First published December 19, 1843, the Christmas Carol received immediate popular and critical success; it has endured from that day to this as a seasonal favorite, adapted to countless stage and screen performances. Its very familiarity may weigh against it as a subject for serious study, but it is a remarkable book.
Writers in an age still in the shadow of fashionable cynicism are sadly diminished by not having Dickens’ great simple faith in the power of human goodness. A serious contemporary writer would be unable to portray someone redeeming himself through acts of compassion and generosity; generosity and compassion are as suspect as anything else. But Dickens was hampered by no such worries. An open heart, to him, and an open hand were all the guarantors he needed of true benevolence. Perhaps this is why the story strikes us so powerfully today; we are more than a little like Scrooge and more than a little in need of the chance to do good, not like Scrooge in his avarice – although perhaps that, too – but like him in our distrust of sentimentality, do-goodism, and Christmas. At the end of the book when Scrooge is so excited he’s dancing while he shaves, we are ready to dance, too. Everything has been turned upside down, and we can’t help but feel it is better so.
The book is divided into five “staves,” or stanzas, keeping with the theme of the book as a Carol. There is something musical as the ghost of each stave advances us from the past to the future and finally back to the present. There is also something of a fairytale here, with its three part structure, its magic, and its simplicity. Fairytales are a form Dickens is well equipped to handle, and he balances his weighty topics of grief and hope with a leavening of his gentle humor for a rich, full story. He introduces his presence as a narrator early, in a humorous aside about whether “dead as a doornail” is as descriptive a simile as “dead as a coffin nail,” and gently reminds reader of his presence, “standing at your elbow in spirit” throughout the book, giving it the quality of an oral telling.
We think of Scrooge being visited by three spirits – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future – but in fact, he is visited by four, the first being his deceased partner Marley. After meeting each ghost, Scrooge finds himself in his own bed, permitting the reader to believe, if he chooses, that this is all only a dream, but a very meaningful dream for Scrooge. The first four staves are haunted by ghosts, but the last is given over to the living. The fog – Dickens’ favorite atmospheric effect – has lifted and the sun shines on bright, clean snow of Christmas morning. Scrooge resolves to live a new life, keeping the spirit of Christmas – past, present, and future – in his heart all the year long. The narrator tells us that Scrooge is indeed a new man, and becomes much beloved by all. It is a poor reader indeed, awakening from the dream of the tale just as Scrooge has arisen from his bedchamber, who does not feel the tug to keep Christmas in his own heart.
God bless us, everyone.