Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Book Review: A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens, 1843)

I review this because it's Christmas.  Plus, it's one of everyone's favorite Dickens' books.  Technically a novella, this is much smaller than some of his other works.

Three things about this book that I love are the well drawn character of Scrooge, the imagery of Victorian Britain, and the macabre subject matter.

Making the bad guy is hard for most writers.  A good antagonist doesn't come easy.  In modern fiction they often take the form of a megalomaniac bent on world domination or a pervert who murders innocent children.  The truth is antagonists are all around us.  To make him the central character is no easy feat, either.  But here we have a hard-hearted old man who doesn't care about anyone but himself. He's not out to rape and murder, he's not out to rule the world.  He doesn't have some deep secret that a protagonist needs to unravel.  He's just a mean, stingy man.

There is nothing special about Scrooge.  Left to his own devices, he would live his life being mean to people and eventually die a quiet death.  But Dickens decides to give us an exploration into his past and pull out the route that led to his current situation.  In truth, Scrooge is not much different than greedy people in today's world.  That comparison has been made a bazillion times in movies and tv shows for a century. But that's flattery.

The world of Victorian Britain is so foreign to us that just letting characters do their thing, their day to day affairs brings wonderful imagery.  Dickens wasn't writing the book with 21st century people in mind in order to show us his world.  But what he did do is portray everyday life in the 1840s, with average lower class people.  Kudos to him.  That's a subject most writers avoided.  We can see the dirty, cobblestone streets, and the old buildings leftover from Tudor times.  We read these books on cold, winter evenings in front of a warm fire and enjoy the descriptive imagery.

The 19th century saw a rise in spiritualism and the interest in ghosts and hauntings.  This book captures that and brings macabre images of ghosts in chains and hooded phantoms in old graveyards.  One thing to keep in mind is that the tradition of telling ghost stories that we associate with Halloween was actually a Christmas tradition.  Remember the Andy Williams song, It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?  Remember the line "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago"?  The idea that Dickens told a ghost story at Christmas was not at all unusual.  And the central message of the story, including the hauntings, was redemption, so it fit well with the meaning of Christmas both then and now.

Something to keep in mind was that although the story holds up well over time, much of the details are lost on us.  That's because much of the details are dealing with things we no longer use.  So I'd like to talk some about this.  Remember the face on the door knocker?  How many of us even have a knocker on our door?  A modern story with someone seeing the face of a dead person might use a mirror, or a window, but not a door knocker.  Back in those quaint old times, knockers often were in the form of a face, sometimes a lion or a goblin or something.  Google it and you will see.  That's why Dickens used a knocker.

When the bells in the house started to ring, that's also lost on some people.  Old houses had bells and bell ropes.  The bells were usually in the kitchen where the servants could hear them, with a rope tied to each that went through the walls to hang by a chair or bedside where they could be pulled to summon a flunky.  Scrooge lived in a large house but only stayed in a few of the rooms.  In his room was a bell, but its rope was in a room at the top of the house that was not used.  So when the bell rang, it was startling because there was no one to pull it.  When all the bells in the house rang, that would have to mean someone was at the other end of each one in every room.

The bed curtains are also a lost anachronism.  Large beds with a big frame around them used curtains to completely cover the bed, like a box.  This held in the heat.  They were common in the houses of wealthy people.  When Scrooge dies (in the vision of the future), the maid steals them as Scrooge lay on the bed.  Also, bear in mind that so many things had some value back then.  This is possibly the hardest thing for us to wrap our heads around.  If a button lay on the street, someone would pick it up and sell it.  It's hard to describe or even imagine how desperately poor were so many people in the large mass of the lower classes.  Children as young as five would wade into the river Thames and dig around with their toes to pick up bits of glass and other scraps, and they would sell them.  Yes, there were honestly people looking to buy that stuff.

Compare that to our trash dumps today, and the plethora of good stuff we throw out just because we don't want it or need it.  You may be tempted to criticize modern society, but try to think of it that we live in a world Victorians could only dream of, without that underlying need for the basics of life that we take for granted.

If they found a scrap of metal, an iron monger would buy it and reuse it.  Same for glass and other items, even bone.  A pair of shoes could end up with multiple owners before falling to pieces.  Bodies were robbed for clothing and other items.

Then we come to the scene with the ragman.  Arriving with items to sell are the charwoman, the laundress, and the undertaker.  Each has stolen items from Scrooge after his death.  These are dirty, low classed people.  They are presented as being unpleasant sorts.  However, they existed in those times and have their equivalent today.  Dickens does a wonderful job of portraying them just as they are.  They way they talk, the way they justify their own actions makes them very real.

See the description of the room with all its details.
They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before, although he recognised its situation, and its bad repute. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the cold air without, by a frousy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.
The description is deliberate.  Dickens wasn't writing just to increase word count.  He sets this scene beautifully and shows us that seedy side of life that Victorians preferred keeping hidden.  And then see this bit of description:
The parlour was the space behind the screen of rags. The old man raked the fire together with an old stair-rod, and having trimmed his smoky lamp (for it was night), with the stem of his pipe, put it in his mouth again.
Notice how he uses a stair rod to poke the fire.  And not just a stair rod, but an "old" stair rod.  We are being shown not just someone who is poor, but someone who has spent his entire life learning to make use of the flotsam and jetsam that drifted down to his level of society.

Anytime you read Dickens, be prepared for heavy use of similes.  Dickens was a master of description, putting things in a perspective we can all understand.  Notice his description of Scrooge's house.
He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. 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 other houses, and forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices.
The end of the story plays out in a way that satisfied Victorians.  Scrooge sees the error of his ways, he sends a large goose to Bob Cratchit's family, visits his nephew for Christmas dinner, and helps the Cratchit family financially.  Modern tellings of the story change a few of these details.  They have Scrooge visiting Cratchit and his family, bringing them presents, maybe having dinner with them.  They have Scrooge making a partner of either his nephew or of Bob Cratchit.  We like these subtle changes because they fit in with modern ideals.  But from what we know of Victorians, being a heavily class-based society, as well as a society that valued the man of leisure over the man of business, I believe Dickens ended it how he felt was best, which is how I will end this review.

No comments:

Post a Comment