Monday, November 26, 2012

'Merry Christmas, Uncle!' | Dickens

Borrowing from Siskoid's format on his Hamlet blog, as we look at Dickens' text, I'm going to copy out the entire text of the section in italics and insert commentary. That'll help identify elements that we want to pay attention to in the adaptations.

"A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

I like the suddenness of the nephew's introduction. Some of the adaptations imitate this by having him burst through the door unannounced, but I think I recall a couple having Cratchit see him coming up the street through the window. Let's keep an eye on that.

"Bah!" said Scrooge. "Humbug!"

The famous line. There are some famous quotes in pop culture that were never actually uttered by the people they're attributed to ("Beam me up, Scotty" and "Elementary, my dear Watson" being two), but it's nice to know that this isn't one of them.

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge's, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

Scrooge's nephew is full of life as he's depicted in most of the adaptations. A couple of them turn him into a sentimental fop, which is a crime. The George C Scott version is the worst of these offenders. I'll be sure to point these out as we go.

"Christmas a humbug, uncle!" said Scrooge's nephew. "You don't mean that, I am sure."

"I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough."

"Come, then," returned the nephew gaily. "What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough."

Burn! It's lines like this that make me love Dickens.

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug."

"Don't be cross, uncle," said the nephew.

"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will," said Scrooge, indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!"

Ebenezer Scrooge, Christmas-Vampire Hunter.

"Uncle!" pleaded the nephew.

"Nephew!" returned the uncle, sternly, "Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine." 

"Keep it!" repeated Scrooge's nephew. "But you don't keep it."

"Let me leave it alone, then," said Scrooge. "Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!"

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew: "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant 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. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

This speech is usually abridged in the adaptations. Though I've always loved it regardless of how it's trimmed, I especially like the "fellow-passengers" bit that gets cut out. Nowhere is the reason for Dickens' love of Christmas made clearer than here.

The clerk in the tank involuntarily applauded: becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he poked the fire, and extinguished the last frail spark for ever. 

Nice opportunity for a laugh if the adaptations make good use of it.

"Let me hear another sound from you," said Scrooge, "and you'll keep your Christmas by losing your situation. You're quite a powerful speaker, sir," he added, turning to his nephew. "I wonder you don't go into Parliament."

This is the second time Scrooge has threatened his clerk's job in the story. One wonders how often he normally did that in the course of a day. I wonder if Cratchit took it to heart every time or if he'd grown used to it as an empty threat. Might be interesting to watch how the actors portray his reaction.

With the keep/lose wordplay, we also see that Scrooge has a sense of humor, if a dark, dry one.  That becomes more evident later.

"Don't be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow."

The nephew comes to his apparent reason for visiting.

Scrooge said that he would see him - yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.

I love the lengths to which Victorian writers went to avoid swearing. I don't remember which adaptations include this part, so that'll be interesting to see. 

"But why?" cried Scrooge's nephew. "Why?"

"Why did you get married?" said Scrooge.

I've often wondered what the real beef was that Scrooge had with his nephew. Alastair Sim's version suggests that Scrooge blames him for the death of Scrooge's sister, who died in childbirth. I don't recall that being part of Dickens' text, but we'll see.

This line about the marriage seems to reveal the true reason. I operated for years under the assumption that Scrooge thought his nephew married beneath him, but that doesn't make a lot of sense. Scrooge's family doesn't seem to be especially well-connected or privileged, so the bride's social status probably isn't the issue. More likely it's that Victorians didn't consider it wise to get married before you had sufficient income to support a family. Indeed, we'll see later that Scrooge waited before proposing to his sweetheart.

He thinks his nephew is foolish and has now got himself into the position of needing money. Which, Scrooge suspects, is the real reason for the nephew's cozying up to him.

"Because I fell in love."

"Because you fell in love!" growled Scrooge, as if that were the only thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas. "Good afternoon!"

"Nay, uncle, but you never came to see me before that happened. Why give it as a reason for not coming now?"

Maybe there is something to the idea of Scrooge's blaming his nephew for his sister's death. Seems to be a bit of a mystery here and I don't remember how/if the text reveals it.

"Good afternoon," said Scrooge.

"I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?"

"Good afternoon," said Scrooge.

"I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I'll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!"

"Good afternoon!" said Scrooge.

"And A Happy New Year!"

"Good afternoon!" said Scrooge.

His nephew left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding. He stopped at the outer door to bestow the greetings of the season on the clerk, who, cold as he was, was warmer than Scrooge; for he returned them cordially.

"There's another fellow," muttered Scrooge; who overheard him: "my clerk, with fifteen shillings a-week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I'll retire to Bedlam."

According to the annotated text I'm using, fifteen shillings a week was a common wage for clerical workers at the time. Some of the adaptations try to draw humor by making Cratchit's pay ridiculously low, but that's apparently not the actual case.

Bedlam, of course, was an insane asylum, but I've also learned that it's short for Bethlehem, as in the Hospital of St. Mary's of Bethlehem, which was the formal name of the place.

We'll stop there. We learn in the next paragraph that "this lunatic, in letting Scrooge's nephew out [curiously unnamed in this scene, though we later learn that he's called Fred], had let two other people in." So we'll cover them in their own section next year.

Just to help me keep track, the things we're watching for as we explore this section:
  • How abruptly is the nephew introduced?
  • Is the nephew's personality jolly or sentimental?
  • How funny is Cratchit's applause?
  • Is Cratchit really afraid for his job?
  • Will Scrooge see his nephew in Hell?
  • What seems to be the reason for Scrooge's intense dislike of his nephew?


Wings1295 said...

Good post, and good points to look at in the adaptations you will be discussing. I always loved how Fred was so upbeat and that, no matter what Scrooge said to him, he was going to keep on trying to open that closed door between them.

Michael May said...

Yeah. He's my favorite character in the story and that's exactly why.


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