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The Ghost of Christmas Past

From the December 24, 2001 issue: Charles Dickens's triumph.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By J. BOTTUM
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This essay is reprinted in The Best Christian Writing 2002, edited by John Wilson (HarperSan Francisco).

IT'S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE not to know how it opens. "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." Charles Dickens's "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 book's publication in 1843, a pirated play that Dickens spent 700 in court costs fighting 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 that's another story). "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail," the famous first paragraph of "A Christmas Carol" ends.

But who remembers how the second paragraph runs? "Mind! I don't 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 Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

You don't get much of that narrator's voice in the films we've 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 don't get the wordiness: "I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly." You don't get the facetiousness: "my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for." You don't get the hallucinogenic animation of inanimate objects. You don't get the comedy running over and under the sentimentality. You don't get the manic speed, or the almost insane energy, or the sheer delight in writing down words. You may get the story--but you don't get Dickens.

And as for that story, it is, on its face, something of a mess. Of course, we don't demand much coherence from the plot, which is in itself a revealing fact about the success of Dickens's 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 THE PLOT isn't what anyone would call tight. After talking to Marley's 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 won't weep, "My little, little child! . . . My little child!" at the memory of his departed son--for at the story's end, after Scrooge's 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, Fred's wife, Fred's wife's plump sister, and even Tiny Tim, to whom he became "a second father."