The Haunted Man; and the Ghost’s Bargain (subtitled A Fancy for Christmas Time) is the last of Charles Dickens’s five “Christmas Books”. Like A Christmas Carol, and unlike the other three Christmas Books, The Haunted Man actually takes place over Christmas — specifically Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
My opinion of The Haunted Man is that it is a big lapse of logic. The story was just strange. It starts out with a long discussion on whether or not “everyone’s” word can be taken for anything, and then saying that “everyone” is a least right in this: Mr. Redlaw looks like a haunted man. Apparently he is haunted — haunted by his own thoughts about his past. In the evening — it is Christmas Eve — his own evil phantom comes and makes Mr. Redlaw an offer: “Forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known! …. I have the power to cancel their remembrance – to leave but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon” (Ch. 1). Mr. Redlaw is rather skeptical.
“I would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others. What shall I lose, if I assent to this? What else will pass from my remembrance?”
“No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections. Those will go.” (Ch. 1)
After some more wavering, Mr. Redlaw finally decides to accept the phantom’s “gift”. And then the story really gets weird and illogical. Instead of just suffering some form of amnesia, Mr. Redlaw becomes a bitter, evil man. What’s more, the phantom has tricked him. After the phantom gets Mr. Redlaw to agree to take his “gift”, he then says in effect, “Oh, by-the-way, since you accepted this gift for yourself, you will also, whether you or they like it or not, bestow it upon everyone you come in contact with.” But then, the gift has to be passed on to others, because if it only affected Mr. Redlaw, no one would be able to tell how evil it was — which is the point of the story. Mr. Redlaw would never have felt how evil his gift was, if he had not been able to see its effect on others. And in the gift’s effect on people is the big puzzlement of the story.
Did you know that a little child, who has never yet known sorrow, or trouble, or wrong, is an evil creature who is bitter, angry, resentful, mean, unloving, and hateful? That is the conclusion that Charles Dickens’s reasoning in this story leads to. The effect of the phantom’s “gift” on everyone is to make them unthankful and cruel. I could see everyone becoming childish — after all, they are now missing a large portion of their memory — but why so heartless? The fact is, that a great deal of our good associations with certain people do come from the remembrance of how they helped us through trouble, or bore it well themselves, but not all.
Mr. Redlaw had a sister whom he loved dearly. She died long before the story began. After he forgets “sorrow, wrong, and trouble”, he can barely even remember that he had a sister. Why could he not remember when his sister said she wanted her memory kept “green”? Why could he barely remember her at all? Did he have no other reason to love and remember her except such as sorrow, trouble, and wrong had brought? If he could only remember happy, good things, why was he so surly?
Mr. Redlaw experiments a bit with passing his “gift” on to others, spreading unthankfulness and dissension wherever he goes. At one point he meets with an abused prostitute.
“Girl!” said Redlaw, sternly, “before this … was brought about, was there no wrong done to you? In spite of all that you can do, does no remembrance of wrong cleave to you? Are there not times upon times when it is misery to you?”
So little of what was womanly was left in her appearance, that now, when she burst into tears, he stood amazed. But he was more amazed, and much disquieted, to note that in her awakened recollection of this wrong, the first trace of her old humanity and frozen tenderness appeared to show itself. …
“Sorrow, wrong, and trouble!” he muttered, turning his fearful gaze away. “All that connects her with the state from which she has fallen, has those roots!” (Ch. 2)
And so, through such situations as this, he discovers how evil his gift is, and how important “sorrow, wrong, and trouble” are. The only person who is immune to receiving Redlaw’s gift is one ragged little beggar boy. The phantom explains this phenomenon to Redlaw.
“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man!” (Ch. 3)
Frightened of himself, Mr. Redlaw carefully avoids coming into contact with Milly Swidger, a saintly woman he now fears contaminating. She is one of those good, pretty, untaught, angelic women of Dickens’s, that goes around being good and setting everyone right while insisting on her own ignorance and unworthiness. “Even on me” she tells a learned student, “- and I am very different from you, Mr. Edmund, for I have no learning, and don’t know how to think properly – this view of such things has made a great impression” (Ch. 2). In the last chapter she is shown as perpetually surprised by the affection of those around her for her. Anyway, on one occasion, carefully hidden, Mr. Redlaw observes her at the bedside of a sick student he has bestowed his “gift” upon.
“I have been thinking, Mr. Edmund, [Milly tells the student] that you have been often thinking of late, when I have been sitting by, how true the saying is, that adversity is a good teacher. Health will be more precious to you, after this illness, than it has ever been. And years hence, when this time of year comes round, and you remember the days when you lay here sick, alone, that the knowledge of your illness might not afflict those who are dearest to you, your home will be doubly dear and doubly blest. Now, isn’t that a good, true thing?…. When I have seen you so touched by the kindness and attention of the poor people down stairs, I have felt that you thought even that experience some repayment for the loss of health, and I have read in your face, as plain as if it was a book, that but for some trouble and sorrow we should never know half the good there is about us.” (Ch. 2)
Of course, since receiving the “gift”, the student is no longer the grateful, loving, gentle young man he was before, and scorns Milly and her sermons.
The phantom eventually returns to Mr. Redlaw and instructs him, despite his reluctance to come into contact with her, to seek Milly out. Milly is an influence for goodness, as Mr. Redlaw is an influence for evil. Now, Mr. Redlaw follows her on Christmas morning as she goes from place to place that he has cursed and unconsciously brings memory of “sorrow, wrong, and trouble” back, spreading joy and peace.
Milly’s own goodness stems from a sorrow in her past, as she explains to her husband, William Swidger, speaking of the death of their only child, who died in infancy.
“If I have been quiet since, I have been more happy, William, in a hundred ways. Not least happy, dear, in this – that even when my little child was born and dead but a few days, and I was weak and sorrowful, and could not help grieving a little, the thought arose, that if I tried to lead a good life, I should meet in Heaven a bright creature, who would call me, Mother!” (Ch. 3)
Dickens apparently thought that a person can be good enough to get themselves into heaven. Bad theology. Good works will never save anyone. No one, not even the saintliest of Dickens’s heroines is good enough. It is by grace that we are saved.
Mr. Redlaw admits that he has lost his memory and Milly is touched by his new humility and sad plight. A man comes back who wronged Mr. Redlaw long ago, but Mr. Redlaw cannot remember him. Milly wants there to be peace between them.
“May I tell you why it seems to me a good thing for us, to remember wrong that has been done us? …. That we may forgive it.”
“Pardon me, great Heaven!” said Redlaw, lifting up his eyes, “for having thrown away thine own high attribute!”
“And if,” said Milly, “if your memory should one day be restored, as we will hope and pray it may be, would it not be a blessing to you to recall at once a wrong and its forgiveness?” (Ch. 3)
Then, through Milly’s “teaching of pure love”, Mr. Redlaw’s memory is restored. And then everyone has a lovely Christmas dinner together.
Then, as Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences, for all good, [Mr. Redlaw] laid his hand upon the [beggar] boy, and, silently calling Him to witness who laid His hand on children in old time, rebuking, in the majesty of His prophetic knowledge, those who kept them from Him, vowed to protect him, teach him, and reclaim him. (Ch. 3)
And they all live happily ever after … er, I mean, they all live forevermore cherishing the remembrance of sorrow, wrong, and trouble.
The Haunted Man is a terrible story. It has terrible logic, terrible morals, and is terribly boring. It has no redeeming qualities that I can think of (except, maybe, that it is the last of the Christmas books). So, is The Haunted Man a pleasing fancy for Christmastime? In my [humble, totally unbiased] opinion, it is a “fancy” that could give anyone the heebie-jeebies.
This post is part of the Dickens Project that “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. You can read Sophie’s post here: ‘The Haunted Man’.
I read The Haunted Man on February 10, 2013.
Frontispiece by John Tenniel of The Haunted Man by Charles Dickens (London: Bradbury & Evens, 1848).
“Redlaw and the Phantom” by John Leech
“Milly and the Old Man” by Frank Stone
“You speak to me of what is lying here …” by Fred Barnard
“Milly and the Student” by Frank Stone
“Milly and the Children” by Frank Stone
“The Christmas Dinner in the Great Hall” by Clarkson Stanfield