Believe it or not there is a story which you can tell about characters in any time period, of any social stand, in any place in the world, about people in just about any stage of life. This might sound like a bit of a stretch but believe me, it’s true. I know it’s true because it has been done. I don’t say this in the way Joseph Campbell talks about the Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m talking about an actual story, with a prescribed set of events, that authors have read and then deliberately copied and adapted to narratives of their own.
This story is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
There was a time where no TV show was complete until it had a Christmas Carol episode. Everything from The Flintstones to The Jetsons to The Muppets has tackled this basic narrative at least once. Something about Dickens’ basic narrative has such a broad appeal and universal applicability that English speaking culture developed a fascination with trying to retell the narrative that lasted all the way up to the end of the 20th century. What are the lessons we can draw from this?
Well, first that simple motivations are the best. Ebenezer Scrooge was not driven by any kind of deep trauma or some kind of overly complex theory of society. He suffered abuse as a child, yes, but nothing outside the normal human experience. He had good friends, a sense of morality and goals beyond securing his own position. Unfortunately he gets distracted by very simple, understandable human motivations: a desire to increase his own wealth and standing. Stubborn pride. A desire to avoid falling back into a previous state that was terrible for him.
These are very easy motivations to understand. Everyone has felt them at some point in their lives and, even if the exact situations Scrooge experiences haven’t happened to you, you can probably translate the basic sense of Scrooges experience to your own life. Some kind of disappointment from your family, friends you grow distant from and goals you get overly fascinated by. It’s very easy to start down the path to Scrooge, that’s part of what makes him a great character.
The themes of A Christmas Carol are equally universal. Loneliness and obsession are things everyone have suffered and redemption from the shackles they put on us is something we’ve all fought against to some extent. It’s very tempting to lapse into some analysis of class dynamics or recovery from trauma when looking at Scrooge’s story. However these things are too specific, too bound in one time period or lifetime to allow the creation of a universal story. Dickens could and did write about themes of social status (it’s very prevalent in his work, actually) and traumatic events but comparing his work that touches on those issues to A Christmas Carol it really doesn’t look like that was what he was going for. He was examining the potential human cost for much more mundane, immediate decisions based in human nature, not class or trauma.
The format of the story also allowed Dickens to explore these very human themes and motives to their very utmost. Scrooge doesn’t just explore his past, he sees where his actions ultimately lead him if he will not change. He will die alone and get buried, unmourned. Seeing these results through the eyes of a ghostly vision, brought by ghosts who have proven trustworthy in every aspect of life they’ve revealed to Scrooge before, removes some of the subjectivity from the situation.
That’s not always a good thing to do in fiction but in A Christmas Carol the whole point is to show us an 18th century intervention where a person is slapped out of their obsessions to see where they stand in reality. The motif of supernatural visitations accomplishes that. And it doesn’t remove all of the ambiguity from the situation. Even now, it’s hard to say for sure that Scrooge actually saw ghosts and not a dream brought on by guilty conscience. Or undercooked potato. Whatever the source of the visions, the truth of the situation is found through the outcomes. Scrooge does turn his life around and it is better for him.
It’s these simple themes and motivations, explored to the fullest extent, that makes Scrooge’s story so powerful and easy to apply to other characters regardless of time, place or society. Granted, a certain part of the enduring appeal of Dickens’ landmark story is his masterful prose. Neither can his piercing insight into human nature pass on to another author who is trying to transmute A Christmas Carol into a new form. The genius of Dickens was in large part in his execution of his stories.
But he also knew how to tap into the universals of the human experience and nowhere do we see that more clearly than in A Christmas Carol. That is what has made Scrooge’s story so enduring, to the point we are still talking about it almost two hundred years later. There are not many stories this broad, this applicable and this compelling. Nor are universal stories the only good kinds of stories that exist. But when an author tells a story that everyone wants to retell in their own way they’ve tapped into something profound. And that’s something every author should try to understand, for their own edification if nothing else.