Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

This blog was born of my interest - curiosity, really - about words and language. I am an analyst first and foremost, with an emphasis on the architecture of information. This leads me down many paths, but primarily my overriding goal is to clarify; I find ways to simplify the complex, extract the essence of things, restate and restructure into more understandable terms. This activity isn't limited to only written things, but this post is about the interpretation of written things.

Charles Dickens was a 19th century British writer - he would say English writer, I'm sure - who mostly wrote about life in the early part of that century. He wrote fiction, to be sure, but fiction that was set against the background of the reality of the times in which he lived. One can learn a lot about what life was like for those who lived back then by reading Dickens' descriptions - descriptions of the sometimes squalid lives of the poor or common people of the first part of that century.

I have loved reading since I was a child. I can't remember a time when I wasn't reading some book or other, and I can't remember when I first discovered Charles Dickens. I remember studying David Copperfield as a requirement in school, but that wasn't the first.

Like many others in this age of instant communication, I have fallen into the lazy trap of watching "books" in the cinema, or on TV. For example, every Christmas I watch the TV versions of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," with the Alastair Sim version being my favorite I think. After many times of watching it, one gets to almost be able to say the dialog by heart.

Although I watch it on TV every Christmas, in its many renditions, it has been years and years since I actually read the words Charles Dickens wrote. I did dig it out the other day and began reading it, and was immediately reminded of how the movie versions don't do Dickens' writing justice. If you have been guilty of this lazy habit of watching instead of reading, I would recommend you pick up the book again.

What makes an author successful? Famous? We've talked about what makes certain books "classics," but, in my mind, it is almost totally the author's powers of description that make him good, great, or classically great. Of course, one needs an interesting story to begin with, but the telling of that story will determine mediocrity or greatness, in my opinion. Nobody describes better than Charles Dickens.

When I was a child, I always read books far over my head, so to speak. Books written for children never interested me. Of course that meant I needed to always have a dictionary nearby, and it had to be used with nearly every paragraph. Today, I am older and perhaps even wiser, but I still need my dictionary when I read Dickens. I don't mind.

We all know the story of Dickens' A Christmas Carol by heart. It is the story of the meaning of Christmas and how an old man lost his way by forgetting what life is really all about. And then, as Paul Simon might say, he was given another shot at redemption.

To watch the old story unfold on TV is one thing. But to read Dickens describe the story, well... that is something else again.

Part of the reason I still need my dictionary to read Dickens in the flesh is because the story was written a long time ago and people spoke differently in the 19th century. Another reason is because Dickens was British and used British phrases and idioms, some foreign to an American eye. But, mainly, I need a dictionary because Dickens' vocabulary is simply so much more extensive than mine.

I know some of you reading this are also analysts, and I know some of you are also interested in literature. As I began reading A Christmas Carol, and looking up words, just as I had done as a child, and trying to sort out his underlying meanings, it occurred to me that perhaps you would enjoy doing some of that right along with me. If so, what follows might even be a little bit fun for some of you. Let's do some together.
A Christmas Carol
Stave I: Marley's Ghost

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Marley was dead. Got that. But 'Change? I don't get that. "Exchange"? Hmmm. Dictionary no help here. Well, the meaning was clear that Scrooge's name carried considerable weight. And that Scrooge knew for sure that Marley was dead. Dead as a doornail? I'm surprised that expression is so old that Dickens used it, but I know what it means.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain. The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot -- say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance -- literally to astonish his son's weak mind.

Scrooge was Marley's sole residuary legatee. My dictionary says "residuary" means an estate and "legatee" is a person who is the beneficiary of such. I take this to mean that Scrooge inherited all of his partner's estate when he died. His part of the business. His house. The movie versions don't tell you that. We further glean, in Dickens' rather roundabout manner of speaking, that Scrooge didn't take the day off when Marley died, but conducted business as usual and even closed a nice transaction that day. Do you agree with my interpretation? But why the lengthy reference to Hamlet? Why, to warn the reader that he, Dickens the writer, is also about to set up a scene with a ghost and wants to make sure you agree the guy is dead. That's the gist of it, I think. Still, I don't understand the reference to St. Paul's in this context, or the part about his son's weak mind. Maybe some of you who are up on your Hamlet can explain it better than I. And I'm trying. Help.

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, 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; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Hard and sharp as a flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire. I like that, don't you? Elegant. So is the Oyster simile. "Rime", I learned long ago in the Air force, is thin ice that forms on wings and causes planes to crash. Must be deiced. But on Scrooge's head? Well, Dickens never saw an airplane, so we are talking about a hoary frost on his thin hair and eyebrows. But not literally; Scrooge was a cold character even in the summer, so Dickens isn't referring to the winter air causing Scrooge to be cold - he was simply cold-hearted, period. Indeed, Dickens goes on to clarify this by saying Scrooge was a cold character even in the dogdays. Dogdays meaning the hottest part of summer. I think.


Well, maybe this analysis isn't so much fun for you as it is me after all.

Try the following all by yourself. I mean, rewrite it into modern simple English if you can:

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often `came down' handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, `My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?' No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o'clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men's dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, `No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!'

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call `nuts' to Scrooge.

Once upon a time -- of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve -- old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already -- it had not been light all day -- and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.


I HATE multiple-choice tests; all of mine are essay. Do translate. For the fun of it.


  1. I love this!

    I took the rime on Scrooge's head and eyebrows to indicate white hair, as well as the cold character of course.

    I'm going to get my copy out right now and read it again.

    Rewriting? Must I? It's never as satisfying as the original.

  2. I can never get into Dickens. There's too much obvious padding (paid by the yard) and maudlin sentiment (oh look, another little orphan girl).

  3. I have no difficulty at all in reading the set text, nothing in it seems difficult or superfluous.
    Maybe it's because I grew up in england, and, like you, was dissatisfied with books written for children. Amongst the many books on the bookshelf in my bedroom was a complete set of Dickens, along with various of Kipling, Mark Twain, Charles Kingsley, Marryat, Ballantyne, Winston Churchill, H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Jack London, etc.,etc.
    I suppose somewhat adrchaic language seemed the norm to me, I was confined to my room, to my bed, often, by illness, asthma was my torment, and my escape was found in books, I might have physically in my bedroom, but in reality, I was riding with Kiplings scouts along the north-west frontier, or climbing with Professor Challenger to find the Lost World. Or I was with Pip, in Great Expectations.
    The consequence? I can't see anything superfluous in that passage. All of it goes to portray Scrooge's character.

    However, let's try put it into modern terms. Lets write it in a way Disney fans will understand.

    "Scrooge did not notice the weather, nothing made him smile, he was a nasty man, people were afraid of him and shied away, which suited him fine."

    'change, as you rightly surmise is a contraction of "exchange", which itself is a shortening of 'The Royal Exchange'. Scrooge and Marley's world was set in the area immediately surrounding the Royal Exchange, and the Bank of England. So what we hear is that Scrooge's name was trusted, that if Scrooge set his signature upon a bill of exchange, then that signature needed no deposit, no security, a promise from Scrooge was as good as gold bars in the bank. Unlikeable he might be, uncharitable, but never dishonest.

  4. Another thought. That first section, on Marley being dead.
    If you heard Marley was dead, that might be just a rumour. The clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, they might tell you, and you could fairly doubt that Marley was dead, upon such flimsy evidence.
    But if you saw Scrooge's signature upon it, you would know for sure Marley was dead, because Scrooge's signature was, in all transactions, a seal of absolute truth.

    Rime: your definition is a modern one. Rime is also the ice that grows on the rigging and upperworks of a tall-ship, rime is the band of ice upon the shore where the waves lap. Rime can also be the salt line that forms on the clothing of sailors.

  5. I have to concur with the definitions of 'Change (note, a deliberate apostrophe to indicate the missing "ex" at the start of the word). In Dickensian times business was still conducted on bills and notes of exchange so Dickens literally means "His word was immutably trustworthy".

    The phrase "dead as a doornail" is actually still in common usage in the UK, especially in the South and East London areas where my family come from but it actually appears in Shakespeare's Henry IV and as early as the 14 century in "The Vision of Piers Plowman".

  6. "But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call 'nuts' to Scrooge."

    Nuts? That sounds a fairly modern term to me. Nuts as in crazy? Nuts as in, well, I can think of a few alternatives. Which one?

  7. A.: No, you don't have to rewrite it all. Just choose a part that seems obscure and try to say it plainly, as if you were speaking to someone who was in your classroom. Or pose something that YOU don't quite understand so others can opine what it means. You and I are the only ones who like to analyze this stuff, I think.

    Suciô Sanchez: It's not about liking the author, though I do understand he is a bit Victorian in his writing for many people's taste. Rather, it's about being able to understand him and prove it. Can you? Thanks a lot for stopping by today. Hope to see you again.

    Soubriquet: Oh yeah? I don't have any trouble reading it either. I just don't understand some of the passages and was looking for clarification help, or at least discussion. I guess that means I fall into the Disney dolt class. :) That's ok. This isn't fun for everyone, I understand that. I think I understood about the contraction for "exchange" but I just wasn't able to tie it's relevance into signing a death certificate or equivalent. THAT was a little superfluous, if I may say. But, as I said, children's books don't challenge enough and after a while you get used to Dickens coming in the back door and never being direct. If that were not true, there would be no challenge to understand him.

    If you were a teacher of English Literature, would you not bounce things off your students and make them tell you what Dickens meant by this or that? Does that not challenge the mind? Not that you are my students, just a discussion group. Perhaps I should have selected Poe instead, the king of flowery obtuseness with a vocabulary used only to dumfound the reader instead of edify him. Thank god for Vincent Price and Peter LorreL some things are better seen in the movies instead of the books. Poe is one of those things.

    I identify with your childhood quite a bit, though I wasn't ill; I had a lot of books and got lost in them. When the neighborhood kids would knock on the door to ask me to go out and play, I would do so, but it never occurred to me that I wasn't already playing. :) Then I discovered girls and their wiles and the books suffered.

    I enjoyed your restatement of Scrooge. You made it very clear. At least to me. There is an audience for that kind of translation or paraphrase, and they are not necessarily stupid in all things. They just wouldn't get to know about Dickens if someone hadn't simplified or digested it for them. Obama comes to mind.

    I know more about rime now too. Rigging. Tall ships. Yes!

    Punctuation: "Dead as a doornail" is THAT old? I know it is known in the U.S., though probably not in as wide usage as it once was. That's pretty amazing. So many side avenues to explore here! Thank you for clarifying the exchange passage for me. It's good to see you here again! :)

  8. Sheila: In this context, I believe "nuts" means "hold the mustard." You're welcome.

  9. Sheila, I don't know what it means either. We will have to wait and hope Soubriquet sees this comment. In semi-modern usage, "nuts" might mean "nuts to you"; an interjection meaning "bullsh--t" or similar. Or, more commonly, it is slang for "crazy." Neither of those ring true in this case though. "That's just fine with me" seems more apt to this passage. Then again, Scrooge may have had a crazed squirrel in his pocket that Dickens didn't bother to mention. That would also explain people moving out of his way. We may never know for sure.

  10. I was just now searching with Google to try and find the answer to the context of "nuts", and I ran across another blogger who did pretty much exactly the same thing as I did in this post, except he didn't analyze quite so much :) He reprinted all that I did except he stopped after the nuts passage, and then made his comments. Anyway, I noted that his post got one comment, and I loved it. I think it was from Russia. Maybe not.

    "I loved your story and I hope to see the movie."


    Still looking for Scrooge's nuts...

  11. I didn't have any trouble understanding the text either. However, I grew up with (and still regularly read) a great deal of British literature, both old and more modern. Dickens is not my favorite, but I know many who love him.

    The reference to Hamlet also makes perfect sense to me in that it says only that, as happened in Hamlet, the death occurred before the story and the audience must take that on faith else the ghost that follows will not seem fantastic. But I've been exposed to a great deal of Shakespeare and Hamlet is my sister (Shakespeare)'s favorite.

    Personally, when it comes to be blasted with vocabulary that confounds, I'm generally done in by Poe, who I adore but requires constant trips to the dictionary.

  12. Found it!

    It seems Dickens himself created a digested version of A Christmas Carol which he used at his public readings. Someone annotated it. His nuts are here.

  13. @Stephanie - Well, I think we ALL were able to read it and understand the story. Completely understanding every single word and idiom is something else again, and something I would challenge both you and Soubriquet on. I noticed neither of you took the opportunity to explain the "nuts" archaic idiom, and I would have (almost) wagered you couldn't have explained "residuary legatee" either, though, like me, you understood what was being said in the larger context.

    Well, since I have provided the glossary of his terms now, I can't very well test you on other passages to verify you guys' absolute understanding without need for a dictionary. :)

    But I will be lying in wait for both of you incredibly gifted 19th century vocabulary wizards in future posts, you may be sure of that. And you both are dead meat when I do. :)

    P.S. If you are into Shakespeare so much, why didn't you edify me about the St. Paul's allegory and the allusion to a weak-minded son? Surely Dickens wasn't talking about St. Paul's simply because it was one of a million windy places?

    I'm glad you have a sense of humor.


    You have a sense of humor, right?


  14. Of course i could, all those and more.... well. maybe.
    The context of "nuts" is one I'm not familar with. being "nuts about" something, but having something be "nuts to" someone, no, thats not common.
    Jerome K Jerome said Queen Elizabeth the first was nuts about pubs, I think, maybe nuts for pubs. I think it was all the pubs called the queeen, the queen's head, the queen's arms etc...
    A residuary legatee I would take to be the surviving partner in a joint legacy. Pray correct me if I am wrong. if Scrooge and marley both wrote wills leaving their business to the other, the one who did not die first would be the residuary legatee.
    St Paul's allegory? St Paul's cathedral, in the time of Scrooge had no real churchyard, but the alleys around the cathedral were so known, and might well have been notoriously windy, because the cathedral was the biggest building for miles, and may well have funnelled the breeze into local gales. Where Hamlet's father comes in, I have no idea.

  15. Soubriquet addressed St. Paul's much as I would.

    Hamlet's father does not take part in the play, Hamlet except as a ghost. The audience has only the word of the characters in the play that Hamlet's father "really" died and is a ghost rather than playing a prank on his soon-to-be-unhinged son.

    Marley, similarly, is not a figure in A Christmas Carol except as a ghost and we must take on faith that he is truly dead though he died before the story really began.

    That's the connection.

    Ha Ha. Wait, that's not funny.

  16. Chiming in (as the Shakespeare fan I am), I just had to let you know that I've taught this text more than once in my British Literature survey courses, especially when I teach in the fall term, for that means I get to it in late November (perfect timing!).

    The phrase "dead as a doornail" first appears in this book, too. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary years ago, and Dickens may not have invented the phrase, but his use of it is the first time it appears in print, at least according to the OED.

    I find, honestly, that reading Dickens is like reading my own writing. Shakespeare, too. Even Morte d'Arthur, which is written in Middle English, speaks to me more than much of what is written today. I'm a HUGE fan of this book--and of DAVID COPPERFIELD, which is my personal Dickens favorite--and your post inspires me to go back to it.

    It doesn't make any sense, I know, but there it is.

  17. Hello Shakespeare. It pleases me to have been the cause of you revisiting David Copperfield again.

    Although "dead as a doornail" may well have appeared in print for the first time in A Christmas Carol, Dickens himself alluded to the fact that the saying was much older when he said in the third paragraph, "But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it...) Amazing that some of these things are so old.

  18. I apologize, because this might not be in context (I've been trying to puzzle out the flow and meaning of the "nuts" reference, and became distracted these other references).I haven't been through all the posts, but I've heard "dead as a doornail" to refer to a carpenter/builder's act of burying the head of a nail beneath the surface of the wood. I imagine the simile carries over to a dead person being buried beneath the surface of the earth.



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