I like to reread Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year, and every year I come to the conclusion that when it comes to the movies, the Muppets did it best. As a narrator, Gonzo can’t be beat: he plucks the best lines from the book while carrying on comic banter with a rat. His sense of adventure adds endless giggles to what is, on its own, a thoroughly eerie tale. Of course, by eliminating some of the eerier parts, he also eliminates some of the impact. I don’t know how the Muppets could have softened the moment in Stave Three when the two children are revealed beneath the Ghost of Christmas Present’s cloak “Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish,” who are revealed to be Ignorance and Want. “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware [Ignorance], for on his brow I see that written which is Doom,” says the Ghost. One of the more important moments of Dickens’ tale, I’d say, but a little deep and dark for the general Muppets demographic. But still, I’d argue that the Muppets make the story more accessible than any other adaptation I’ve seen (Scrooged excluded, because, well, that’s not exactly Dickens), and how do you make something accessible? You cut the preaching, for one. You cut the arcane language. If you’re dealing with Dickens, you cut a lot of words all around.
And there are a lot of extra words in this text. More than any other Dickens novel I’ve read (which is not all of them, to be sure, but the most popular handful), this book (novella?) makes it clear that he was paid by the word. But that’s partly why I like to reread it. It takes a while to pick apart the excess verbiage, if it is really excess after all. I think I find a new favorite passage each year, but this year’s has nothing to do with the Christmas spirit or Scrooge’s salvation. It’s a chunk of text that I don’t recall hearing in any TV rendition, but it struck a chord with me:
Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? when will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge…But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Scrooge.
Doesn’t that sound lovely?
I don’t know about you, but I am the kind of person who is constantly accosted by “beggars” and children and people looking for directions. If there’s a crazy person who wants to show someone photographs of all the puzzles he’s ever done in his life, he’ll find me (true story). If there’s someone who needs a little cash because he promised his wife they wouldn’t be living in their van anymore by Valentine’s Day and he didn’t come through and he just wants to rent her a motel room for one night so she can at least have a decent shower, he’ll find me (true story again). I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. Some might call it being an easy mark, but I like to think I’m approachable, and that for better or worse I tend to exude kindness. But sometimes I wish the guy who’s staying with these friends whose roof collapsed, so there’s water coming in and soaking everything, and it’s really cold and they just need a few bucks for repairs! would let me load my groceries into my car in peace (true story number three).
Okay, so maybe I’d miss the “gladsome looks,” but man, it would be nice to “edge along the crowded paths of life.” And this year I thought, reading this passage over and over again, about that episode of 30 Rock when Liz Lemon transformed herself into a bag lady version of the Joker in order to get a seat and some elbow room on the subway, and how ecstatic that was, and how when I first saw it I laughed and laughed because that seemed like the best idea anyone ever had. And then I heard the voice of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew in my head saying, “You wish to remain anonymous?” and Michael Caine replying, “I wish to be left alone.”
Clearly, this is missing the point of Dickens’ tome–honoring Christmas in one’s heart and trying to keep it all the year, yadda, yadda, yadda. That’s all fine and good. But that’s just life–or, rather, that’s my life, because that’s motherhood. The spirit of generosity is sort of forced upon us mommies, and it’s our duty to be kind and loving ALL. THE. TIME. And if we fall short (or even if we don’t, honestly), we have no ghostly visitors to set us straight, but the haunting wail of a thousand voices coming at us through our internet connection, telling us we’re doing it wrong.
Maybe that’s why, out of a hundred pages of flowery prose, my brain settled on that particular quote. It’s a passage that would have been easily cut, along with a thousand others, but I keep thinking about it: being like Scrooge, “as solitary as an oyster.” Perhaps he was on to something. Not the miserly part. Not the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” But solitary? How wonderful.