I should probably come right out and say that I did not grow up with A Christmas Carol. In my defense, I am neither British nor American; the story is not as culturally significant in the Netherlands as it is in other parts of the world. Until very recently, my only exposure to the story had been through snippets of the Muppets, Blackadder, and Scrooged. I had some vague idea of the plot and its characters, but I had never seen a full movie adaptation, let alone read the book. Every year I told myself that I would finally pick it up and read it for myself, and every year I either forgot or decided to read other holiday books instead (last year’s pick: Hogfather).
I think I knew that this book would be almost impossible to review. It is the quintessential Christmas read, has been adapted a billion times into other media, and has an iron-clad place in Anglo-American culture. It’s like trying to come up with a fresh perspective on Hamlet; everything has already been said – and probably much better by people much cleverer than you.
So… No pressure.
Cultural bagage aside, this work has both the best and the worst of Dickens’ writing, and your enjoyment of it will largely depend on your tolerance for Victorian schmaltz. As I have previously touched upon in my review of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, this was a time of tugging at the reader’s moral heartstrings to the point of over-the-top preachiness. Dickens wants Scrooge to learn a lesson about caring for those less fortunate than him, so he not only introduces a likable poor family, but gives us a sickeningly adorable, disabled child. Tiny Tim is the cutest cute to ever cute, a good Christian boy, and suffers from an illness that only the patronage of a rich uncle can cure – and then Dickens kills him off, just to twist that knife in a little bit deeper into the wound. Oh God, enough! I’ll donate to any charity you want, Dickens, just make it stop!
That said, the premise of A Christmas Carol is ingenious; it is not surprising at all that absolutely everyone has put their own spin on this idea. It has a timeless fairy tale quality to it, and it is almost impossible not to have a big goofy smile on your face by the end of it. Despite the obvious emotional manipulation, it is incredibly difficult to resist its charms – because it is charming, very much so. Scrooge is a fantastic creation, and Dickens clearly had a lot of fun writing his lines; he has some of best zingers in the book, and as his backstory is slowly revealed, we cannot help but feel for this crotchety old grump.
The ghosts are also just great; even if you know what’s coming, the build-up to the arrival of Marley is still so well done that you cannot help but feel on edge. Dickens creates an eerie atmosphere in these passages and gives him some brilliant other-worldly qualities: the way Marley’s hair moves like he is surrounded by blistering hot air, the clanking of his chains… These eerie visuals stuck with me more than any of Dickens’ fair-haired orphans ever will.
A Christmas Carol has all the subtlety of a blindfolded rhinoceros with two left feet, but then again, it was never meant to be subtle. Dickens gives us a moral tale about an embittered man who learns the true meaning of Christmas, and he will do just about anything to get you in the holiday spirit, even if he has to shove the holly right down your throat. And… It works. As much as I was rolling my eyes at some of the passages, I could not stop grinning by the time I’d reached the end.
All right, Dickens… I concede. Consider my icy heart melted.
But if I ever run into Tiny Tim, I may still shove his face into the snow before he can open his squeaky little mouth.