Don’t let familiarity prevent appreciation of A Christmas Carol’s superb storytelling

Redeemable villains can compel a story line

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

– Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843

When art is so ingrained in our collective conscious that its removal would throw into question our basic understanding of the world around us, it is easy to overlook what made it ubiquitous in the first place. We take its brilliance for granted or fail to see the ingenuity in what we now consider commonplace.

Having just seen the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s spectacular 2013 rendition of A Christmas Carol this weekend, I was reminded how embedded this 170-year-old story is in the fabric of our holiday traditions. The adaptations on film are countless, with casts featuring men, Muppets and Mickey Mouse alike. The concise novella is so perfectly suited for stage that it can be found in playhouses throughout the country each December. 

What made it so? Certainly, it struck a chord with citizens of Victoria-era Britain who lamented how industry and greed had sullied the revelry and the spirit of Christmas in its time. Its longevity has root in how timelessly translatable the tale remains. Basic lessons of human decency, thankfulness and charity are appropriate for any era. Despite these qualities, the small book might easily have been discarded with the shredded gift wrap as a preachy primer on the Golden Rule.

In my mind, the storytelling convention that sets A Christmas Carol apart is Dickens’ portrayal of a redeemable villain. And Scrooge is not just any villain; he is the story’s main character. Dickens transforms a completely unsympathetic wretch into a hero, and he does so in fewer pages than constitute the chapters of some books.

In literature today, we tend to evaluate our heroes by how villainous they are and our villains by how heroic they are. We long for flaws. Gray areas make characters real. But the idea of a villain turned hero was much less common in Dickens’ time, and he doesn’t employ smoke and mirrors. Scrooge isn’t a good guy masquerading as a villain. He is unforgiving and cruel. Dickens’ words say it best: “But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Yet, it is through this hyperbolic lens that we relate to Scrooge, not in full, but in hints and whispers of our own imperfection. Dickens forces us to see ourselves in Scrooge. It’s not that Scrooge is particularly likable, even as we see his sad history unfold before us. But we come to empathize because we see elements of ourselves; ghosts of our ambition and pride, and, as the story personifies, Ignorance and Want.

Our relationship with the main character’s plight is the signature element that makes this story so compelling. We need Scrooge to be saved so that we may consider ourselves worthy of salvation. For Ebenezer, it’s a 180-degree shift. For the rest of us, with fewer proclivities toward malevolence and parsimony, change doesn’t seem quite so daunting by comparison. That is why Dickens’ Carol continues and will continue to be a integral part of our holiday celebrations and storytelling traditions.

For if the villainous Scrooge may earn reclamation, surely it is within our grasp.

Scrooge and Marley's ghost (John Leech, 1843)

Scrooge and Marley’s ghost
(John Leech, 1843)

Who else has been blogging about A Christmas Carol recently?

* And if you live anywhere near southeast Wisconsin, go see the Milwaukee Rep’s version of A Christmas Carol at the Pabst Theatre. This is a group that truly knows how to keep Christmas well.

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