A Christmas Carol

Image
In a time filled with endless movie and television interpretations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it is easy to get confused about what the actual story says or does not say. I love all the variations, whether it be my favorite version with Alistair Sim, or Bill Murray in Scrooged, or Kermit the Frog clerking for George C. Scott. Some stay closer to the story than others, but all seek to portray the same message that Dickens created — the choice of joy in the world.

The plot line is undoubtedly familiar to most, but the written story itself is still refreshing to revisit. Yes, it as wordy as Dickens always is, but there is an excitement behind the writing which supports the theme of joy itself. Dickens seems as if he is sitting in the room telling you this story, hardly able to remain seated as he describes the feast surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Present, or the horror of the voiceless Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
It is not a continually cheerful story — it is a ghost story; yet the greatest horrors come in Dickens’ paintings of the people suffering from want of food, shelter, or love. Scrooge is not excused from what he has created, and thus his conversion will either be dramatic or fail to occur. Of course, he is converted.
It is easy to put a Christian gloss on a Christmas story, but this is not a story of Christian redemption. Scrooge does go to church on Christmas day, but that is noted in passing. Instead, we get a longer description of him pacing in front of this nephew’s door working up the courage to enter. We are also privy to what is often described as a comic moment in the films, in which he meets up with one of the people who sought his assistance the day before in helping the poor. In this horrific scene Scrooge confirms that the prisons and Union workhouses are still in operation, but is told people would rather die than go there. “‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Who, then, should the reformed Scrooge meet as soon as he walks out the door on Christmas day, than one of these men.
“It set a pang across his heart to think how this old gentleman would look upon him when they met; but he knew what path lay straight before him, and he took it.” In other words, the challenge of overcoming his past is directly presented to him, and he chooses to go straight after it.
Scrooge changes because he realizes he has a choice in how to live his life, and so far he has chosen poorly. He can withdraw from the world and its demands, but be miserable, or he can embrace life and those around him. We know his choice and we see the impact it has on others. Like George Bailey, from another memorable Christmas movie, he also sees the impact his life has on others.
We are here, we impact others, and we choose our path in life. Simple, but essential, lessons.

Steppenwolf

wolm1990fAlso published on my Classic Reading Challenge Blog

Some books seem to belong to youth and need to be reintroduced as we age. Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury were regular companions of mine in high school, yet still hold my interest 30 years later. Alas, the same cannot be said for another companion, Nobel-prize winning writer Herman Hesse.

Rereading Steppenwolf after so many years, the main question I had was, how did I get through this in high school? At that time I read many of Hesse’s novels and was quiet infatuated with his outlook on life. Now, finding myself just slightly older than the protagonist, Harry Haller, aka, Steppenwolf, I just find him annoying. He is not unfamiliar; just the type of person I would not find myself sharing dinner with in a corner booth of the local cafe.

The novel centers around Haller in a manuscript written by him, but left behind in the room he rented. Whatever happens to Steppenwolf in the end, we are not sure. Personally, I’m not interested in a sequel. The Steppenwolf spends his days pondering the great mysteries of life and agonizing over how he does not fit into the society in which he, apparently, does not want to fit into anyway. He obsesses over himself and tries to be humble about how brilliant he is, but he clearly he feels above most other people.

Just when he decides that he can take no more and resolves to kill himself, he meets Hermine, a siren of pleasure who introduces him to other women, teaches him to dance, and shows him how to enjoy life. He suddenly finds himself becoming what he hates, but he enjoys it. In other words, he becomes a person of action, of life, rather than just thought, and he lives a more enjoyable existence. This highlights the dual nature of existence Hesse proposes; indeed, the multiple nature of existence. But in the Steppenwolf, the wolf of the Steppes, we find a man who is half human and half wolf. He can be gracious and social (human), while at the same time despising all society, including himself (wolf).

At this point I had hope for the book. Our annoying narrator begins to see the fool that he is. “The late Herr Haller, gifted writer, student of Mozart and Goethe, author of essays upon the metaphysics of art, upon genius and tragedy and humanity, the melancholy hermit in a cell encumbered with books, was given over bit by bit to self-criticism and at every point was found wanting.”

But no, Hesse then takes us off in a direction which quickly unravels the novel (and I’ll avoid details should you choose to read the novel).

A central theme which is toyed with throughout the novel and emerges more clearly at the end is the idea of laughing at life, including yourself. Haller, the people of eternity are telling him, takes life too seriously. He needs to laugh with the world and at the world, but as a participant and not an observer. Developed in a stronger fashion this could be a fascinating theme, but when Hesse fully introduces it toward the end, it sounds simply trite. He has created of story of too much darkness to simply say you need to laugh.

Many of the themes Hesse deals with seems outdated and sophomoric, but we must remember Hesse, a German, is writing this in between two world wars. Much of what we now see as tiring (e.g. mirrors looking into the soul, the lone individual against society) was more cutting edge at that time. Critics say this is his most autobiographical novel in that, like the narrator, he is coming off a bad marriage and did himself suddenly step out into society for a time. With more distance between himself and the writing, his other novels may hold up better after many years. I’m hesitant to try another one, but am open to recommendations.

So I put this in my classic listing since it comes from a Nobel-prize winning writer (maybe they liked that he left Germany and became a Swiss citizen) and many people, such as myself, have immersed themselves in his work at some point in their career. But a true classic transcends time, and I do not see this novel succeeding on that count.