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The Enduring Legacy of A Christmas Carol

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The cruellest month, with all due respect to T.S. Eliot, has always seemed to me to be December. The holidays take over and we are subjected to tedious Christmas parties and Secret Santas, Christmas Blend at Starbucks, dreadful new covers of classic Christmas songs, bad puns (“Yes, but we have more funukkah!”), and the inevitable essay arguing that Love Actually is a terrible movie.

It’s easy to be cynical about Christmas, and in fairness there are many good reasons to be (e.g. its commercialism). There are also some wonderful aspects to it. I would argue that A Christmas Carol, one of the the season’s staples, is also one of the world’s great works of literature.

By the time he was thirty, Charles Dickens was a household name in the English-speaking world. His reputation rested on a solid foundation of four novels, each published as a serial: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop.

While working on his next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens read a government report describing the conditions of child labour in Britain. He was particularly sensitive to the plight of children: he himself had been sent to work in a shoe polish factory where, as a twelve-year-old, he worked twelve-hour shifts. Dickens initially intended to respond to the report with a pamphlet, then later changed his mind and instead wrote A Christmas Carol. It was published on December 17, 1843.

The public’s response was swift and unequivocal. Reprints were ordered by Christmas eve. William Thackeray declared the book to be “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.” By February 1844, at least eight theatrical productions had seen the light of day. A quick glance at the Wikipedia page about adaptations of A Christmas Carol shows that our enthusiasm for the story hasn’t waned.

Why does A Christmas Carol consistently strike a chord with its audience? An inkling may be found in G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that the literary description of happiness as a state has been, by and large, a failure; he singles out Dickens’ Christmas tales as one of the few exceptions. “The beauty and the real blessing of [A Christmas Carol] lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything around him; that great furnace, the heart of Dickens.”

The ‘heart’ of Dickens permeates A Christmas Carol. During its composition, Dickens said that he “wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner.” When Scrooge’s nephew describes Christmas as “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys,” we have a beautiful and perfect summation of both Dickens’ convictions as a humanist and his gift as a writer.

A Christmas Carol is a potent hymn to humanism, the hope of redemption, and the power of the imagination. It’s one of the earliest examples of time travel in fiction. It’s great storytelling.

But for me, what makes A Christmas Carol such an important work is that it is one of the most compelling memento mori in the canon of literature, a stunning meditation on mortality and the meaning of life that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. George Santayana put it most succinctly: “I think Dickens is one of the best friends mankind has ever had.”

 

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First Publication

Medium.com – December 2014

A modified version of this essay was used as the programme note for the 2007 production of A Christmas Carol at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre.

The illustration is by Taryn Gee.