A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (pub. 1843)
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"Caution: spoilers," he said, as if anyone on the planet didn't know the story by heart.
So, this novella was originally published nearly a century and a half before I was born. (132 years before, to be exact; I was born in 1975.) I feel like I must have read it at some point in my youth, but I don't recall for sure. Of course I've seen numerous adaptations, and there are many more I haven't seen. Because it's such a hugely popular story. Anyway, in December 2015, I was reading different things that a website linked to on a "literary advent calendar." This story was the link for December 10, but I was all "I'm not reading that whole thing online, surely I have my own copy somewhere." I finally got around to looking for my copy on the 18th, unsure whether I'd find it or not. And actually, I think that once upon a time I had a different copy, something I would have bought from a school book club like Troll or Scholastic, maybe. But if I did, I failed to find it. (Maybe I never did have such a thing.) But what I did find was this copy, which was published in 1962 (which might as well be 1843, as far as I'm concerned). It is a Scholastic publication, but there's obviously no way I ordered it, and now I have no recollection of when or how I came by it. (But I guess it does look familiar.) So whatever. After I found it, I set up this page for my eventual review, as well as setting up a separate file to list any adaptations I could think of, at the bottom of this page (and every page where I have reviews of adaptations). Of course, none of that is important. But you know me, I can't help boring you with unimportant details of my mental meanderings. Anyway... I finally read it on Christmas Eve.
Well... it's always hard for me to know how much I should say about a story when I've already reviewed it in some other format, whether I reviewed an adaptation before the original, or vice versa. Especially if it's such a well known story as this. But at least I can say there's a lot of humor in it, right from the first page. You may see a bit of that in film adaptations, but you can hardly help but miss out on the narrative sidetracks the author takes, in the actual text. So on that count, reading the novella was quite pleasant. Besides which it is quite a good story, even if it's quite familiar. (It's also worth noting, perhaps, that this is the only Christmas story I can think of that could be called a "scary ghost story," so I assume it's what is alluded to by that line in It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.)
So... it's about a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates Christmas (and basically seems to hate life). His business partner, Jacob Marley, died seven years ago, on Christmas Eve (though that is not at all why he hates the holiday). Anyway, Scrooge's nephew, Fred, invites him to have Christmas dinner with him and his family, but Scrooge refuses. And Scrooge is loathe to give his clerk, Bob Cratchit, Christmas Day off, with pay. (In fact, it's kind of amazing to me that Scrooge is willing to do that at all. I tend to doubt he was legally required to do so, though I can scarcely imagine Scrooge doing so out of the goodness of his heart.) Well, but Scrooge goes home after work on Christmas Eve, and he's visited by Marley's ghost. Marley had been just as miserly as Scrooge, in life, and now he has to roam the Earth, burdened by heavy chains. And he tells Scrooge that his own chain is now even heavier than Marley's, and will be unless Scrooge changes his ways. To accomplish this, Scrooge will be visited by three spirits. It rather surprised me that Marley says the first spirit will visit him tomorrow night at one, the second the night after that, and the third on the next night. Because... I'm used to the idea, from the movies, that all three spirits visit Scrooge in one night. (Also, I normally assume that they come on the same night as Marley, but in the novella, Scrooge apparently sleeps through an entire day before the first spirit arrives.)
Anyway... the first spirit, as I'm sure you know, is the Ghost of Christmas Past. He takes Scrooge to revisit several different Christmases from Scrooge's own past. Without getting into any details, I can tell you that we get to see that he wasn't always as cold-hearted as he is now. Though I'm afraid I didn't get as clear an impression as I might have hoped as to why he became as he is now. I gather it's because he is worried that there's nothing worse than being poor, coupled with the fact that the world, incongruously, condemns the pursuit of wealth. So I guess he's just sort of miffed about the unfair, "damned if you do, damned if you don't" nature of the world. But as premises go, it seems a bit shaky, to me. (I've seen at least one filmed version that maybe makes his reasons seem a bit more believable than the original story does.) But whatever, his personality changes, and that's that.
The second spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Present. I'm quite familiar with this spirit taking Scrooge to witness the current year's Christmas Day as celebrated in the poor Cratchit household, as well as his nephew's household. These scenes may not play out precisely as I've seen before, but certainly close enough. What surprised me is that the spirit shows him more than that. The other things are not described in nearly as great detail as the familiar scenes, but nevertheless it all reinforces the basic idea that everyone loves Christmas. Also surprising is the fact that this particular excursion apparently lasts until Twelfth Night, which is a lot longer than any version of the story I've seen before, even if that fact is barely alluded to, much less actually shown in the text. (It also seems to contradict what Marley originally told him.)
The final spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and certainly the most truly "ghostly" and frightening of them all. (Rather than coming the night after the second spirit, it appears immediately after the second spirit disappears, though actually... I guess Marley said midnight, which is when it does appear. So maybe I misunderstood what he meant.) The spirit doesn't speak at all, and Scrooge never gets a good look at it, and the things it shows him... Well, first of all, it seems kind of like overkill, to me, since by that point Scrooge had already determined to change his ways. But this pretty much seals the deal, by scaring him practically to death. (Again, I don't want to divulge any details.)
And in the end, Scrooge returns home, and it's Christmas Day (in his own present). You know, it always seemed a bit odd to me that he was so surprised (in adaptations I've seen) that the spirits did this all in one night. Now that I've read the novella, his surprise actually makes sense. But otherwise, the rest of the story is pretty much the same as ever. He changes his ways, starts treating everyone well, and loves Christmas more than anyone else.
So, it's all very moving. I suppose I should say there were a few bits of the story that I didn't understand, probably because I don't know much about Victorian England, or some of the cultural references Dickens made. But most of it made perfect sense. And as I said before, there was more humor than I expected. (Really, the only humor that normally comes to mind when I think of the story is Scrooge's uncharacteristic gravy/grave pun. But suffice to say Dickens is much funnier than Scrooge... not that I haven't always loved that pun.) And... there's just so much more descriptiveness in every scene than I could imagine cramming into such a short story. But it's good stuff. And... I'm sure I'm forgetting things I should say. But it really is pretty great.
Films: Scrooge (1951) * Scrooge (1970) * Mickey's Christmas Carol * Scrooged * The Muppet Christmas Carol * A Christmas Carol (2009) *
The Man Who Invented Christmas
TV movies: The Stingiest Man in Town * A Christmas Carol (1984) * A Christmas Carol (1999) * A Christmas Carol: The Musical * Karroll's Christmas *
A Christmas Carol (2019)
TV episodes: see Holiday Parody Episodes