Good day to you all! We wrap up our look at Charles Dicken's lesser-known Christmas Books with the fifth and final entry (from 1848), entitled 'The Haunted Man and The Ghost's Bargain'.
After a one year hiatus, Dickens returned with the last of what is now known as the Christmas Books. After this, he would turn his attention to editing and managing two magazines, Household Words, which ran from 1850 - 1858 and All The Year Round, which ran from 1859 - 1867. Both of these periodicals included annual Christmas stories, so he didn't retire from them entirely. Besides, by this point in his career, what with his annual novels and his public readings of his Christmas tales, his name was inextricably associated with the holiday.
His final tale is almost the exact opposite of his first, 'A Christmas Carol', and, of all the five, is the most downbeat and depressing tale of the lot, saved at the end by a miraculous turn of events. Reminiscent of both The Tale of King Midas and Poe's Imp of the Perverse, it tells of Mr. Redlaw, a chemistry professor at a university who, while a kind man and decent teacher, is also consumed and bitter by what he feels is an unjust past. He is a self-made man, having had no support from his parents - a father died young, a mother re-wed and with no time for him - and only the love of a sister, who doted on him. Like Scrooge before him, he worked hard for his vocation, eschewing love and friendship in the process. He did find both in a young woman and a best friend, but turned bitter again when they fell in love with each other (due to his inattention) and the too early death of his sister.
A Phantom assails the professor night after night, taking Redlaw's shape and voice, taunting him about his part privations and hurts. The Christmas Waits (musicians who go door to door for money - think Christmas Carolers, but with instruments) are heard playing somewhere in the neighborhood, but even their sound bring him little joy. The Phantom offers him a bargain: he has the power to take away all the bad memories of the past, or as he says:
“Receive it as a proof that I am powerful,” returned the Ghost. “Hear what I offer! Forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known!”
“Forget them!” he repeated.
“I have the power to cancel their remembrance—to leave but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon,” returned the Spectre. “Say! Is it done?”
“Stay!” cried the haunted man, arresting by a terrified gesture the uplifted hand. “I tremble with distrust and doubt of you; and the dim fear you cast upon me deepens into a nameless horror I can hardly bear.—I would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others. What shall I lose, if I assent to this? What else will pass from my remembrance?”
“No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections. Those will go.”
“Are they so many?” said the haunted man, reflecting in alarm.
“They have been wont to show themselves in the fire, in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years,” returned the Phantom scornfully.
“In nothing else?”
The Phantom held its peace.
But having stood before him, silent, for a little while, it moved towards the fire; then stopped.
“Decide!” it said, “before the opportunity is lost!”
“A moment! I call Heaven to witness,” said the agitated man, “that I have never been a hater of any kind,—never morose, indifferent, or hard, to anything around me. If, living here alone, I have made too much of all that was and might have been, and too little of what is, the evil, I believe, has fallen on me, and not on others. But, if there were poison in my body, should I not, possessed of antidotes and knowledge how to use them, use them? If there be poison in my mind, and through this fearful shadow I can cast it out, shall I not cast it out?”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“A moment longer!” he answered hurriedly. “I would forget it if I could! Have I thought that, alone, or has it been the thought of thousands upon thousands, generation after generation? All human memory is fraught with sorrow and trouble. My memory is as the memory of other men, but other men have not this choice. Yes, I close the bargain. Yes! I WILL forget my sorrow, wrong, and trouble!”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“It is. And take this with you, man whom I here renounce! The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will. Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach. Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it. Go! Be its benefactor! Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you. Its diffusion is inseparable and inalienable from you. Go! Be happy in the good you have won, and in the good you do!”
Too late, Redlaw realizes what the 'bargain' entails. Where he had sorrow and remorse for the past, now he has emptiness ... and a slowly growing anger that he cannot account for. Everyone he now encounters, his servants, the custodians of the university and a poor loving family, the Tetterbys (pictured at right - the stand-ins for the Cratchits here), are all poisoned by his touch, their past hurts and bad memories erased and an increasing bitterness and disgust with their lot in life and each other spreading like a disease.
Let me pause here for a moment and dwell on the Tetterbys. If Dickens was hoping to strike gold again with this family as he did with the Cratchits, he was woefully off base. Even before they are laid low by Redlaw, they are a loud, fractious lot, with far too many children and far too little means of providing for them. Also unlike the Cratchits, Father thinks nothing of smacking the kids around to get them to bed and to make them stay in there - and the youngest boy, Johnny, is bullied into the slave labor of carting around baby Sally (nicknamed 'Moloch' for her prodigious size) around the clock, with constant threats of punishment from his mother if he falters. THIS is what passes for 'comedy relief' in this tale! I must be missing something, for far from finding any of it funny, instead I find it distinctly off-putting. Dickens makes the case that even with all their sniping interactions, the family does love each other, but to these modern eyes, there seems to be little difference in their before and after actions after Redlaw passes his contagion along to them.
The other person is a near-feral child who is brought into the professors' home by the custodians. Found outside on a bitterly cold night, they take mercy on him, bring him inside, feed him and let him sleep by the kitchen fire. He won't let anyone get near him and will attack anyone who comes too close. When Redlaw questions the ghost why the boy is not changed by his touch, the spirit tells him that life has so cruelly treated the child from birth on a daily basis that there is nothing more Redlaw CAN do to him: his spirit is so turned against humanity that his touch would be superfluous at this point.
Seeing what disaster he brings to all and sundry about him, Redlaw bitterly regrets making his bargain and seeks to put things right, begging the Phantom to release the people he has turned against each other. He understands he is cursed until the end of his days and accepts his fate, but cannot bear to continue to destroy other lives.
In the end, it is Milly who saves the day. She is not affected by Redlaw as she has already gone through Hell with the loss of her own child and came out the other side still intact and loving, wiser, sadder and more determined to help others. As Literature Wikia puts it:
"Towards the end of the story, Milly states that painful memories serve an important purpose. People need to remember those who have wronged them in the past so that they can forgive them and, as a result, grow and develop as human beings. At that point, all of the characters cease to be angry and Professor Redlaw becomes a more humble and also a kinder person."
Once Redlaw has gotten the message, the Phantom releases him from his foolish bargain and, like Scrooge before him, the professor emerges a changed man. No longer bitter and brooding, he is instead humble, looking forward to the future and to helping all he comes in contact with. The story ends with a massive Christmas dinner for all the participants and a hearty wish that we ALL remember our memories, good and bad, for they make us who we are. Or, as the 87-year-old patriarch of the Swidger clan repeats throughout the book, "Lord keep my memory green!"
Should you like to read the tale yourself, the following link will take you to it:
THAT should give you a pretty fair idea of what's coming for the duration of the season here at the K.A.C. - consider yourselves warned!
Coming Tomorrow: We close the book on Dickens and turn our attention to some STRANGER Christmas spirits - join us, won't you?