Thursday, 3 December 2015

If your conscience needs haunting…. Just call Rentaghost!


This is a continuation of my blog about 'A Christmas Carol' here. The idea is to develop a student's critical thinking by providing them with an article that promotes a critical viewpoint.

Stave 2: If conscience needs haunting…. Just call Rentaghost!
The Ghost of Christmas Past is possibly the worst ghost since the beginning of time. I am even embarrassed to use the word ‘ghost’ around it for fear of upsetting ghosts and tarnishing all ghosts with the same opaque light.  Charles Dickens starts his ghostly journey with a typical ghost with chains and the sins of their past haunting it, the ghost, into the afterlife. Jacob Marley is the image of a classic ghost. He may not wear a white sheet from his mum’s laundry cupboard, but he has all the other trademarks. He makes lots of noises. He says lots of cryptic things. He is even see-through. The Ghost of Christmas Past is the antithesis of Jacob Marley’s ghost.

If you look at the history of The Ghost of Christmas Past in films and TV, you will struggle to find two or more versions that look the same. They are all different. Some present the ghost as a woman. Some present the ghost as a man. Some present the ghost as a child. The text causes most of the problems: it is purposefully contradictory and vague. It is neither young or old and neither male or female. Yet, the default method of presenting it is as a candle based on the following lines:

But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

Maybe it is our taste for sequels and bigger and better returns that makes the second ghostly visit so surprising. You’d think that a writer would make the second ghost scarier than the first. You could imagine every other writer thinking, well if you think that is scary then wait to see what we have next. But, a candle. A candle that is genderless and ageless. It isn’t even powerful. On arrival, it fails to scare Scrooge with its big flaming eyes. Now, imagine The Ghost of Christmas Past played by a Ken doll. A face fixed with a smile as it highlights some of the dark moments in Scrooge’s childhood. All it can do is smile. Instead we get an early version of Lumiere but without the singing.

The Candle is a metaphor. It can only be used for limited amount of time and the more you use it, the closer it gets to being not useful. The candle is a reminder of Scrooge’s own mortality. It is no surprise that it carries an extinguisher. Scrooge’s life, or candle, can be put out at any time. The candle is a reminder of the fact that we all die and our life has a finite length. A candle shows Scrooge his past, but like melted wax or the candle wax that has evaporated into the atmosphere, all we have is a thought of what the candle used to be. However, we cannot touch or see it.  The candle provides Scrooge with thoughts about the past, but he cannot touch or interact with it.

Maybe the clue to Dickens’ use of ghosts is in his titles to the staves. In the main body of the text, the ghosts refer to each other as ‘ghosts’. However, the stave titles call them spirits. What is the difference between a spirit and a ghost? Aren’t they the same thing? Maybe they are. What if a ghost is purposefully designed to scare and shock and a spirit is to…ummm…change you spiritually? Then Marley is definitely a ghost and The Ghost of Christmas past is a spirit? For the candle with no fixed age or gender is designed to emotionally and spiritually change him. It is supposed to enlighten his soul and change it for the best. Interesting fact: Dickens uses the word ‘spirit’ approximately forty-one times and the word ‘ghost’ over a hundred times.

So why did Dickens call them ghosts and spirits? Well, he wanted a ghost story in name only and here it is in name only too. The way the ghosts are structured in the story are interesting: we have two friendly spirits sandwiched between two creepy ghosts. Dickens shocks Scrooge into facing the reality of his situation. He then warms his heart up with two ghosts. Finally, he gives one last shock to make sure Scrooge has the message. Still, a candle makes for the least convincing ghost in the world. At least, it isn’t a pantomime horse. Now, nobody would consider that for a minute!     

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