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A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (A Penguin Classics Hardcover) Hardcover – September 28, 2010
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[Coralie Bickford-Smith's] recent work for Penguin Classics is...nothing short of glorious * Anna Cole Co. *
About the Author
Charles Dickens (1812-70) was a political reporter, journalist and novelist. His novels include Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Bleak House.
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Some of Dickens' earlier novels are overloaded with a large cast of characters. However, by the time he wrote his later books such as Hard Times and Great Expectations he had successfully learned how to tell his stories with smaller ensembles. A Tale of Two Cities returns to the use of an abundance of characters, but all of whom are fully realized. Dickens seems to have learned a principle of parsimony, and he does not require a separate character for each plot twist. A single character may be used for more than a single line of plot development, thus allowing for greater depth of each character to be depicted.
The narrative and plot are particularly strong in A Tale of Two Cities. While perhaps not as exciting or as gripping as the latest Robert Ludlum novel, the story Dickens tells is an interesting and engaging one. The reader develops a genuine interest in the story and its characters, and wants to keep reading in order to "find out what happens next."
The context of the novel is the French Revolution of 1789, but this book is not a historical novel in the sense that it attempts to portray the events of that revolution. The French Revolution is a backdrop to Dickens' story, and occasionally intrudes in order to move the action forward. Those looking to A Tale of Two Cities as a historical fiction covering the French Revolution will be sorely disappointed. The book is exactly what its title suggests: a story comparing and contrasting two cities in two different countries in a particular historical epoch. The French and the English had their differences, and it is telling that Dickens chooses an era in which the two countries are *not* at war with each other for telling his story.
A Tale of Two Cities is a novel about character, and Dickens populates his story with some of the most interesting characters in English literature. Madame Defarge and her assiduous knitting stands out in particular. Surprisingly, the book lacks some of the psychological depth of Hard Times and Great Expectations, the two books which respectively precede and follow A Tale of Two Cities. The psychological element is not entirely missing, but this reader finds it interesting that a book so founded on character does not delve deeply into those characters' inner lives.
Dickens considered A Tale of Two Cities his best story, and indeed it is a good story well told. The stereotypical Victorian language is virtually absent, and many passages are sheer poetry. The book is a thoroughly enjoyable read. If a reader is seeking only a single Dickens book to read, this is the one I would recommend.
Scrooge is... well, a scrooge -- a professional miser who hates Christmas, goodwill, charity, puppies, kittens, his relatives, his employees, and virtually everything else except money.
And on Christmas Eve, his dead partner Jacob Marley comes back, wrapped with supernatural chains, and claims that Scrooge is doomed to the same fate. But he has a chance at redemption: three ghosts representing will visit him that night, taking him on a guided tour of Christmases past, present and yet to come.
So Scrooge is transported on a trio of hourlong trips through time. The childlike Ghost of Christmas Past takes him to his bleak childhood, when he was less jaded and hard. The jolly Ghost of Christmas Present takes him to people's homes on the very next morning, specifically of of his nephew and the poor miner Bob Cratchit. And finally a Ringwraith-like spirit gives him a glimpse of Christmas years in the future... a bleak and terrible future, unless he changes his ways.
You can read plenty of symbolism into a story like "A Christmas Carol"; I've heard speculation about Dickens' father, the Industrial Revolution, spiritualism, and all sorts of other stuff. But at its heart, "A Christmas Carol" is the most powerful when appreciated for its story alone -- a story about a greedy, miserable man who redeems himself by learning to love all humanity.
Dickens' writing is utterly brilliant here. Most of the book is bleak, grimy and painted in shadows, with Dickens only rarely holding back from showing the dark situation of England's poor. A great example is the symbolic children Want and Ignorance ("a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds"). As for the Grim-Reaperlike third ghost, it's the stuff of nightmares.
But all isn't dark here. Occasionally Dickens splashes it with moments of crystalline brilliance ("It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and... its dress trimmed with summer flowers"). And as dark as the book is, Dickens offers hope for the future.
He also does a brilliant job with Scrooge, " a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire." Having worked hard to make us hate Scrooge, Dickens then deftly displays his skill at slowly revealing how Scrooge became who and what he is, and slowly redeeming him.
Charles Dickens created one of the greatest Christmas stories with "A Christmas Carol" -- bah humbugs, merry Christmases and all. God bless us, every one!