Category Archives: Classics You’ve Never Read

Classics You’ve Never Read: Your Money or Your Life

Classic: a book that people praise and do not read.

– Mark Twain

CoMC_Treasure1Unless you live in Tennessee, I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that just like me, you did not win an unthinkably huge pile of money last month in the Powerball lottery. Instead, I contributed a modest amount to someone else’s dreams, and in return received the entertainment value of a few days mooning over what I would do if… I’m fine with it, of course, but that may only be because there’s the chance at another jackpot waiting in my future. I buy tickets on occasion, just one or two, and I enjoy the thinking, the dreaming. As much as I complain about vet bills and car repairs, I don’t truly need the money.

We all know and fear how wealth could ruin our lives: the two seem opposed. I’ve blogged before about Ebeneezer Scrooge, one of my favorite tales of all time. Among the funniest routines from the days of radio was the defining skit of famous comedian and infamous tightwad Jack Benny.

{sound effect, Jack walking home on the street}

Robber: Stick ’em up!

Jack: Don’t shoot!

Robber: Your money or your life.

{enormous pause, studio audience laughing}

Robber: I said your money or your life!

Jack: I’m thinking, I’m thinking!

This week I’m delving into the bookend piece of A Christmas Carol. Every few years I re-read the classic tale about the guy who gets it right, who uses an immeasurable pile of money to correct injustice, gain a much-needed revenge, reward the virtuous and win back CoMC2_Guy_Pearcehis life. It’s both, not either, for Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

The tale itself, I assume you know. If you have not read it, or at least seen it, I can have very little to say to you, on any subject. This is one of those books you’d have to have on the desert island: it’s seminal to my thought process and quite simply one of the most ripping good adventure tales ever told. I find longer and longer versions over the years and like its story all the more. It was decades before I realized it must have originally been written in another language. I still don’t know if I believe that.

Yes, a Fantasy

Let’s not argue about this. Edmond Dantes is first mate on board a merchant ship in the days just before Waterloo, with a fiancee’ in port and a secret letter in pocket, looking exactly like a character in a story about the Alleged Real World.

But come now.

He promises his dying captain to deliver a letter. One letter, he promised. And three unhappily-met enemies later, he’s been robbed of his position and freedom, deprived of his family and lover, and buried alive in the Chateau d’If while Napoleon’s return rocks CoMC6Europe. Yes, a bit far-fetched as bad fortunes go. Then he meets that combination of Sokrates, St. Francis and Da Vinci in the Abbe Faria (next cell over). A man who knows multiple languages, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and history, but somehow tunnels too short, bringing himself to Dantes’ cell for the express purpose of turning our hero into a walking encyclopedia. The two men continue the tunnel (years of work), the Abbe dies just before they are done, and one body-swap-plus-near-drowning later, Edmond Dantes is free with CoMC5only the directions to a tiny island and its massive treasure to live on.

And by massive, I mean Powerball. Without the state and federal taxes.

Getting it Right

Now then, how many protagonists 1) get the treasure in the MIDDLE of the story AND 2) use it correctly? Aladdin, easy come easy go; not really good with money or power, he just loves the girl.  The Fisherman and his Wife, so not. The Dwarves in The Hobbit, almost no on both counts. But Edmond Dantes creates the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, CoMC_Treasure2appearing in Paris years later, to find all his enemies have become important people by climbing a ladder that had his heart on the bottom rung. The tale is just getting warmed up.

Dumas misses no opportunity to remind us what we already suspect: if people think you have money, a lot of doors open for you. Money is indeed power, over the spirit of weak and villainous people, and Dantes exploits this. He tosses around a gem the size of a swallow’s egg just to get an informant’s attention. A half-million francs is the price of one acting job from a villain who doesn’t realize how much truth he’s telling.

Yet everywhere you look, Dantes is not just getting his way with money, he’s passing judgment from it. Actually, his enemies are incriminating themselves: the wealthy banker jumps at each million the Count dangles like a treat before a puppy, and misses every time. By the same token, the noble and loyal from his former life are raised from poverty, saved from suicide, cleared to marry by Dantes’ wealth (aided, it must be admitted, by his love for theater).

The Obstacle of Wealth

CoMC4_Jim_CaviezelAuthors are often urged to throw down barriers to their heroes, for conflict. Chief among these I would say is poverty. Having a poor character creates sympathy, and brings in all its relatives like hunger, exhaustion, and spite from the “haves”; everything to do with time and distance is tougher because you can’t pay to overcome them. In Edmond Dantes, we’re looking at a man who has been horribly wronged, of whom it’s not too much to say that his life was taken from him. Now money, showers of it, and as much education as one might need, he already got that from the priest. It’s Batman without the mask– oh wait, he wears one of those too in the movies at times. And a cape of course. So it’s Batman, except his arch-villains have gotten themselves elected governor and federal judge and chairman of Gotham-Sachs. And who wouldn’t like to take down those guys?

Wealth brings a different obstacle.

Edmond Dantes is eagerly admitted wherever he goes, owns the fastest ship, employs the most loyal servants. Time and distance do not oppose him. His enemies are agog and ignorant of his intent. But he must be Justice itself: and who has sympathy for an avenging angel? The central question of The Count of Monte Cristo is whether he is after revenge or something more. By enacting his plans with perfection, he wreaks havoc on the lives of his enemies: you can hardly doubt he will succeed. It is not his goal, at first, to do justice. But when his perfect scheme causes worse than he intends, those plans must change. His next goal is not, at first, to survive. But a path to redemption opens when he places his trust in the one who wronged him least.

Mark these crucial moments in the unfolding of the plot, and you can see that beneath the layers of gold and jewels is still a man, named Edmond Dantes.

  • When his scheme to ruin the public prosecutor involves the man’s wife by indulging her CoMC3interest in poisoning, the Count fails at first to see that one of his worthy friends will be among her targets
  • He repairs the plan, but instead of simply humiliating or killing the prosecutor, he unexpectedly drives him mad
  • In the same way, his scheme for revenge upon the man who stole his fiancee’ centers around provoking their son to a duel, which the Count will of course win. But when Mercedes begs him with tears to spare the youth, the Count relents, and expects to be slain instead. Once again, for all his wealth and intelligence he fails to see the final outcome.
  • These blows to his omniscience bring Dantes humility, and in the end he even spares the man who robbed him of his position. He focuses instead on settling the fortune to his remaining friends (or their faithful children), and is himself stunned , as he re-enters the mortal realm, to find hope and a second life awaiting him.

Buying the Reader’s Love

So a staggering pile of loot is the means, rather than one of the ends of the story. How else can we sympathize with someone who has become rich and powerful, whatever he had suffered before? Edmond Dantes begins as a character with many admirable qualities,

Yes, it's me. Rodger Stebbins as Benedetto, Camp Dudley 1987. Sacre Dieu!
Yes, it’s me. Rodger Stebbins as Benedetto, Camp Dudley 1987. Sacre Dieu!

including courage, honesty, pride, perhaps much like the hero of your book. He suffers unjustly, in a way losing his life and passing through “death” in the Chateau d’If, then gains the means to balance the scales: most of us don’t know much about that, and in many tales when the hero gets rich we hear the happy-ending music. So the obstacle– indeed the peril of the mid-tale is that we will see thrills but lose this hero. The Count of Monte Cristo has wealth, but still no life. This angel of God’s vengeance comes down to earth again, where we can stop marveling and return to our affection. He is chastened, wiser, happier, and enjoys what is most important in human life, which is love and hope. Not wealth– or so those of us who didn’t hit the Powerball dearly want to believe!

When Edmond Dantes sails off to the horizon, it’s the end of the Count of Monte Cristo. But he is not yet forty years old. I think of his story often, as I re-read it often. Once since I began to chronicle the Lands of Hope, I thought myself at a crossroads and what came to me was his tale. Not because I sought revenge or justice, but I suppose I realized I was in the middle of a story (in fact, two of them). Dumas’ great classic can teach you a lot about where the end of the story lies. No matter what great tale you see, or how many you’ve told, there’s always an end whose place is “not yet”.  Like Dantes, you must always “Wait and hope”.sailing-into-the-sunset

Classics You’ve Never Read: The Tale We All Tell

You could guess this installment’s topic with your eyes closed, inside a burlap bag. From the basement room of a neighborhood that has no electric lights. Because it was, like, the Dark Ages. So I don’t do mystery, sue me. What other classic would I be reviewing in the week of Yule except Charles Dickens’ absolutely immortal- A Christmas Carol.

I can feel your impatience from across the internet, so let me give you the summary in two bullet points.

  • Yes, this is a fantasy classic.

    Did Capt. Picard play Scrooge?
    Did Capt. Picard play Scrooge?
  • And no, you haven’t ever read it. Not really.

A Spiritual Experience

Now I don’t want any sass on that first point– Marley was dead, to begin with, there is no doubt whatever about that. Then this dead guy, he talks for an entire scene, and Scrooge can rave about blobs of mustard all he likes, but even HE says he believes it.

...or Gen. Patton?
…or Gen. Patton?

Add three ghosts, trips across time and space, walking through walls and an old man spending the coldest night ever recorded on earth in his nightshirt, and what you have there is a fantasy tale. Light on combat, I’ll grant you, but a ripping good fantasy yarn nonetheless. Horror and the supernatural are strongly allied to fantasy and always have been. The main difference, in my view, is the growth of character across the tale. Eighteen movies where a cabin/car/boatload of teens run screaming from Risen Guy with a weed-whacker, and what has anyone ever come away learning?

But Scrooge– graduate degree in Goodwill and Charity, in one night.

And this is YOUR tale, rather ours. We all tell it, because we all continually live it.

Thurston Howell? Already greedy
Thurston Howell? Already greedy

The only real choice you have with A Christmas Carol is to figure out what part of the story you’re in. And decide how long you’ll stay there.

Scrooge and You, Both Misers

Not me, you exclaim? I’m warning you, no chance you’ll escape this one. The popularity of Christmas Carol is a tidal-wave of evidence. Why does every actor on earth want to play him? Why do we all listen to it, on the radio, in 19 major films, in 39 stage

Alfred! Did even the butler do it?
Alfred! Did even the butler do it?

versions (since 1974, half of them running continuously). There have been three Scrooge operas, a graphic novel with Batman as him, over 200 major productions either repeating the story directly or putting a “modern” touch on it. There’s a steampunk version of this tale, one where he’s a TV producer, one where Scrooge is played by just about the hottest woman on the planet, and another where Tiny Tim’s disease is causing the zombie apocalypse.

You think you’ve read this tale? Please, you don’t even know which character you’re playing. Yeah, it’s not good news. But prove your literary worth and pass the quiz first.

Scrooge by the Book- Is it in the Story? (True or False)

No, no- Miss America too hot to be a miser. Surely?
No, no- Miss America too hot to be a miser. Surely?

1) His clerk asks him for extra coal in the beginning

2) The ghosts come at 1, 2 and 3 o’clock

3) Scrooge sees himself in the future

4) Scrooge visits Crachit’s house on Christmas Day

All false. You’ve been remembering one of the many excellent video versions, which take details of the character arc to heart and amplify the essential meaning Dickens started with. The book’s too short for TV! And that’s fine. But why bother with a 160 year old novella unless everyone– directors, screenplay writers, major actors and you watching at home– responded to something there?

Point: you respond to a tale this powerfully this well this long, because you identify with

But... he likes animals
But… he likes animals

a major character. And Christmas Carol has only one.

The chief thing about a miser isn’t that he’s rich, or that it’s only about money. Misers are unhappy. They deny everyone their wealth, starting with themselves. There’s a word for the condition a miser lives in. It’s called misery. Scrooge is quite correctly described as sad, weird, funny; as his nephew points out, the only one hurt by all his crabbing is himself. Our lives reflect this and it’s seldom money- it might be patience, or good humor, or our love, or– ahem– our writing talent, but we hold it back and don’t share it enough.

And we need to change. Your heroes need to change- why else are people reading your novella? Many wise online coaches have written about conflict, but Dickens gives us a more detailed map of the how and when. Here is where the spirits come in. You might call them muses.

A Reader’s Progress- Scrooge’s Character Grows

  • Marley comes to warn Scrooge and his principal impact is based on fear. Scrooge needs to be jogged out of his complacent habits, convinced there are consequences to his actions beyond what he can see, and forced to consider that he must change. The fear is important, but alone it’s not enough. As soon as Marley leaves, the miser is trying to settle back into his old ways, muttering “humbug” again. But he is still off-balance and open to-
  • The Ghost of Christmas Past whose chief influence is to fill him with regret.
    Whoa- now it's getting weird. Do I know that guy?
    {Whoa- now it’s getting weird. Do I know that guy?}

    Seeing that he was once happy, and that he used to respond more kindly to people around him, Scrooge becomes truly sad (not miserable, which for a miser is just a form of self-pity). He tells the spirit he can bear it no longer- she has scraped him out like a gourd. Based only on regret for his mistakes, though, Scrooge will not change- he pushes down the cap over the spirit’s light to get rid of it. For more progress in his arc, Scrooge needs-

  • The Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows him happiness and gives him desire. There’s a Chinese proverb that speaks of how sorrow hollows you like a man creating a pot. Now you can contain more joy. two-gcpScrooge sees others making merry despite much less wealth than he possesses and comes to desire that happiness again. If left here, he probably wouldn’t be quite so crabby, for a while, but it’s still not enough. Scrooge must be pushed that final step to action by-
  • The Ghost of Christmas Future, who doesn’t simply terrify him but gives Scrooge a sense of consequence. Misers like us mortals are not only selfish, or rather we’re selfish in part because we can’t see for sure the best thing to do with our talents. Easy to say how stupid it is for an old man to hoard money- but remember, Scrooge doesn’t think he is a miser. None of us do. By seeing his future, Scrooge realizes his choices matter. He could make the wrong one. He has been so far. His fate and Tiny Tim’s are linked: and in the event of death, the boy has nothing to fear, whereas Scrooge… that’s not just fear, it’s an impetus to act.
Play a miser? Back off buddy, I'm a scientist.
Play Scrooge? Back off buddy, I’m a scientist.

If a man gave away all his money but had not changed inside, it would be about as effective as a knight in my tales defeating a dragon without effort. Scrooge on Christmas Day has become “light as a feather, as giddy as a schoolgirl”. He is an imp– speaking in riddles to the boy outside his window, sending the turkey anonymously to IMG_8303Bob Cratchit. He is unafraid to appear a fool; he knows he has already been one. He understands it’s important to use his money, not to be known for doing so. He is exchanging his treasures here for those in heaven. Just one more remarkable feature of Dickens’ writing, that he so clearly points to a moral and religious purpose without using the G-word (even in vain). Scrooge accomplishes a transformation of character that the world has responded to across all media for sixteen decades. We know, deep down, who he’s talking to.

The 19th Century Indie

Dickens did here what all us authors, writers, chroniclers want to do with our work. More than readers liking the story, more than loving it, he changed how people lived. Did you know:

  • He wrote Christmas Carol as Plan B? His original idea was to pen a political tract, urging Parliament to do more to help the poor, and children, etc. He decided that a parable about Christmas would be better. I don’t think he was wrong.
  • His tale brought us not just Scrooge, but “Merry Christmas” itself! In Dickens’ day there was still some Puritan in England’s make-up, believing that celebration and liberality were wrong. He was out to change that, and he did.
  • He finished the work in less than six weeks, with a deadline (Christmas 1842) looming over his head as pressure. The spirits were with him.
  • He elected to self-publish! Took a percentage-royalty instead of flat fee. And he didn’t do that well on it- the book’s popularity was almost immediate but his returns weren’t as great as he’d hoped. Public readings (early video!) and reprintings eventually made up the gap (but Dickens was already well-off). He did the slow-burn!
  • Dickens also spear-headed the blasphemous idea that you could publish longer tales, like his other novels, in shorter formats released as serials. Hmmm…. and by making each chapter so cheap (just a ha’penny or so) even the masses could afford to buy a copy.
IMG_8331
I did my part! Your turn now.

So, the more things change. And if Dickens was prefiguring so many of our publication choices, we might want to take his writing style to heart as well. Check any article about the history of Christmas Carol to see the impact his tale had on the world: other great writers heaping praise and vowing to give generously, factory owners reduced to tears or closing shop for Christmas after seeing the play. Face it, you got to get a piece of this.

Start with yourself. I urge you all to read A Christmas Carol– the verb there was “read”, but see it too if you like. Learn from your fear, desire the happiness that comes with giving, and make good choices to change the world. Scrooge learns it’s never too late. But the flip-side of that maxim is also true- what day better than today?

A Merry Christmas to you all. God bless us indie authors, every one.

 

1999
1999
1984
1984
1962
1962
1992
1992

 

 

 

2000
2000
2009
2009

 

 

Yep, me too. 2006 at the local children's theater
Yep, me too. 2006 at the local children’s theater

 

 

Will occasionally pontificates on Classics You’ve Never Read. His earlier reviews can be found here.

BTW: The best of the lot? Albert Finney, the musical version.

1970
1970