Weeping for Joy over Fiction:
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
Harold K. Bush

I admit it: the endings of Field of Dreams and Shawshank Redemption get me every time, even though I’ve seen each a dozen times or more. So does the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. And do you remember back when you were a child, when Bambi’s mother died, shot by a hunter? Or when the boy had to shoot Old Yeller, who got rabies from the wolf?

There is something unusually visceral about these and other cinematic moments. Some have argued that we encounter God or the Transcendent at the cinema, provoking an intense emotional response. In his recent book God’s Wider Presence, Robert K. Johnston argues that the “movie event” is uniquely tailored for weighty experiences of this sort (42-66). The pathos of the film experience can bring a person to tears over a fictional character. The characters don’t even have to look real, as in the case of Bambi’s mother, or the couple in the beginning of Up, or the group of friends at the end of Toy Story III. Animated characters such as these can even cause adult viewers to weep. Sometimes we weep for joy: provoked by the flickering motion pictures before us, we sense an almost sublime expression of hope as we sit in a darkened theater, surrounded by strangers.

Back in the dark age before digital media and moving pictures, it was literary fiction that caused folks to get out the hankies. Perhaps we might tweak Johnston’s concept to discuss the “novel event” as a site for encountering God’s wider presence. Americans congregated on the docks of shipyards, awaiting the latest installments of many of Charles Dickens’ novels. They cried together around the fireplaces of New England, where they listened to an elder read aloud from such works as Little Dorritt or Hard Times. The death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop caused readers particular pain, so much so that they wrote about the episode in their letters and diaries.

But why such powerful emotions, given that these are all made-up tales of non-existent beings? How is it that the lives of characters that we know to be fictional can cause us so much grief?

DickensSeveral years ago, Tyler Beane’s brief meditation on A Christmas Carol appeared in The Cresset. Beane emphasized the elements of horror deployed by Dickens and the tale’s inherent darkness. In describing one film adaptation’s depiction of the two destitute children who are hiding under the folds of Death’s robe —“Ignorance” and “Want” —Beane writes that the director’s choice of camera angle makes viewers feel “as if we are on trial along with Scrooge,” and that “The horror of the scene awakens one’s conscience.”

But one person’s horror can easily become another person’s sympathy. And in the Christian tradition of ars moriendi—the art of dying—it is through a deepened awareness of death and dying that one is capable of learning to live well. Emily Dickinson wrote powerfully of the value of an “ars moriendi outlook” for our everyday lives: “that Ethereal gain/ One earns by measuring the Grave—/ Then – measuring the Sun —” (LeMay143-4). Here Dickinson’s notion reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the Rule of Benedict: “Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die” (Fry 183-5).

In fact, people of the nineteenth century were a lot less squeamish about death than most Americans in 2019 are. If you were born in 1850s America, your life expectancy was around 38 years (a figure not affected much by the coming Civil War, since those born in the 1850s would not have fought in it). People “laid out” the bodies of the dead in their homes, often in coffins they personally crafted. Every week thereafter, as they entered and departed their local churches, they would pass by the gravestones marking the burial location of their dearly beloved. And the War did come: spreading anguish and grief even more from town to town, north and south.

I believe the spirit of St. Benedict’s injunction is basically a healthy one, despite the immediate modern allusions to the likes of Woody Allen, whose neurotic whining seems too obsessed with death. By way of contrast, Benedict presents a calm yet strong sensibility of our own mortality as somehow beneficial to our spiritual lives. Memento mori: remember that you are going to die. As scripture puts it, “teach us to number our days” (Psalm 90:12).

In another poem, Dickinson writes that death is “as harmless as a bee, except to those who run” (LeMay144). Dickens, however, is often more interested in those who run. For them, death is deeply terrifying. This flight from the reality of death as universal is a key motif of the world of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge succeeds in learning by seeing his own very bad impending death, but he appears to have no agency in bringing about any of the revelations he receives. The visits of the spirits are sovereign experiences about which Scrooge has no choice. While St. Benedict invites us to think daily about our own impending deaths, Dickens assures us that many of us fail to do so—and in fact, dash speedily away from any deathly confrontation, like picnickers running from a disturbed beehive.

Once confronted, however, Scrooge is utterly transformed. Most readers probably want to believe that a hardened unbeliever like Scrooge can change dramatically, but some have serious doubts. Probably those who respond most powerfully to A Christmas Carol are readers and viewers who already embrace a supernatural account of God’s transcending hope that even the most wicked of individuals can be converted. “Why show me this, if I am beyond all hope?” Scrooge asks the final ghost (108). Dickens’ narrative shows that nobody, not even Scrooge, is beyond supernatural hope. This sort of hope constitutes the Christmas story.

Hard realists will point out about now that such hope flies in the face of a tragic world, and that we must suspend our belief to embrace such sentimental tales. Interestingly, neuroscience now indicates that we are not suspending belief at all when we accept Scrooge’s radical change: deep emotion over fictive characters, as opposed to real people, is not some different, learned behavior. It turns out that our brains react as if these are real people in real circumstances, as neuroscientist Jeffrey M. Zacks has recently shown in his book Flicker: Your Brain on Movies. That’s why we jump when the villain suddenly appears behind a door or curtain in a horror film. The same parts of the brain fire, as if it were a real murderer. And when we cry during a film, our brains fire the same as if we were watching the misfortune of a real friend or family member.

Can we gain wisdom from fictional characters? Returning to the motif of an “ars moriendi outlook” for everyday life: what’s the takeaway for rereading A Christmas Carol? Readers (and viewers of the film versions) may miss the profound yet simple trinity of advice that Dickens presents through what Scrooge has learned. First, Marley screams at Scrooge, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business” (49). Don’t overlook our common lot, he begs Scrooge, who later will become like an uncle to the ailing Tiny Tim.

Second: we must live all day, every day, with an invigorated sense of time. Recall that the three ghosts represent the three aspects of time. Scrooge proclaims, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me” (110). Note the capitalization: an emphasis that signals the keystone importance of these spirits and what they represent. As on the Sabbath, we are to look back at the week, embrace the present moment of God’s presence, and look forward. Christmas thus becomes not an annual festival but a daily, life-giving attitude combining retrospection, contemplation, and hope for the future.

Third: one must laugh. Scrooge, who never laughs before his experience, suddenly becomes “as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man” (111). As in Proverbs 17:22, laughter is a good medicine. The narrator chimes in: “for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh” (112).

Though it may seem like just a funny line, I corroborate the idea of practice here. Use it or lose it: keep laughing, or any of us may fall out of practice. And just how good a laugher are you, dear reader? Do you try to laugh long and hard every single day, as if it were Christmas? Are you still able to become “as merry as a school-boy. … as giddy as a drunken man”?

Personally, I practice laughing every day—possibly to the annoyance of some colleagues and friends. This may be the hidden gem of the trinity of moral lessons in A Christmas Carol: laugh like a merry schoolboy, and don’t fall out of practice.

Meanwhile: cry, too. Crying at the movies, like laughing, is a sign of emotional health: both acts remind me that my brain is functioning in an emotionally healthy way. The crying signals my continuing commerce with those vagabonds named Ignorance and Want. And weeping, like laughing, also requires practice. We can even weep for joy, seeing Tiny Tim hoisted onto Scrooge’s shoulders. Think of the remarkable conjoining of terms in that phrase: weeping for joy. It sounds otherworldly—and it is, in fact.

So beware, lest we fall out of practice of either laughing or weeping. One of the genius accomplishments of well-balanced narratives like A Christmas Carol is that they allow us to practice both modes of expression. It turns out that we need all the practice we can get.


Harold K. Bush is professor of English at Saint Louis University.


Works Cited

Beane, Tyler. “The Dark Narrative of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.” The Cresset, Advent-Christmas 2011, 46-48.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings. Michael Slater, ed. Penguin, 2003.

Fry, Timothy, et al, eds. The Rule of St. Benedict: In Latin and English with Notes. Liturgical Press, 1981.

Johnston, Robert K. God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation. Baker Academic, 2014.

LeMay, Kristin. I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson. Paraclete, 2013.

Zacks, Jeffrey M. Flicker: Your Brain on Movies. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Image: Want and Ignorance by Sol Eytinge. Wood engraving, 1868.

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