Note: This piece–written at the behest of host John King and here re-edited–appeared May 2015 on The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life.
At Odds with the World: How Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Changed My Life
I was eight in the winter of 1965; the youngest of three daughters, raised essentially as an only child since my much older half-sisters had escaped years earlier–one into marriage and child-rearing, the other to college.
My parents weren’t bad people, but their lack of interest in parenting in general–and me in particular–was inescapable. At family gatherings I bobbed at the edge of things, a scrap of generational flotsam beneath the notice of all but the most teasingly abusive older cousins. Lost without realizing it, unanchored as only an ignored child can be, I might in time have easily drifted into bad company and worse behavior were it not for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
I came to the book by way of the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim. With Christmas looming, grade school excitement had ramped up to uncontrollable levels. In a bid to curb our exuberance and retain what little remained of their sanity, our teachers decided to forego the usual lessons in favor of a seasonal movie. I remember our class being marched across the hall to join the students in another room, sitting two-by-two on desk tops as other children packed into chairs lined up in the aisles. The lights dimmed and the projector began its soft tac-tac-tac-tac as the reel unwound. The opening chords of sepulchral music, dismal and foreboding as a funeral dirge, silenced any stray whispers. Mesmerized, I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge unfold.
Rather than yet another childish yarn with animals, contrived bits of danger, and a happily ever after resolution, this story had meat in it; hearty food tough to chew and swallow, but more real than anything I’d ever experienced. Though I was terrified by Jacob Marley’s wailing spirits and the Ghost of Christmas Future, dismissive of treacly Tiny Tim (far too good to bear any resemblance to a real child), and amused by kind-hearted Bob Cratchit and the boisterous, holiday-loving Fred, my heart belonged to Scrooge. From the first “Humbug!” his transformative journey hit me where I lived. Here was another soul at odds with the world, adrift and alone. His story offered me the opportunity to examine my own life through his lens, and it laid clear the choice of paths I might follow.
But it wasn’t until I read the book that I discovered gravy for the film’s meat. I’d watched the movie, but I immersed myself in the words, reveling in my new-found friend, that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching covetous old sinner.” In the story of that doomed soul, redeemed not just through the kindness of others and their belief that somewhere inside him lay a beating heart, but also by his own marvelous discovery that he deserved–and desired–a happy life, I found the resolve to move beyond the bare bones of my world and (so I hoped) avoid my own lonely corner of a cemetery.
A Christmas Carol has become such standardized holiday fare that it seems a homogenized lump, barely noticed by most people. Scrooge is perceived as nothing more than a one-dimensional cut-out of a man; a simple villain redeemed by goodness when, in fact, he is the fabled Hero of countless legends, enduring three trials to gain his reward. Scrooge is Everyman. He is us, our imperfections laid stark against a backdrop of Victorian England. In him we glimpse the possibility of our own salvation, a chance to repent, an opportunity to make-over our mistakes and create a different sort of life.
Like all of us, Scrooge is molded by experience and self-perception, constantly balanced on the cusp of choice. Which path to choose is the question that overtakes him again and again, but it’s never so simple a decision as that of good versus evil. Scrooge is not an evil man; he is damaged beyond repair or so he believes, hidden behind walls of his own creation in the misguided notion that retreat and seclusion will spare him further pain.
Rejection is the theme that fuels Scrooge and the thread that united him with me. Having been rebuffed and disappointed so often (either in truth or in perception), he would rather turn his back first than give anyone the opportunity to get close. Dickens paints the picture well: “The cold within him froze his old features, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him …” and goes on further to describe Scrooge as edging “his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”
Small wonder I felt a shiver at our first encounter.
Any sort of parable runs the risk of dry boredom. For a moral story to work, it must engage its readers in ways they don’t at first comprehend, drawing them in, teaching without seeming to. How better to do that then to engage our imaginations by bringing a world and its inhabitants to vibrant life? Dickens’s wintry London isn’t merely cold. “The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed and turned to misanthropic ice.” Jacob Marley’s face, appearing in place of the door knocker, is no vague image but “… had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” The Ghost of Christmas Past, rather than being a solitary image we might easily dismiss, is a figure ” … fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body …”
Dickens set his story at Christmas in order to draw a stark contrast between the perceived general goodwill of that season and the dismal psychological prison where Scrooge hides, but it’s hardly a Christmas tale alone and remains, in its simple truth, a story to be recalled and celebrated at any time of year. In fact, it may be that the tale is strongest out-of-season, when the lesson it teaches isn’t hidden within the ornate trappings of present-day Christmas.
Scrooge, redeemed, does not second-guess his transformation or question the events of that propitious night, but accepts that “Some people laughed to see the alternation in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset … His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”
To paraphrase Dickens: “Howard was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”
Funny thing about this piece is, it was only as I was recording this, hearing my voice speak the word’s I’d written, that I realized it was more about my father, Howard Limbacher–dead three years at that point–than about Scrooge or me. That epiphany brought some much-needed insight into why my dad had behaved the way he did; why he kept not only the world, but also his entire family, at arm’s length; why he lashed out, intent on causing hurt before he could be hurt; and how broken his perceptions were of the people around him.
I don’t know the reasons why he was the way he was, although I have my guesses. His mother was caustic; haphazard in the love she showed her children (if it can, indeed, be called love). I suspect abuse of one form or another. It made Dad withdrawn, while at the same time yearning for love and friendship. He wanted to trust, but couldn’t. I think he was monumentally lonely; insecure; depressed, his self-esteem nil, and deeply hurt by life. I wish that, like Scrooge, he could have found his way past all that to reclaim the life that was his for the asking.