As Richard Kelly notes in his introduction to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the novella is marked by its contrasts: it is “a paradoxical mixture of light and darkness, joy and despair, warmth and cold, life and death.”[i] One striking element that conveys this paradoxical mixture within Carol has to do with the way in which speech acts are offered and rejected, given and received, even asked for and withheld. This is most evident in the opening stave, before Ebenezer Scrooge receives his ghostly visitations; however, this element is developed throughout the novella and Scrooge’s conversion.
While in his counting-house near the beginning of Carol, Scrooge receives three visitors, foreshadowing the unearthly visitors soon to come. The first visitor is Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who offers him an invitation to Christmas dinner. Scrooge refuses this offer, but not only this offer, he also ignores and rejects Fred’s enthusiastic well-wishing for the Christmas and New Year. Soon after two gentlemen come in to speak with Scrooge, asking for donations in order to buy food for the poor. Scrooge, after what might be considered heartless remarks about the poor and their apparent suffering, refuses to give anything, remarking that it is none of his business, and ends the conversation with a sharp “Good afternoon, gentlemen!”[ii]
However, it’s the third visitor that is the briefest and perhaps the most revealing for Dickens purpose of these visits, and the novella itself. Scrooge’s third visitor is a poor, cold-bitten young man, whose nose is “gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs.”[iii] The visitor does not come inside, but rather stoops near the keyhole in order to offer a song—a Christmas carol. Dickens has this character sing only two verses of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” yet here Dickens changes the lyric to “God bless you merry gentleman!” This slight change from “rest” to “bless” seems significant and deliberate. Is Dickens here deliberately using “bless” to steer his readers from an understanding of rest that would dissuade from charitable action?[iv] Perhaps it simply signifies the changed meaning of “rest” from its more archaic “to keep;” nevertheless it does allow Dickens to begin the emphasis on blessing later to be echoed by Tiny Tim, the narrator, and Scrooge himself. Further, through this Christmas carol, the young man would have offered tidings of comfort and joy in the verses that follow, but he is silenced and scared off by Scrooge and his menacing ruler-grab. Each of these spoken (and sung) offers and invitations are rejected by Scrooge, and each of them seems to have comfort at the heart of them—be it the comfort of one’s family, the comfort of a meal and warmth, or merely the tidings of comfort offered goodheartedly in the season of joy.
As Scrooge’s evening continues, it is interesting that these speech acts seem to be reversed, yet the centrality of comfort remains. When Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge pleads: “Speak comfort to me, Jacob.”[v] Marley responds that he has no comfort to give, saying that such comfort “comes from other regions…and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”[vi] Additionally, the first ghost claims his business to be Scrooge’s “welfare,” and yet Scrooge, though thanking the ghost, says instead that that a night of “unbroken rest” would be “more conducive.”[vii] Although Scrooge attempts to refuse such charity,” the ghost silences him, naming Scrooge’s reclamation over his welfare to be his concern: “Take heed!”[viii] Later, faced with the reality of the present, Scrooge is silenced by second ghost, who uses Scrooge’s own words to silence him. And it is finally with the third ghost that Scrooge is met with one who is completely silent, who refuses Scrooge with any spoken answer, despite Scrooge’s sorrowful query: “Will you not speak to me?”[ix] It is not until Scrooge vocalizes the promise of his change—“Spirit…hear me!”[x]—which is interestingly followed by an unspoken prayer, that Scrooge awakes in his own bed. Having been converted and his heart now full of laughter, Scrooge becomes the bearer of good tidings, tidings of comfort and joy, tidings of blessing.
Through this work, Dickens himself seems to offer tidings, but contrastive tidings. He offers readers both a tale of hope and a tale of realistic anguish and destitution. Dickens mentions in his preface, he endeavored “to raise the Ghost of an Idea.”[xi] He tells of the worst of human nature, but bears the comforting news of possible change. Through this telling, he further offers an image of the reality of poverty, but in it he also finds joy. By raising such a ghost of an idea, in some sense he leaves the reception open-ended for the reader, offering tidings that can be refused or accepted, but will hopefully continue to pleasantly “haunt” readers with its message.
[i] Richard Kelly, “Introduction,” in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, ed. Richard Kelly (Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts, 2003), 10. Cf., 27.
[ii] Dickens, Carol, 45.
[iii] Dickens, Carol, 46.
[iv] I am thinking here of how the ghost of Jacob Marley tells Scrooge that he cannot rest (55), and later how Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Past how he could use a night of “unbroken rest” (63). Something more seems to be at issue with “rest” in this work, though it is not clear exactly what Dickens is trying to convey.
[v] Dickens, Carol, 55.
[vi] Dickens, Carol, 55.
[vii] Dickens, Carol, 63.
[viii] Dickens, Carol, 63.
[ix] Dickens, Carol, 103
[x] Dickens, Carol, 115.
[xi] Dickens, Carol, 37.