“A Christmas Carol”, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. And a bit of Henry James.

In a recent post, I pointed out what seems to me a striking similarity between a passage in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and a passage in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. In both instances, we see a group of men speaking in indifferent terms about the recent death of a colleague. Of course, this similarity could be a coincidence, but I think not: first of all, Tolstoy openly loved and admired Dickens; and secondly, Dickens was here addressing a theme that was obviously very close to Tolstoy’s heart – What meaning, what significance, can we find in a human life in the context of its inevitable end? This is a question that Tolstoy had returned to throughout his life, and nowhere with greater insistence than in The Death of Ivan Illyich. And Tolstoy is not the only artist to have addressed this question, and echoed A Christmas Carol in the process: Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries also addresses this question, and here too, we see an elderly misanthrope reliving his past, and becoming reformed in the process.

The echoes of Dickens in Bergman’s film are, most likely, accidental; but there was another great artist who, quite consciously, I think, had echoed A Christmas Carol. Consider Bob Cratchit’s speech to his gathered family in the Christmas-Yet-to-Come episode:

“…But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim—shall we—or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

Now let us consider Alyosha’s speech to the boys (also while mourning the death of a child) at the end of The Brothers Karamazov:

“Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

(from the translation by Constance Garnett)

In both cases, the speaker is urging other children to remember a departed child, and, whatever happens in life, be inspired to be good by the memory of that dead child’s goodness.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Dickens for being sentimental (especially in something like A Christmas Carol, which is generally regarded as no more than a feelgood piece of whimsy, and not, perhaps, the deepest expression of an artistic and moral vision); but when Dostoyevsky places a passage that is almost identical in sense and feeling at the very end of what is generally taken to be the most comprehensive statement of his own artistic and moral vision, we should, I think, take it a bit more seriously.

For I don’t think the passage in Dickens is “sentimental” at all. Quite the contrary.  It comes in a scene that is, I think, at the very heart of A Christmas Carol. It depicts, to my mind very convincingly, a loving and close-knit family grieving for a dead child. It’s only a few pages long: Dickens, contrary perhaps to expectations, doesn’t milk it. But the context in which he places it is remarkable. For, earlier, Scrooge had been made to see a world utterly devoid of any human feeling: some cleaning women have robbed a dead man of everything, including the very blankets the corpse had been wrapped in, and are now trying to sell these stolen goods for as much as they can get. A world so devoid of feeling – and not too far removed, incidentally, from the indifference of the men Scrooge had seen earlier discussing the dead man in indifferent terms – is indeed Hell. And Scrooge, by this stage, knows it: he refers to it as “a fearful place”. And he knows why it is such a fearful place: there is no room here for human feeling. He asks to be shown some feeling in relation to the dead man, and he is shown a young couple who are merely relieved, because the death of their creditor has given them an unexpected respite. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see: and he finally articulates what it is that he wants to see – tenderness. He wants to see that which makes of our lives something other than the Hell he has just witnessed. And this is when we are shown the grieving Cratchits.

The mother tries not to show her grief:

The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.

“The colour hurts my eyes,” she said.

The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tim!

The father is less successful, and at one point, spontaneously bursts into tears. Dickens tells us, in a narrative intrusion of a kind very unfashionable these days:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

Far from being sentimental or mawkish, as is often alleged, this seems to me to get to the very heart of the matter. For whatever pain the mother and the father may feel, the very fact that they can feel this pain is what makes them human. This is the tenderness that Scrooge had longed to see, and without which our lives are very literally Hell.

At the end of Bob Cratchit’s speech, he says something very unexpected:

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

I think Dickens is challenging us here: he is challenging us to understand how a man can profess himself “very happy” even when undergoing the greatest mental anguish. And I think the answer lies in what had come earlier: were it not for the pain that the Cratchits feel, they would be even further from their dead child than they already were. It is this ability to feel that makes us human, that makes of this terrible world something other than merely Hell.

A few years ago, I read The Portrait of a Lady, and was struck by a passage at the climactic point of the novel, where, as Ralph is dying, and as his beloved Isabel tells him how unhappy she is in her marriage, he says:

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” 

And I remember trying to figure out where else I had come across a character in the depths of sorrow claiming to be happy. And it took me a while to figure out it that the other book I was thinking of is A Christmas Carol.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took me a while: after all, Dickens and James are about as radically different as writers as it is possible to imagine. Indeed, James deeply disliked Dickens, and attempted to make his own novels as different from those of Dickens as possible. And many readers still, I think, tend to think of James as the serious novelist, and of Dickens as a mere entertainer – good fun, perhaps, but not really possessing much depth. Well, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky certainly didn’t think so: both were happy to pay their tribute to Dickens in their most deeply felt work. And James – entirely unwittingly, I am sure – at the most grave and most solemn moment in one of his very finest works, seems to make contact with a sort Christmas novel still thought of in many quarters as no more than piece of feelgood seasonal whimsy.

I really do think we should take A Christmas Carol as a serious and very deeply felt work of literature.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by obooki on December 16, 2018 at 8:59 pm

    I am reading The Idiot at the moment, and have noticed a strong Dickensianness about it. The Insulted and Humiliated, as well as being quite bad, is even more Dickensian.

    I suspect James was actually quite influenced by Dickens. The Princess Cassimassima always strikes me as an attempt to write a novel by Dickens under another name.

    But then all the nineteenth century admired Dickens far more than we do. Even writers you wouldn’t expect on the basis of what they wrote, like Strindberg.


    • Yes, The Insulted & the Humiliated is really bad, isn’t it? I was going to write a post about it, but then I thought “What’s the point?”

      The plot of “The Princess Casamassima” has more than a passing resemblance, I think, to that of Turgenev’s “Virgin Soil”. But yes, there is an element of Dickens there also.

      It’s not just 18th century authors who admire Dickens. Nabokov, for instance, was a fan, and Orwell wrote one of his best literary essays on Dickens. Edmund Wilson thought Austen and Dickens were the finest British novelists. And Kafka was clearly influenced by Dickens. The image in The Castle” of all the documents that contain the solution to the mysteries, but which no-one can read and interpret, is straight out of Bleak House. Indeed, the idea inThe Trial of the judicial process that no-one really understands, is also straight out of Bleak House.


  2. Agreed and I too can see the parallels between Dickens and Dostoevsky. And I’m fed up with Dickens being dismissed as just sentiment. He’s got an awful lot more to him than that!


  3. Posted by janet on December 17, 2018 at 7:28 pm

    I’ll go out on a limb: Dickens requires emotional maturity.

    The emotional sense of a Dickens novel is all out there on the narrator’s sleeve. If you strip out all the Oh, poor [fill in the blank]!s, all his novels are explorations of human behavior–you know, psychology–and he goes as deeply as anybody, especially if the reader is cooperating interactively with the text. To experience a Dickens novel is to meet him in his own street and walk with him. It’s revelatory.

    I’ll admit, there are passages in Dickens that make me squirm (Oh, weep for it!), but then he wrote those passages for performance. Per modern tastes, it’s a mistake to leave those histrionic passages of pure melodrama in, but it’s no big deal to skate through them, taking them for what they are.

    James may not have had the patience for it–I can’t fault him; I intensely dislike Steven Spielberg movies and John Williams soundtracks–but then when I read James I feel I am watching characters in a fish bowl, unable to interact with them, observing from an icy cold anthropological distance the fretful pacing of people incapable of throwing off restraint or comprehending life in any meaningful way. Dickens characters live full-bore and James characters can’t turn about to avoid bumping into a wall without muttering a silent but brooding “Indeed — that is to say … how is one to consider the ankle when the ankle is one’s own, as opposed to the ankle of one’s aunt or cousin or that unknown but suspected ankle of a stranger, such as one is likely to meet at the end of a dark alley, where one is not to be expected to imagine the chance appearance of a friend or even a morally upright policeman, if such a thing exists?” That’s a difference rather than a fault.

    I think the Carol is one of Dickens’ finest achievements–in large part because it is the apex of feelgood seasonal whimsy. Christmas is, after all, an annual rite that continues to accomplish what rites have always tried to do: remind us of what we are and what we must strive to be. There is an abundance of crappy, empty feelgood whimsy out there produced by people who are too emotionally stunted to comprehend the mystery of the rite and seek only to either capitalize on it or subvert it. At Christmas, we have permission to throw off the restraint and embrace all the humane goodness our cynical defenses habitually treat with suspicion. Dickens articulated our ritual Christmas duty for us as no one had up to his time or, in my opinion, since: “a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” This isn’t sentimentality; it’s simple human decency expressed without embarrassment or a veneer of emotional frigidity.


    • Hello Janet,
      I enjoyed your characterisation of James! There is certainly something in the very decorous and refined novels of James that distances a reader, but it is also true that when I read with patience, I can find myself genuinely involved, and even, at times, moved. Dickens’ appeal is far more immediate.

      I agree with you that Dickens requires emotional maturity. Not always, of course: “sentimentality” is hard to define, but even diehard fans must admit that the earlier Dickens novels contain much that is sentimental. But there are too many readers who seem to reject everything as sentimentality,and I sometimes wonder whether it’s because they are too embarrassed when such big emotions are presented with such directness. I personally don’t think there’s anything at all sentimental in A Christmas Carol.

      Best wishes, Himadri


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