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The End of the Story

William Coleman


Eliot said the truth is that the end's in our beginning. A hundred years before he said so, a handful of paragraphs into Dickens' most enduring Christmas story, the narrator plants a seed that holds the whole of Dickens's book. Scrooge, it's said, is "solitary as an oyster." Time's sand famously intrudes. By stave two, Scrooge is undergoing "the strangest agitation." By stave five, The End of It, the pearl is made complete.

Each December I read A Christmas Carol to my sophomores. This year, I prefaced our reading by showing them a video in which the first and final frames of films are juxtaposed. One such pair is from Birdman, the 2014 story of a has-been action hero struggling to overcome self-doubt. The opening shot recalls the fall of Icarus: twin flames, conjoined, plummet from a darkened sky. The final shot: the Phoenix, rising in the arc of his daughter's eyes. The camera never veers from her face. The glorious ascent of a man finally freed of demons is ours alone to imagine. The movie's final movement moves in us.

The same is true of Scrooge's movement, too. Even as he bears witness to his past, present, and future, even as he empathetically enters scenes of his own life as they unspool before him (dancing with his old self at the Fezziwigs, "exclaiming in ecstasy" the plots of stories his lonely boyhood self is reading, while Ali Baba and Valentine and the Old Sultan appear to old Scrooge in the flesh, embodying the boy's imagination, the child's only source of companionship) —even as he experiences his own life both directly and vicariously, so too do we. 

It's astonishing, really, such an act of reading: in a time and place removed from ours, Dickens set the right words in the right order (as Chekhov recommended), and the scenes thus rendered remain so vivid that, on a vital level (to which neurologists are turning their attention), we are Scrooge. We are his self in past and future times, and we are the present self beholding both. When the space between the selves collapses, we feel the rush of integration. When Scrooge's joy is recollected, we are part of the recollection. When Scrooge's joy is resurrected, the resurrection is in us. The end and the beginning are as one.

Once (one of my students observed), the cold "stiffened [Scrooge's] gait." That was page two. By the final page, the cold is "piping for the blood to dance to." The cold, this student said: it was the same. But the perceiver! 

"I guess my thing is," said Alexander Dinelaris, one of Birdman's screenwriters, when asked about the film's ending, "if you can silence the voice of mediocrity, then what is possible? [That] is good enough for me." 

The perceiver: Scrooge, Birdman, his daughter, you and I. How can we help but be joyful at story's end? We feel our own beginning once again.