karen_w_newton (karen_w_newton) wrote,

A classic conundrum: why Scrooge still works as a protagonist

It's snowing today, big white flakes that are very nicely sticking to the grass and the trees but not the sidewalks. This is perfect timing for two reasons. First, it's Saturday, so I don't have to go anywhere. Second, it's only a few weeks to Christmas and this puts me in the mood to wrap presents and think kind thoughts about humanity.

This, in turn, reminds me of A Christmas Carol, which I recently downloaded for free to my Kindle (Dickens has been dead long enough to not need the money). I love that story, but it highlights for me an interesting question: What makes something a classic?

Dickens was born almost 200 years ago. His writing reflects the Victorian era in which he lived and worked. The definition of classic from Wiktionary is "A perfect and/or early example of a particular style; An artistic work of lasting worth; A major, long-standing sporting event." The middle definition is the one I'm concerned with; what makes a work of literature "of lasting worth"? Well, with old stuff, we have an obvious test: it lasts. We're still reading it.

During Dickens' lifetime one of his main literary rivals was William Makepeace Thackeray, who is now, as his Wikipedia entry says, "known almost exclusively for Vanity Fair. I read Vanity Fair when I was in high school, and about all I can remember of it was that it was incredibly long and rather too 19th for me. A chapter would open with a pages-long description of the area in which the scene was set. Bleagh! But style aside, note that Dickens has a whole list of works that survived to become classics but Thackery had only one (okay, I'll give him credit for the movie Barry Lyndon which was based on his work, but still, even that's not well known these days). In addition to numerical superiority, A Christmas Carol is one of the best known stories of the English language. The protagonist's name has become a synonym for someone who's stingy and/or who hates holidays.

So what made Dickens more classic than Thackery? I would submit that a lot of it is because Thackery stressed the bad in humanity more than the good. Dickens wasn't afraid of an unhappy ending (or of using supernatural elements like ghosts), but his works aren't all tragedies, either. The Victorians were big on moralizing, and books that showed sinful ways leading to ruin were popular. To be a classic, a work needs to be enough of its own time to feel authentic, but not so much as to alienate later eras, when ideas have changed.

By way of illustration, I offer this example of how Dicken's story is treated in modern times. A Christmas Carol has been made into countless movies, TV shows and plays. The core of the story remains the same, but in American productions, a lot more attention goes to Scrooge's relationship with the Cratchits than with his nephew Fred. The Victorians liked Dickens' emphasis on Scrooge reconnecting with his only living blood realtion; the story as written doesn't show the egalitarian Scrooge bonding with his employee's family as seen in more modern versions. But the idea of redemption, of looking back and realizing the error of our ways and making a change, that is timeless.

There we go! A classic has to be timeless. And it doesn't hurt if it's spec fic, which I'm sure is why A Christmas Carol is my favorite Dickens' work. How about you? Got any closet classics you love?

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Tags: fiction

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