A Dickensian Curative

In the fall of 1843, Charles Dickens walked the empty streets of London late at night wrestling with the question: Are there answers to humanity’s indifference, negligence and lack of charity? Is there solace to be found in a holiday tale? From those solitary walks, sometimes ten to twenty miles at a time, the idea for a story grew and blossomed. Dickens completed A Christmas Carol in six weeks and published it on December 17, 1843. The first edition sold out in three days. A Christmas Carol had touched a nerve. It was an otherworldly remedy for a world-weary age, and an unsettling admonition to those who neglected the poor and destitute. It was his tribute to the “Spirits of Christmas,” and it served as a counterbalance and restorative measure against societal apathy and community disconnect. Dickens did not call for a government solution to poverty, a new program, or a symposium. He asked his readers to change how they interacted with their fellow voyagers, to be a kinder, more generous, and better version of themselves.

Dickens invented a haunting and enchanting Christmas story about a cold-hearted skinflint with the perfect moniker, Ebenezer Scrooge, as a cautionary tale. Scrooge was a monument to miserliness. He did not embrace life; he buckled under it and was derelict in his attention to others’ suffering. Ebenezer was the textbook Dickensian character, squandering the time he had on earth in pursuit of material excess. Ebenezer Scrooge, in name and deed, was first mocked and then converted by the specter of Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Fred, his nephew, was the family’s quixotic optimist—perhaps a stand-in for Dickens himself. He wanted his stingy uncle (and us) to have a change of heart. He wanted Scrooge to be a different man, someone who valued human interaction and was generous and big-hearted. Fred was given the duty of delivering the most important message of the book. He expressed to his uncle what the true Christmas spirit should be: “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Fred’s hopefulness, with a little help from some Spirits, was rewarded at story’s end.

Through A Christmas Carol, Dickens revealed the value of memory and imagination. In it, he called on Londoners to keep the spirit of Christmas by breathing in the magic and wonder of the world. Through remarkable characters with peculiar habits and unusual names (Scrooge himself, Fezziwig, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley, and Bob Cratchit), Dickens showed that the goodwill, love, and joy of the Christmas season could change even the most hardened hearts. However, the surprising success of A Christmas Carol may be found especially in its fanciful journey and unusual circumstances. The impossible was made believable; it was a vehicle for Dickensian mirth, edification, fright, and whimsy.

Peruse a newer edition and examine the wonderfully detailed first-edition artwork of illustrator John Leech. The drawings are a perfect complement to the story. To read A Christmas Carol is to immediately feel open to its influence and enchantment, and thankful for the creativity, insight, and talent of Charles Dickens. So raise your glass to toast past and present joys, friends, family, and this New Year.