(LifeSiteNews) – Without a doubt, we have all read, heard, or watched a rendition of A Christmas Carol, the classic English novella by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Whether from a cartoon, a play, a Hollywood production, or by reading a children’s version of the story, we can all call to mind the story about the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Our common parlance in all the of English-speaking world knows exactly what is meant when someone is labeled a ‘Scrooge.’
Popular authors who seek to transmit the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ in their works are often only able to imitate a Dickens-esque motif wherein a miser comes to find the true meaning of the Christian celebration through some sort of interior conversion. The famous Dr. Seuss story The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is perhaps nothing more than a whimsical rendition of the theme set out by the great English author a century prior.
It might seem a bit of a stretch to some, but I believe the argument could be made that we see shades of Dickens in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. Themes of childhood trauma, greed and financial obsession, and inevitable conversion brought on by a preternatural visitor who helps the protagonist see the real “reason for the season,” are paramount in both stories. In addition, the depths of human despair and the brink of nihilistic suicidal ideation are palpable as we watch George Bailey see a glimpse of life without his existence, just as we see Ebenezer Scrooge perceive the veritable contempt that so many have for him.
In Frank Capra’s motion-picture masterpiece and in Charles Dickens’ literary classic, the profundity of sadness at certain points is almost too much. Our hearts ache along with the characters as we simultaneously despise them to a degree that might only be matched by how much we come to pity their tragic lot.
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the famous English writer and convert to the Faith, wrote a biography of Dickens that T.S. Eliot said was the “best on that author that has ever been written.” This is high praise coming from a highly praise-worthy source. It would be a mistake for us to consider the biography that Chesterton published in 1906 as part of post-modern biographical literature. So often in our day, biographies are written mostly like elongated encyclopedia entries wherein the focus is on the minutia of historical factoids. This is not to say that great attention to detail is not sometimes extremely relevant and helpful, but it was not Chesterton’s style — not at all.
Anyone familiar with G.K. Chesterton’s works will know very well that in each book, chapter, and even phrase, there is a story told that gives us a glimpse of the exuberance that filled his mind on the very idea considered. When Chesterton wrote biographies, he was not always focused on the empirical facts of a man’s life as the primary means of knowing a man; instead, he took the reader on a journey into the meaning of what meant most to the person about whom he wrote.
When he published St. Francis of Assisi, for example, he went beyond what other biographers had done before him and brought us into the romance that St. Francis had with God’s creation, void of any ‘earth-worship’ nonsense that so many tragically associate with the Seraphic Father. One passage in his biography encapsulates the man in a way that only a Chestertonian prose could accomplish:
“Now for St. Francis nothing was ever in the background. We might say that his mind had no background, except perhaps that divine darkness out of which the divine love had called up every colored creature one by one. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. A bush could stop him like a brigand; and indeed he was as ready to welcome the brigand as the bush.”
In St Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, we find ourselves falling in love with the magnificent mind of the Angelic Doctor, in a way that only a 20th-century fun-loving English author could accomplish. One quote comes to mind that portrays the child-like wonder behind the great theologian’s contemplation of God: “I can hardly conceive of any educated man believing in God at all without believing that God contains in Himself every perfection including eternal joy; and does not require the solar system to entertain Him like a circus.”
Chesterton’s biography of Dickens
Chesterton wrote about Dickens before he tackled the stories of great saints. Leafing through the pages written about the progenitor of the most well-known Christmas story of the past 200 years is like being guided through a reliquary by a holy man, who has true devotion to each saint represented. It is obvious when reading the Dickens biography that Chesterton had something of an encyclopedic memory of his works — littering his phrases with timely references from any of Dickens’ works with ease.
It is certain that Chesterton had comprehended Dickens’ style as if it were his own. There is a moment in A Christmas Carol when Ebenezer Scrooge arrives home for that fateful night of his preternatural sojourn with the ghosts that haunted his conscience. Scrooge happens upon the most mundane of things, a door-knocker, but sees something so real that it must not be real at all. Dickens masterfully describes the moment in the following manner:
“Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including — which is a bold word — the corporation, aldermen, and livery… Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change — not a knocker, but Marley’s face. Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead… and its livid color, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.”
There is a certain dread that creeps up the reader’s spine when entering into that eerie scene, and the uncanny nature of such an impossible event piques curiosity for a realm of things heretofore invisible. Chesterton describes the texture of the moment perfectly:
“There are details in the Dickens descriptions — a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door — which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does not exist in reality; it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And this kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it cannot be gained by walking observantly.”
Could there be a more accurate way of describing that dreadful moment in Scrooge’s journey than how Chesterton describes the hyper-realism of Dickens? If my experience is any barometer, I believe I can say that there is a transportation to another literary world that takes place when following Scrooge to his home that night. It is that sort of moment that feels as mundane as buttering toast, almost unconscious, only to be interrupted by a textured shadow that fills the corner of your eye; a figure that disappears when you try and focus, but was definitely real.
In Dickens’ personal life, he was something of a tragic man, and his battle with his Christian conscience was something that he could never avoid. I dare not speak ill of the dead in the way that modern writers love to do — bashing the character flaws of every man who represents an older and wiser way — but it is true that he struggled with personal demons, like all of us. His Christian faith was not orthodox, and he toyed with agnostic and materialist conceptions of religion, but his psychology was as Christian as England once was.
It would be too simplistic to say that Scrooge was Dickens, or that Dickens wrote Scrooge to consciously project himself, but it is a fact of literature that every good author includes a piece of his soul in his work; it is unavoidable. Bad writers are capable of leaving themselves out of their work, like the Hollywood foot soldiers who crank out vapid blockbusters that have as much depth as the computer software that creates the graphics for the film. Dickens was too honest, he was too great, he was too real not to offer his own conscience as a central theme in his work.
Dickens and the spirit of Christmas
There is something about Christmas, even more than Easter, that ‘baptizes’ the secular world, even if just for a night. Please don’t misunderstand what I mean — the gloominess of Good Friday and the levity of Easter Sunday are palpable — but on the night of Christ’s Birth, there is a triumphant expectation that accelerates when little children spring forth from their beds on that following morning of Christian Mirth.
Even those who have fallen away from the Faith allow themselves to be Christians, if just for a few hours each December, as there is no greater song that the human heart can sing in thanksgiving for all that has been given, than a Christmas carol. There are a select few who actively work against this inescapable yearning, and they find themselves miserable. There is no sadder or more darkened soul than the man who spends Christmas alone in defiance of the joy that is offered him; if only he let his tears of gratitude flow down his cheeks with the musicality of that Angelic Visitation to the Shepherds.
Scrooge is one of those men. This reality is depicted soon after he passes through the preternatural initiation of the ghostly door-knocker, while he sits in front of a fire that gives him no warmth. “It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel.”
Dickens then projects his struggle with God in the proceeding phrases: “The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Pharaoh’s daughters, Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts…”
The Biblical imagery that brought Scrooge’s mind to higher and holier things was interrupted by the ghost that depicted his greatest sin: “… and yet that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up the whole. If each smooth tile had been a blank at first, with power to shape some picture on its surface from the disjointed fragments of his thoughts, there would have been a copy of old Marley’s head on every one.”
The Saints of Holy Writ offer the story of salvation and repentance, but the demons in Scrooge’s conscience lust for his attention and despair.
Chesterton offers a most succinct view into the religious atmosphere and struggle that plagued Dickens in the first chapter of his biography: “But the strength of religion was that it did not care for Cromwell; did not care for him, that is, any more than for anybody else. He and his footman were equally welcomed to warm places in the hospitality of hell. It has often been said, very truly, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary.”
Dickens was an ‘extraordinary’ man who came from very ordinary beginnings, going from relative poverty to the height of English literary celebrity. He amassed considerable wealth as well. Scrooge was of course also wealthy and great in the material sense, if we consider money to be a sign of greatness. But any man who sits alone with his conscience knows that the heaviness of his sins outweighs any accumulation of currency.
Dickens the mythologist
It would be a mistake to portray the journey that Scrooge takes with the phantoms as representative of Christian doctrine, or even as plain theological musings. As Chesterton writes, “Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at the least, to make them gods.”
Mythology is a misunderstood term by so many, as the word ‘myth’ is commonly used to describe anything that is false. In addition, we are rightly weary of pagan religious relics such as mythological books that promote a bent religion. However, we might say that mythology cannot be defined so narrow as a ‘genre’ but is instead a mood of literature. There is an ineffable mystery about our sojourn between Heaven and hell, and often there are things that can only be described with fantasy that are in some way more real than real.
In Christendom, this mood of mythology was purified and became folklore, or fairy-stories. La Fontaine baptized Aesop’s fables, giving the characters the complexity of Christian moral theology, and thereby improving on the calculated naturalism of the ancient lessons. Legends about witches that frightened little children in the heart of winter were replaced by fits of make-believe played by parents with their children on the Eve of Christ’s Birth about a man named Father Christmas who exists in an eternal state of Christmas joy and generosity.
England at the time of Dickens was going through a century of moral despair and progress. The old religion had been lost, first with the tragedy of King Henry VIII, and then with the continual splintering of Christian sects that became tiresome in their efforts to rebrand the Gospel. The horrors of chattel slavery were brought to light by William Wilberforce in parliament, and there was a level of drunkenness so rampant amongst the population that a national effort in the reform of manners was necessary to right the intoxicated nation.
Perhaps it was only an organic English mythology, written by a troubled English soul and inspired by the light of Christmas, that could speak to England at the time.
The journey that Scrooge takes with the mythical spirits through time and eternity is too much to discuss in detail in this piece. It reads like a breathless tale all contained in a lasting moment that is too full to comprehend; “a kind of philanthropic dream, an enjoyable nightmare, in which the scenes shift bewilderingly and seem as miscellaneous as the pictures in a scrap-book, but in which there is one constant state of the soul, a state of rowdy benediction,” says Chesterton.
Conclusion: Chesterton on Scrooge’s conversion
The moment of Scrooge’s conversion is of course legendary, and is the closest depiction I have ever read of what happens in a man’s soul when he accepts the logical justice of damnation and undeserved privilege to repent. I could not describe the culmination of A Christmas Carol any better than the author who knew him best:
“The beauty and the real blessing of the story do not lie in the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or improbable; they lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything around him; that great furnace, the heart of Dickens. Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us. Whether or not the visions were evoked by real Spirits of the Past, Present, and Future, they were evoked by that truly exalted order of angels who are correctly called High Spirits. They are impelled and sustained by a quality which our contemporary artists ignore or almost deny, but which in a life decently lived is as normal and attainable as sleep, positive, passionate, conscious joy. The story sings from end to end like a happy man going home; and, like a happy and good man, when it cannot sing it yells. It is lyric and exclamatory, from the first exclamatory words of it. It is strictly a Christmas carol.”