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.
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.
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.