Many thanks to Norman for reminding us of the genius of Dickens, and how accessible his books still are. Having randomly selected one of the best known of his works, I didn’t expect to find anything new. We all think we know the story very well. I certainly did, but I’d missed so much.
Re-reading was a great delight. The humour, the magical and elaborate prose. It was quite difficult however, to remain uninfluenced by everything we already know from renderings of the tale in broadcast, film and book.
I’d hoped to spotlight Dickens’ marvellous descriptions of character and scene, but the words of Marley’s Ghost set me on a different tack:
‘Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with eyes turned down, and never raise them to the blessed star which led the wise men to a poor abode?’
The speech sits at odds to the rest of the scene, but it points us I believe, to a disguise theme.
In our time, there are two great Christmas stories we are drawn to. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is one of them. But it is the story of The Nativity, Christ’s birth, which is paramount, carrying as it does the essence and meaning of Christmas.
‘A Christmas Carol’ is obviously a morality tale, the recalcitrant Scrooge learns the error of his ways, but it is not obviously a religious tale. Certainly there are references to good deeds and forgiveness and bells and churches, but no overt religiosity. Yet the work does seem to contain at its core a religious allegory, hidden in plain sight. It’s a scene that is often minimal or even missing in abridged versions yet I think central to the story. It is sort of Nativity in reverse. This passage sets the scene, whilst allowing me to indulge you in its salubrious description.
‘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. Scrooge and the Phantom came into the presence of this man, just as a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop. But she had scarcely entered, when another woman, similarly laden, came in too; and she was closely followed by a man in faded black, who was no less startled by the sight of them, than they had been upon the recognition of each other.’
The visitors are a charwoman, a laundress and the undertaker’s man. The latter brings plundered items from Scrooge’s house, small things, sleeve buttons, a brooch, a pencil case. Mrs. Dilber the charwoman has purloined the sheets and towels, teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs.
The laundress has taken the bed curtains and the shirt his nephew has dressed him in to be buried. They are here to sell.
In the Christian Nativity scene that we know so well, three wise kings bring gifts of great value to the infant Jesus, whose birth heralds the age of Christianity. In direct contrast, the death of Scrooge is marked by the taking of the few items of value of the dead old man. The acts are perpetrated by three low villains.
Three thieves attendant upon a Christmas death. The stealing of valued items. Compare this with the three wise men attendant upon the birth of Christ. The bringing of gifts. Here we have an extended biblical metaphor, but in reverse. All disguised within the parable of Scrooge.
And one last obscure Christian link in the narrator’s voice:
‘ “And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them.”” Where had Scrooge heard those words?’
Dickens’ narrator doesn’t actually tell us. But many would recognise the words of Mark 9:36
‘Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me.’
In his acceptance of kindness and humanity, in his blessing of Tiny Tim Cratchett, Scrooge has redeemed himself in the Christian tradition.