Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": A Subtle Message

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Christmas Carol teaches me how to weave a subtle message into a story.

Wait, you say. A subtle message? The message in A Christmas Carol is anything but subtle.

That depends on which message you mean. The values of generosity and kindness and the possibility of redemption are all front and center, but that is only part of the point Dickens makes.

There was nothing politically incorrect about the Christ message in Dicken’s day, but that didn’t mean everyone wanted to read books about it. So he wrote a story that took place at Christmas and extolled Christian values but had a seemingly secular focus. On the surface, anyway. The Christ message was still there, but it was woven into the story in subtle ways. I have highlighted the most important words in these examples:

·         Near the beginning, Scrooge tells his nephew that Christmas has never done him any good. Here is part of the nephew’s response: “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.”
·         This passage comes during Scrooge’s discussion with Marley’s ghost: “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?
·         After Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim return from church, Tiny Tim leaves the room momentarily. While he is gone, Mrs. Cratchit asks how he behaved in church. Bob says he was as good as gold and remarks on how Tiny Tim says the strangest things. “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
Dickens couldn’t foresee the future and didn’t know how easily those passages could be deleted from movie adaptations of his story. But people who read the original version still find them there. 

When people are tired of hearing a message or simply don’t believe it, subtle is better. And A Christmas Carol shows me how to accomplish that. 

The picture at the top of this post shows Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim returning from church. It was drawn by Fred Barnard for an 1878 edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The illustration is in the public domain because of its age. 

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