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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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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 5th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Great post!

My theory about the classics (as in perennial favorites) is that one or more of the main characters go through a fundamental change (either personal or in a relationship way) during the story. Scrooge is a classic example (if you'll pardon the pun).
Dec. 5th, 2009 08:59 pm (UTC)
I always pardon the pun, on general principle. It's the safest policy when one is given to making puns.

Hmm. I like your theory. I am trying to apply it to PRIDE & PREJUDICE, my idea of a real classic. I think Mr. Darcy changes more, but Elizabeth changes somewhat. And certainly the relationship between them changes big time!
Dec. 5th, 2009 09:04 pm (UTC)
As always, reading your LJ is more like reading a really good article. Never to long, always interesting and/or informative.

There you go--a good review!

The new 3D movie of A Christmas Carol actually stuck pretty close to the story. It was sufficiently creepy, and it focused more on mending the rift with his nephew than the Cratchet's. Though some of the flight sequences obviously there because of the 'cool 3Dness' of it bugged me, I enjoyed it.

Closet classics? CS Lewis's, "Till We Have Faces," a retelling of Cupid and Psyche. Holy crap--I'm getting chills thinking about it.
Dec. 5th, 2009 09:06 pm (UTC)
I don't know the C S Lewis story at all; I'll have to check it out. How long has he been dead? It might be free. -)

Glad to hear about the new version of ACC. I was wondering how close they stuck to the story. Hard to do something original with a story where half the audience can recite the lines.
Dec. 5th, 2009 09:17 pm (UTC)
Jack (as he was called) died in 1963 at the tender age of 64. Till We Have Faces and The Screwtape Letters make him one of my favorite authors of all time--despite me being an agnostic-bordering-on-atheist and he's a Christian writer. Yes, he's that good! (Narnia, IMO, were NOT his best work despite their popularity.)

Check it out. It's an amazing piece of work.

The good thing about ACC is that it stuck close to the FEEL of the story. The actual text wavered, but that creepy, dire feel was there.
Dec. 12th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
I love Screwtape Letters. I don't know the other book. I guess I am not as well versed in C.S.Lewis as I thought. I would agree Narnia are not his best . . . I do like them a great deal.
Dec. 12th, 2009 04:28 am (UTC)
Oh, DO read Till We Have Faces. It's a retelling of Cupid and Psyche, as told through the ugly, jealous sister who talked Pshyche into betraying her love by looking at his face.

The writing is gorgeous. Absolutely breathtaking. It's one of those stories that makes you root for the not-so-good protagonist. I truly think it's Lewis' best work.
Dec. 12th, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)
I have to do my weekly walk around-and-stare-in-awe-at-all-the-books in the bookstore today. I will look for it. Thank you!!
Dec. 12th, 2009 01:30 am (UTC)
Great post! I do think for stories to weather the bitter winds of time, the characters must experience situations that are fundamental to the human experience and evolve. Typically the fundamental issues deal with the seeking and maintaining love/acceptance. We all want it and we all scratch our heads trying to figure out how to get it and maintain it.
Dec. 12th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)
I agree on the fundamental issues thing. That can encompass romantic love, finding a family, making friends, and everything in between.

Thanks for commenting!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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