The title of this week’s message is a quote from the book I have been writing about all month, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The challenge for anyone familiar with the story is to determine whose hand, from all of the characters populating this familiar tale, was subject to such a tremulous impulse. There are several possibilities as nearly all of them are portrayed in various stages of animation for reasons appropriate to their role in the story. But whose kind hand is said to have trembled? And why?
The answer is not something you are likely to know from watching one of the many live action or animated versions of the story. But the fact that it is just the hand that is referenced in this quote should provide enough of a clue to solve the riddle, even for those whose only exposure to the story is through one of those many televised adaptations of the Dickens classic. For the hand in question is the only visible part of the third of Scrooge’s spectral visitors, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The voiceless, formless apparition is all the more ominous for its lack of definition save this one important feature by which it communicates its intentions to Scrooge, leading him and us – as an eager audience – through the concluding scenes, which ultimately guide the old man to his redemptive destination.
Sinister is the word we might likely choose, however, over the representation of the hand as being kind, if we base our perception on the usual fearful portrayal we see in each annual telecast. Dickens, himself, prompts us to regard Scrooge’s future in this way as the Ghost appears at the stroke of midnight, dressed in a black hooded robe, which renders it hardly distinguishable from the darkness surrounding it. Bells toll the hour as the specter’s approach is described by Dickens as gliding like a mist across the ground, causing Scrooge to kneel before its presence for the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. And then there’s the hand in question, first pointing at Scrooge and then in the direction they are to go on the final terrifying path to restoration.
How many of us fear the future? Or view it with ominous apprehension? Dickens tests us in this way by playing up the obvious aspects of our fears; the dark, the loss of control, the journey into the unknown. But along the way he makes one of his intrusive speeches, which is the prerogative of any author, as the means to express thoughts which cannot be easily conveyed through any character in the story. It occurs at the moment when Scrooge is bidden to uncover the corpse lying on the bed in an abandoned bedroom; a setting shorn of the usual comforts we associate with someone’s final repose. There are no mourners to grieve the loss or a single bouquet as a token of someone’s sympathy.
It is here that Dickens tells us of the difference between the death of a good man and that of a bad one. It is in the legacy each one leaves that we see this distinction. One is cold, rigid and alone as is the case with the corpse lying before Scrooge and his spectral guide. The other, though his heart is just as still and the lifeless hand just as heavy, Dickens eulogizes as a righteous man, whose hand was once open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal! Even in death the great soul works for the care of others.
So where does that leave us with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’s kind hand that is said to tremble?
At different times Scrooge is said to feel the Ghost’s attention through the movement of its shroud, as if its head is inclined towards him in an act of assessment, evaluating Scrooge’s response to each scene. By this slight movement we cannot truly know the Ghost’s thinking for it is only by its hand that we can clearly understand the Ghost’s intentions; where to go, what to look at, when to leave. And even with this bare physical manifestation of the spectral body, Dickens must ultimately help us out by specifically stating that the hand is kind just in case we did not see the correlation between the open, generous hand of a righteous man and the guiding hand of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
That the hand is seen trembling when Scrooge makes his final capitulation to keeping faith with all three Christmas spirits presents us with an image of approval at the remorse being openly shown by Scrooge. It is as if there is some regret in having subjected an old man to this type of treatment, the image of its trembling hand an act of sharing in Scrooge’s own trembling condition as he clutches at the Ghost’s once forbidding robe. The Ghost pulls itself free and Scrooge is left clutching at a bedpost.
We know the rest of the joyous story. Good triumphs over evil once again. And we can all conclude the reading with a happy heart. We can also conclude the reading with a bit of insight that the future need not be dreadful based on the condition of our hearts.
We are at the end of a calendar year, which is the popular time to reflect and things past and make current resolutions for a better future. We do not need to fear what lies ahead, as Dickens’ story helps us to understand. The hand of fate can be just as kind to us as the hand that trembled in The Christmas Carol. The point is to be the kind of person Dickens described as one whose deeds sow the world with life immortal. We have the opportunity at hand to make life what we will and know that our legacy will have a positive impact on others for many years to come.