Tis the season, and all that, so why not start this little exercise with a holiday classic? The first question I always have when reading a classic – i.e., something they made me read in English lit in high school or college – is whether or not the book is worth reading as a book. I realize, for example, the importance of Hawthorne on American literature, but I would never willingly read another line from him unless my life depended on it. And if I was old enough, I would seriously consider the number of years I had left before committing to wading through his gloomy, miserable, interminable prose.
Dickens, on the other hand, is a joy for me to read. I know that he is wordy – he was often paid by the word, after all. But where someone like Hawthorne sees the dirge as the height of human expression, Dickens obviously enjoys the English language. His descriptions, while verbose, are often a joyous exploration of just what absurdities he can make the language perform. The description of the throne made of food that the Ghost of Christmas Present rests upon is a delight and a perfect introduction to the spirit himself. The description of Fezziwig’s dance and his winking calves is a riotous delight and tells me everything I need to know about Fezziwig as a man and a master in a couple of breathless, delightful paragraphs. The book is just plain fun to read.
Even at its most serious or scary or dour, the language is sharp and engaging. Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past is genuinely chilling, as are the scenes where the living tramp the dirt down on his memory. But even those scenes are leavened with humor. Dickens never forgets to keep the readers engaged at every emotional level. We want to see Scrooge redeemed, in part, because a man who banters with the ghost of Marley probably has somewhere in him a soul worth saving. And when you think that Scrooge has learned his lesson too early, the descriptions of the children Want and Ignorance are there to remind you, in all their horrible glory, that this journey is not about saving himself but about how he can save his fellow man.
That last point highlights how the book differs from almost all of the adaptations you have likely seen. Some of them have some of the elements – the Muppet Christmas Carol does a brilliant job of capturing the humor in the book, as does Alistar Sim’s portrayal, and the George C. Scott version does a good job with Want and Ignorance, something many adaptations simply leave out – but most of them focus on Scrooge’s saving of his own soul. True, that happens through his charity, but most of that charity is shown by actions toward people he knows – of the three main actions he takes, one is toward the general charity, one is toward his clerk, and one is toward his nephew. By focusing on the actions he takes close to him and leaving out the effect Want and Ignorance have on Scrooge, the adaptations change a story about a man who realizes his common humanity with other people to one who realizes he cannot be saved unless he treats others better. One is a story of charity, the other is a story of fear. It is a subtle but important distinction, I think.
Regardless, A Christmas Carol is a classic because it is an engrossing read with a deep, important, resonant message. It is worth reading just because it is a great book.