Everyone knows Charles Dickens’ classic holiday story A Christmas Carol. It is, arguably, one of the Victorian author’s most permanent masterpieces, adorning Christmas celebrations in every corner of the English-speaking world, and making the likes of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Cratchit family household names. Modern audiences have seen it adapted for television and film in a dozen iterations; we have listened to it by radio, watched it performed on stage, and perhaps even read it around the comfort of a December hearthside, musing at the pleasant familiarity of its famous lines. Few who have shared these experiences would be surprised to learn that Dickens’ compassionate heart delighted in the spirit of the whole Christmas season. But many might be unaware that this one perfectly soaring triumph was only among the first in a series of festive stories and essays which Dickens offered, year after year, to his loyal readers.
Naturally, I am as much an enthusiast for A Christmas Carol as the next man; and if you are to read just one fictional tale to enliven your appreciation of the season, let me plead for it to be that one. However, if you are firmly resolved to seek out something different and unexpected from the bountiful shelves of Christmas literature, I would recommend another intriguing selection from Dickens’ repertoire, first published in December 1848, called The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.
As its ominous title implies, The Haunted Man reprises some of the supernatural elements that Dickens employed in his previous holiday success, although perhaps in a sterner, more affecting manner. Once again set upon the eve of Christmas, this narrative revolves around the fate of a brilliant teacher of chemistry, named Redlaw, whose lonely existence is oppressed by a host of gloomy memories. Although greatly esteemed by his students for his habitual kindness and prowess of learning, Redlaw broods in solitude upon the pall of his misfortunes, summoning a desire to be rid of every recollection of suffering, unhappiness, and wrong that he has ever known. In the presence of a weird ghost which bears his likeness—perhaps the spiritual embodiment of his own haunted past—Redlaw receives the fulfillment of his wish, only to realize, in successive illuminating scenes, that he has destroyed in himself everything which makes human mercy and forbearance possible. Stunned by the consequences of his choice, and horrified by the manner in which his now unbridled petulance freely spreads to his cherished friends, Redlaw must renounce his unnatural quest to vanquish the scars of bygone days. In the dawning light of Christmas, he must come to acknowledge the softening, redemptive power of those very sufferings in his own life, and in the lives of all who surround him.
In typical Dickensian fashion, the story is broadly populated by an amusing array of whimsical characters. First there are the Swidgers, the servants and keepers of Redlaw’s meager college, who act as the very soul of charity to the scholars who pass through its gates. We also encounter the prolific Tetterby family, whose comical antics brighten the weighty narrative, just as their Cratchit-like endurance of deprivation summons our sympathy. Most importantly, however, is the figure of Milly Swidger, whose pure, feminine grace and boundless generosity seem to emerge as Redlaw’s only hope.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Haunted Man is the way in which it showcases Dickens’ keen understanding of the complexities of the human soul. Indeed, it is almost commonplace to observe that A Christmas Carol, like the novels Oliver Twist and Hard Times, combined satire and drama to critique the miserable neglect prevalent in the industrial cities of Victorian England. But in The Haunted Man, Dickens very capably illustrates that there are, in fact, hurts more severe than the most crushing poverty, and faults which are less easily healed. In a mark of irony, Redlaw’s craving to banish every recollection of sorrow is framed as the universal desire of humanity; the hero at first believes that he is in the position of a benefactor, who can give to men the antidote for all their past hardships and pains. However, when Redlaw’s temptation is actually fulfilled by the intervention of the ghastly phantom, Dickens relentlessly impugns the monstrosity of such a blunted soul, bereft of every mollifying thought or remembrance. In this way, The Haunted Man might be considered a more thoroughly Catholic work than A Christmas Carol, as it delves so much more acutely into the theological complexities of suffering and salvation—as it establishes sacrifice, and forgiveness of wrong, to be the foundation of a blessed life.
The Haunted Man is also noteworthy, especially as a mid-nineteenth work, for articulating a perceptive warning against the perverse applications of scientific discovery. It is no mere coincidence that the story’s protagonist is repeatedly described as an intrepid chemist and investigator of nature’s mysteries. On one occasion in the text, Redlaw utters a little catechism of invention: “If there were poison in my body, should I not, possessed of antidotes and knowledge how to use them, use them? If there be poison in my mind, and through this fearful shadow I can cast it out, shall I not cast it out?” But the bodily cure which Redlaw envisages—obscuring every memory of hurt and pain—proves little more than a toxin to his soul, and to the soul of every human being to whom he passes this “gift”. In Dickens eyes, such an effort to arrogantly countermand the order of nature, and dismiss its spiritual realities, is to invite the creation of something hideous and evil. It is a lesson especially apt to the considerations of modernity, where human beings are too often treated like cogs in one great machine, and every unhappiness is thought eradicable, whether by the hubris of a politician, or the lenitive of a pill.
These are, undoubtedly, very bold themes for a Christmas story; but Dickens always worked in the spirit of a teacher, quite as much as an entertainer. Because such questions of broken memory can become overtly forcible and unsettling, I should think The Haunted Man lacks the type of diversion that would make it really fitting for a young audience. This tale is probably best suited to private reading and reflection, rather than for the entertainment of the assembled family. But let it be understood that there is a palpable goodness and intensity in much of its unfolding. The daunting pinnacles to which it rises, as in some of the passages signified above, equal anything to be seen in the best of Dickens’ works.
Thus, I hope you will find this story as moving and profitable as I have, recalling to mind, especially at this time of year, the needs and sympathies of others. Whatever blessings or disappointments we measure in ourselves with the approach of Christmas, let us always take heed of Dickens’ wise exhortation. May our many experiences, from year to year, improve us; and may we be blessed with the grace of vigilant and everlasting memory, knowing its perfection in the joyful celebration of the coming of Christ.