The Magazine

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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Even the Ghost of Christmas Present doesn't manage to get much right. The guests at Fred's Christmas party won't make fun of Scrooge, because Scrooge will be there. The Cratchits won't have their little goose, "eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes." They'll 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, behind his time" at work the next morning. The monstrous thing couldn't have been fully cooked until almost midnight. And didn't 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 hasn't 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 figure's psychology lies in recognizing that Scrooge is a deeply divided man who will shortly revert to his miserliness. But even to speak of "Scrooge's 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 tale's moral of conversion. He was probably intended to be that, but Dickens can't leave him alone. Scrooge has far too much energy, takes 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 Marley's ghost. "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" He's 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, he's "Nicholas Nickleby"'s Cheeryble brothers, or Fezziwig from his own past, 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 don't dance while you are at it."

But it isn't just Scrooge that Dickens can't leave alone. He can't 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 can't help becoming Dickensian. While Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past watch old Fezziwig's party, "In came the cook, with her brother's 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 Dickens's 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 didn't seem to have any psychology at all in his books--just psychological truth.