Friday, December 02, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Dickens

Illustration by John Leech.

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

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London, even including -- which is a bold word -- the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven-year's dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Marley's face.

That bit about no "intermediate process of change" is noteworthy, because my favorite versions do just the opposite. To me, it's spookier to watch the knocker morph into Marley's face than just abruptly switch in an eye-blink. I'll take note of how the change is portrayed in the various adaptations.

Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.

I'm always curious about Marley's methods here. There won't be much of this to comment on in the adaptations, but it's interesting to think about what Marley's trying to achieve. Is his appearance at the knocker a first attempt at communication? Or is he just trying to unsettle Scrooge? And if it's the latter: to what purpose? Marley's scary enough without going out of his way to be freaky.

To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and lighted his candle.

He did pause, with a moment's irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley's pigtail sticking out into the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said "Pooh, pooh!" and closed it with a bang.

The sound resounded through the house like thunder. Every room above, and every cask in the wine-merchant's cellars below, appeared to have a separate peal of echoes of its own. Scrooge was not a man to be frightened by echoes. He fastened the door, and walked across the hall, and up the stairs, slowly too: trimming his candle as he went.

The mention of the wine-merchant's cellars reminds me that Scrooge doesn't own this whole house. He leases rooms in it, but it's mostly occupied by businesses. Most - if not all - the adaptations ignore this and just give Scrooge the whole place.

You may talk vaguely about driving a coach-and-six up a good old flight of stairs, or through a bad young Act of Parliament; but I mean to say you might have got a hearse up that staircase, and taken it broadwise, with the splinter-bar towards the wall and the door towards the balustrades: and done it easy. There was plenty of width for that, and room to spare; which is perhaps the reason why Scrooge thought he saw a locomotive hearse going on before him in the gloom. Half-a-dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn't have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge's dip.

Quick note about Scrooge's "dip." That's referring to his candle, which was of course made in those days by repeatedly dipping the wick in melted wax.

As for the hearse, I think this is more Scrooge's imagination than an actual supernatural occurance, but we can see if any of the adaptations pick up on it. The George C Scott version liked the visual enough to move it outside for Scrooge's walk home.

Might be fun to see if any versions give the house an unusually wide staircase. My bet is that most of them make the house seem more dismal by making the staircase narrow.

Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that: darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it. But before he shut his heavy door, he walked through his rooms to see that all was right. He had just enough recollection of the face to desire to do that.

Sitting-room, bed-room, lumber-room. All as they should be. Nobody under the table, nobody under the sofa; a small fire in the grate; spoon and basin ready; and the little saucepan of gruel (Scrooge has a cold in his head) upon the hob. Nobody under the bed; nobody in the closet; nobody in his dressing-gown, which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall. Lumber-room as usual. Old fire-guard, old shoes, two fish-baskets, washing-stand on three legs, and a poker.

I love the image of Scrooge going through his house, making sure he's alone.

The gruel, as Dickens mentions, isn't Scrooge's dinner. He already had that at the tavern. This is just some boiled oatmeal or something that he's taking for warmth before bed. It's a strong visual though, so a lot of versions - particularly the ones that skipped the tavern scene - imply that this is all Scrooge allows himself to eat.

The "hob" that Scrooge's saucepan sits on is a little shelf (usually made of stone or iron) in the fireplace. People put things on it to keep them warm. You can see Scrooge's in the illustration above.

Quite satisfied, he closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his cravat; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his night-cap; and sat down before the fire to take his gruel.

Some versions go crazy with the locks, either for humor or to increase the tension.

It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel. The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Pharaoh's daughters, Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet's rod, and swallowed up the whole. If each smooth tile had been a blank at first, with power to shape some picture on its surface from the disjointed fragments of his thoughts, there would have been a copy of old Marley's head on every one.

Some adaptations have the tiles, but not all. And I think I remember at least one that puts Marley's face on them. Like with the hearse though, I'm pretty sure that this part is just Scrooge's imagination.

"Humbug!" said Scrooge; and walked across the room.

After several turns, he sat down again. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house.

Pretty much all the adaptations have this, but it might be fun to keep track of how many bells each includes.

This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant's cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.

The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

"It's humbug still!'" said Scrooge. "I won't believe it."

His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, "I know him! Marley's Ghost!" and fell again.

What's scarier: Marley passing through a locked door or the door opening on its own to allow him entrance? Adaptations have differing opinions about this.

I'm guessing that not many versions mention the fire's acting strangely, but that was a common superstition about ghosts. Brutus even notices it in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Act IV, Scene 3).

The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights, and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Some adaptations have Marley being transparent, but not all. I wonder if that's entirely a budget decision or if there's some artistic reason to making him solid.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

The bowels were thought of as the place where emotions came from, so this is similar to calling Marley "heartless."

No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

People often tied the dead's jaws closed with a bandage to keep the mouth from opening. So this is Marley as he appeared after death.

"How now!" said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. "What do you want with me?"

"Much!" -- Marley's voice, no doubt about it.

"Who are you?"

"Ask me who I was."

"Who were you then?" said Scrooge, raising his voice. "You're particular, for a shade." He was going to say "to a shade," but substituted this, as more appropriate.

"To a shade" means "to a degree." Not Dickens' greatest pun.

"In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley."

"Can you -- can you sit down?" asked Scrooge, looking doubtfully at him.

"I can.'

"Do it, then."

Scrooge asked the question, because he didn't know whether a ghost so transparent might find himself in a condition to take a chair; and felt that in the event of its being impossible, it might involve the necessity of an embarrassing explanation. But the ghost sat down on the opposite side of the fireplace, as if he were quite used to it.

"You don't believe in me," observed the Ghost.

"I don't," said Scrooge.

"What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?"

"I don't know," said Scrooge.

"Why do you doubt your senses?"

"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre's voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones.

Some of the versions have already given Scrooge a sense of humor, if a dark one. I don't know how much more I want to comment on that in this scene, but it might be worth noticing how he delivers this line. Is he whistling in the dark or genuinely a funny guy?

To sit, staring at those fixed, glazed eyes, in silence for a moment, would play, Scrooge felt, the very deuce with him. There was something very awful, too, in the spectre's being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.

Hence the blowing hair at the door knocker. I don't remember many adaptations including this element during Marley and Scrooge's conversation, but we'll see.

"You see this toothpick?" said Scrooge, returning quickly to the charge, for the reason just assigned; and wishing, though it were only for a second, to divert the vision's stony gaze from himself.

"I do," replied the Ghost.

"You are not looking at it," said Scrooge.

"But I see it," said the Ghost, "notwithstanding."

"Well!" returned Scrooge, "I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you; humbug!"

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear in-doors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Some versions have Marley do this at the beginning of the conversation. The easier to speak, I suppose. Adaptations vary widely about the jaw-dropping part.

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

"Mercy!" he said. "Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?"

"Man of the worldly mind!'' replied the Ghost, "do you believe in me or not?"

"I do," said Scrooge. "I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

"It is required of every man,'" the Ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world -- oh, woe is me! -- and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!"

Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain, and wrung its shadowy hands.

"You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?"

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"

Scrooge trembled more and more.

"Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!"

Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.

I love this whole thing about the chain: the idea that we're spiritually shackled to whatever's most important to us in life, and that Scrooge has trouble understanding that it's a metaphor. I fear that my own chain is made of reels of film and DVDs. I may have something to learn from Marley, too.

"Jacob," he said, imploringly. "Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob."

"I have none to give," the Ghost replied. "It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house -- mark me! -- in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!"

The "other regions" from which comfort comes are of course Heaven. That's not where Marley's from and it's not his job to comfort Scrooge. He's here to scare some change into his old partner.

It was a habit with Scrooge, whenever he became thoughtful, to put his hands in his breeches pockets. Pondering on what the Ghost had said, he did so now, but without lifting up his eyes, or getting off his knees.

Speaking of change, I want to start tracking Scrooge's journey to redemption. This is the start of it and it begins with fear, but there will be other tactics as well used by other ghosts before coming back to fear again at the end. When does Scrooge make the decision that he wants to be a better person? Which tactic is the most effective? Different versions have different answers to those questions.

"You must have been very slow about it, Jacob," Scrooge observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference.

"Slow!" the Ghost repeated.

"Seven years dead," mused Scrooge. "And travelling all the time?"

"The whole time," said the Ghost. "No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse."

"You travel fast?" said Scrooge.

"On the wings of the wind,'" replied the Ghost.

"You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years," said Scrooge.

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Ward would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

"Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed," cried the phantom, "not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

It held up its chain at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear the spectre going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly.

"Hear me!" cried the Ghost. "My time is nearly gone."

"I will," said Scrooge. "But don't be hard upon me! Don't be flowery, Jacob! Pray!"

Scrooge has already admitted that he believes that Marley is real and not just a hallucination. Now he's expressing a willingness to at least listen to whatever lesson Marley is here to teach. So, in Dickens at least, fear may not be doing the entire job of changing Scrooge, but it's at least opening Scrooge to the possibility that something is horribly wrong.

"How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day."

I like that Marley's not entirely sure how all this works either. He's been wanting to communicate with Scrooge, but is just now able to, for some reason that he doesn't know.

It was not an agreeable idea. Scrooge shivered, and wiped the perspiration from his brow.

"That is no light part of my penance," pursued the Ghost. "I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer."

"You were always a good friend to me," said Scrooge. "Thank'ee!"

"You will be haunted," resumed the Ghost, "by Three Spirits."

Scrooge's countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost's had done.

"Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?" he demanded, in a faltering voice.

"It is."

"I -- I think I'd rather not," said Scrooge.

Scrooge is willing to consider that there might be something in him that needs changing, but not if it's going to involve suffering.

"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One."

Makes sense so far. It's before midnight on Christmas Eve, so the first ghost is coming at 1:00 am on Christmas morning. It's about to get complicated, though.

"Couldn't I take 'em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?" hinted Scrooge.

"Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us."

I've never understood this part. Why spread this out over three days? According to the schedule that Marley lays out, Scrooge will be finished on the morning of December 27. What's the point of that?

Of course, the visits don't end up sticking to Marley's schedule, so whatever the point, it's a moot one. But most of the adaptations wisely drop this and just have Marley predict one night of visits.

When it had said these words, the spectre took its wrapper from the table, and bound it round its head, as before. Scrooge knew this, by the smart sound its teeth made, when the jaws were brought together by the bandage. He ventured to raise his eyes again, and found his supernatural visitor confronting him in an erect attitude, with its chain wound over and about its arm.

The apparition walked backward from him; and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley's Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped.

Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

This is a powerful bit, especially that last sentence. It's sad, but understandable, that a lot of adaptations cut it. But not all of them do.

Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, he could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together; and the night became as it had been when he walked home.

Scrooge closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. He tried to say "Humbug!" but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose; went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep upon the instant.

"Dull" conversation in this case refers to the monotonous tone of it, not that Scrooge was bored. (Dickens apparently imitated this tone of the ghosts' dialogue whenever he read A Christmas Carol to audiences.) The conversation has clearly had an effect on him and even though he wants to disbelieve and dismiss it, he can't.

So here's what we're looking for this year:

  • The knocker-to-face transition
  • Do any adaptations have the hearse going up the stairs? What other ways to they convey Scrooge's unease? How wide are those stairs, anyway?
  • Does it seem like Scrooge owns the whole house?
  • Is gruel Scrooge's only meal of the day? How does he react to it? Any hint of a cold?
  • How many locks are on Scrooge's door? Does Marley open the door before coming through?
  • Does Scrooge's fireplace have Dutch tiles? Does he see Marley’s face on them?
  • How many bells announce Marley's arrival?
  • Does Scrooge’s fire do anything weird when Marley shows up?
  • Marley's appearance. Is he transparent? Does he have a personal wind or atmosphere around him? Does he pull off his bandage? How does that affect his jaw? Does he speak in monotone?
  • Does Scrooge have a sense of humor or is he just trying to distract himself with humor?
  • What bits of the conversation are cut? Why do we think they are?
  • Does Scrooge start to change as early as this scene? How does his characterization here compare with how he acted in the office?
  • What schedule does Marley put the ghosts on: three nights or one night?
  • Does Scrooge see Marley join other phantoms outside? If so, are they trying to help someone?


Wings1295 said...

A lot to look for this year! One of the things I never knew was that the bandage was something done after Marley had died. I had always assumed it was something he needed cause he was too cheap to deal with his dental issues so the bandage was tight around his head to help alleviate pain. Now I know better.

The idea of adding links to the chain of your life, which becomes real to you when you are dead, is something I think transcends just the belief of life after death. It is something we can think about if we just believe this life is our one and only journey, as I do. A metaphorical chain that we can either add to or not depending on how we act towards the rest of the world.

One thing I noted reading your comments is that Marley has sat by Scrooge but been unable to help him before. Why is this year different? I thought maybe nephew Fred maybe made a plea, out loud or in a prayer to the Christian God, to help his Uncle see all he is missing out on by being so alone. Maybe Marley being able to help now is the answer to Fred's prayer. Just a thought.

One of the most haunting aspects of the story, for me, has always been the image of Scrooge looking out the window and seeing the sky and streets below crowded with wailing, desperate spirits carrying chains and locks of varying weight and degree. Such a sad and desolate image.

Looking forward to the month ahead!

Michael May said...

That is a great question about why this year is different. Your Fred suggestion is as good as anything I'd come up with. There's some fan fiction to be mined there. :)

Whatever the answer, you're right: the thought of Marley's sitting helplessly next to Scrooge on previous visits is heartbreaking.

I also agree about the chain metaphor working outside the context of an afterlife. Most of us are chained by something, but there's freedom in setting ourselves aside and helping other people.


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