Required Holiday Reading: A Christmas Carol

dickens christmas carol scrooge

This essay was written by Amarie Fox.

Upon hearing the news that my father would be working most of the day on Thanksgiving, I instinctively, walked over to my bookshelf and pulled Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” down from the shelf. I suppose I was trying to remind myself what this time of year is truly about.

Although I am thankful that my father has work again, especially after losing his job earlier this year, it saddens me that at his age, the only type of job he was able to get was in sales. Where especially during these upcoming weeks, people will flood the store, shoving and screaming, looking for things, simple, silly objects, that they just need to buy.

Each year, it begins earlier, the sale advertisements in anticipation for Black Friday, so much so that they have managed to successfully intrude upon yet another important, overlooked holiday. Are we as a culture structuring our lives around greed and gratification? Have we forgotten tradition, or what is important and meaningful? Sometimes I think I know the answer, I just don’t want to say it aloud.

Dickens, I feel, is an expert on humanity, which is why he is still relevant today. During the Victorian era, he was considered a social novelist, writing ‘epics of everyday life.’ The purpose of narrative literature, for him, was to raise society’s consciousness, namely about itself. Characters in his novels are metaphorical representations, standing in for certain values, philosophies, or attitudes.

However, this is not to say the content is overwhelmingly or unnecessarily depressing or gloomy. Dickens, actually, was a master at balancing harsh realities of this world, while also seeking out and elevating the good amidst the bleakness.

A Voice of Many

Many consider “A Christmas Carol” melodramatic and sentimental. In some ways, I can understand this, but at the same time, I have to say, it represents so much more. Obviously, when approaching it historically, the short novel is a major denunciation of the Industrial period and laissez-faire capitalism, which values money and profit over the well-being of the individual. The Cractchit family – with their tenderness for one another, their care of Tiny Tim, their happiness over a frugal Christmas meal – embody a side of this system. And despite circumstances and their set position in society, not to mention the atrocious and popular attitudes of the mercantile class, they are not without love and goodness. In fact, they exude these qualities.

After the initial release and immediate wild success of it, many struggling families wrote to Dickens to tell him, ‘how the Carol had come to be read aloud there, and was to be kept upon a little shelf by itself, and was to do them no end of good.’ One must consider something: that although the Cratchit family represented quite a large portion of the poor population, Dickens was one of the only ones who actually gave them a voice.

Want and Ignorance

One of my favorite moments is when the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces the two children clinging to his robes: appropriately named Want and Ignorance. Both represent common traits that exist in society during times of financial inequality between the rich and poor. We see this numerous times throughout the text, but perhaps most strongly in the characters of Scrooge and Marley.

When two men arrive, in search of charity contributions, Scrooge promptly dismisses them. He points out that they should either be put in jail or put to work or die in order to decrease the ‘surplus population.’ Being regarded as a ‘surplus’ came from Reverend Thomas Malthus’s 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. At its publication, it sparked a widespread fear of over-population in England. Again, Scrooge is the vehicle, here. His opinion mirrors many other people’s opinions at the time. Like them, he is unkind, and worse, ignorant and uninformed about the strife, struggles, and experiences of the poor.

Some time later, when the ghost of his friend and business partner Marley visits, Scrooge remarks on his chains, a symbol that Jacob is a prisoner of his bad deeds. Because he never left the courting house, the money-changing home, he never recognized the hardships of others. His craving for money fueled him, but as he learns, albeit too late, “mankind was [his] business.” Charity and mercy and benevolence were traits he should have practiced while living, not the ‘every man for himself’ mentality.

After their conversation, Scrooge looks through his window and notices many miserable looking ghosts in similar shackles, some that he even recognizes. They, like Marley and like much of society, turned a blind eye to the injustice, as well. And as much as they’d like to interfere for the good, to maybe lend a hand, they cannot. They are forever separated from the living.

True Change?

One question, or maybe a doubt, I am left with at the end of this novel is regarding the nature of Scrooge’s transformation. When we examine his ‘journey’ closely, we see that it only becomes possible when he uncovers his eyes and confronts his painful past and background. Re-experiencing those repressed memories, he comes to pity himself first. With that new acknowledgement, that remembrance, he is then able to care for others.

The reason we are sympathetic, the reason we move past self-centeredness as children, is not only that we have experienced loss, loneliness, defeat, or dread, but because we also remember it when faced with someone else’s sufferings. Basically, we apply our own past emotions when attempting to understand others. Without that, we deny any chance of deeper connection, camaraderie or love.

I find consolation, though, in the simple possibility of change. The fact that goodness is something you can always strive for, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. It is never too late. But, it is a choice. Behaving badly is not difficult. Usually it is appealing, desirable, selfish, but provides that instant gratification.

What I will take away from “A Christmas Carol” this year is the reminder that one can never prove their goodness without the challenge to make a decision. And that is just what Scrooge does. He makes an important final choice, one that we should remember this December, but also year round: Love for humanity over money, material, and greed.

Will you be reading (or re-reading) A Christmas Carol this season? If so, why or why not? Do you have any holiday reading rituals? Favorite holiday related books?

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Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. She graduated with a BA in English Literature and recently finished her novella. She plans of making an origami swan out of her diploma. Her recent fiction work has been published by Little Fiction, NIB, and Literary Orphans. Find more information at amariefoxart.wordpress.com and amariefox.tumblr.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Ciara McDonnell

All Quiet on the Western Front: A Testament to Humanity

all quiet on the western front

This essay was written by T. Lloyd Reilly.

A search for the realities of humanity or of humanness can steer one into strange places and reveal unexpected gems.  This happened to me a few months ago in a book.  For some reason or another I had escaped reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque.  This probably should have been read when I was a teen, or perhaps as a part of a college lit course.  As an aficionado of classic film, I could not imagine how I skipped this story.  I found it at the bottom of a box at a garage sale.  I passed several of my favorite authors digging into the box to get to this book, and find myself quite pleased with the choice.

In a world rampant with tales of war, it seems unlikely that a tale of a group of enemy soldiers of America, in a war that occurred long ago, could divulge so many truths about who we are and what we feel.

A tale of a group of German teenagers enlisting in the Kaiser’s army during World War I, the narrative held me captive.

I usually read quickly, but I consumed this saga in a single sitting.  There are only a handful of books that have stimulated me in such a manner.  Each of them is worthy of an essay in themselves, but this particular book came at a particularly poignant time in my life.  I was enduring the end of my sister’s life from leukemia and found myself, as is usual, with a loss of importance, questioning the beliefs and feelings I had developed about life and beyond.

In this book there is an ongoing narrative of the day-to-day movements of the main characters as they wind their way through the bunkers and rear areas of the Great War.  A description of attacking the enemy lines and losing more than half the company is accented with the survivors attempting to get something to eat afterwards and being refused because the cook had instruction to serve the entire company or none.  When told that the entire company was present and that the rest of the contingent lay in pieces either on the battlefield or in medical tents the cook still refused until given a direct order from an officer.

The cook had simply done what he was told, and the lack of deviation probably came as a self-defense action.  By doing what is right in front of him, he did not have to think about the horror of the place he lived.  Any escape from reality is a tool all the characters shared.  Playing cards, smoking cigarettes, taking about girls back home, and how much of a jerk the sergeant was were just some of the diversions used to make it between times of horror.

One scene of particular interest came when several of the teens went to visit a wounded comrade.  The wounded man, Kemmerich, lay on a bed complaining that his foot hurt.  He had no clue that he was, in fact, absent the entire leg due to an amputation meant to save his life.  When one of his comrades let slip that he had lost his leg the wounded soldier laments its loss and the fact that he could not realize his dream of becoming a forester.

While Paul, the narrator, attempts to console his friend, one of the other visitors eyes the wounded man’s boots and realizes that they are in better shape than those he wore and schemed to take them for himself.  The thought of having a decent pair of boots served as motivation to enable his willingness to go back into battle.  Creature comforts supplanted the deeper emotions of fear and dread that awaits the soldier on the battlefield.

Kemmerich suffers for a while and finally drifts off into unconsciousness before dying.  While still lucid, the wounded hero implores the narrator to give his boots to the other man.  Paul’s reaction to Kemmerich’s death erupted in a dash out of the tent and around the area, realizing that running made him forget the death and feel more alive and then hungry.  Again, creature comforts displace the dread that all must have felt most of the time.  The dead man’s boots find different homes as the book go on, reinforcing the ideal of practicality in the face of that which is unbearable.

Living within their means and surviving that which is seemingly impossible to endure rings throughout the book with every page.  When the narrator gets a leave to go home, he finds less then he wished and found confusion seeping in.  He could understand a day-to-day struggle when being shot at, but grew confused by the same struggle in those whose lives are not immediately at risk.

The daily realities that the narrator expounds upon all have a flavor of true humanness.  The things that a combat soldier must tolerate seem to bring out the humanity instead of disallowing it.

Perhaps the most poignant scene comes with the death of the narrator’s friend, Katczinsky.  Wounded by a bomb, he is discovered by Paul scrounging for food.  While being carried to safety by Paul, another bomb from the very plane that initially caused his distress lets loose another bomb which kills the man while leaving his rescuer untouched.  Perhaps, continuing to search for food, the creature comfort, might have saved his life.

Paul suffers through many trials and tribulations that speak to his character and brings the reader to the thought that he is a noble warrior deserving of escape from harm.  The reality is that he is just a teenager that has experienced things that no young person should have to.  He gradually grows jaded to life and death and it is in his final moment that he reveals that which is still within him.  While sitting on the wall of his trench he spies a butterfly and, forgetting where he is, reaches for it revealing too much of his body and is shot dead.

The final scene seems tragic, yet, it fits perfectly.  The certainties of war come into focus all throughout the book while the search for simple human dignity is desperately being sought by the narrator and his cohorts.  It speaks to what is, and not what is wanted.  In living day to day with the ugliness of war, the characters teach lessons of humanity while ignoring the horror.

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T. Lloyd Reilly is a writer with over twenty five years of writing experience. He has lived what some would consider more than one lifetime and has acquired a wide range of knowledge and life experience which he wishes to share through generous application of the written word. For more information about him go to: http://about.me/tlloydreilly.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Mordac.

The Slush Pile: Where Reading Starts to Hurt

slush pile

This essay was written by Patrick Icasas.

“Pass.”

It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I have this evening to finish my assigned stories. I click through to the next. It’s a sci-fi piece with a clever title that promises a fun parody.

I read through the first paragraph, and I’m immediately disappointed. It turns out to be an existential piece in a sci-fi backdrop, which is a big disconnect from what the title made me expect. I read through the rest, hoping that it’ll at least be compelling enough to deserve a “maybe” vote, with the caveat of a title change. It’s not.

“Pass.”

I click through to the next story, hoping for the best. But the first sentence alone has two typos, and the author can’t seem to decide which tense he wants to use. I don’t even make it a third of the way in.

“Pass.”

A literary piece comes up, and I open it, wary of more navel-gazing and existential angst. I’m pleasantly surprised to find sound characters and clever dialogue, and a unique take on an every day situation. It has its flaws, but it’s one of the best stories I’ve read that evening.

“Maybe.”

And so my evening goes, the same as a dozen other members of the Flash Fiction Online (FFO) slush team. We spend our weekends and evenings reading through piles of submissions (electronic now, thankfully), looking for the gems that will move on to the next round—the team review.

It’s long, tiring, and pretty frustrating at times. You hear so many stories about the horrors of slush from editors, agents, and other writers. But unless you actually sit down and read through the slush pile yourself, you’ll never know how much of a slog it really is.

Minor problems like typos and grammar are the most annoying. Not because they’re there, but because they’re so easy to fix. You can use all the flowery language that you want, but if you mistype “skull” as “scull”, you’re not doing your story any favors. And competition in the slush pile is so fierce that you’re going to need every advantage you can get.

Surprisingly, it’s not the bad stories that frustrate me the most. It’s the “not quites”. I’ve lost count of the stories that had great potential—a relatable character, a unique premise, or beautiful prose—only to have the author go in a completely different direction and lose my interest.

The reason it’s so frustrating is because we want to help authors get published. Forget what you’ve heard about slush readers cackling in smug satisfaction as they reject story after story. My team and I agonize over every choice, voting up pieces despite their flaws. Every so often I’ll get that one story with a unanimous vote, but more often than not choosing a story is a compromise. There’s a lot of back and forth as we discuss flaws and strengths, and how stories compare. Each member of the team is chosen for their analytical ability, so these discussions can run pretty deep.

In the end, our editor can only choose a handful out of hundreds. I’m happy that many of my favorites were eventually published, but most have not.

And then the next month comes, and we go through the entire process again.

Why do we do it? I’ve asked myself that question several times—mostly when I’m knee-deep in bad stories. Every single member of the team is a volunteer. All of our revenue goes to paying our writers and maintaining the site, so none of us is gaining any benefit other than reading stories and helping other authors.

For my part, I joined FFO because I wanted to see what slush was like. I was curious and wanted to learn more about the publication side of the fiction industry. But that doesn’t explain why I’m still around. I am getting better at analyzing stories, which helps my own fiction, but that’s a benefit, not a reason.

To be honest, I don’t know why I do stick around. Inertia, maybe? But what I do know is that whenever one of my favorites gets published on the FFO homepage, I get a little thrill knowing that I helped get that piece into the spotlight.

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Patrick Icasas is a freelance writer, marketing professional, aspiring author, and a slush reader at Flash Fiction Online.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Meets Memory Lane

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

“I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.” Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

I’ve written before about the idea that taking a trip down reading memory lane is a worthwhile way to re-kindle your reading interest. An old favorite–a book you read for pleasure as a child–can take you back to the days when reading was a care-free experience. Often, the mandatory reading school imposes robs us of the pleasure. Those who continue to read find ways to carve out time to read the things they like.

But, what if you have no pleasant reading memory? I recently read Neil Gaiman’s, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a book that captures the essence of what it’s like to read for pleasure. The main character is bookish, the setting is fantasy, and the book engages the mythic inclinations hard-wired in our minds.

I see Gaiman’s book as picking up where I left off when I wrote the piece about taking a trip down reading memory lane eighteen months ago. Sometimes it takes a new book to fill the gaps in our thought process. The Ocean at the End of the Lane does that for me. It’s the closest I’ve come to the feeling I had when I’d read something I loved as a child since I’ve been forced into adulthood by the passage of time. It gives me new hope that even without a pleasurable childhood reading experience we can fill the gaps in our adult lives and find a way to read for pleasure.

Gaiman invokes three things in the book that make it have the effect it does:

1. Gaiman’s main character takes us back to our childhood.

Gaiman must have poured much of himself into the main character of the novel. His bookish ways, the manner in which he views the world, his old-soul makeup. He’d rather be reading than adventuring. But, as children, we always end up doing something other than what we want and it’s often those things that make us grow the most.

Gaiman recognizes, though, that even as adults we’re still pretending to be something we aren’t. We’re still forced to do things we don’t want to do and the way we keep ourselves in tact is by taking some time to be alone with our inner-selves and even our inner-child.

2. Gaiman invokes our sense of nostalgia.

The novel begins with an adult main character returning to his childhood home. The novel becomes a reflection on his childhood past. The effect of this is to take the reader back in time to our own childhood. Gaiman guides us, through the narrative, to our own past. Those experiences are a combination of pleasant and unpleasant events that have shaped us into the people we are. Gaiman’s novel acts as a guided meditation down memory lane and it can supplement or fill the gaps of our childhood reading past.

To explore this aspect of the book, I recommend reading slowly enough to allow time for reflection. Make annotations in the book or in a notebook of the memories brought to the surface by your reading. The interaction you have with the novel can cause you to remember things you’d thought were long forgotten. In that way, the book serves as a path by which you can arrive at some of those sentimental places that exist, now, only in your mind.

3. Gaiman’s fantasy setting carries us far enough away from the real.

Fantasy settings allow us to step out of the world where we’re expected to know how everything works, and to have an answer for every uncertainty we experience. If a fantasy setting is done right, there are enough things there to remind us of our real lives, but it’s equally important that we be asked to temporarily suspend our rational thought processes long enough to accept the fantasy the author’s created. Gaiman masterfully mixes the two. We can both relate to the world we’re told of, yet not completely understand what will come next.

The benefit to the reader is that they’re given a break from the real. They’re given an opportunity to live in the world created by the cooperative effort of the author and the reader. Just enough distance is created by the fantasy to give space for you to explore our own thoughts and remembrances.

Gaiman’s novel does what I could never do in a non-fiction piece. It creates a fantasy that fills the gaps or reminds us what we used to be like when we were willing to admit we don’t know how everything works. It’s a novel that takes us down memory lane and it can, I think, re-kindle our love of reading even if we have no pleasurable reading memory of our own.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to foster the love of amateur reading in adults.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by ajvin.