Yesterday, as it turns out, was the anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol, which first appeared in print on December 19, 1843. I only just learned from The Writer's Almanac that Dickens wrote the story beginning in late October of 1843 - that's right, less than two full months from start of writing to completion of publication. His prior novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, had been a commercial failure, and Dickens apparently believed he might be able to cash in with a heartwarming holiday tale. Now, I can't be certain how much money it earned him in his lifetime, but it's certainly sold bazillions of copies over the centuries.
Tonight, a few of my favorite lines from A Christmas Carol and from some of the movie versions of it, too.
The story opens with one of the best opening lines ever:
"Marley was dead, to begin with."
Dickens gets a bit too wordy with his explanation about precisely how dead Marley really and truly was, but parts of it - such as the "dead as a doornail" bit - are quite funny. This is usually edited a bit in performances, and one of the funniest versions of the opening is probably found in A Muppet Christmas Carol, wherein the Great Gonzo delivers the lines and explains to Rizzo the Rat why it's important.
"If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "Every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart."
Ahahaha! How can you not love Scrooge for his curmudgeonly attitude? And who among us hasn't had a moment or two of a similar thought somewhere along the lines during the holidays - say, when waiting in a line, or in a hurry somewhere? I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons people love the story is that even though none of us want to confess to having anything in common with the miserly, nasty, cold-hearted Scrooge, we all recognize a bit of ourselves in the old man nevertheless. He may not represent the best part of human nature, but much of his character represents aspects of human nature that resonates with the less-good parts in ourselves. And if old Scrooge, who is so much worse than us, can find redemption, then so must we all be able to. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?" Scrooge trembled more and more. "Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it since. It is a ponderous chain!"
I have a sincere fondness for quite a few of the lines that belong to Marley's ghost, in no small part because I once played the role of Marley in a high school version of the play. And perhaps one of my most favorite bits is this response to Scrooge's attempt at a compliment, when he calls Marley a good man of business:
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business."
I love the Muppets' version of the story, called, fittingly enough, A Muppet Christmas Carol, which uses the two old guys as "Marley and Marley". I love how they comment on what is, essentially, Dickens's own dialogue:
Jacob Marley: Why do you doubt your senses?
Ebenezer Scrooge: Because a little thing can affect them. A slight disorder of the stomach can make them cheat. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese. Yes. There's more gravy than of grave about you.
Robert Marley: More gravy than of grave?
Jacob Marley: What a terrible pun. Where'd you get those jokes?
Robert Marley: Leave comedy to the bears, Ebenezer.
I can't tell you why it is I so love these next lines, but I do:
"Who, and what are you?" Scrooge demanded. "I am the Ghost of Christmas Past." "Long Past?" inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature. "No. Your past."
I guess because it's the introduction to the first of the visiting spirits?
From the movie Scrooged starring Bill Murray, this bit from Frank Cross's past really cracks me up every time. The lines are said by his father, played by his real-life brother, Brian Doyle-Murray:
"All day long I listen to people give me excuses why they can't work. My legs hurt. My back aches. I'm only four. The sooner he learns life isn't handed to him on a silver platter, the better."
Among the socially conscious lines in the story that I like are quite a few of the exchanges involving the Ghost of Christmas Present, who explains that some of the men of the cloth and other leaders are acting on their own (and are possibly mistaken):
"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."
This particular spirit also parrots Scrooge's own words back to him when Scrooge shows concern over Tiny Tim's fate (the lines about decreasing the surplus population), and he also has the great explanation of the dangers of poverty and ignorance, which I've quoted before, but which bear repeating:
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.
"They are Man’s," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!"
And I do love Scrooge's declaration, even if it's a bit moralistic:
"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!"
Sing it, Ebenezer, sing it loud!
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration 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; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.