Monday, November 28, 2011

A Christmas Carol: Nature of the Ghost

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is an enduring classic, of course, and the definition or nature of the ghost I think appeals to most people’s definition of one.  Jacob Marley’s ghost describes what it means to be a spirit on page twenty: “’It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.  It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!’”  I think this fits the typical definition of a ghost, because it’s the idea that spirits that have some kind of unfinished business must remain on Earth.  According to Marley, a spirit’s job is to travel the Earth and share its happiness with others, but if it doesn’t, then it must tour the Earth forever in death, watching it all, forced to miss out on the happiness it could’ve had.  The only part that seems different to me than the common definition of a ghost is the fact that the spirit must tour the Earth.  In some of the ghost stories we’ve read, like The Amityville Horror, The Shining, etc., spirits have been confined to the house or building they haunt, and I think that tends to be the case for the typical ghost.
            I really like the idea that ghosts are forced to wander the world, but I feel like it wouldn’t necessarily apply to all ghosts.  It does to Marley, and would to Scrooge, based on their lives, though, of course.  The reader learns Marley’s life was a lot like Scrooge’s on page twenty-one: “…My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!’”  Because Marley was so confined in his life – so obsessed with money – it makes sense why he would have to wander the Earth – to see what other parts of life he missed out on.  But I feel like there would be other types of people in which that punishment wouldn’t make sense.  My initial reaction as I read this part was, What about the people who are too worldly?  Surely they exist.  I’m thinking about the people who get too swept up by everything – they travel the world and get caught up in every little thing it offers to the point where they miss out on important interpersonal relationships, or intimacy with family or even spouses.  These people shouldn’t be doomed to wander the Earth forever, as that’s basically how they spent their life and it didn’t help them with their particular plight.  Instead, they should have a more “confined” afterlife.  Perhaps be destined to follow their spouse or family members around, or be stuck in a regular family household or something.  Something that enriches their depths with people rather than a broad awareness of Earth.  Just something I thought of as I read.
            Another idea in A Christmas Carol that ties into the nature of the ghost is on page twenty-five.  After Marley’s Ghost leaves, Scrooge witnesses phantoms drifting outside his window, all moaning and full of misery.  I found it interesting how Scrooge realizes why they’re so full of misery on page twenty-five.  “The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”  In ways this also sounds like a typical definition of a ghost.  The idea that ghosts try to contact humans, but always have difficulty doing it, or can’t at all.  What I find interesting about this definition, though, is that the ghost tries to do it for good, to benefit people.  In most of the stories we’ve read for this class, the spirits tried to antagonize or hurt the living, although there were a couple exceptions, like in Grave’s End (well, we don’t know for sure if the spirits were benevolent or not, but they appeared to be) and The Lovely Bones (Susie, as a spirit, wants to contact people to comfort them).
And, there you have it, a common take on the ghost with a couple tweaks that makes it different.  Probably a good idea for writers of the ghost story – take an old or “regular” definition and add your own twist.
Dickens, Charles.  A Christmas Carol.  New York: Penguin Group, 2008.


Chris Shearer said...

Well at least a Western ghost. I'm sure Jenn or Joe could chime in on Eastern ghosts. Nice post.

Jennifer Loring said...

Chime! Japanese ghosts, for example, almost always seek to cause distress, if not outright harm, to humans. This is because the spirit has not joined its ancestors in the afterlife; when this happens, it's usually because the person has died violently or in some kind of emotional turmoil. So there is definitely unfinished business involved, but it's typically of the vengeance-seeking variety. They don't care about making contact so much as making someone pay (and without the difficulties Western ghosts seem to have).

John Dixon said...

I'm not well-versed in limbo / purgatory, but I think that's the idea here, not that ghosts are meant to wander the world, looking at stuff they missed, so much, but that they're required to drift around, seeing all the people they could have helped, at last feeling with clarity the empathy they should have embraced on Earth as living people, when they still could have done something. Imagine that... spending a portion of each day for years on end watching others suffer, caring VERY much, being consumed -- or perhaps "defined" is more accurate -- by caring for them and never being able to do a single thing to help them.

A said...

I like how you mention that most of the stories we read the ghosts try to haunt and hurt the people, with the few exceptions. I didn't realize that until you said it. Interesting.