With all the film versions of this classic Christmas story portraying it as more or less a moral fable for children, it's easy to forget Dickens' novella is a ghost story, and at times a genuinely scary one. But the terror isn't meaningless—Ebenezer Scrooge has some deep demons that need exorcising, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future visit him to ensure he's properly cleansed. Any reader who isn't purged of ill-will with the old miser is either unimaginably hard-hearted or dozed off after chapter one.
Which would be a considerable feat in itself since this is a fast-paced, thoroughly engrossing tale with enough humor, excitement and tender moments to keep anyone intrigued long enough to finish the story. The plot is well-known: Scrooge is a bitter old man, selfish and alone, who sees no value in the celebration of Christmas, largely because it centers around a profound sense of joy for which he has no utilitarian purpose. To help him see the error of his own ways, Scrooge is visited first by his old colleague Bob Marley—now a ghost—who informs him three spirits will be arriving to take him on a tour of his own life. The spirits are punctual, and before the end of the night old Ebenezer has revisited key Christmases in the past as well as a very dark one yet-to-come, exposing a life of pain inflicted and pain endured. His consequent jubilant surrender to good-will and "Christmas cheer" is one of the high points in literature.
What is perhaps less well-known is the genuine horror of Scrooge's ghastly voyage. Certainly there is a supernatural element (particularly when the Ghost of Christmas Future shows his terrible by-blows to Scrooge), but the true horror exists in a life of real loneliness and perpetual ill-will as exemplified by both Scrooge's genuine losses and his later rejections of love and happiness. His disregard for the destitute and the downtrodden is appalling, but so too is the deep sense of abandonment the old man has felt throughout his life.
In the end we are left changed not only by Scrooge's change of heart, but by the realization that it was not only Scrooge who was guilty of wrong. What the ghosts offer him is not simply the chance for redemption, it is sympathy for the suffering he has endured at the hands of others. Dickens' genius in this tale is his ability to lift Scrooge from the determinism of villainy or virtuousness and place him in the ambiguous realm of simply human, portraying a man at once guilty and victimized, an individual far closer to our experience than one who is simply either good or bad, and thus one whose change of heart and behavior we can truly believe. When it comes, one can't be certain (like Scrooge himself) whether the accompanying tears are principally tears of joy or sorrow, of remorse or gladness at the chance to turn remorse to good deeds.
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