Literature fills our world with exciting colours and textures—capturing the magic of the unexpected, the eavesdropped and the short-lived: raindrops, sometimes tinier than tears, falling on the ground and quickly disappearing into the soil under the swirling haze of sunlight.
The short period when a flower is cut before it opens, never to enjoy the morning dew again. Or, in the evening, the sight of the first bat darting at twilight. Or a bitter lovers’ quarrel within earshot of all passers-by.
Were it not for literature, all these fleeting moments would not have been aptly captured or described and our imaginative senses would be dull or completely deadened—what the famed American writer Stephen King likened to a mental state akin to colourblindness.
As the holiday season ends, it’s worth remembering that Charles Dickens—a master conjurer and thrillingly gifted writer—captured the exciting colours and textures and reignited the magic and fantasy of the season, especially with his evergreen classic, A Christmas Carol. It is a surrealist fable of greed, missed opportunities, regret and redemption at once funny and profoundly serious with an electrifying vividness that animates every page.
Dickens is a master storyteller who manipulates satire, puns, wordplay and a curious method of characterisation in the deliberate manner with which a painter chooses, mixes and applies colours. A painter using words, Dickens might be the best painter to never have wielded a brush. He delineates characters in a particular cast of light in which he caricatures them and registers a range of conflicting emotions in a chain of metaphors.
He probably didn’t know it at the time but the 1843 novella turned out to have lasting literary value. It is as if Dickens rekindled a forgotten song, and suddenly everybody had remembered how to sing it. A Christmas Carol is like a vibrant treatise on how wealth needs to be shared and not hoarded.
However, the central character is a man named Ebenezer Scrooge who was a miser and Dickens paints an unflattering portrait of him when he writes, “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
The cold within him froze his old features… He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas”.
In Dickens’ perspective, Christmas was supposed to be a bright, shiny, and even reverent event to spread cheer. Therefore, Scrooge, in his stinginess, was in direct conflict with the spirit of Christmas. Three ghosts appear to Scrooge—the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. They show him that he is living unjustly by refusing to share his possessions with the poor and they also show him what would befall him if he doesn’t change course.
The emphasis is that sins in Scrooge’s past have led to his present misery and the continuation of that sin will lead to a future not only of death but also one of severe punishment in the afterlife. After the visits by these three ghosts, Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler man.
Dickens’s A Christmas Carol still haunts us as Kenyans as it rings true in many aspects, and we can learn a few lessons from this deeply allegorical classic. The main lesson is that the holiday period should be a season of sharing what we have with the less fortunate and, in a way, spreading the cheer. As affluent Kenyans wine, dine and party hard, there are some who are barely scraping by.
We should share what we have with the less fortunate. The words of J.M Kariuki still indict and haunt us, “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.” The global economic order has made the gap between the rich and poor ever wider. Our politics doesn’t help either, sometimes even legitimising the happiness of the few over the distress of the many.
Educating poor children
We can also glean a lesson from Dickens’ life. When he was writing A Christmas Carol, he was already deeply involved in helping his country’s poorest children. Dickens once shared a stage with former United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in an event that discussed ways of taking care of and educating poor children. Dickens wrote compassionately about poor children like when he described “a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish”.
But he went further than just writing, he was a passionate social reformer who fought throughout his life to improve the living and working conditions for the poor. Like the transformed Scrooge, we should be kinder and gentler to others.
Our competitive capitalistic world has not delivered equal opportunity. Instead, it has bred a sense of enclosure, isolation, loneliness and deprivation to the point that sometimes we hardly look out for each other. May 2023 find us more sympathetic to each other and may we make that goal one of our new year resolutions. With that, the world will be a better place. We owe it to each other.