Not to go all textual and English Lit 101 on you, but I’ve been thinking about some of the classics. And, well, about one classic writer in particular: Dickens.
Now, there is no other writer — with the possible exception of Shakespeare — more resented or reviled by generations of high school and college English students than Charles Dickens. Sadly, he is reviled not because of his writing, but because…well…none of us actually wanted to read Great Expectations at fifteen…and we certainly didn’t want to read Bleak House at nineteen. At those ages, a kid (a guy, at least) wants nothing more than sex and action…he certainly doesn’t want guilt and commentary and lit-crit homework.
But, when you get a bit older, and hopefully a bit wiser, things change. That’s when you go back and re-read. That’s when all the irritating assignments from your teen-age years start to make actual sense.
You all know I draw a lot of my mood and inspiration from songs and albums, from artists like Brian Fallon and Chuck Ragan and All Time Low and The Fray…I could go on for a very long time with that list, by the way. Well, a verse — and a specific line — from the group that is pretty much my current favorite got me to thinking…and to re-reading:
“Well I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow
And as we float out into the ether, into the everlasting arms
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life”
—Gaslight Anthem, “The ‘59 Sound”, SideOneDummy Records, 2008
(Here’s a link to the regular song/video, if you’re interested — there are also acoustic versions that I actually like even more)
Okay, so what the hell am I on about, then? Marley’s chains…
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
I’m pretty sure we all have some of those freaking chains. I know I do. Whether those chains are, like Marley, those of greed and a slavish devotion to profit above all, or are ones that keep you tied to the manifold other idiocies to which we humans are so susceptible, we all have failings we are going to regret when we die…
Which was the point of the whole damned story.
It wasn’t about Tiny Tim, it wasn’t about Christmas, it wasn’t even really about Scrooge…and, God knows, it damned-well WASN’T an allegorical warning about “government interference in business” as one jack-ass columnist tried to argue! It was a story about the willing enslavement under which we put ourselves, and about second chances.
Any one of us could be Jacob Marley, could be Scrooge himself. But…ask yourself this: just who is the real “hero” of the story?
Scrooge changed, yes. He learned and changed to escape the enslavement of greed, and the callous disregard for others that goes with it…but it was Marley who saved his ass. Marley — condemned to walk forever as a ghost, condemned to hear and bear forever the chains he made for himself — came back to save his one friend. He came back, when you get right down to it, to force his friend to change and escape a similar fate.
A Christmas Carol isn’t Scrooge’s story, its Marley’s…it’s the story of Marley and his chains. When you get right down to it, it’s about one miserable, damned soul saving another.
Shit…Dickens was writing anti-heroes before they were cool!
As a final thought: editors and agents will tell you (with good reason) to read as much of the recent work in your genre as is possible. But don’t, for the love of all things writing, forget the classics! The publishing world really is one of the most arrogant and self-obsessed industries in the world, and it very much is more than willing to dismiss every writer and work older than six months as “archaic” and “weak”. Don’t be that person, don’t let that worldview define you. The classics are, well, classic for a reason…make sure you are able (and willing!) to learn from everyone.