- The Greatest Novella Ever Written
I remember the first time that Charles Dickens’s “little Christmas novella” grabbed hold of me. I was a boy in the suburbs of Chicago, IL with my family and there was a 1969 animated version of the story that has the scariest version of Jacob Marley, to my mind, ever. Marley was a sheet-white and enormous figure, with vacant eyes and wild hair that floated like snakes above his head. He had a ghoulish voice and he would simultaneously appear and disappear while he spoke to Scrooge. I was probably 5 or 6-years old when I saw it and it thrilled and frightened me, mixing the sheer joy and pleasure of a Midwest Christmas with what felt at the time like a horror story. But the little “ghost story of Christmas” became an anthem for me and I remain fascinated with it to this day. When I was older and encountered the book, I read it several times through and noticed that I picked up new pieces of it each time. Even now, at this time of year, I listen to the audio-book version at night time as I fall asleep, allowing Scrooge’s world to envelop my thoughts and I dream of transformation, and of hope.
I’ve passed along my love for it to my daughter who also cherishes what it is and how it completely encompasses every feeling one has at Christmas from loss and regret to unbridled joy, deep stirrings of faith and doubt and finally, sheer and total love in all its forms. It’s never lost on me that in the opening of the book, Dickens references Hamlet when describing the fact that Marley is dead. “If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.” In the way that Hamlet encompasses so much of the human heart and mind, Dickens attempted to do the same, and largely succeeded, in a much shorter story.
For my part, I wanted so desperately to teach it and my first turn at it was in the beginning of my teaching career at Valley View Junior High School in Simi Valley, Calif. I taught 7th grade and in the textbook was a play by the estimable Israel Horovitz. It wasn’t Dickens’s novel, and it left a lot that I think is important out–but it was fun and the kids loved it. On the last day before the break, we’d watch a film version and bring hot cocoa and snacks for the viewing.
I got the chance at the book itself, finally, when I was attending New Hope Lutheran Church in Agoura, Calif. I led a series of classes over the course of 4 Sundays and not only did I get to teach it, but my dad was visiting at Christmas-time and he and my step-mom sat in on the lesson that day. It was a feeling I don’t think I’d experienced before and I was so moved by the opportunity and by the fact that people came to listen to it.
I then had the opportunity to teach the novella at school in 2017, but strangely, after working up a unit series of lessons for the novel, with which I was fairly happy, the Thomas Fire shut down school at Christmas-time and I never got the chance. We had to abbreviate that part of our school year and that unit turned into one or two small reader responses about the story.
Last year, I had the opportunity to teach it again, and again at Church, here in Camarillo at Mt. Cross Lutheran Church where my wife and I are currently members. Over the course of three Sundays, I taught the novella and each Sunday the class-size grew. It was a real gift to me and, on the first Sunday I taught, my mom was here for Thanksgiving and she got to sit in on a class. So, I’ve come to see A Christmas Carol as a kind of salve to soothe what happens. It’s been interrupted and pushed about by the circumstances of my life and this year, with the pandemic on–it’s just me and Mr. Dickens and my daughter as well as we get to bring the story close to us, think about it’s meaning and apply it everywhere we go.
It’s funny that when I started writing this, I intended to make a kind of academic paper on the subject of what I frequently refer to as “the best novella ever written,” but I find that as I tell the story of my encounters with it, I’m much more interested in it as an emotional vehicle and not an academic one. So much has been made of bringing Mr. Dickens’s personal life into it–and the film of a couple of years ago, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” while a real joy for me to watch, I loved the movie, still tries to patch holes with fiction that probably didn’t occur. Charles Dickens was a man and he had flaws like other men. But he had a heart of gold and he had an ear for stories and in this one, he simply awakened a spirit, long dormant, that sought to live again–and so it did.
Perhaps it is merely the longing of a world that can change us and “open our shut-up hearts” to a better version of ourselves. In the end, Dickens’s story cannot be told without the miracle of a God who loves us. Marley tells Scrooge that he has come to provide him with a chance at avoiding eternity in chains, “a chance and hope of my procuring, Ebeneezer.” It hearkens back to Medieval texts like Le Morte D’Arthur, in which the King has a dream of his nephew, Sir Gawain, coming to him and telling him that he must forego the battle with Mordred in the morning–and that the Lord Himself gave Gawain permission to come and tell him so. Marley, in his suffering and torment, seeks to prevent his old friend from suffering the same fate–an act of selflessness that sets off the extraordinary change we witness over a particular Victorian-era Christmas eve in which time becomes meaningless and urgent all at once.
Miracles, then, are the fabric–the warp and weft– of A Christmas Carol. The unlikely baby in a manger who comes to save us all and redeem us. And following in His footsteps, an old curmudgeon who in paying penance for his greedy and selfish life, comes to save one man, his friend, because he knows that doing so will change the lives of so many others. And it is the miracle of a simple act of kindness, charity and love–and that will change the world again. Count on it.
Merry Christmas to all!