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Past, Present and Future

Wednesday December 6, 2006 in ghost stories | charles dickens

The recent mystery ghost story was The Signalman by Charles Dickens. His brilliant writing style really makes it the classic it is, and something that can be read again and again even when you know the terrible outcome.

Next to Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol is probably Dickens’ best known work. Like The Signalman, you can hear the story and pass it on, with the result that people are telling the story who haven’t necessarily read it. I would say that the majority of people more or less know the basic story of Scrooge, but far fewer have actually read the original. Familiarity with A Christmas Carol comes from the countless film, stage and television adaptations over the years.

I’m guilty too. I picked up A Christmas Carol thinking of Michael Hordern, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney and all the other numerous actors who have tried their hand at Scrooge. It wasn’t until I started to read it again that I was once again drawn into Dickens’ compelling writing:

“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. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and he detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

Without really giving anything away, the stone that Scrooge refers to is of course his own grave. I love A Christmas Carol, but I couldn’t help wondering if Scrooge is a little deluded. He doesn’t really reverse his fate, he only succeeds in returning to the Present to start making amends. But he hasn’t escaped death, and the Ghost of Christmas Future is going to come back for him one day. Isn’t he?

Before you start yelling “humbug!” at me, I’ll conclude by saying I think this is probably Dickens’ true message. You can address the Past by attempting to make amends, and you can address the future by being a better person in the Present, but make the most of it because the Present doesn’t last for long. You might not sponge away the writing on the stone, but at least you might rest better when you’re dead and gone. And Jacob Marley will confirm that one for you:

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life; it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

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