Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Five books: In honor of Book Blogger Appreciation Week #BBAW

18 Feb

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I’m not officially participating in Book Blogger Appreciation Week ‪#‎BBAW‬ but here are five books very important to me, which was the theme for Day 1. I promised Emma of Words and Peace I’d come up with some!  (Follow this link to read her choices!)
1. Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart–The Eastern Church ed. by Bernadette Diecker and Jonathan Montaldo. This book on Thomas Merton’s embrace of the Prayer of the Heart (or prayer of quiet) led me to a wonderful trail of reading on this ancient and still vibrant way of prayer.
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2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Still my favorite “classic” novel, and Jean Valjean is one of my personal favorites on my Fictional 100.
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3. The Mahabharata–one of the two great epics of India, and again a special favorite when I had the chance to write about its multifaceted characters and story.
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4. Novena by Barabara Calamari & Sandra DiPasqua. I keep this book close by, for its beautiful way of prayer, and for the utterly gorgeous images it contains. I became a collector of prayer cards, old and new, after this book touched me.
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5. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. This was one of the first fantasy novels I read. This author and this genre are still a regular part of my reading. This novel also represents my great love of fairy tales from all over the world. It’s based on my favorite fairy tale, “The Wild Swans,” and I cry whenever I reread it (the novel, and probably the fairy tale too!)

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Thanks, Emma, for getting me to participate, even a little, in this fun way to learn about our fellow bloggers and friends!

Spring Into Horror Read-a-thon 2015: What I’m Reading

15 Apr

Spring into Horror Read-a-thon

Time for daffodils, tulips, and scary reading!  My selections for this year’s Spring Into Horror Read-a-thon are not primarily horror, but they do have their scary or mysterious elements. I am happy that Michelle makes her Seasons of Reading event flexible enough to welcome those who wish to read only around the edges of the horror genre. For this one, I’ve selected some books that may scare the wits out of me yet! We’ll see.

Today is April 15; not only is that tax filing day in the U.S., but it is also the birthday of novelist Henry James (he would be 172).  The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmon’s new literary mystery (just released in March), finds Henry James teaming up with Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of Clover Adams, the wife of writer Henry Adams. Their pairing is complicated by the existential crisis of Holmes who has deduced that he is a fictional character!

Fifth Heart cover

Another Dan Simmons novel, Drood, has been on my mental list for a while, since it combines biographical fiction about Charles Dickens with speculation about the intended ending of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, whose horrible aspects are magnified by the lack of resolution.  This week I will continue reading A Tale of Two Cities, our Dickens selection for the TuesBookTalk Read-a-Longs group at Goodreads.  Although it certainly has much sweetness in the relationship between Doctor Manette and his daughter Lucie, the Reign of Terror, which readers know will follow the French Revolution and endanger noble-hearted nobleman Charles Darney, casts an eerie shadow over the whole story.

Finally, I am reading The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Editiion, translated and edited by noted fairy-tale specialist Jack Zipes.  This illustrated collection brings together English translations of all the stories from the Grimms’ 1812 and 1815 first editions.  Zipes emphasizes that these versions are closer to the originals that the brothers recorded from traditional storytellers. They tend to be shorter, more clipped in style, and faithful to the scarier aspects of many of the tales. The illustrations by Andrea Dezsö are interesting: they are black-and-white and give the impression of being simple woodcuts (or paper cutouts), but their content and arrangement of elements looks impressionistic and modern. They are also reminiscent of Arthur Rackham’s silhouette illustration technique, such as he used for Cinderella, or “Aschenputtel” in the Grimms’ tales.

Original Brothers Grimm cover

Sign-ups for the Read-a-thon continue all week, until Friday (see Guidelines), and you don’t have to have a blog. You can join from Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter!  Look for discussion with hashtag #SpringHorrorRAT to find out what everyone is reading and to join the scheduled chat.  Only one scary or mysterious book needs to be on your reading menu for the week; whatever else you are reading is fine too.

The Ghost at Scrooge’s Door: “Jacob T. Marley” by R. William Bennett–A Review

18 Dec

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Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett. Shadow Mountain, 2011.

In this convincingly written pastiche of Charles Dickens’ classic novella A Christmas Carol, author R. William Bennett includes a Preface addressing his readers, whom he assumes are well acquainted with Dickens’ account of Scrooge’s visitations by three spirits on Christmas Eve, his repentance, and his chance to make amends and change his life. And why not? It is one of the most famous stories in the world, repeated, read, and watched on film by millions every year.  But Bennett wants to know more. He wants us to join him in inquiring further into the backstory of A Christmas Carol, in life and beyond. For him, it all boils down to one fundamental concern: “What of old Jacob?

Who was this man? Why was he so evil? Why did he in fact get to visit Scrooge and usher in the experience that changed first Ebenezer and then so many of our lives? Why did Scrooge get a final chance to change and not Jacob Marley?

Or did he?

Bennett’s novel offers answers to all these questions, and in the process considers the nature of redemption and forgiveness.  Can Scrooge be saved, and yet Marley suffer and rattle his heavy chains eternally, as Dickens implies? Perhaps everything is not as it seems.  An intriguing premise for a spinoff novel, but the success all depends on the quality of storytelling and control of language–Bennett rates highly on both counts.

The story is mapped out very well. First, it asks how did Marley become the man that he did. Unlike Scrooge, young Jacob Thelonius Marley is shown enjoying a happy childhood in a loving family.  This makes Marley, the wizened old miser, the merciless business partner of Scrooge, even more inexplicable. The author turns to the reader again, confiding that “we search for a particular event, the germination of a seed that, watered by some kind of cupidity, would take root in the pure-hearted young Jacob and find its flower in deceitful old Marley.”  He finds it in a particular incident in school when Marley’s pride and ambition are awakened by praise of his superiority in math and figures, without any tempering moral instruction.  That is the seed. The flowering comes when young Marley disowns the good example of an illustrious forebear, Thelonius Marley, whose sole distinction was an act of generosity and self-sacrifice. Jacob allows cynicism and calculation to replace his former admiration and he drops his own middle name honoring this kind man, finally expunging even the initial T., along with the memory of goodness it represented.  Is this really an explanation for Marley turning bad? Not exactly, because there is always a choice (that’s why this is a modern morality tale).  The rest of the novel plays out with close examination of Marley’s–and Scrooge’s–choices and their consequences.  The “Christmas magic” enters in when some of those choices lead to second chances.

Marley’s actions intersected with Scrooge’s life before they met because Marley was landlord to Scrooge’s sister Fan.  They met on the street during her funeral procession. But neither man would know of this connection until much later. As they saw it, a chance meeting had introduced each to his perfect associate in profit-seeking. Each man strengthened the worst qualities in the other, and their fortunes grew as their moral character withered: “For twenty-five years, the two men grew more mean, more selfish, and more aligned in their purpose.”

Were Scrooge and Marley friends? Marley did not think so, as he lay on his deathbed, and mutely received the cold, “perfunctory” visits from Scrooge each day. He could feel Scrooge’s impatience for him to depart so that Scrooge could get back to his own business. And yet–death is a crossroads, and no one can entirely predict how he might feel approaching the boundary that separates death from life.  Did Marley’s life pass before him in the long hours between Scrooge’s visits? Indeed. Marley saw the spirits of his wronged clients of a lifetime; he realized he had chosen to show them no mercy–it wasn’t inevitable. Perhaps even now he could muster the strength to say a few words to Scrooge. I won’t reveal those last words, but they have momentous consequences for the spirit of Jacob Marley.

Now the novel has arrived at the point where Dickens takes up the story.  As you might expect, Bennett will retell the crucial events from Marley’s perspective this time. Is the visit of Marley’s wailing, chain-rattling Ghost exactly what it seems to be? Perhaps there could be more to the story.  This time, Marley’s ghost will remain throughout, as an unseen witness to all that Scrooge sees when the three Ghosts of Christmas come to show him the hard truths of his past, present, and future and thereby awaken his remorse.  Marley can’t help but consider his own role in many of these events.  But will it be enough?  This book imagines some surprising twists that will affect the eternal fates of both Marley and Scrooge.

Like A Christmas Carol, Jacob T. Marley is a tale that examines the nature of redemption, forgiveness, and atonement, but Bennett’s book is more theological in its speculations and more overtly Christian in its symbolism than Dickens’ work. As pointed out recently by Michele Jacobsen of A Reader’s Respite (citing  Les Standiford, who wrote The Man Who Invented Christmas), the appearance of A Christmas Carol coincided with the beginnings of a shift toward a more secular society, one in which man had to depend on himself as much as on his Creator.  Scrooge’s path of redemption could be seen as consistent with that, although it clearly did not deny a supernatural world. As she puts it, “God was not being rejected, but man’s control over his destiny was gaining ground.” Scrooge’s choice one Christmas Eve has shaped our modern idea of Christmas.  Bennett’s book could be seen as an alternative interpretation of Scrooge’s choice and his salvation from that fearful afterlife so memorably presented to him by Jacob Marley’s ghost.

Related links:

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christmas spirit reading challenge 2014

“The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd: A Review, with remarks on Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”*

2 May

It might be said that, for great literature, pastiche is the sincerest form of flattery. The works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, have been particular favorites in the art of pastiche, because of the wealth of opportunity they offer for variation and creative amalgamation. Not to be confused with parody, pastiche is “(a) a literary, artistic, or musical composition made up of bits from various sources; potpourri; (b) such a composition intended to imitate or ridicule another’s style” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1982). The element of parody can be present, but pastiche can equally well be a work of respectful imitation and delightful re-invention.

Such are the mystery novels of literary specialist Lynn Shepherd, whose first work, Murder at Mansfield Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), turned the tables on Austen’s heroine Fanny Price and found new possibilities for Mary Crawford and the other young people gathered at the venerable country house. In particular, she plucked Charles Maddox from his relatively minor role as a prospective player in the “Lovers’ Vows” private theatrical and repurposed him as a very excellent detective.

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For her second mystery, Shepherd has pushed the clock ahead a few decades to the 1850s and she has found her inspiration chiefly (but not exclusively) in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In The Solitary House (Delacorte Press, 2012; titled Tom-All-Alone’s, in the UK), Shepherd brings her careful attention and knowledge to produce a new detective story that worthily comments on its original, varies it meaningfully, and finally stands on its own.

 

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G. K. Chesterton, still one of Dickens’s most perceptive and appreciative critics, wrote: “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it is his best novel.” John Forster, Dickens’s friend and early biographer, agreed in his estimation of Bleak House: “The novel is nevertheless, in the very important particular of construction, perhaps the best thing done by Dickens.” Shepherd avows that Bleak House is Dickens’s masterpiece; her affection and appreciation for the novel is everywhere evident. In The Solitary House, she makes full use of what Bleak House offers, even adapting a selection of Dickens’s chapter titles, rearranging them, and giving them a new significance in the context of her own detective mystery. Here we meet again the inscrutable lawyer and repository of his clients’ secrets, Tulkinghorn, and the jovial, but keen-eyed and relentless Inspector Bucket.  (Dickens’s illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, “Phiz,” chose to illustrate the jovial side in the “Friendly Behaviour of Mr. Bucket”; image scan by George P. Landow.)

 

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Thankfully, the Maddox family has jumped from the fictive world of Austen to take a decisive role in this tangled Dickensian world. Young Charles Maddox, the great-nephew of the detective in Murder at Mansfield Park, has followed the elder Maddox into his profession, and both have important connections to Bucket: Bucket, it turns out, was the elder detective’s protégé, whereas young Charles Maddox has just lost his official place in the detective police force because of “insubordination” in a clash with his boss, Inspector Bucket. Young Charles is a rough-and-ready fellow–rough around the edges from all the buffeting he has received, but still ready to pursue the truth despite all costs. At one point, after he has taken a beating, he says to his great-uncle, “As far as I’m concerned, this case is only half over. I have Tulkinghorn’s money, and I intend to spend it finding out exactly what it is he doesn’t want me to know” (p.136).

After reading about 80 pages of Shepherd’s book, I went in search of a copy of Bleak House for a re-read and refresher. I wanted to appreciate in detail what she was doing, and although I can’t claim to have caught all her skillfully placed references, I found much pleasure in comparing the two books. For example, she begins her novel, as Dickens does, with “London. Michaelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” But then she takes up the symbolic topics of the mud and fog and riffs on them with her own associations and from her own research into Victorian London.  This Prologue also introduces the reader to her Narrator. Like Dickens, Shepherd tells her story by means of a double narrative, from an anonymous third-person narrator and from a first-person account (Esther’s, in Bleak House; Hester’s, in The Solitary House).  Dickens’s third-person narrator is knowing, but not omniscient. Critic Jeremy Hawthorne comments on this important structural innovation: “It is important to stress that not only is Esther ignorant of the anonymous narrator and his narrative, but the anonymous narrator is–although of course aware of Esther as a character–ignorant of Esther’s narrative” (p. 61). In The Solitary House, the third-person narrator appears to be contemporary with readers today, often referring to “we…now,” and inserting references that post-date the time period of the narrated story, for example, mentions of “Flanders fields” (World War I), the “Baroness of Holland Park” (detective author P.D. James), “the very model of a modern teenage geek” (colloquialism of today, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan), and “we would call it post-traumatic stress” (from modern psychology). Also deftly managed is Hester’s first-person narration, which is helpfully set off in a different typeface; it draws upon the notorious quirks of Dickens’s Esther Summerson (e.g., her combination of modesty and self-congratulation, her lack of self-awareness), but Hester manages in the end to tell a story quite her own (which I won’t reveal). Mr. Jarndyce has morphed into a “Mr. Jarvis” and, as with Hester, his character is both recognizable and different.  Only in the combination of these two narrative threads do we discover the purport of a mystery which turns out to have some very grisly features–not for the squeamish.  It has some themes in common with Anthony Horowitz’s recent authorized Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The House of Silk–a likeness which tells as much about the moral concerns of the 21st-century as it does about their Victorian inspirations.  Yet The Solitary House is firmly grounded in its Victorian sense of place, whether the setting is a lonely country house, Tom-all-Alone’s, Seven Dials, or “Cook’s” rag-and-bone shop.

Pastiche stands alongside the critical essay as an alternative means not only to explore structural devices, but also to underscore character. The way Shepherd has introduced and developed Inspector Bucket pays tribute to Dickens and to the crucial role the so-called “New Police” force was playing in Dickens’s life and thought at the time he wrote Bleak House.  It is often noted that one Inspector Charles Field was the prototype for Bucket, even down to the habit of emphasizing his points with a very mobile “forefinger.” Dickens wrote, in his magazine Household Words, about an evening spent “On Duty with Inspector Field” and along with other similar pieces, these show Dickens’s high regard for the profession of detective which had only become an official part of the police force in 1842, ten years before he wrote Bleak House.  In his excellent book, Dickens and Crime, Philip Collins remarks on the “laudatory, indeed awestruck” tone of the Household Words articles on the police, and cites “the contrast between his [Dickens’s] admiration for the police and his contempt for, or indifference toward, other public functionaries–politicians, magistrates, officers in the armed services, civil servants and local government officials” (196). Collins surmises that Dickens felt comfortable with detectives, who usually came from lower class origins, although they moved in all circles of society. Further, he admired their intelligence and energy and their habit of bringing matters to swift completion, if possible, rather than dithering–again, qualities the indefatigable author possessed.

In The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket becomes involved with a new mystery (although the problem of “my Lady Dedlock” is apparently going on in parallel, off-stage). But is he the same man? It is one of the delightful puzzles of this novel to discover the true character of Bucket in Shepherd’s re-imagining of this singular figure in the annals of early detective fiction.

I hope that reading The Solitary House will put many readers on the trail of Bleak House as well, but as I’ve said, this new mystery works confidently on its own, and can be read with pleasure even if one hasn’t read Bleak House.  Shepherd shows a sure hand in the management of incident and suspense. As witness to this, I’ll mention that after coming to the end of one of her chapters, “Bell Yard,” I looked up and had the delicious sensation, precious to inveterate readers, of realizing that I had been completely involved and had forgotten that I was reading. This was just one such occasion in a literary mystery worthy of its illustrious forebears.

References

  1. Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton on Dickens (Intro. by Michael Slater). London: J. M. Dent, 1992.
  2. Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  3. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Ed. by G. Ford and S. Monod). New York: Modern Library, 1985. (Original work published serially from 1852-53)
  4. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 1, Household Words, Vol I, No. 18, 409 (July 27, 1850).
  5. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 2, Household Words, Vol I, No. 20, 457 (Aug 10, 1850).
  6. Dickens, Charles. “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Household Words, Vol III, No. 64, 265 (June 14, 1851).
  7. Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated edtion (abridged by Holly Furneaux). New York: Sterling, 2011. (Original work published in 3 vols. in 1872-74; full text online at http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html)
  8. Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012. Insight Editions, 2011. [Chap. 25, “Dickens and Detectives” has a nice little section on Inspector Field]
  9. Hawthorne, Jeremy. Bleak House (Critics Debate series). Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987.
  10. “We Mean Nothing But a Little Amusement,” http://austensmansfield.wordpress.com/category/charles-maddox/ [A nice blog article on Charles Maddox and the “private theatricals” in Mansfield Park]

*Note: FTC Disclosure. I received a free advance copy of The Solitary House from the publisher, as a prize randomly drawn from entries in a contest on the author’s website.

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Ghosts of Scrooges Past: Revisiting “A Christmas Carol”

13 May

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It’s a pleasure to join in the Austen vs. Dickens Dueling Authors tour. These two authors turn out to be very closely matched on the Fictional 100, which includes Austen’s Emma (70), and Dickens’s David Copperfield (72) and Scrooge (73). True, Dickens has two characters to speak for him, but Austen’s Emma pertly maintains her very slight edge in rank. Still they are all three nearly equal, in my estimation, in their breadth of influence. Emma and Scrooge, in particular, seem rather comparable in their recurrent popularity as subjects of film and in their adaptability to new settings and time periods. Emma has her “Clueless” and Scrooge has, well, “Scrooged”! (among many other versatile versions). David Copperfield ranks just ahead of Scrooge because, although “A Christmas Carol” is a perfectly crafted gem of a novella, David Copperfield has been called “the best of all Dickens’s books” (by G. K. Chesterton, for example) and it was Dickens’s own “favourite child.” David is the precursor of all “portraits of the artist” in their youth, including above all James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 

 


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Given that these characters seem to duel to a draw, why have I chosen to revisit Scrooge and “A Christmas Carol”? It is because I want to ask, and try to answer, a particular question: What shall we make of Scrooge’s turnabout–why does he change? If he is meant to be taken as an old sinner redeemed, he is an odd one, because Scrooge never asks for redemption–rather he resists it and it must be nearly forced upon him. His change of heart is brought about by being induced to review his life and change his perspective on it: He is made to see himself as others see him. Psychologically, this leads him to focus on his own character flaws.

How does this come about? “A Christmas Carol” is in truth a Christmas ghost story, in which Dickens shows what changes can be wrought in a man in one extraordinary night. The three ghosts of Christmas Past,  Present, and Future are nearly as familiar in deed and appearance as Scrooge himself. But I would like to suggest that it is the first ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past, who has the overwhelming burden of catalyzing change and repentance in Scrooge. If he were to fail in his task, the moving scenes of Christmas Present and Future would not be met with a softened gaze from Ebenezer’s hardened old heart.

Before we look again at each of the past scenes Scrooge must witness–the four Ghosts of Scrooges Past–I want to say a bit about how actors and observers look at the world differently. It is largely a matter of perspective. Imagine a man running to catch a commuter train and just missing it as it pulls away from the station. He is visibly frustrated and will have to sit and wait for the next train. How might he account for this event? As an actor in the situation, he has knowledge about the circumstances that led to his missing the train: perhaps there was a power failure and his electric alarm didn’t ring, or he was delayed by an accident on the highway, or he needed to spend extra time getting a child ready for school. All these aspects of his situation will be very prominent in his thoughts. Now consider another commuter standing on the platform who observes the man miss his train. What does he see, and what does he think? The running commuter is the most salient thing he sees, standing out as the focal point of his attention. Social psychologists (Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett) have shown that an observer in such a scene is much more likely to make character judgments about a person and ascribe traits in order to explain his or her behavior. In this case, the bystanding commuter may think the first man is habitually late for trains and judge that this tells something about him, rather than about the situation he finds himself in.

Now back to Scrooge. Scrooge has been living his life for decades thinking that his miserly ways make perfect sense. He sees the world around him according to its economic rules and he works to win as much for himself as he can. He understands very little about the poor except that they are poor and need to impinge as little as possible on his aims. Enter the Ghost of Christmas Past who makes Scrooge undergo a radical shift in perspective. Now he must visit four shadowy scenes from his own past, but this time as an outside observer.

First, he sees himself as a “solitary child” left at his school when the other boys had gone home to warm Christmas holidays:

…a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

Who could imagine that Scrooge would weep? To show that it is more than self-pity, Dickens shows the first inkling of repentance by having Scrooge recollect the boy who had come caroling at his door earlier that night; rather than turn him away harshly as he did, now he “should like to have given him something.” When Scrooge’s own loneliness is made to stand out in such high relief for him, he can suddenly see and feel the loneliness in another boy like himself.

Next, the Ghost shows Scrooge a later scene at school, this time with his sister Fan, who would die young, leaving one son, Scrooge’s nephew. Beholding himself, Scrooge cannot help but see how much he loved her, and she him, and he is shamed to realize how cold he has been to his dead sister’s son. Later, spying upon Fezziwig’s ball, Scrooge sees and recalls new traits about himself–that he is capable of merriment and friendship, and he sees old Fezziwig’s open-hearted generosity and good spirits–the chief traits of his employer at Christmastime. Scrooge must observe himself as one kind of man then, but now such a different character.

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The last shadow from Scrooge’s past reveals a tragic moment of transition, when ambition and greed had begun to take hold of him and he had allowed his fiancée Belle to release him from his engagement. At the time when he let Belle go, he thought only of her poverty, but as he observes his life replay before him, he can see his own greed, his own cruel mistake.

The Ghost of Christmas Past has caused a shift in Scrooge from a very unself-conscious actor to a witness, painfully observing himself. He is already different when the Ghost of Christmas Present comes to show him Bob Cratchit’s family, his nephew’s merry party, and some families of miners where the spirit of Christmas was yet dwelling. Closely observing their daily circumstances, he begins to see them as more than just the “surplus population,” but as people struggling with hardships and deep sorrows, enough so that he resolves to change them if he can. Even in Christmas Present, he is forced to observe the echoes of himself:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

While Scrooge is shifting from being solely an actor to being an observer of himself, we, the readers, make the opposite shift, from observing Scrooge, with all his abominable traits, to greater identification with him as an actor in this very absorbing redemptive drama. Whereas we first observe him in his counting house, turning away carolers and tormenting Bob Cratchit, confirming our first impression of his miserliness and cruel temperament, by the end of the “Carol” we feel as though we have been visited by three spirits, and given a second chance, and our own hearts are opened, now ready to rejoice with Scrooge at his conversion and reprieve. The annual visitation of Scrooge at Christmas time may work upon us as the three ghosts worked upon him: spurring us to imagine the long-term consequences of our actions and the latent possibilities inherent in our lives–alternative, better universes that we might choose to inhabit.

Both Dickens and Jane Austen were particularly adept at bringing their readers in close to identify with a character, as if they were actors in the scene themselves, or at holding them back at a distance to observe and judge. Understanding this “social psychology” that exists in the encounter between readers and characters is, for me, a big part of trying to appreciate the novelist’s art.

References

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. [First published in 1843]

Jones, E. E,  and Nisbett, R. E. The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, and B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior, pp. 79-94. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1971.

Nisbett, R. E., Caputo, C., Legant, P., and Maracek, J. Behavior as seen by the actor and as seen by the observer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 154-164 (1973).

Pollard-Gott, Lucy. Attribution theory and the novel. Poetics, 21, 499-524 (1993). [This article analyzes some  interesting implications of the observer-actor shift for readers of Pride and Prejudice, A Passage to India, and War and Peace]

Pollard-Gott, Lucy. The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2010.

 

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Also posting today on the Dueling Authors tour:

Fat Books & Thin WomenMansfield Park by Jane Austen & Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Birdbrain(ed) Book BlogNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen &  The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

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