Great Books of Western Literature: A Christmas Carol

1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago this summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books series by Encyclopedia Brittanica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

Although I’m starting generally with the works of what Harold Bloom calls the Theocratic Age (i.e., the ancient world), I thought for Christmas I would re-read the classic A Christmas Carol and write down some of the themes of the work as they struck me while reading the work last night.

As a reminder to the reader, it is the story of an old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, who tells Ebenezer that he is doomed to walk throughout eternity carrying the moral burden he has created by not helping others in need.    He warns Ebenezer that this too is his fate if he continues in his miserly ways, but that he has procured a chance of redemption by the visitation of three spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.

These three spirits cause Ebenezer Scrooge to have a transformation that not only changes his life, but the life of those around him.    It was immensely popular at the time and continues to be so, through the medium of film versions such as the British production of Scrooge (1951) starring Alastair Sim  or the American production of A Christmas Carol (1984) with George C. Scott in the starring role as Ebenezer Scrooge.

1.   Social criticism in the novel

Harold Bloom would not put A Christmas Carol in the list of Great Books of Western Literature for the reason that it was a form of criticism about economic policies; he would probably say it is a great work of literature for aesthetic reasons despite the fact that it contains social criticism.   But let me talk about this theme because it is important even now.    The idea that it is not the government’s role to mitigate social inequality caused by economic dislocation was a popular conservative notion then as it is now, but the novels of Charles Dickens portrayed that inequality in such moving terms that it helped the progressive cause both in Britain and the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.    This is the reason for its ongoing popularity, but not the reason why it is a great work.

2.  The Structure

On the surface of the work, it looks like it takes place within a single day, from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, but since the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come show him scenes from his entire lifetime from the time of his childhood to the time of his death, the scope of the novel really opens up in a way that is reminiscent of modern science fiction.     The various scenes from his life are very vividly drawn, which is one of the reasons why it has been successfully been made into stage adaptations in the 19th century and films in the 20th century.    And yet the work, at the length of a novella, is easily read in a single sitting.     I think this is one of the few works of literature, then, that partakes of the aesthetic of the sublime as well as the beautiful.    That may be one of the reasons for endurance in the public’s imagination.

3.  Redemption

The theme of redemption, the idea that one can make a change in one’s moral choices and become altruistic, even late in one’s life after a lifetime of selfishness, is the main message of hope in the work.   However, in order to get to that hope, Ebenezer has to be brought to the edge of despair as he sees the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come show him that his perpetuation of an uncaring system will eventually claim himself as a victim.    This power of redemption is portrayed as having the emotional power of a religious conversion, and yet without any overt religious references to Christianity.    This is one of the reasons for its powerful effect on audiences.

4.  A Revival of Christmas Iconography

At the time of the writing of a Christmas Carol, the Protestant Reformation had almost totally expunged the Christmas holiday of any of its festive character as we think of it today, and had turned it under Puritan influence into a purely religious holiday.    The center section of the novella, where Ebenezer encounters the Ghost of Christmas Present, emphasizes the holiday as one of fellowship with friends, co-workers and family, and shows this across various social classes.    It was such a warm-hearted portrayal of Christmas that it was responsible for a revival of Christmas pageantry, and the enfolding of the pagan traditions within the Christian traditions that had previously superseded them.    Again, this is a reason for the social impact of the novel, but one of the reasons why it succeeds artistically is because it presents the glory of Christmas fellowship in such short, deft strokes.

5.  The Leavening of Humor

The emotional journey that Ebenezer Scrooge takes is lightened by the sense of humor he takes in reaction to his experiences.    When he first expressed doubt over the reality of the ghost of Jacob Marley, for example, he thinks that his vision of Marley may be the result of indigestion, and says “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”   His sarcastic, outwardly-directed humor transforms gradually into a self-deprecatory sense of humor at the end after his transformation.     Humor no longer becomes a weapon of self-defense but an expression of humility, and it is an example of the masterful portrayal of the change that comes over Ebenezer Scrooge.

Because of the themes expressed above, Charles Dickens’ book is a great book and will likely continue to have a positive effect on generations to come.


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