Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Dante's Role in the Genesis of Dickens's A Christmas Carol

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Dante's Role in the Genesis of Dickens's A Christmas Carol

Article excerpt

Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843), perhaps the most endearing work of English literature, may owe an inspirational debt to one of Italian literature's most cherished works, Dante's Divine Comedy (c. 1300). Although more than half a millennium separates the composition of these seemingly disparate stories, the two works exhibit striking similarities in both form and content.

In structural terms, both works are chronologically framed by key Christian holidays: The Divine Comedy starts on Good Friday and ends on Easter Sunday, while A Christmas Carol commences on Christmas Eve and culminates on Christmas Day. The main divisions of The Divine Comedy are three--Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise--while A Christmas Carol likewise exhibits a tripartite structure marked by the visitations of three ghosts who represent past, present, and future. (1) These phantoms serve as spiritual guides for Scrooge on his enlightening trip through time, not unlike the way the souls of Virgil (in the Inferno and Purgatory), then Beatrice (in Purgatory and Paradise), and lastly St. Bernard (in the final stages of Paradise) sequentially lead Dante on his journey of divine revelation.

Deliberately dedicated to religious themes, both stories encourage us to rise above selfishness in order that we may lead a Christian life and thereby attain personal salvation. Though The Divine Comedy is crowded with a multitude of sinners, its plot tracks the spiritual trajectory of a single flawed human being, Dante himself. Similarly, the narrative line of A Christmas Carol follows the spiritual progression of another flawed individual, Ebenezer Scrooge. The soul-wrenching experience of each protagonist begins in darkness and is described as a waking dream. Each work then illustrates a litany of sins of commission and omission, depicting instances of cruelty inflicted on others or opportunities for compassion tragically lost. Each "traveler," Dante and Scrooge, finally arises from his dream-like state to a new vision of life's glorious possibilities.

As A Christmas Carol draws to a close (end of Stave IV), Ebenezer Scrooge, inspired by the lessons he has learned from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come, vows to lead a changed life. "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year," he proclaims. "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach." In a strikingly similar manner, as the Divine Comedy draws to a close (Paradise, Canto XXXIII), Dante has a mystical vision in which he sees three concentric circles in Heaven. These luminous celestial circles symbolize a holy trinity of time. "O eternal light!" Dante proclaims. "Sole in thyself that dwell'st; and of thyself/ Sole understood, past, present, and to come" (trans. Cary). Except for the addition of the word "yet" in "Yet To Come," the symbolic names Dickens gave to his three spirits parallel this nineteenth century English translation of Dante's words.

There are, of course, differences in the ways the two stories are told: The Divine Comedy is poetically composed in the first person, while A Christmas Carol is narrated in third-person prose. Furthermore, in the Inferno it is the particular sins of others rather than Dante's own that are graphically catalogued. In addition, Dante's tale is more psychologically complex: the poet initially describes himself as lost in a dark forest where his path is blocked by three menacing beasts allegorically representing malice and fraud; violence and ambition; and incontinence; whereas Dickens more simply presents the tale of a man who cared only for monetary gain.

Dante would have consigned Scrooge to the Fourth Circle of his multi-level Hell, a place where misers like Scrooge were perpetually punished by pushing heavy weights that symbolized the burden of materialism. …

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