Its almost impossible not to know how it opens. Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol has been filmed at least forty-two times and dramatized for the stage in dozens of versions¯the first almost immediately after the books publication in 1843, a pirated play that Dickens spent £700 to fight before he won an uncollectable judgment against its producers (and thereby found material for the great Chancery case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that lies at the center of Bleak House , but thats another story). Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail, the famous first paragraph of A Christmas Carol ends, as everyone remembers.
But who remembers how the second paragraph runs? Mind! I dont mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Countrys done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
You dont get much of that narrators voice in the films weve all seen, over and over, every Christmas¯with Alastair Sim in the 1951 version, or George C. Scott in the 1984 version, or Mr. Magoo in the 1962 cartoon, for that matter. You dont get the wordiness: I dont mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly. You dont get the facetiousness: my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Countrys done for. You dont get the hallucinogenic animation of inanimate objects. You dont get the comedy running over and under the sentimentality. You dont get the manic speed, or the almost insane energy, or the sheer delight in writing down words. You may get the story¯but you dont get Dickens.
And as for that story, it is, on its face, something of a mess. Of course, we dont demand much coherence from the plot, which is in itself a revealing fact about the success of Dickens art. His friend, unofficial agent, and biographer, John Forster, claimed that Dickens took a secret delight in giving a higher form to nursery stories, and the fairy-tale quality is one of the things the reader feels immediately in A Christmas Carol . You would no more complain of its creaky plot than you would demand greater structural integrity for Rumpelstiltskin .
But lets admit the plot isnt what anyone would call tight. After talking to Marleys ghost until past two in the morning, Scrooge went straight to bed, without undressing, only to awake to meet the Ghost of Christmas Past at midnight¯two hours before he fell asleep and clad but slightly in his slippers, dressing-gown, and nightcap.
Well, as the reformed Scrooge says on Christmas morning, The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. One feels pedantic objecting to the illogic of ghosts, but in A Christmas Carol they behave more inconsistently than even ghosts deserve. Apparently nothing the poor Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge comes true. Bob Cratchit wont weep, My little, little child! . . . My little child! at the memory of his departed son¯for at the storys end, after Scrooges reformation, we are assured that Tiny Tim did not die. The new Scrooge will presumably meet his own death not alone, his very bed curtains stolen from around his corpse, but surrounded by his adoring nephew Fred, Freds wife, Freds wifes plump sister, and even Tiny Tim, to whom he will become a second father.
Even the Ghost of Christmas Present doesnt manage to get much right. The guests at Freds Christmas party wont make fun of the absent Scrooge, because Scrooge will be there. The Cratchits wont have their little goose, eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes. Theyll have instead the enormous prize turkey Scrooge has sent: He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax. John Sutherland, the marvelous solver of minor literary problems in such books as Was Heathcliff a Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett? , has a funny little note about the problems the family faced roasting that turkey. No wonder Bob Cratchit was a full eighteen minutes and a half late to work the next morning. The monstrous thing couldnt have been fully cooked until almost midnight. And didnt the Cratchits wonder where their meal had come from? For that matter, what is the poultry shop doing half open at six on Christmas morning¯and why hasnt the poulterer already sold his prize bird, which, intended for a Christmas feast, is going to go bad in very short order?
Meanwhile, the characters are as unconvincing as the plot. The critic Edmund Wilson once suggested that the solution to the main figures psychology lies in recognizing that Scrooge is a deeply divided man who will shortly revert to his miserliness. But even to speak of Scrooges psychology seems to miss the point, like demanding to see character development in Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
And yet, neither is Scrooge simply a placeholder for a fairy tales moral of conversion. He was probably intended to be that, but Dickens could not leave him alone. Scrooge ends up with far too much energy, taking far too much joy in being joyless. If I could work my will . . . every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato, he says to Marleys ghost. Theres more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are! Hes Ralph Nickleby and Arthur Gride, the businessmen villains of Nicholas Nickleby , ratcheted up too much to be a mere marker of villainy¯just as, after his conversion, hes Nicholas Nickleby s Cheeryble brothers cranked up in absolutely insane glee: Shaving was not an easy task, for his hand continued to shake very much; and shaving requires attention, even when you dont dance while you are at it.
It isnt just Scrooge that Dickens cant leave alone. He cant leave anything alone¯which is exactly what ends up making A Christmas Carol a triumph: the energy, the madness, the darting from thing to thing, the extravagance invested in every moment. George Orwell spotted this in Dickens. His fiction contains thousands of named characters, and every single one of them has more put in him than necessary. Even the unnamed characters cant help becoming Dickensian. While Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past watch old Fezziwigs party, In came the cook, with her brothers particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master, trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one.
Why do we have to know all this? Dickens is like some mad magician, incapable of not transforming each thing that happens to catch his eye. In the obituary he wrote for the Times when Dickens died, Anthony Trollope seemed almost to complain about how unfair it was: Every other novelist has to bend his fiction to match reality, while reality bent itself to match Dickens; by the time he was done creating a fictional bootboy like Sam Weller or a fictional miser like Scrooge, real bootboys and misers had turned themselves into Dickensian characters.
The various theories that dominated twentieth-century criticism never quite figured out what to do with Dickens. The literary Edwardians detested him for what they thought of as his sentimentality, his indulgence of the grotesque, and his female characters desexualized into legless angels¯and also for his Victorian energy, so alien to their own ironic lethargy. There were moments during the century when Freudian interpretation seemed to grant some real insights into literature (although, as Harold Bloom put it, one always felt that Shakespeare was a better reader of Freud than Freud was of Shakespeare). But one of the reasons Freudianism failed as a theory of literary interpretation is that it could never get its arms around Dickens: He didnt seem to have any psychology at all in his books¯just psychological truth.
Social criticism, in its turn, tried to claim Dickens as merely the unsystematic brother of Marx and Engels, and A Christmas Carol as simply the popular version of The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844 . More sensible critics did little better, consistently preferring to think about authors like William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot instead. Louis Cazamian found little in Dickens besides a philosophie de Noël . Orwell knew in his bones that Dickens was an author worth fighting for, and yet he finally had to argue against Scrooges conversion, on the grounds that Dickens never grasped the social¯as opposed to the personal¯structure of evil. F.R. and Q.D. Leavis painted themselves into such a corner that they ended up insisting Hard Times was Dickenss most important work. Even critics as good as Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling didnt really succeed: They were too honest to deny that Dickens was the great writer of his age, but they preferred to read authors on whom they could actually use their critical gifts.
Curiously, postmodernism managed better, not in its multicultural aspect of race, class, and gender, but in its fascination with language¯for one of the things that makes Dickens run is language. Think of the names in his fiction: Scrooge and Jarndyce and Betsy Trotwood and Oliver Twist. And think of his propensity for describing inanimate objects with the adjectives of life. In the Cratchits kitchen, the potatoes, bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled. Scrooge has a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.
The most Dickensian moment early in A Christmas Carol comes when Scrooge arrives home in the evening to see Marleys face in his door-knocker: He did pause, with a moments irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marleys pigtail sticking out into the hall. English literature has had perhaps a dozen authors who could or would have done the door-knocker. Only Dickens is capable of the pigtail.
At the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Dickens squanders five hundred words (out of twenty-eight thousand in the story as a whole) describing the shops of a fruiter and a grocer:
There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were . . . Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.
That phrase the great compactness of their juicy persons could be imitated if one tried. Most parodies of Dickens get no further than the Dickensian sentimentality and philosophie de Noël . But it was this sort of odd, wordy construction that James Joyce seized upon when he reached Dickens in the historical parodies of English prose that make up the maternity chapter of Ulysses . And the truth is that Dickens language could be peculiar; this is the man who gave English the phrase our mutual friend, when what he meant was a shared or common friend.
What cant be imitated, however, is the energy. The Edwardians were right about Dickens Victorianism¯except that he was a hyper-Victorian, with all the virtues and vices of his age raised to something like the platonic ideal by the enormous power of his stamina. The biographer Edgar Johnson seems mistaken when he says that Christmas has for Dickens only the very smallest connection with Christian theology or dogma. Theres plenty of Christianity in the Christmas books, from the preface, in which Dickens claims his purpose was to write a whimsical kind of masque that might awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land, to the most sentimental moment in A Christmas Carol , in which Tiny Tim hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.
But Johnson is at least correct that the secularizing impulse has begun its implacable work. Even G.K. Chesterton, normally Dickens most consistent defender, complained that Dickens, faced with the single event around which the world has developed the most mythology, decided to invent his own Christmas mythology. But thats because traditional Christmas images actually involve the Christ who will become the Savior with his death and resurrection, and Dickens always wanted to avoid the hard cosmological edges of Christian theology. To read The Life of Our Lord that Dickens wrote for his own children is to think the key moment in Christian history is Christmas, not Easter, and the key teaching of Jesus is Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. This is a serious diminishment of what St. Paul knew was the scandal of Christianity, but it is very Victorian¯a reflection of all that was advanced, generous, liberal, high-minded, and doomed in the Gladstonian vision of a modern Christian state. English flatheads and little moralistic females la George Eliot, Nietzsche called them, who thought they could preserve Christian morality without much Christian religion.
In the months before A Christmas Carol was written in 1843, the serial publication of Martin Chuzzlewit had not been going well, the first of Dickens full novels to enjoy less than universal acclaim. His sending of his characters Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley off to America helped, and, as he later noted, the book gradually forced itself up in peoples opinion. But Dickens lived on his popularity; he needed esteem, and the tepid response to Martin Chuzzlewit brought home to him just how tired he was. He was supporting a huge household beyond his income, he had to act as his own promoter and copyright protector, and he had written six major novels in seven years. It is impossible to go on working the brain to that extent for ever, he told Forster. The very spirit of the thing, in doing it, leaves a horrible despondency behind.
So he decided, in cold, commercial calculation, that he would write a Christmas story and make the £1,000 he needed to take his family away to Italy for a long vacation. Of course, being Dickens, he couldnt leave it alone. He began A Christmas Carol early in October and completed it before the end of November¯while, as he described it, he wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all sober folk had gone to bed. Demanding to oversee every aspect of publication, he forced upon his publisher expensive plates and bindings, and although the books first printing sold out in a single day, the initial quarters profits brought him less than a third of the money for which he had hoped.
That, too, was Dickens. As prolific and well-paid a major author as there has ever been, he was always living not on what he had done but on money received for the promise of his next book. When A Christmas Carol was finished, he and Forster broke out like madmen, with such dinings, such dancings, such conjurings, such blind-mans-bluffings, such theatre-goings, such kissings-out of old years and kissings-in of new ones [as] never took place in these parts before . . . . And if you could have seen me at the childrens party at Macreadys the other night . . .
Jane Carlyle did see him at that party for the actor William Charles Macreadys children. She hadnt slept well for weeks¯hadnt slept at all the night before¯and she was quarreling again with her husband, Thomas Carlyle. But once there, she found herself, like everyone else, caught up in the Dickensian world. Dickens and Forster, above all, exerted themselves till the perspiration was pouring down and they seemed drunk with their efforts, she described it in a letter.
Only think of that excellent Dickens playing the conjuror for one whole hour¯the best conjuror I ever saw . . . . Then the dancing . . . the gigantic Thackeray &c &c all capering like Maenades !! . . . After supper when we were all madder than ever with the pulling of crackers, the drinking of champagne, and the making of speeches; a universal country dance was proposed¯and Forster seizing me round the waist whirled me into the thick of it, and made me dance!! like a person in the treadmill who must move forward or be crushed to death. Once I cried out, Oh for the love of Heaven let me go! you are going to dash my brains out against the folding doors! Your brains !! he answered, who cares about their brains here ? Let them go !
The party rose to something not unlike the rape of the Sabines ! and then Dickens carried Forster and Thackeray off to his house to finish the night there and a royal night they would have of it I fancy! But Jane Carlyle went home and slept¯and slept and slept, her first healthy sleep in what felt to her like years.
Theres some deep reflection in that scene, an image for the age: The mad Victorian extrovert Charles Dickens, his most popular story just finished, gathering up everyone around him and infusing them like puppets with his own Christmas energy. And in it, the mad Victorian introvert Jane Carlyle at last finding peace.
This article was originally printed in the Weekly Standard in December 2001.