Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: A Christmas Carol



I've seen the movie countless times; in fact, I've seen countless versions of the book countless times. There's no denying it's a classic in Western Literature; perhaps one of the best-known stories in the English language.

Not that anybody's ever read it.

I hadn't, up until this year. But last spring I found it at the Borders Going-Out-Of-Business sale, and decided it was about time to hear it as Dickens intended.

It's a difficult book to read, both because we're not used to reading Victorian English, and because it's impossible to avoid hearing the voices of Kermit the Frog and Michael Caine and George C. Scott. And yet, it's such a necessary book.

It's become important to the pantheon of "necessary items for Christmas," along with "A Christmas Story" and The Carpenters and ugly sweaters. But even more so, I think it's necessary for our world today. It's a little unfortunate that it's become window dressing for the festive season, because the message is entirely prophetic, judgmental, and yet hopeful. It's a message we need once again.

I don't need to rehearse the story or themes for you, but think about it for just a second - there's a message here about the proper place of money in relationships, there's a message of the importance of all people, whether they are rich or poor, there's a message about the voluntary redistribution of wealth; but it's all couched in a story of redemption. Yes, there is strong judgment against selfishness and greed (perhaps echoes of the Rich Man and Lazarus), but rather than simply condemn that man, Dickens paints a picture where even the worst can be redeemed and restored. That is a message sadly lacking in the 21st Century.

It's interesting to read the story, as so many familiar lines pop off the page; at the same time, there are tender and poignant scenes that I have yet to see in the movie versions; young couples in love, ships' crews huddled in their cold cabin celebrating Christmas far out at sea. The Ghost of Christmas present even gets in a pretty direct shot at the church of Dickens' day.

In the end, though, we're left with the familiar story of an angry, bitter, broken man who has all the money in the world but has lost all human connection, and the work of spirits to save him. Dickens reminds us that there is hope for even the worst of sinners, if repentance is found.

The bonus of this book is the addition of two lesser-known Christmas tales penned by Dickens - The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth. The Chimes tells us of a broken-down man beset with terrible dreams while (accidentally) locked inside a church steeple; it's a mystic, visionary tale, lacking a bit of the clarity of A Christmas Carol. It's a cold story, and yet hopeful and redemptive. The Cricket on the Hearth is a warmer tale, with brighter characters and (in my opinion) a more interesting story. There's an old cartoon version of this one out there; I remember seeing it some years ago. Like Carol, it can be a little difficult to follow simply due to the Victorian English vernacular, but it's a fun story full of lame dogs and old horses and mysterious strangers and inept babysitters and blind saints and grumpy old men. And yes, in keeping with the others, it brings a surprise redemptive end, complete with a homespun party.

So Borders, I'm sorry you went out of business. But your sale finally convinced me to pick this one up, and for that I'm grateful.

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