How to share your message with the world: Lessons from Charles Dickens

Hello writers, and welcome to our final episode of Season 1 in The Reading Room podcast. And what an episode to end with! Dickens’ beloved novella, A Christmas Carol, published on this day (December 19) in 1843, was, for me, the obvious and heart-warming choice to end the season with. Within the pages of this 5-Stave novella, Dickens has managed to combine his moral message towards the plight of England’s poor with an emotional, sentimental celebration of the festive season and the cold-hearted, penny-pinching Ebenezer Scrooge, whose icy heart is warmed at the end of his confrontation with three spirits, remains one of Dickens’ most widely recognised and popular literary creations to this day. I read, listen to, and watch a film adaptation of this story every year. Synonymous with Christmas, A Christmas Carol is both haunting and heart-warming in equal measure.
 
Anyone who is familiar with Dickens’ life and works will appreciate the parallel storylines between the miser, Scrooge, and his obsession with money and security against Dickens’ own experience of the workhouses, debtor’s prison, and financial concerns. There are countless papers analysing the story’s broad-reaching impact on society, politics, and literature throughout the decades. If you are interested in hearing or working through these themes and topics in more detail outside of today’s episode, please do reach out to contact@awriterslighthouse.com.
 
For today, we will be looking at how Dickens sets the scene and tone for his story’s message within the opening chapter through the first characters introduced to us. So, as you listen to the reading, I’d like you to think about the adjectives used for the story’s setting, its themes, and how its characters are presented.
 
Are you ready? Then, let’s begin…
 
Close Reading
 
Oh, Scrooge, how your character is to be transformed for the better!
So much information is packed into Stave 1, not just the introduction to the characters of Marley, Scrooge, Fred, and Bob, along with the sinning spectres in the world. It is through these characters that the allegorical novel can be presented in through a linear plot.
The opening passage highlights the novel’s narrative style true to Dickensian form that blends wild comedy (consider the reference to Hamlet which foreshadows the presents of ghosts) and atmospheric horror (the throng of spirits eerily drifting remorsefully through the fog outside Scrooge’s window).
Scrooge personifies those values that are opposed to the idea of Christmas, such as greed, selfishness, and a lack of goodwill and generosity. Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, in contrast, represents values of selflessness, kindness, and generosity that align with Christmas. Bob Cratchit personifies the London working class and the plight of poverty.
But how do we recognise this in the characters? How are these ideas presented to us?
Let’s look at the characters in more detail and the elements of style within the prose. For the character description of Scrooge, we have a host of adjectives in list form to showcase his disagreeable traits as a miser.
– “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 struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
In his personal life, he has a completely self-contained, mostly isolated, and solitary lifestyle. Scrooge feels he neither needs nor wants companionship or any other type of relationship with other people. “Nobody ever stopped him in the street,” and Scrooge liked it that way, he “[wished] to be left alone.”
Then, we have the description of Scrooge’s cold and hard features, running parallel with the description of London, both symbolising the harsh conditions felt more acutely by the working-class characters in the novel. Listen to the passage again and mark the adjectives presented for both Scrooge and the City, noting the similarities between them.
Another symbol in the novel is the opposing concerns towards money and how it is valued by the characters. For Scrooge, money is his business whereas charity is a waste. Scrooge is solitary and unwelcoming and his harsh and unfeeling attitude to his clerk, with his 15 shillings a week and a family at home yet with a merry attitude to Christmas is equally unyielding. For Fred, though there is no financial gratification from his generosity, he is rewarded with a feeling of joy in the knowledge that his kind actions have been gratefully received.
Consider next the arrival of the two “portly gentlemen” into Scrooge’s counting house who offer the opportunity for Dickens to showcase the hopeful, reformative message for the story, and the attitude of the Scrooge’s of the world towards them. The situation is clearly in a sad and sorry state with the many prisons, the union workhouses and so on portrayed as being at capacity and of such dire conditions that many would rather die than attend there. The infamous line by Scrooge to allow the poor to die and “decrease the surplus population” is frightfully cruel.
The prose moves from the counting house to the streets of London where labourers try to keep themselves warm by creating a fire which is then welcomed by ragged men and boys whose priority at that moment is to fight against the intense cold. The ice is further described as “misanthropic”, much like London and Scrooge. All these smaller scenes within the story add to the overarching image of the conditions people are living in, and the philanthropic message that seeks to reform those same conditions.
Where Marley’s speech details his plight in the afterlife provides the chilling message for the story. to have ignored the troubles of his fellow man, the weight of his regret is reflected in the chain wound about his body. The punishment is severe and though Marley wears “the chain [he] forged in life,” it is nothing compared to what awaits Scrooge if he does not change his ways. The time has now passed for him to help them, as it has for the sea of ghosts wandering over the earth observing the troubles of those on the streets of London. Though a terrible image, it also presents a hope, a chance for Scrooge to do right by his fellow man; this opportunity is the inciting incident for the novel as it begins the re-education of Scrooge’s morality and spirituality.
What other themes, motifs, and symbols did you identify from the reading? How do you feel they contribute to the overarching message for the novel?
 
Today’s Exercise
 
For today’s exercise, and as we move towards the end of one year and prepare to embrace another, I’d like you to think about your “Why”; that is, the “why” behind your impulse to write. What is it you want to tell the world? What impact do you want your words to have?
 
When you are ready, set your timer to 15 minutes and allow yourself to brainstorm both your ideas and the message behind them.
 
With this motivation in mind, consider who might tell your story and which mechanisms, or characters, might propel your message forward. Continue to reset your timer until you feel you need to take a break, and then review your work.
 
If you would like support in structuring your ideas, you can schedule a free, no strings attached, 15-minute call or Zoom with me through my website at www.awriterslighthouse.com/work-with-me
 
Until next time, happy listening, reading, and writing with your #eyestothehorizon
 
A Christmas appeal for donations to Food Cycle
 
During the lockdown period of December 2020, we had streamed The Old Vic’s theatrical adaptation of A Christmas Carol in our living room on Christmas Eve, along with millions of others across the globe; with everything else that was happening around us, and outside of our isolation, it was a comfort to feel connected by this common narrative thread. At the end of the production, there was an appeal for donations to FoodCycle – a charity, whose goal was to ensure vulnerable people throughout the pandemic would be provided with meals and calls to keep in touch with those feeling lonely.
 
In the spirit of Christmas giving and, in an effort to raise awareness and donations overall, I would like to request your participation to raise funds for the Food Cycle charity at https://www.foodcycle.org.uk. If you are able to donate to this cause, please visit their website and hit the Donate button at the top of the page.

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