"The Haunted Man" of Charles Dickens is seldom spoken of these days, perhaps because it has been overshadowed by the masterpiece, A Christmas Carol; yet in some respects it is more subtly conceived and strikes an even deeper note of compassion.
The theme turns on the proposition that, supposing a man could lose memory of all past griefs and tribulations, the result would be a corresponding loss of sympathy, the ability to feel with and for one's fellows in their struggles and afflictions. It is a great story, because the reader finds himself in the various characters and lives with them and in them.
There is Redlaw, one of the great in chemistry, and a man of fine feeling, who, because he has gone so far in high attainment, finds himself involved in problems of the mind and soul. We see him, on a cold and gusty Christmas Eve, sitting before his fire in his solitary chambers at the old College, ruminating on scenes of the past: his friendless childhood and the later wrongs that he had suffered through the treachery of his most trusted friend. In one tragic hour all his hopes of personal happiness had been swept away, and he had been left, and still remained, a lonely man. Even his students maintained for the most part a respectful distance, awed by his melancholy reserve, although they had reason to know of his quick and generous sympathy in time of trouble.
The Chemist is interrupted in his train of thought by the entrance of William, the caretaker, to lay the table for supper. William is red-faced, breezy and good-natured, and presents the perfect contrast to the Chemist, for by no stretch of the imagination could he be suspected of indulging in complicated speculations of any sort. Milly, his wife, who follows with the supper, is the angel of the piece. Quiet, neat, and clear-eyed, she represents direct and untroubled contact with simple right and truth. She stays awhile to brighten up the place with sprigs of holly, brought in and now held for her by William's aged father, who has been caretaker in his day. Redlaw questions the old man as to how he feels about the years that are gone: "Had they been merry and happy?" But though the old caretaker had had bereavements and disappointments in plenty, he never thought of questioning them, stoutly dwelling on all that he had to be thankful for.
The departure of these wholesome people leaves Redlaw to return to his musings before the fire, where he sits like "a lonely mark for the chafing and beating of the great deep of humanity." He is thinking not only of himself, but is wondering whether it would not benefit all mankind if their saddest memories could be rubbed out, and only the pleasant ones remain. As these thoughts take possession of his mind, there gradually emerges from the shadows behind his chair the phantom image of himself, "the spirit of his darker hours," evoked by his melancholy thoughts. The two selves meet and strive together, but in the end the phantom persuades Redlaw to relinquish all sad memories, bestowing upon him the gift of forgetfulness — in possessing which, he will also pass it on to others.
The result is not long in coming. As he stands rooted to the spot where the Phantom has left him, he hears a cry from somewhere in the building. It is a little savage street-grab, ragged and dirty, more animal than human, whom Milly has befriended. He has become lost in the vast corridors. Redlaw goes to assist and brings him into his room. Earlier, such a sight of perverted ruined childhood would have wrung his heart, but now he looks upon it coldly, with loathing and aversion.
Redlaw has heard from William that one of his students is lying in a poor lodging not far away, too ill to go home for the holidays. Milly has been tending him. The Chemist's first impulse had been to go instantly to his relief: he still follows up the impulse, finds him a nice young fellow indeed, full of gratitude to his kind nurse. But before Redlaw leaves, he has watched the change come over the young man, from warm regard to cold complaint and ingratitude.
On the way upstairs to the student's room, Redlaw has met and spoken to the Tetterby family, poor and numerous, but usually cheerful in their poverty; after he has passed, the same dark cloud descends upon them, and they fall to quarreling and complaining of their lot.
Even the brisk and hearty William, the caretaker, and his father, are now contaminated and can't think why they continue to put up with one another, while the old man takes to pitying himself and demanding that he be taken better care of and made comfortable. — And there were other such encounters in the course of that terrible night.
Redlaw sees the changes he has brought about, and his anguish is unmeasured. Hastening back to his rooms, he resolves not to go abroad again if he cannot shake off the frightful spell. The only two he has been unable to influence are the little untamed brat, who has no softening memories to lose, and no happy ones to make the contrast — and Milly, who as the principle of goodness and purity is beyond his reach.
The Chemist calls upon the Phantom to take back its injurious gift. The truth has dawned upon him: that the memory of sorrow, wrong and trouble is what makes the link between ourselves and others, making possible sympathy and mutual helpfulness. He exclaims: "I have long taught, nothing can be spared; no step or atom in the wondrous structure could be lost, without a blank being made in the great universe. I know, now, that it is the same with good and evil, happiness and sorrow, in the memories of men."
. . . It is Christmas morning. Gradually, as the shadows lift, the spell begins to dissolve; the Christmas music comes drifting on the air, and with the strains the stony coldness drops from Redlaw like a chilling garment. The Phantom appears, but its aspect is now less terrible. By its side it brings the image of Milly and indicates that Redlaw must seek her out and learn from her.
The little tattered boy, who lies asleep beside the fire, is still a mystery to Redlaw and the disturber of his peace. The Phantom reads the Chemist's thoughts and says, pointing to the boy:
"This the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. . . . 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! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds, and by thousands! There is not one of these — not one — but shows a harvest mankind must reap.
"Behold, I say, the perfect type of what it was your choice to be. . . . His thoughts have been in 'terrible companionship' with yours, because you have gone down to his unnatural level. He is the growth of man's indifference; you are the growth of man's presumption. The beneficent design of Heaven is in each case, overthrown."
Stunned, but enlightened, the Chemist stoops and covers the sleeping boy, feeling a new compassion for him and all his kind. He later vows "to protect him, teach him, and reclaim him."
As the dawn advances, Milly goes her rounds, to look after the sick youth and two others we have not mentioned. Wherever she goes, and Redlaw with her, she brings the Christmas peace; where there has been complaint or wrangling, the comfort of her presence restores the flow of natural affections. It is she who suggests to Redlaw that it is a good thing for us to remember wrong that has been done us, so that we may forgive it. In this story Dickens has hit upon the fundamental tenet that Compassion is at the heart of everything: "the Law of Laws — ; eternal Harmony; a shoreless universal essence, the light of everlasting Right, and fitness of all things, the law of love eternal."
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