The Saving Grace of Beauty

As much as I am a curmudgeon when it comes to resisting the commercialization of Christmas, I do have my own traditions to follow, costing me little but still held by me as dearly precious because of this lack in marketable value. One of these is my annual reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I came by this story as a child the way most of us do, watching one of the many adaptations of the novella available to us on television – and that once again coming to me at no cost.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I took up a softcover copy of the book and worked my way through its circuitous route to redemption; a change you could say was mine as much as Ebenezer’s.  I was amazed at how much of the text for such a short work still had to be excised in order to fit the many characters and scenes into a celluloid time capsule. Discovering the true scope of the work was a transcendent experience, marking me with a sense of loyalty to Dickens’ original vision and purpose in creating his marvelous composition.

Last week I posted a lament about one of the failings of the film versions of this story, the loss – intended or otherwise – of the Christian message inherent in a miser’s transformation from a one-dimensional impersonation of a human being into a multi-faceted participant in society with a humbled, compassionate and generous spirit. Without quoting chapter and verse, Dickens gave Scrooge the soul of a disciple, whose actions befit the description offered by Jesus of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

We credit Scrooge’s going through the change of life to the visitations and administrations of the three spirits foretold by Jacob Marley’s ghost. But the role of these three apparitions is little more than that of supernaturally endowed tour guides, expertly revealing the necessary scenes to induce an internal sense of shock and awe in the old fellow’s crusty and thoroughly calcified heart. It is the people who inhabit these scenes, who induce the feelings of remorse and repentance which lead to Scrooge’s reformation.

For my part I find three of these characters essential to the story’s success, though you may have ample cause to disagree with me on this point. All three are female and all three exhibit the one external quality that makes the internal virtues they possess (which we are supposed to prize above all) perfectly appealing. And that is the quality of beauty; gentleness, compassion, joy, perseverance and affection follow.

The first of my three beauties is Fan, Scrooge’s younger sister. We see her only when she arrives at her brother’s school with the glad tidings that their father is so much nicer now and has consented to her pleas of allowing Ebenezer to come home. She brings color to the otherwise drab appearance of the school before she departs with her prize. We see in this contrast a clear distinction between living and merely existing. And it is here that Scrooge takes his first tentative step towards redemption.

My second choice is Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée. We have no basis for believing that this is an affectionate shortening of a longer proper name like Maybelle, Clarabelle, or Lulabelle. Therefore we can take her literally at face value (pun intended) and understand that Dickens was relying on our knowledge of French to understand that her name represented her captivating features, for Belle means beauty when conversing a La Francaise.

She makes a sudden appearance during which she terminates her engagement to Scrooge because he treasures money more than he does her. We see her a second time in an episode many years after the fateful denouement of her romance with Scrooge, only this time she is the centerpiece of a happy home; married with exuberant children and a supportive husband about her. Check out the illustrations of A Christmas Carol by Arthur Rackham and you will see that my assessment of her was shared by this impeccable illustrator and why seeing her in her happy estate she is the cause for Scrooge’s extinguishing the light of the Ghost of Christmas Past. A step back, perhaps, from the two steps he had taken forward.

My third and final choice is the one you may find easy to refute due to its tenuous hold on reality, even for an examination of a work of fiction. It is Fan reborn in the persons of her son Fred and his charming, anonymous wife. Fred has all the virtues of the persistent and loving person his mother was with regard to her older brother Ebenezer. Fred’s wife has Fan’s physical frailties, which make her exquisitely delicate as she serves as an overseer but non-participant in all of the Christmas Day festivities. It is her approval Scrooge seeks to secure when he appears at their home following his total reclamation as a responsive and responsible human being.

This fantasy merge of personalities may be overreach on my part, but it allows me to press home my personal interpretation of Dickens’ masterpiece as a means to express an opinion about the meaning of life as I see it.

Without beauty life would have no meaning. In a world devoid of the delectable décor of landscapes, habitations and the human heart, we would forebear the pursuit of living as there would be no inspiration for attaining possessions, prestige, lovers and the offspring who perpetuate our self-image. Love may be a many-splendored thing, seemingly capable of making the world go round. But without a beautiful, transformative object on which to bestow our affection, love would simply be another four-letter word and hardly worth the effort to make in any way, shape or form. We would all be as stubbornly selfish and intransigently tightfisted as misers, simply marking time until our meager lights are extinguished as the only benefit to bless an otherwise benighted world.

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