claims. And, although Ebenezer Scrooge has not yet spoken, it chimes in with what we'll soon recognise as the miser's characteristic tone: over-emphatic insistence that he's right about everything, when we know that he's lamentably mistaken. So, in that one line - six short words! - Dickens encapsulates the philosophical tension of the entire story: the tension between blinkered certitude and open-eyed humility.
Most of all, though, the opening line allows Dickens to put death prominently on the menu. Despite his status - in his own time, and in ours - as the ultimate family entertainer, Dickens was energised by all things grim and gruesome. Foulness got his creative juices flowing. A Christmas Carol is an unevenly written work, creaky in places, and showing signs of haste, but there's no mistaking Dickens's full engagement when he accompanies Scrooge into a filthy slum crowded with garbage and offal, where dark secrets are "bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones". Note, too, the macabre hilarity of the moment when Marley's ghost takes off the bandage wrapped round his head "as if it were too warm to wear indoors" and his whole lower jaw drops down on to his chest (a horror-movie "special effect" that wouldn't be out of place in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films.) Also, while Dickens is doubtless sincere in his disapproval of Scrooge's misanthropy, we can sense his wicked glee at Scrooge's declaration that "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart".
Of course, it's easier to write thrillingly about badness than it is to write inspiringly about goodness. Scrooge's sarcastic sparring with the charity collectors ("What, are there no prisons?") is delightful, whereas the virtuous oratory of Ebenezer's ex- fiancée ("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") is rather a bore. When Dickens wants to evoke wretchedness and malignancy, his literary invention never tires, but when he must evoke the ultra-pleasant Fezziwig family, he so exhausts himself on Mr Fezziwig that there's nothing left for Mrs Fezziwig to be but "one vast substantial smile". As for the three Fezziwig daughters who trot in afterwards, they are collectively - and feebly - stamped "beaming and lovable". Marley's ghost, with his gory jaw, seems much more interesting company - not because we would truly prefer to be terrorised by a ghost, but because the ghosts get the best lines and the juiciest imagery.
Judged strictly as a piece of propaganda for universal charity, A Christmas Carol perspires under the strain. The story's implicit claim that rich, nasty people have no friends or fun, while poor, nice people are blessed with warm companionship and entertainment, is somewhat shaky. In Scrooge, Dickens concocts a wealthy man who doesn't allow himself to enjoy any of the manifest benefits of wealth, and in the Cratchits he concocts a poor family who are almost wholly untouched by the degrading effects of poverty. This doesn't mean that Dickens lacked insight into the poisonous effects of deprivation; he understood very well. Indeed, there is a part in A Christmas Carol where one of the Spirits shows Scrooge a boy and a girl - Ignorance and Want - whose "scowling, wolfish" features radiate the resentment bred in the underclasses. "Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing," muses Dickens. But overall his tale is buoyed up by the belief (which he largely lost in later years) that a gesture of kindness can rescue all but the most grievously damaged souls. And, at this stage of his life (he was 31), Dickens was inclined to think that even a thoroughly unpleasant miser might be full of suppressed generosity and profound sentiment. Hence Ebenezer Scrooge.
Modern readers may have trouble with the suddenness of Scrooge's conversion, the readiness with which he gets affectionate and tearful over visions of his younger self. Certainly, his change of heart is not handled with the minutely gradated subtlety we might expect from a modern literary writer, or even from other Victorian novelists such as George Eliot. Determined apologists for Dickens's craftsmanship might argue that we shouldn't underestimate how dramatic an impact it would have on a person to be transported physically back into the past, rather than merely recalling it at a distance. But such a defence would miss the point. Scrooge's conversion is unconvincing, if we subject him to rigorous psychological analysis. However, like many of Dickens's characters, Scrooge refuses to behave according to the rules of literary taste - and that's part of his appeal.
A Christmas Carol is an extravagantly symbolic thing - as rich in symbols as Christmas pudding is rich in raisins. Dickens misses no opportunity to cram his thematic concerns into the bodies and utterances of his characters. We are not in the world of Henry James or Alice Munro here, we are in the world of John Bunyan and medieval passion plays, and the sooner we accept this, the better we will enjoy the ride. A Christmas Carol is not a study of one person's emotional and intellectual development, it's a knockabout battle between absolute qualities, dressed up in bizarre forms for maximum thrills. Indeed, when we first meet Ebenezer, he seems an almost supernatural force: "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 . . ." With such paranormal credentials, Scrooge plainly needs to be taught the lesson that he's human after all.
Just as moralist writers in the Middle Ages were unselfconscious about bringing on a skeleton wielding a scythe, Dickens is bold enough to devise outrageously obvious - yet poignantly effective - visual metaphors for the way avarice weighs down the soul. Marley's ghost drags a chain made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and steel purses. The sky outside is filled with phantoms, all similarly chained, some linked in groups ("they might be guilty governments", proposes Dickens). All are tortured by A Christmas Carol's highly idiosyncratic interpretation of hell: no longer having the power to aid one's fellow mortals. We are shown the old ghost in the white waistcoat, "with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep". We swallow the idea that the cap which obscures the divine light streaming from the Ghost of Christmas Past is made of ignoble human passions. We hear the Ghost of Christmas Present proclaiming that he has more than 1,800 brothers, and understand that these represent the years since Christ's birth. In today's literary climate, the symbolism of a writer like DH Lawrence can seem tiresomely heavy-handed, yet Dickens's symbolism, which is a good deal less subtle, somehow gets away with it. Its deranged, fabulous confidence pulls it through.
Although some readers may dismiss Scrooge's adventures as a dream, the narrative argues against this interpretation. Scrooge's visit to the Cratchits' home, where he encounters Tiny Tim - an experience crucial to his consequent behaviour - is something he could not have imagined himself. It is made possible only by his ghostly guide. In any case, Scrooge's cool imperviousness makes him an unlikely prospect for nightmares of conscience, and Dickens is careful not to resort to convenient fevers, indigestion or other staples of "it-was-all-a-dream" stories. While the ghosts are clearly visions in the grand tradition of Dante's Divine Comedy or the Biblical book of Revelation, the texture of the story is as fleshly and real as a saucepan of gruel. Particularly significant is how little the supernatural entities in the story have to do with the change in Scrooge; there is no force used, magical or otherwise. Scrooge is humbled not by goblins, (as was Gabriel Grubb, Dickens's first attempt at a Scrooge-like figure in Pickwick Papers), but by the pathos of his own lost chances.
A Christmas Carol's fusion of phantasmagoria and high-Victorian realism makes the novella a peculiar creature indeed. References to Union workhouses, income tax and the Poor Law are intermingled with metaphysical rhetoric and the sight of allegorical figures posed beneath the cloak of a phantom. Sometimes, as in the scene with Ebenezer's ex-fiancée, our confidence in the mixture is tested. But mostly we are borne along, as if swooping through the air holding hands with a ghost, happy to go wherever we're taken. Magnificent prose helps, of course. A Christmas Carol allows Dickens to show off his full repertoire of skills. The master of Gothic atmosphere is here, describing an ancient clocktower so thickly wreathed in winter fog that it strikes "the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there". Elsewhere, we are in Oliver Twist territory, as three shabby scavengers - a laundress, a charwoman and an undertaker's assistant - exchange mordant witticisms with a dealer in stolen goods. Elsewhere still, Dickens unleashes his most Miltonic oratory, as though Marley's ghost were auditioning for a role in Paradise Lost: "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."
And, throughout the tale, we never know when Dickens will make one of his exhilarating perceptual shifts from the benign to the macabre. For example, when the Cratchit family has said grace in preparation for their roast goose dinner, there is "a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife . . ." Even non-vegetarians may be startled by such borderline bloodthirstiness in Dickens's descriptions of feasting. But A Christmas Carol is typical of his work in that enjoyment tends to be fortified with a generous slug of the grotesque.
Indeed, it is important for Dickens that Christmas should not be predictable and rational. Instead, he sees the festival as inextricably linked with imagination - "fancy". For him, Christmas is a time when "Everything is capable, with the greatest ease, of being changed into Anything". Modern readers, who may associate Christmas with adherence to long-established, commercialised rituals, may find this emphasis on adventure and caprice a bit overdone. But we need to understand that at the time when A Christmas Carol was published, Christmas had not yet succumbed to the formulas that rule it today. Presents were often home-made, decorations were improvised. Shop-bought Christmas cards had only just been invented and would not become common until the 1880s. Queen Victoria's husband Albert tried to introduce the Christmas tree ("that pretty German toy", as Dickens calls it in an 1850 essay), but the idea was slow to catch on. A strange new American import - the turkey - was muscling in on the traditional goose. Santa Claus did not yet exist (he has a complicated derivation, in part from A Christmas Carol's Ghost of Christmas Present). Basically, the early Victorians were unsure how a rural festival like Yuletide could be celebrated by busy city-folk in the industrial age - and Dickens took it upon himself to tell them.
A Christmas Carol celebrates Christmas as though it were an immutable cornerstone of civilised society, as though the customs of the Cratchit household were eternal and universal, but this was far from the case. "Christ's Mass", a medieval church service associated with feasting, was long lost, suppressed by religious hardliners throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. (In a splendidly Scrooge-like gesture, Oliver Cromwell actually abolished Christmas by an act of Parliament.) The festival adapted to survive, but industrial capitalism eventually achieved what religious suppression hadn't: the erosion of rural tradition. Urban wage slaves (like Scrooge's hapless clerk) did not have the leisure to feast on partridges and pheasants for 12 days of feudal Solstice. By 1843, English-speaking people were ripe for a reinvented Christmas, a neat one-day holiday infused with sentimental philanthropic values, sold to them by their favourite author.
This is not to cast aspersions on Dickens's sincerity, nor the value of his message. Dickens was ideally positioned, in history and in personal circumstances, to perceive the best and the worst that capitalism had to offer. He adored the bustling profusion of the modern city, the endless variety of modern manufacture, the excitement of its innovations. A Christmas Carol is in some ways the ultimate ode to consumption: the jolly green ghost proudly displays a "throne" of assorted meats; plump fruits can be seen "urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten"; the happy revellers bask in self-indulgence. But Dickens was aware that capitalism was fuelled by the labour of poor people, and he was passionate in his belief that society owed them a share in the plenty.
The heartless exploitation of the underprivileged enraged him. In all his work, he argues not only that we as individuals have a duty to care for our less fortunate neighbours, but also that governments and institutions must be exposed and shamed whenever they fail to show adequate compassion. In our own era, when the arrogant behaviour of global empire-builders and corporations is causing ever-mounting distress among the world's poor, we need to pay attention when Scrooge compliments Marley on having been "a good man of business". The ghost, shackled to the useless baggage of his own greed, bemoans his failure to understand that the whole of humanity should have been his concern. "The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
Yet, these philosophies, important and wise though they may be, are not the whole reason why A Christmas Carol has been loved by so many for so long. There are thousands of novels that tell us that we should be kinder and more moral. Most of them gather dust, unread. The real secret of A Christmas Carol's essentialness lies not in solemn preaching but in the dark, joyous energy that drove Dickens to create. It lies in the weird magic of Scrooge's adventures, the awesome visions of the Spirits, the gruesome hinge of Marley's jaw. And, most of all, it lies in the real truth about Scrooge's change of heart - a truth much deeper than the conventional explanation, that he learned he must be a nicer, "better" person. Yes, Scrooge does change in this way. But that doesn't explain why he ends the novel cavorting in impish glee, giggling and playing pranks. He could, after all, have remained the same gloomy old man, except more generous with money. The real miracle of his transformation is that, at long last, he's capable of having fun.
Dickens valued morality, but what he really worshipped was merriment - the buzz of making other people happy, of making a moment glow, of dancing a jig for no particular reason. The greatest tragedy he could imagine was an existence devoid of excitement or playfulness, a biding of time on the way to the grave. Fun, for him, was the only compensation for death, the dismal inevitability of which preyed constantly on his mind. Scrooge's triumph is that he stares his own corpse in the face, and, instead of despairing, defiantly resolves to enjoy the gift of life to the full. He is galvanised by a thousand volts of goodwill. Witnessing his transformation, we realise with a pang of regret that we are hard-hearted too, and that it might take a thousand volts to transform us likewise. We cling, miser-like, to our self-protective anxieties, our emotional meanness, our pointless inhibitions. Perhaps we're all waiting for the Ghosts of our own Past, Present and Future to burst through our defences, seize us by the hand and shock us into joy. Until that day, we revisit A Christmas Carol and watch this alarming miracle happen to someone else.
· This an edited version of the foreword to the Chamberlain Bros edition of A Christmas Carol published this year in the US and Canada.
In A Christmas Carol, an allegory of spiritual values versus material ones, Charles Dickens shows Scrooge having to learn the lesson of the spirit of Christmas, facing the reality of his own callous attitude to others, and reforming himself as a compassionate human being. The reader is shown his harshness in the office, where he will not allow Bob Cratchit enough coal to warm his work cubicle and begrudges his employee a day off for Christmas, even claiming that his clerk is exploiting him. In the scene from the past at Fezziwig’s warehouse, Scrooge becomes aware of the actions of a conscientious, caring employer and feels his first twinge of conscience. The author suggests an origin for Scrooge’s indifference to others as Scrooge is portrayed as a neglected child, the victim of a harsh father intent on denying him a trip home for the holidays and only reluctantly relenting.
The ghost of Marley teaches his former partner the lesson of materialism, as Marley is condemned to drag an enormous chain attached to cash boxes: “I wear the chain I forged in life,” the ghost explains. “I made it link by link.” Marley warns Scrooge that he is crafting a similar fate for himself and that the three spirits are coming to give him a chance to change. Marley is filled with regret for good deeds not done. This theme is repeated when the first spirit exposes Scrooge to phantoms wailing in agony, many of whom Scrooge recognizes. The phantoms suffer because they now see humans who need their help, but they are unable to do anything: It is too late; they have missed their opportunity.
The novel contains important social commentary. As the two gentlemen are collecting for the poor on Christmas Eve, Scrooge contemptuously asks, “Are there no prisons?” One of the gentlemen says that many of the poor, rather than go to the detested workhouses, cruel and inadequate residences for the destitute, would prefer to die. Scrooge replies that “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” a reference to Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), a treatise predicting that population would soon outstrip food production and result in a “surplus population” for which society could not provide. Later, in response to Scrooge’s plea to allow Tiny Tim to live, the Ghost of Christmas Present throws Scrooge’s words back at him: “What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Observing two ragged children clinging to the skirts of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge asks about them and is told, “They are Man’s. . . . This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.” The spirit has a warning: “Beware them both, and all their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” This warning suggests that those who do not share in the prosperity may in time prove dangerous to society. The revolution in France half a century earlier may have been on Dickens’ mind. An important idea that the author stresses is that humans are responsible for their own destiny, both as individuals and as a group. He is writing in the tradition of a religion that teaches that people will one day have to answer for their failure to fulfill their responsibility.