Recently I observed a year twelve class, under test conditions, complete a text response essay on A Christmas Carol. I’d just read Charles Dickens’ novella myself, so joined in with the examination, writing the following essay on the topic of seeing: is it enough for Scrooge to simply be told, or does he need to see things in order to embrace the spirit of Christmas?
In the novella A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens describes the yielding of a stubborn man to the spirit of Christmas. The protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge experiences a profound change of heart, moving in a single night from antipathy to full endorsement vis-à-vis the joy and generosity of the festive season. This transformation comes about via a series of visions. Scrooge sees the past, the present and the future in a kind of pre-emptive cinema experience, complete with flashbacks, close-ups and dissolves. It is this visual display that affects him. Without it, he would have carried on to a death like that shown by the awful but transformative Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
From the outset, Scrooge is told what to do. His nephew tries to talk him in Christmas dinner; a charity worker begs him for seasonal funds. But this verbal reasoning is too familiar. Scrooge has his own words ready to deflect even the strongest language. In fact his verbal ability is practiced enough to give him the upper hand in a spoken exchange. Take the talk with the charity man, in which the visitor’s appeal is shut down via Scrooge’s sheer verbal and rhetorical control. Scrooge flips the discussion around, asking a series of questions designed to defend his position of non-generosity. The worker may be aghast at Scrooge’s harsh reference to “the surplus population,” but he cannot deny that when it comes to verbal jousting, Scrooge is a winner.
No wonder Scrooge’s business partner appears to him, silently, at the threshold of his own home. Marley’s ghost ushers in a new means of storytelling, a symbolic and visual world whose language Scrooge will find irresistible. The narrator’s focus on the physical appearance of this spirit – its wild eyes, its unhinged jaw – signals the importance of the seen in the middle staves of the novella, both to the experience of its reader and the transformation of its protagonist.
As Scrooge is visited by the three spirits of Christmas, words become less and less necessary to the bringing about of the man’s spiritual change. Like Dante’s Virgil, these ghosts exist mainly as guides, gesturing and curating, speaking only as required. The Ghost of Christmas Past needs only to place Scrooge in another time and setting for the vision of Scrooge’s childhood to work its way into the old man’s conscience. Likewise, the Ghost of Christmas Present does little more than help Scrooge to see the world around him, infused by seasonal cheer.
By the time that the last ghost appears. language is no longer required. Schooled by Marley and the first two Christmas spirits, Scrooge is able to follow the dark meaning of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, wordless as it is. Here Dickens dissolves language completely, taking Scrooge and his readers into a kind of infantile space in which words are not yet meaningful, in which if we can read anything at all, it’s our own name. Faced with his own headstone, Ebenezer Scrooge grows up, finding the only words he needs to have learned his lesson.
The last stave of the novella shows a changed man. Scrooge’s heart and eyes are open to the joy of Christmas, and the needs of the poor. Stuttering, Scrooge imitates his non-verbal guides, showing rather than telling what it means to celebrate Christmas. He sends a turkey to his employee, and whispers an instruction to the charity man, asking him to “say nothing.” Not only has Scrooge adopted the customary generosity of the season, but its gestural mode of expression, as well.
A Christmas Carol is a didactic tale, encouraging its readers to embrace the traditions of generosity and festivity associated with Christmas. It shows us what it looks like to be in synch with the season, demonstrating the physical symptoms of Christmas cheer. As well, at another level, it shows us how to show things, to persuade each other in a non-verbal mode. For all its talk and despite its noisy title, A Christmas Carol is a book about not saying a word.