Let me begin by making a confession that will shock most of you: I am not a huge fan of the novel. To most literary readers that will sound like blasphemy, proof of my inherent bad taste and my unfitness to be an English professor. But the truth of the matter is that the study of literature has, traditionally, meant the study of poetry, just as the Great Conversation has been primarily carried out between poets: though philosophers and theologians have played a key role.
My problem with novels is that most of them are too long and diffuse with too many characters and too many subplots. What I value most in literature is precision: the ability to say and suggest a great deal in the fewest possible words. Now, to be honest, had I lived a century ago, I would likely have been a bigger fan of the novel. As it stands, that part of my soul that would normally devour stacks of novels has been mostly filled by my love of film, films of all ages, styles, genres, and countries of origin. I watch movies the way most people read novels: sucking them in and running them through my mind until they become a part of me.
If the typical English professor were to ask you if you saw a movie, and you were to answer that the novel was better, he would most likely agree with you immediately. I don’t let my students get away with that knee jerk reaction. Although it is often the case that a film adaptation of a novel is done poorly, there are many times, I believe, when the film tightens up the novel and makes it more direct and effective. I am, for example, so impressed and deeply moved by The Grapes of Wrath, Zorba the Greek, Rebecca, David Lean’s Great Expectations, and the Olivier and Welles versions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre that if I were forced to sacrifice either the film or the novel, I would likely sacrifice the novel. But, of course, I’d rather keep both!
Still, there have been a number of novels that have exerted a strong shaping influence on my character and my sense of myself as a professor, a Christian, and a man of letters. I would like, in what follows, to focus on one particular novelist, Charles Dickens, and the impact he has had on me over the years.
Waifs and Wayfarers
What a wonderful, multilayered world Dickens ushered me into again and again. By no means was it a world dripping with sweetness and light; there was poverty and disease and exploitation on nearly every page. But it was a hopeful, richly humanistic world where faith and charity, mercy and good cheer won out in the end. Dickens was not ashamed to provide his readers with happy endings, for those happy endings—as in the Bible—were dearly bought and called for long years of patience, loyalty, and sacrifice. Dickens never confused cynicism and skepticism with wisdom and maturity. He saw, as I believe Jesus sees, the spark of humanity within his characters before he saw the sin and depravity struggling to extinguish that spark.
When I think of my ongoing conversation with Dickens, I think first of his small but resilient waifs: Oliver Twist, Pip, David Copperfield, Little Dorritt. All alike are orphans in the storm, adrift and alone on a sea of heartlessness. And yet, somehow, they find the inner strength to go on; more importantly, they do so without embracing hatred or despair. Whenever I think about them and their stories, I am filled with courage—not the active, martial courage of Leonidas or Alexander, Scipio Africanus or Julius Caesar, but a quieter, more passive kind of courage that accepts and endures and abides.
There are many today who scoff at the endless coincidences in Dickens’s novels, but we do live in a world where serendipitous meetings happen all the time. We are, after all, pilgrims and wayfarers, resident aliens in this world: a truth Dickens himself helped me understand. Those lovely waifs have encouraged me to trust our pilgrim status and the serendipitous nature of things. True, there are critical moments in our lives when we should and must, like Shakespeare’s Caesar, seize the tide at its flood and follow it on to success, but most of the time, we must simply wait in faith. I knew from the gospels that innocence is stronger than worldly-wise power and deceit; Dickens did me the service of embodying that truth in his novels and letting it play out in the lives of his waifs. We are, after all, pilgrims and wayfarers, resident aliens in this world: a truth Dickens himself helped me understand. Click To Tweet
From Innocence and Faith to Naiveté and Gullibility
As a sort of serendipitous tribute to Dickens’s championing of innocence as a force for social and personal change, I believe that America’s downward turn can be marked precisely vis-à-vis the character of Oliver Twist. In 1968, the Oscar for best picture went to the movie musical Oliver!; in the following year, that honor fell to Midnight Cowboy. Although Oliver! abounds with thieves, fences, murderers, and prostitutes, it was awarded a G rating. And rightly so, for the film, seen as it is through the innocent eyes of Oliver, affirms faith, goodness, and humanity.
Midnight Cowboy, on the other hand, which was originally awarded an X rating, offers a relentless wallow in the seamier side of life. The blue-blooded Oliver, rather than being corrupted by his surroundings, exerts a redemptive influence on all that he touches. The hero of Midnight Cowboy, though he begins as a wide-eyed Texan, is systematically dragged down into the social decay and perversion of New York City. Starting in 1969, America has increasingly followed the path of the latter film and of its protagonist. What Dickens taught me to see as innocence and faith, the modern world has dismissed as naiveté and gullibility. I for one am grateful that the novels of Charles Dickens helped to inoculate me against the postmodern deconstruction of innocence.
And also against the modern debunking of altruism. I have always loved A Tale of Two Cities, not only because of its stirring, historically-grounded plot, its memorable characters, and its powerful themes of redemption and resurrection, but because of its portrayal of Sydney Carton. Here is a true hero who loses the girl (Lucie) but finds the emotional and spiritual power within himself to rise above that loss and seek the good of others. In an amazing act of Christian self-sacrifice, Sydney takes the place at the guillotine of Lucie’s husband. So sincere and real is his love for Lucie that he puts her happiness above his own.
There are some skeptics who might sneer at the famous closing lines of the book, when Carton mutters to himself as he approaches the guillotine, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” I do not consider these lines to be sentimental or corny. They rise up organically out of the plot and express a Christ-like love rarely found in modern literature. Just as importantly, they represent the end of Sydney’s long journey from sinner to saint, from a dissolute cynic who has given up on the world and on other people to a brave, selfless man who willingly lays down his life so that others might live and love.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
This transformation in Sydney Carton has given me hope and patience; I think of it often when I am tempted to write someone off too quickly. Though not all of his characters are saved, Dickens clearly desires their salvation, and he teaches us to desire it as well. That aspect of Dickens’s narrative craft and aesthetic ministry is nowhere more evident than in his beloved A Christmas Carol. Let me state without hesitation that, with the exception of the gospel itself, A Christmas Carol is the greatest story ever told. No poet, playwright, or novelist has ever conceived a more perfect tale. Even in its most bare bones telling, the story of Scrooge’s pilgrimage from lifeless miser to joyful benefactor moves me to tears. Let me state without hesitation that, with the exception of the gospel itself, A Christmas Carol is the greatest story ever told Click To Tweet
We would all be better people if we paused now and then to review our lives: to take stock of our past experiences, our present choices, and the future that will result as a consequence of our choices. I think what has given A Christmas Carol the power, above all other novels, to provoke in me that reviewing and taking stock is that Dickens manages to tell a universal story of redemption that is also highly personal and individual. There is only one Scrooge, and we regard his journey with a critical eye; yet somehow, despite the uniqueness of that journey, we can all, if we let ourselves, identify with that journey. Who of us can say that we harbor no regrets over our past? Who of us can find no fault in our present actions? Who of us does not fear, to some extent, what the future will bring?
So many images and episodes from A Christmas Carol are engraved in my memory, and in a way that transcends all of the many film adaptations. Jacob Marley’s ghost doomed to drag those heavy money boxes throughout eternity. Those frozen glimpses of the past and of the lost opportunities that make them so poignant. Father Christmas in all his shimmering, life-affirming glory exhorting Scrooge to come forth and know him better. The silent, menacing ghost of the future—not a ghost, but the shadow of a ghost—and the terrible writing on the stone. The craggy old Scrooge dancing a jig and taking joy in giving out presents. And Tiny Tim, dear Tiny Tim, who opens Scrooge’s eyes, and our eyes as well, not to the poor as a mass category but to the individual sufferer who defies statistics and all the iron laws of wages.
If Scrooge can change, anyone can change. He changes in one night, but that night is a long and winding one. Dickens manages to follow the unities of Aristotle in confining his story of transformation to a mere twelve hours. And, of course, the saving of a soul can be the work of a few hours or even a few minutes. But that’s not what Dickens allowed me to witness and participate in. The story may happen quickly in terms of chronological time, but the psychomachia (the “soul-battle”) that Scrooge endures feels, when it is read, like a lifelong tale. But then that, I have found, is what salvation is like. It all happens in a moment of yielding, when we drop our defenses and let God in; but the full process by which we surrender our will to that of God is the work of years.
I love and have been instructed by A Christmas Carol because of the way Dickens condenses down to its essence the whole grand progress from sin to salvation, selfishness to compassion, despair to hope, imprisonment to freedom: the accomplishments of a lifetime turned, like Shakespeare’s Henry V, into an hour glass. I am often more affected by watching a forty-five-minute documentary on the life of a famous figure than reading an 800-page biography of the same person. The reason is that the former forces me to see, in a compact period of time, how a choice made at the age of twenty can determine a course taken at forty and a personality rigidly set at sixty. Dickens’s novella is just the right length to allow me to live that fateful evening alongside its protagonist without having the luxury to dismiss Scrooge as a fictional character who has nothing to do with me. Had it been as long as David Copperfield, I would have ended up studying Scrooge judiciously from a distance; had it been a short story or a poem, it would have lacked the details necessary for my full engagement with Scrooge’s dark night of the soul.
I hope I am not belaboring this point. It is true that form without content is a dry, empty, academic thing, but content without the proper form to draw out its essence rarely has the power to induce a change of heart or an expansion of soul. It is because A Christmas Carol is what it is, both in terms of its story and the telling of its story, that it has left an indelible mark upon me. I would, in a very real sense, be a different man if Dickens had not graced the world with the miraculous transformation of a wretched old miser who thought Christmas was a humbug, a poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every twenty fifth of December. Every Christmas, my own joy is enhanced as I reflect on how Scrooge learned to honor the season in his heart; every Christmas, I am impelled to search my own heart to see if my own past, present, and future are in the proper balance. For I am as much that child of eight and that young man of twenty-five, as I am the grown man of today and as I will be, God willing, when I reach my three score and ten. I would be a different man if Dickens had not graced the world with the transformation of a wretched old miser who thought Christmas was a humbug, a poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every twenty fifth of December. Click To Tweet
A Christmas Carol, like so many of Dickens’s other novels, has sharpened my view of others and of myself. It has also focused my attention on the cost of the industrial revolution, on what the assembly line mentality has done to society. As an American, I have utilitarianism in my blood. My natural bent, if I don’t step back and think outside my American box, is to seek the greatest good for the greatest number, to take for granted that things like capitalism and large government programs, standardization and the centralization of power are absolute goods.
All that was swept away when I came to understand Scrooge’s realization that Tiny Tim is an individual child with his own gifts and desires, rather than an anonymous member of the surplus population whose value and worth are best calculated and debated by economists and factory owners. Well, more than that. Full understanding necessitated the reading of another Dickens novel, Hard Times. It was the parable-like structure of that novel, its simple but profound way of demonstrating that what we reap is what we sow, that brought everything into clarity.
The Cost Humanized by Incarnate Characters
Hard Times tells the tale of a well-intentioned but doctrinaire utilitarian named Thomas Gradgrind who starts a model school in which he raises his own children. The school is devoted to facts and only to facts; it shuns anything that cannot be studied by means of the five senses and plotted on a graph. Emotion, faith, and imagination are all suspect, and the children are forbidden to indulge or develop them. Though Gradgrind thinks he is doing good and genuinely cares for his children, his strict adherence to his theories turns his daughter, Louisa, into a confused, emotionally-repressed young woman incapable of genuine love and affection and his son, Tom, into a heartless reprobate with no compassion or moral center.
Now, I could have learned this same lesson about the social cost of utilitarianism by attending a debate, but Dickens humanized that cost by incarnating it in characters who, though they are a tad allegorized, are nevertheless real people whose real suffering cannot be ignored. Tom, it is true, is a whelp, plain and simple, but Louisa’s emotional and spiritual suffering is painful to watch. Still, the character with whom I identified the most and whose education became my own was Gradgrind himself. He is the one who is forced to see the upshot of his theories and who comes, slowly and agonizingly, to see that there was something missing in his carefully worked out system.
The bitter lesson that Gradgrind learns is always there at the back of my mind as I pursue my career and calling as an educator. What I teach as an English professor is not value-free or even value-neutral, despite what the pedagogues would have us believe. What we reap is what we will sow; what I instill in my students will determine, in part, what choices they make and what consequences those choices will bring. Dickens has been one of the major writers who has taught me to love all people but not to love all theories. Theories are not just philosophical abstractions; they have repercussions in the real world that can destroy or distort whole groups as well as individual souls.
I love Dickens for the same reason I love (and have taught) the films of Frank Capra. Neither cared much for mass humanity, though they both cared very deeply for the individual sufferer. In Hard Times, the capitalist owners and the socialist union bosses are equally critiqued and exposed. Instead of labor statistics, Dickens zeroes in on the life of a single poor worker named Stephen Blackpool, and the difficulties he faces. In the end, Stephen dies, a victim of utilitarian callousness, yet he gains a tragic awareness in his closing hours. Where once he thought that all was a muddle, in the end, he fixes his attention on a star that becomes, for him, the Star of Bethlehem.
Dickens has helped to foster in me, as he has in so many others, a firm conviction that my loyalty belongs first and foremost to individuals, rather than to ideas or systems or bureaucracies. I can have compassion for the poor without falling into the anti-humanistic black hole of Marxism; I can celebrate entrepreneurship and the free market without succumbing to unregulated corporate control. Neither big business nor big government is equipped to care for the individual sufferer, for Stephen Blackpool or Tiny Tim or any of those wonderful waifs I mentioned earlier. Whether I’m teaching a class of seven or speaking for an audience of a thousand, when I look out across the rows of seats, I see, not a crowd, but a collection of unique individuals, each one valuable enough to be his own protagonist in a novel by Charles Dickens.
Photo credit: A Christmas Carol, New York Public Library, Garrett Ziegler