'A Christmas Carol', by Charles Dickens (Book Club, December '22)

We have a speedy seasonal read lined up for December, suggested by a forum user – A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Or, to give it its full title, A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, commonly known as A Christmas Carol.

This novella was first published in London on 19th December 1843. At just 29 thousand words, it took six weeks to write. The book met with instant success, and has left a long-lasting legacy, credited with shaping much of today’s expectation and perception of an English Christmas.

What makes A Christmas Carol resonate in the modern day? Why is it called A Christmas Carol? And – that perennial trivia-quiz question – how many ghosts are there in A Christmas Carol?

You can download a copy of the e-book from Project Gutenberg or Standard Ebooks, and there are quite a lot of audiobook versions available at LibriVox. But any unabridged edition (paper, digital or audiobook) is fine.

Don’t forget that alongside this, we have more Dickens lined up for December, when we start our group reading of Bleak House in monthly instalments. You can read more about that here.

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I tend to think of A Christmas Carol as being a redemptive sort of affair; I suppose I have seen so many film/TV adaptations that I had forgotten how dark it is. But is there anything more chilling to the soul and conscience than the following words:

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost [of Jacob Marley]. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Or anything more gloomy (and still applicable in today’s society) than the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present:

"The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

Re-reading the novella now, these pronouncements seem to cast their dark shadow far beyond the warm, Christmassy glow of Scrooge’s change of heart.

Some of Dickens’ turns of phrase can be rather fun. One that particularly tickled my fancy on this read-through is:

“Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow […] but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.”

How rotten does a lobster have to get before turning luminescent?

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens puts these words into Scrooge’s mouth:

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Something about this sentence niggles at me and annoys me. Yes, I know that Dickens is trying to show that Scrooge has learned lessons from the Spirits of Christmasses Past, Present and Future, and that he intends to remember and apply those lessons in his future life. But it seems dodgy to me that his new enlightenment and self-awareness are attributed to Christmas itself, and not to Scrooge’s having been emotionally mauled by what the three Spirits have shown him. Rather mawkish. Still, hooking it to the season certainly sells copy!

I do like Dickens’ portrayal of the festive celebration and of its trappings (for example, his descriptions of the grocer’s and fruiterer’s windows are wildly luxuriant, and the Cratchits’ family meal is warmly painted). But there is something too glib about the sentiment that he superimposes on the physical celebration of what is essentially a midwinter festival, as though Scrooge’s revelations would not have had the same effect at any other time of year.