By Trevor Busch
There is little dispute that Charles Dickens was one of the master storytellers of modern times, creating some of the most iconic characters in all fiction and almost universally regarded as the finest novelist of the Victorian period.
Penning more than 15 novels, five novellas and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles over his exhaustive literary career, Dickens was immensely popular during the mid to late 19th century and is today regarded as nothing short of genius.
Dickens was so popular, for instance, that his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities is still the best selling novel of all time.
There are few of Dickens’ titles more iconic than A Christmas Carol (1843), a novella that has almost come to embody the Christmas spirit in the 170 years since its first publication. An impassioned tale of redemption replete with macabre spirits, memorable characters and underpinnings of hate, indifference, and regret magically transformed into love and joy, it teaches above all that no one is beyond redemption, and that we all deserve a second chance — even if we never get one, like Scrooge’s unfortunate partner Jacob Marley.
The broad strokes of the tale itself are known to every school child virtually the world over, and have become part of the very bedrock of pop culture surrounding Christmas festivities. Archetypal characters such as Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and the Christmas ghosts have entered into Western cultural consciousness. The term “Scrooge” has become a synonym for miser, and his dismissive put-down exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ hardly requires any explanation. Even more remarkable but perhaps less well known, A Christmas Carol is even credited with coining the phrase “Merry Christmas”, which was popularized following the appearance of the story.
All of this has contributed to the bizarre Dickensian phenomenon of scenes, phrases and passages from his novels becoming so well known that many individuals may not even know that what is being referred to is a Dickensian anecdote. For instance, the famous scene in Oliver Twist (1838) where Oliver begs for “more” is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in modern fiction. But you don’t need to be a Dickens authority to determine that. In fact, it would not be too much to suggest that although virtually everyone knows the passage almost instinctively, only a few might be able to tell you it refers to Oliver Twist, and even less might know it was originally conceived by Charles Dickens.
The same could be said about many of the passages in A Christmas Carol, a tale that has been filmed so many times even Hollywood has probably lost count.
It is interesting to note, however, that although the tale has been told and retold, through radio, film and animation, it is testament to Dicken’s brilliance that it can not be told by editing out the scathing social criticism about 19th century Victorian England without losing much of its enduring message.
There are perhaps many who might consider themselves well-versed about the nuts and bolts of A Christmas Carol having watched or heard innumerable adaptations during the course of their lives, but have never actually tackled reading the novella.
What more can be learned, one might be tempted to ask?
The answer, surprisingly, is a lot. While the story and its outcome are perhaps one of the best known tales in history, adaptations remain simply that, and are subject to the whims of directors and artistic licence. Lost, for instance, is the entirely unique creations of one’s own imagination, which can never be replaced by someone else’s screen vision, no matter how spectacular or brilliant — this is a quality to reading that has yet to be superceded by digital mimicry or the ministrations of the green screen — or a future where the imagination has become an atrophied tool in the face of instant entertainment.
Also lost to a large extent is the depth of Dickens’ social criticism — always present in his novels — which in fact inspired A Christmas Carol. The appalling conditions of the poor in 19th century England during the industrial revolution is a constant theme in almost every Dickens opus, as is the indifference of the propertied and upper classes to the very suffering from which they profited. Much of Dickens’ unquestionable genius was his ability to meld biting comedy, prose stylings, and unique characterizations into realism and social commentary.
Dickens’ novels were so infectiously readable and wildly popular amongst almost all classes they were only rarely considered subversive — even though the themes and criticism they almost all contained, attacked the very core of Victorian moral superiority. One would have to wait until the very end of this historical period before encountering other authors willing to attack some of these themes in their entirety, such as Joseph Conrad’s indictment of imperialism in Heart of Darkness (1899).
The seeds of A Christmas Carol became planted in Dickens’ mind during a trip to Manchester to witness the conditions of manufacturing workers there, and he resolved to “strike a sledge hammer blow” for the poor. Dickens himself had been forced into indentured servitude at a young age after his father was sent to debtor’s prison, and he knew much from the first person of what the poor and downtrodden could expect in Queen Victoria’s England — which eventually formed the synopsis for David Copperfield (1850).
The most frequently omitted passage that displays this theme is when Scrooge, accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Present, visits the house of Bob Cratchit and learns of the plight of Tiny Tim. Following this, in the novel the ghost lifts his cloak and shows Scrooge two hideous, emaciated children — Ignorance and Want — which shocks Scrooge who inquires if nothing can be done for them. The ghost’s response directly echoes Scrooge’s condemnation earlier in the novella of individuals collecting contributions for the poor: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” This was a straight shot at Victorian indifference to social injustice and suffering, and it would not have been missed by contemporary audiences. Unfortunately, this passage has been mostly edited out of modern adaptations which are often geared towards younger children, and which in the big network’s infinite wisdom probably doesn’t do much to help sell Coca-Cola or hawk new Hyundai Elantras.
Although still popular today, Dickens’ novels are slowly but surely entering the realm of dusty literature rather than popular culture, and it appears no renaissance is yet in the offing for the author’s works, unlike those penned by individuals like Jane Austen, the recent retro-darling of gothic romance.
If Dickens is destined to fade, this is a tragedy of the highest order for any budding young bibliophiles who might be tempted to skip Great Expectations (1861) in favour of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) or any other of that novelist’s works.
Although Austen is a towering literary figure in her own right, she hardly tried to change the world she lived in through her own prose. Dickens, on the other hand, did exactly that — and the world would be a much poorer place without him.
There is much that can still be learned from picking up A Christmas Carol and paging through the timeless novella, that cannot be learned from a television screen.
Although its major themes manage to bleed through, it is the charm and nuances of Dickensian prose that are entirely lost, as well as much of the social commentary for which Dickens was deservedly famous.