Dickens in December

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One of the things I promised myself I would do, once I retired, was to find time to catch up on my reading – and, in particular, my reading of the classics. So the December readalong on Caroline’s seductively named blog Beauty is a Sleeping Cat  came at precisely the right moment. And the cream on the cake (or, if you will, the plum in the pudding) is, that I – who never win anything – actually won a book in the free giveaway. (Thanks again, Caroline and Delia, of Postcards from Asia). This provided added inspiration.

As I was already in the middle of two other books, one in Hebrew (non-fiction) and one in English (fiction), and time was short, I chose the seasonally appropriate A Christmas Carol as the subject of my book review. So, without further ado, here it is.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

I think the last time I read A Christmas Carol was in school – I won’t say how many years ago ;-) – and naturally, my perceptions of the book have changed dramatically since then. At the age of twelve, I was not a great Dickens fan, and it was only the fact that this was one of the set books  in class that year that brought me to read it. 

Things change! :-)

One of the criticisms frequently levelled at Dickens is that his characters are, in fact, caricatures. I think this is true, to a certain extent. Whenever you have a character, such as the misanthropic and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who appears to embody all the bad qualities – or, conversely, all the good qualities – so much so that they appear to personify a particular quality, they cannot be other than a caricature. Scrooge’s “conversion”, too, seems to be too sudden and not quite believable. For, let us not forget, although the protagonist is visited by three spirits,  the visit of the first is sufficient to make him say “submissively” to the second: “Conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” Furthermore, Scrooge has already understood that there is more to philanthropy (in its original and true meaning of “Love of One’s Fellow Man”) than the mere giving of money, for in speaking of a benevolent master (his own former employer, Fezziwig), he says: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” This is immediately followed by a rush of regret for his treatment of his clerk, Bob Cratchit.

On second thoughts, however, I am reminded of probation officers’ reports (of which I have read many, over the course of my career), in which they refer to the defendant’s outwardly expressed repentance and stress the need for further “treatment”. Possibly the Three Spirits – or whoever sent them – were alert to the danger of backsliding once the initial shock of the first meeting wore off.

Still, it is  the meeting with the Ghost of Christmas Past which I find the most intriguing, the one which leaves the Reader with the most questions. Why did Scrooge become the way he is at the start of the book, why did he make the choices he made? Why was he, even at such an early stage in his life,  “a solitary child, neglected by his friends“, in a heart-rending picture that reminds me of the flashbacks in the Harry Potter books, of Severus Snape as a young boy? Who was the young girl to whom he was at one time betrothed and who broke off their engagement because she realised that Scrooge had begun to care for money more than he cared for her? We are never even told her name!

Progressing to the third stave, the description of the Ghost of Christmas Present  embodies all the popular perceptions  of what Christmas is supposed to be. We often forget that Dickens, perhaps more than any other writer, helped shape the western ideal of the White Christmas as a festival of feasting, parties, gift-giving, and decorated Christmas trees, just as it is Dickens who has shaped our perception of lower-class Victorian England with its workhouses, filthy gin-filled taverns, poverty-stricken, noisome backstreets, fallen women and wretched, starving children..

If the truth be told, by the end of the third stave and the visitation of the Second Spirit, it seems Scrooge has learned his lesson, but literary balance requires the visit of the Third Spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come – and, indeed, it is the visit of this spirit which is the most frightening, and which gives the book its truly spooky nature (if you discount the preliminary appearance of Marley’s ghost). This is the Visit which prompts Scrooge’s heartfelt cry and promise to change, to honour Christmas in his heart and not shut out the lessons taught by the three spirits. The change is so complete that I, for one, would have found myself doubting its lasting nature – were it not for Dickens’ assurance that “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Nothing can bring back the lost years or change the Past, but Dickens clearly believed in Redemption through Repentance and that our future is in our own hands.

All that is left to us then,  is to share this master storyteller’s closing words, whether or not we share his religious beliefs:
May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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14 Responses to Dickens in December

  1. Caroline says:

    We certainly do share a love for cats. Yours are very cute.
    I will read your review tomorrow (I haven’t finished the book yet, still a few pages to go) but have added it to our links list.

  2. What a beautiful review, I have finished the story a few days ago and liked it a lot. Like you, i was a bit skeptical to see Scrooge’s sudden repentance but then being visited by spirits and a ghost must have affected him profoundly. At least that’s what I thought. :)

  3. TBM says:

    Great review. I know Dickens gets picked on a lot for his characters, but I do enjoy his style. His stories remind me of today’s soap operas, but better told. And I love his descriptions.

    I love your comparison to Snape. I hadn’t thought of that, but I will for now on. It is amazing how someone can turn into a hateful Scrooge. He’s one of the saddest characters for me. So full of hate, so alone, and he doesn’t learn until late in life that he’s miserable. All those wasted years.

    • Actually, the comparison to today’s soap operas is quite a good one. Several of Dickens’ stories were originally newspaper serials and readers waited eagerly for the next episode. We are told that readers in the United States waited at the dockside in New York for the ships bringing the English newspapers, in order to find out the fate of Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop”. Rather like the millions of “Dallas” viewers who waited eagerly to find out who shot J.R.

  4. Pingback: Dickens in December – A Christmas Carol – Readalong « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  5. lynnsbooks says:

    Thanks for that review – I really enjoyed reading your comments. I can see why people would think Scrooge’s change of character was too quick however for me I like to think he didn’t like his lifestyle therefore once he started giving to others, sharing and being happy surely he would enjoy that more and not go back to his old ways – or am I being overly optimistic :D
    Lynn :D

    • I think there’s something in that. Often, we feel we want to change (even without knowing that’s what we want) but don’t know how to go about it and need someone or something to give us a push. Maybe that’s what happened to Scrooge. And he was still punished for his past (mis)deeds, because of all the remorse he must have suffered, as well as the knowledge that he had missed so much that could never be regained, and done so much that could never be undone.

  6. Caroline says:

    Wonderful review, Shimona.
    I feel that his characters are caricatures but I don’t mind that. It’s way of seeing things as well, I think he had a keen eye for specific traits which made him exaggerate them. And they certainly stay in our minds that way. If Scrooge wasn’t a caricature, he wouldn’t be as famous as he is.
    The comments on the soap operas are interesting. I keep on forgetting his books were serialized.
    I can imagine what it would have meant to have to wait for each and every chapter.
    Thanks for joining us.

  7. Rachel says:

    I’d never thought to compare Scrooge’s visions of the past to the snippets of Snape’s past that Harry saw. That’s a very fitting comparison, though. Just like with Snape, I felt bad for the young Scrooge and wished I could learn more about him.

    The first time I heard a criticism of Dickens’ characters I was shocked. But I realize now that the person who was complaining to me simply explained himself poorly – he told me that Dickens’ characters are all flat. They’re certainly NOT flat. Dickens’ characters feel very real to me while I’m reading the books…but, now I realize that most of them ARE caricatures. But is there anything wrong with using caricatures? He uses them well when he’s trying to get his point across. :)

    my review of A Christmas Carol

  8. spencer says:

    Wow, amazing blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?

    you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is great, as well as the content!

  9. Pingback: Dickens in December – Wrap up « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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