by Scott Rhoades
It's August. Temperatures are rising. A hot wind blows desert dust ahead of the summer thunderstorms that often have trouble materializing into much more than wind and fire. The grass is struggling to stay green.
And so, my thoughts turn to...A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
I think we forget what a marvelous work this is because it’s so familiar. Most of us know the story mainly from one of the kajillions of movie versions. Everybody from Reginald Owen to Mr. Magoo has played Scrooge. This kind of familiarity can make the original book less enjoyable, and it’s probably the reason I don’t read it more often. But dipping into it again has reminded me why it’s such a classic, and I’m not only talking about the all-too-familiar story. I’m talking about the writing. The beginning should be studied by every writer. Just look at the opening line:
Marley was dead: to begin with.
Six words, none particularly strong. Was is about the weakest verb you’re likely to find anywhere. There's only one noun, and it's a name. But the line is pure genius. It’s all about that colon.
When people read that line aloud, they tend to do it like Gonzo in A Muppet Christmas Carol, with a pause that amounts to a comma or, at most, an em dash. That doesn’t do the line justice. You need the full stop and irony that the colon provides. We know this is a ghost story because the chapter title is "Marley's Ghost," but the colon raises doubt about how dead Marley is. It places emphasis on that word, begin. Sure, Marley was dead: to begin with, but that’s not going to keep him away. That colon tells you old Jake’s bound to come 'round.
Know what’s weird about that first paragraph? It really has nothing to do with the main character. Sure, Scrooge is mentioned twice, but both mentions are as a side note. The reader has no idea who this Scrooge person is who signed the burial register that proves Marley is dead as a door-nail.
A modern writer probably wouldn’t be able to get away with an opening that stresses somebody who is already dead and de-emphasizes the story’s main character so much that you don’t even realize he has anything to do with the story if you don’t already know the tale.
Next, Dickens does something else that would would be difficult for a modern writer to get away with: the narrator intrudes on the story, and in a big way. About the time you’ve found out that the person who appears to be the main character is as dead as a door-nail and you’ve worked your way through a fairly lengthy, intrusive digression by the narrator about how it might actually be better to say somebody is as dead as a coffin-nail than a door-nail because a door-nail doesn’t seem to be nearly as dead as a coffin-nail, you don’t have any idea anymore what’s going on, but Dickens has managed to suck you in nevertheless, by the tone of his storytelling and by the mystery of why it matters that Marley has bitten the big one.
The third paragraph finally puts the story into Scrooge’s point of view, even though the narrator still makes his presence known with his own first-person interjections. You find out that Scrooge and Marley were business partners. You don’t really know why that matters, but you’re sure the connection must be more important than the mere fact that Scrooge was at the funeral, and wasn’t “dreadfully cut up by the sad event.”
So what does Dickens do in the next paragraph? He goes back to the beginning. His narrator says that the mention of a funeral reminds him of something important, that Marley was really deceased. He wants to make sure that this fact is “distinctly understood.” Well, it is. We’ve read an entire page letting us know that Marley is quite assuredly not of the living, and after that page we're back where we started.
Look what Dickens has done in that page. He’s created a mystery by giving us the unassailable fact that Marley, whoever he is, is dead, and he’s heightened the mystery by going on about just how dead he is and telling us that it’s really important to know that. But why is it important? He won’t tell us. We’re teetering on the edges of our seats, wondering why we should care that Marley is six feet under. Without any kind of action, Dickens has built suspense and rubbed it in until we’re almost ready to scream and slam the book down if he doesn’t hurry up and tell us why Marley’s demise is significant.
Surely he’s going to tell us now. In my edition, this is where I turn the page, knowing full well that I’m about to get the answers to these questions and go on, quite satisfied, into the story. When it comes down to it, page two isn't that bad a place to start to get into the story.
I turn the page.
What do I get? An allusion to Hamlet. What does that have to do with this story? Is it going to be a tragedy, like Shakespeare’s play, full of intrigue and dirty deeds? More suspense, and still no relief. But surely the mystery is about to be solved, or at least clarified, right?
Wrong. What follows is a lengthy description of Scrooge. It’s another thing that a modern editor might not let a writer get away with. We don’t draw characters in this kind of detail anymore. We work the exposition into the story. But what a shame it would be if this stuff had been cut! This is brilliant. Every detail heightens the mystery, and the description is so well written that a writer can’t help but realize that he’ll never, ever, be this good.
We don’t get Scrooge’s looks, his clothes, and all of that, but we still see him nonetheless. What Dickens gives us is a laundry list of details about how cold Scrooge is. It’s literally a list of compelling adjectives. (Compelling adjectives! Who would have thought that was possible?) “Squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Adjectives have seldom said so much. He’s as “solitary as an oyster.” That is a genius simile. Not only are oysters loners (I imagine, although they tend to share their beds with many others of their kind, they don’t really have feelings for many of their bedmates), but they’re slimy and icky and ugly. They also happen to taste delicious, but we don’t need to carry the simile quite that far.
Then, we finally get into physical description, after Dickens has set it up with that outstanding sense of what Scrooge is like. The physical description magnifies everything we found out before. He has old features, frozen by his own cheapness, being too stingy even to light a fire to keep himself warm. Because of this self-imposed coldness, which we now know is more than merely weather-related, he has a pointed nose, shriveled cheek, stiff gait, red eyes, thin blue lips, and his voice, which he's not even using, is shrewd and grating. His head is covered with a frosty rime, and so are his brows and chin. And then, Dickens gives me my second favorite line in this whole long opening, driving home the reason why Scrooge looks like this: “He carried his own low temperature always about with him.”
This statement is followed by a series of weather metaphors. This guy is colder than rain, sleet, or snow. In fact, bad weather is often “handsome,” but not old Scrooge. We then get a lengthy description of how people react to him on the street. Or rather, we get a long description of how they don’t react to him. These negatives create a positive that leaves us without any doubt, as if the previous descriptive passages had left any. Scrooge is a Bad Egg.
By now we’ve read more than two and a half pages. We have a mystery that the author apparently isn’t going to enlighten us on, about a guy who is dead. He’s not just dead. He’s very dead. And his former business partner is so abysmally cold and lonely that he might as well be on ice too. We’ve made it through the lengthy description of this walking corpse. So now we’re finally about to find out why it all matters.
What does Dickens give us?
“Once upon a time…” We’re two and a half pages in, and we get “once upon a time”? This signals the start of the actual story, a first scene that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Marley and why it’s important that we know he’s dead. A modern editor would probably demand that everything up to this point be deleted, and the modern reader can understand why. In the hands of most writers, that first two and a half pages with nothing happening and a bunch of description and the dwelling on the fact that an apparently crucial character isn't very lively would be dull and uninteresting, especially since there's a mystery that doesn’t seem to be nearly close to being resolved. In fact, there hasn’t been any progress toward telling us what the mystery even is.
But this is Dickens. A true master. That opening is so brilliantly written, so finely crafted by an author who somehow remains invisible despite numerous narrative intrusions, that we’ve been totally hooked by a bunch of stuff that we’ve been taught is the opposite of a hook.
I love this opening. I can only imagine the grief Dickens would get from my writers group, or just about any writers group, for starting this way, but it’s as close to a perfect beginning as anything I’ve read in quite a while, in spite of itself. I’ve been sucked in by two mysteries, actually: somebody is dead to begin with, which means he’s likely to come around, and his business partner is even worse than dead. Why? What does it matter? How is this going to come together? And where’s that ghost that the chapter title promises? And all of that is wrapped up in a wonderfully dismal tone, presented by an intrusive narrator who, frustratingly, refuses to give any hint of enlightenment.