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‘A Christmas Carol’ research deepens students’ connection to holiday classic

With tongue firmly in cheek, Brent Kinser expressed his fear that his students’ semester-long, in-depth research of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” in connection with WCU’s production Dec. 9 might leave them weary of the holiday classic.

Poster for WCU's Dec. 9 production of "A Christmas Carol"

Poster for WCU's Dec. 9 production of "A Christmas Carol"

“They’ve been working on ‘A Christmas Carol’ to the point they may never read it again,” said Kinser, associate professor of English and director of the literature program.

But students in Kinser’s English 498 senior seminar report the contrary. They cite interesting findings from their exploration of “A Christmas Carol” on a range of levels, including the connection between Dickens’ work and life, the social context Dickens was writing in, and comparing Dickens’ work to the 1938 Orson Welles’ adaptation that will be re-created at WCU.

“They observed how much more overtly religious in tone that Welles’ version is, beginning with long passages from Luke,” said Kinser. “Dickens starts with ‘Marley was dead.’ The conclusion the students drew was that Dickens’ was more of a call to action than an escape from hard times.”

And the students predict reading or watching “A Christmas Carol” to become or continue to be a part of their holiday traditions.

Beginning at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, in the Fine and Performing Arts Center, Kinser’s students will share what they learned with posters at the “A Christmas Carol” event to be held in the Fine and Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. The essays also are printed in the event program, along with a filmography and a further reading section created by the students.

Check out below excerpts from some of their essays, which will be shared at the radio show performance of “A Christmas Carol” to be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, in the Fine and Performing Arts Center, and what the students say about the project.

How Dickens’s childhood resembles Scrooge’s

Elizabeth Nissly, an English literature major and history minor from Lancaster, Penn., aspires to become an English literature professor. She researched Dickens’ life and was particularly interested in how his rough childhood shaped him as an author. Below is an excerpt from her essay, “Charles Dickens: His Life and His Work.”

At twelve years of age, while his sister, Fanny, was attending an expensive music academy, Dickens was put to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, where he spent ten hours a day gluing labels on jars of shoe polish in order to create additional income for his family. … Dickens created for Scrooge a childhood that greatly resembled his own, and many of Dickens’ characters are renditions of his family members and friends. Not only was Scrooge sent off to a boarding school and separated from his immediate family as Dickens was, he also had a sister whose name was a near match for Dickens’s own. Scrooge’s sister, Fran, represents Dickens sister, Fanny.

“I have fond memories of watching “A Christmas Carol” with my family when I was younger, but I had never read the book before Dr. Kinser assigned it for our English 498 class,” said Nissly. “I had always looked forward to watching this movie during Christmastime, but in the future, I intend to make a reading of Dickens novel part of my holiday traditions instead.”

Connecting mistletoe, holly and ivy to Christmas

Whitney Fisher, an English and Spanish major from Waynesville, aspires to be a children’s librarian. Fisher researched Christmas in 1843, the year the novella was published, and was intrigued by the different traditions the Victorians had to celebrate the holiday. Below is an excerpt from her essay, “Charles Dickens’s Victorian Christmas Carol.”

Victorian homes were often decorated with “magical” plants and a Christmas tree. Michelle Hoppe relates that mistletoe, holly, and ivy were thought to be magical plants, with the holly a protector against witchcraft, ivy a symbol of immortality, and mistletoe a pagan talisman that was not allowed in church (par. 4). In “A Christmas Carol,” the Ghost of Christmas Present transforms Scrooge’s room to contain “crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy” (47), and the shops were decorated with “holly sprigs and berries” (10). England was the first country to use mistletoe, and according to Hoppe, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is a “purely English custom” (par. 4) and for each berry on the plant, a kiss was given or received. If the plant had four berries, only four kisses could be traded and no more (par. 4).

Even before the class assignment, “A Christmas Carol” was one of Fisher’s favorite books and movies.

“When I started researching for the production I thought I would be tired of ‘A Christmas Carol by the time the project was finished, but I’m not,” said Fisher. “I just watched the Jim Carrey version of the movie again the other day.”

Instant Bestseller: “A Christmas Carol”

Josh Lohse, an English literature major and professional writing minor from Orlando, aspires to be a writer. His research examined contemporary (1843) reviews of “A Christmas Carol.”

“I found the actual price of the first edition to be really interesting, as it was pretty expensive,” said Lohse. “Since ‘A Christmas Carol’ had such a powerful message for middle-class readers, it’s odd that the first edition wasn’t at least a little cheaper. However, that same edition reportedly sold out within the first day, so it was still a huge success.”

Below is an excerpt from his essay, “Great Expectations: The Contemporary Reception of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.”

Never had a little book an outset so full of brilliancy of promise. Published but a few days before Christmas, it was hailed on every side with enthusiastic greeting. The first edition of six thousand copies was sold the first day.

Lohse said the bulk of his experience with “A Christmas Carol” before the class was from watching the adaptation by the Muppets.“I’m pretty sure that, after reading it so much and doing all of this research, ‘A Christmas Carol’ will haunt me every Christmas. No, I’m just kidding. I actually asked for a copy of the ‘Muppet Christmas Carol’ for Christmas this year.  I’m pretty sure I will be enjoying that for the rest of my life.”

Impact of public reading of “A Christmas Carol”

Christopher Rollins, a senior English literature major and film studies minor from Waynesville, aspires to earn a doctorate in English literature. His research focused on Dickens’s career as a public reader.

“I knew the novella was culturally prolific, but I didn’t have a clue how big of a cultural phenomenon it was when it was released,” said Rollins. “Out of all the public readings Dickens performed, ‘A Christmas Carol’ was, by a wide margin, the most successful and crowd-pleasing. Realizing how big of a deal it was back then gave me a different perspective on what it has become in today’s culture.”

Below is an excerpt from “Charles Dickens the Revolutionary Reader: A Christmas Carol on Stage.”

In short, Dickens’s public readings revolutionized the literary world. When he would read, or, more accurately, perform “A Christmas Carol,” his audiences were consistently and continually astonished at how vividly Dickens embodied each of the characters—Scrooge’s iconic phrase “Bah! Humbug!” came into common use at least in part because of Dickens’s very own lively recitations on stage.

Rollins said he expects his pre-English 498 connection to “A Christmas Carol” was the same as many Americans: He had seen the movie but not read the book.

“The most comprehensive understanding of the story that I had came from a Disney cartoon,” he said.

Now, he has lost count of how many times he has read the book.

“Throughout the process of performing the research necessary for our articles, ‘A Christmas Carol’ was always the primary textual source I used,” said Rollins. “In the peak of my research, I can recall more than a few dreams that followed the story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ very strictly.”

“ ‘A Christmas Carol’ has reshaped the way I look at Christmas, and the intense research I did planted a Dickensian seed in my mind that has already started growing into an inescapable connection between the book and Christmas – the two are now synonymous,” said Rollins.

For more information, contact Brent Kinser at 828-227-3933 or bkinser@wcu.edu.

By Teresa Killian Tate

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