Writing That Scene: A Christmas Carol

In the format of a non-traditional critique, Writing that Scene examines the fundamentals of what it takes to capably convey a scene to one’s readers. The opinion expressed is my own, and other readers’ opinions may and will differ.

If you are interested in sharing a scene of your own for a future post, click on the Writing that Scene Submission link. Or, you can suggest a scene from another writer’s work for us to analyze. To see last week’s scene, click here.

Author: Charles Dickens

Scene location: Beginning of the book

Genre: General Fiction/Ghost Story

A Christmas Carol: Original Text

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say St. Paul’s Church-yard, for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Author’s Point of View: The beginning of this remarkable tale must not only establish the tone of the piece and introduce the main character, but prepare us for the supernatural elements to come without announcing “This is a ghost story.”

A Christmas Carol: (My comments in blue)

[Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Great opening! It opens with a serious subject—death—but proceeds with a humorous tone, listing the people who could attest to his being dead as though someone was claiming the opposite] [Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. I like how you’ve introduced the main character so quickly. We now know that he’s important in the world of finance, and through the matter-of-fact tone taken on the subject, we sense that we’re dealing with someone who has very little use for his heart.]

[Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail. Great use of the narrator’s voice to insert some humor in what is otherwise quite grim and serious. I particularly like the line “the Country’s done for,” as though changing a simile would corrupt the nation.]

[Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? This is interesting. By using a question mark after the first sentence of this paragraph, we almost get the feeling like we and the narrator are having a dialogue, like he’s repeating a question we asked. It adds to the relaxed tone.] Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. [Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain. I like the mix of slang and formal legalese. (The list actually reminds me a bit of the many roles of Pooh-Bah in The Mikado.) We are obviously dealing with an educated narrator in a casual setting as he retells this story.]

[The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. This almost feels like belaboring the point, since Marley’s death has been the subject of almost three paragraphs already, but it does permit you to lead into the next sentence, so I think it works.] [If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say St. Paul’s Church-yard, for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind. Great use of comparison to prepare the readers for what’s to come. We know that ghosts are possible in this story now, from the reference to Hamlet, and particularly Hamlet’s father.]

[Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him. This is a very telling anecdote about Scrooge. Not only does he keep his partner’s name up, as though he were still alive, but he answers to his partner’s name. It is like both are still living, through Scrooge, and perhaps, both are likewise linked in death. This makes Scrooge almost a zombie, one of the living dead who preys on other people, though I’m not sure the zombie culture was well established when you wrote this. In any case, the idea that Scrooge associated himself so strongly with a dead man is intriguing.]

You’re welcome (and encouraged) to share your own comments, keeping a tone of constructive criticism in mind so we can all learn from this project together. And feel free to disagree with any and all of the advice and comments I gave. Thanks!

Comments Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

One thought on “Writing That Scene: A Christmas Carol

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s