Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Christmas Carol

In honor of the season, here is the text that is arguably responsible for my descent into English-major-hood. Damn you, Dickens!

Book: A Christmas Carol
Author: Charles Dickens
Originally Published: 1843

I trust I don't have to summarize this story. Nasty Scrooge (quick! what's his first name?), who doesn't care about anything but money, is visited by three ghosts who change his mind, and he transforms into a wonderful human being, literally overnight. It's been corrupted, raped, and despoiled in every way possible. From Sprint commercials to Mr. Magoo cartoons to, Dear God, the Muppet version (with Michael Caine, however, so all is not totally lost), this story is almost as well-known around this time of year as that one about some kid who was born in a stable.

Yet when you clear away all that adapted drek, the text itself is still a great read. Sure, it's Victoriana to the max - florid prose, unabashed sentimentalism, and angelic women. But it's also Charles Dickens at his most scathing, a bitter indictment of a society that does far too little for its most helpless. Tiny Tim, as nauseating as he is, stands in for the poor and helpless of England, doomed to a short life and painful death unless people like Scrooge open their hearts. It's not even about money; it's about love.

I first read this story in eighth grade, long before I could appreciate the nuances of social commentary or knew enough about Victorian history to get all the subtleties. Why I enjoyed it was the language. Dickens loves words. From the moment he pauses in his story to say thoughtfully,
"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. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

It was this combination of wordplay and tongue-in-cheek satire that first sucked me in. Since then, I've read it many times, and as with every true classic, I find something new every time.

"It's a good story about Victorian England, but it doesn't apply to 21st century USA," you say.

Oh, yeah? Look around.