Originally slated to appear in 1847, “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain,” the fifth and last instalment of the Christmas book series was delayed because of Charles Dickens’s exhaustion at maintaining the serialization of Dombey and Son (1846–48).
In the 1852 preface to his collected Christmas Books, Dickens wrote that his purpose for this series was “to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.” By the last two stories in this series, however, critics were losing patience with the didacticism and sentimentality of the Christmas stories, though they sold relatively well. The Haunted Man sold about 18,000 copies between December 19 and Christmas, making a profit of almost £800. In comparison with his novels and with the first three Christmas books, The Haunted Man is sparsely furnished with the realistic details, the characters, the humor, and the incidents that otherwise fill Dickens’s fiction.
According to Harry Stone, Dickens’s Christmas book method takes “a protagonist who displays false values” and makes him, “through a series of extraordinary events, see his error” (494). The Haunted Man opens with an esteemed professor of chemistry sitting alone indulging in an extended period of despair after the death of his sister and the loss of the woman he had wished to marry. Redlaw’s grief is deepened by the fact that his best friend seduced his sister and married his lover. Significantly, in the August before Dickens sat down in October to complete the story, Dickens’s own beloved sister, Fanny, had died of tuberculosis.
In the tale, Redlaw is strangely unsurprised when an exact copy of himself appears in spirit form. This phantom doppelgänger haunting Redlaw is not possessed of goodwill toward his material other, like Marley or the three ghosts of A Christmas Carol, but rather tempts Redlaw to extend his withdrawal from the rest of humanity. Redlaw expresses a desire to be relieved of his sorrow, and the spirit offers him a gift that, at first, very much appeals to Redlaw: the loss of any and all sorrowful memories. Redlaw accepts, and though his own painful memories ebb away, he also finds that he possesses a sort of Midas touch that removes the sorrowful memories from anyone he meets. Furthermore, he realizes that he has lost his ability to express or feel human compassion. In a November 1848 letter, Dickens wrote, “my point is that bad and good are inextricably linked in remembrance, and that you could not choose the enjoyment of recollecting only the good” (Letters, 5:443).
Only the wife of the custodian of the college, Milly, who has experienced the death of her child, and the young animalistic street urchin she has newly adopted are immune to his Midas touch: The child because he has no humanity to lose and Milly because she contains humanity to an extraordinary degree. Redlaw realizes the monster he has become, and Milly helps him and those whom his touch has crippled (including the son born of the marriage between his former love and his former best friend) restore their memories and their full humanity. Rather than social reform, The Haunted Man emphasizes “the reformation of the individual heart” (Kaplan, 180). Redlaw, as the great professor, contrasts the wisdom learned from books with the wisdom learned from the emotions.
The story ends with a Christmas banquet underneath the prayerful inscription on a generations-old portrait in the Great Hall of the school: “Lord keep my Memory green.” Redlaw finally understands the ambiguity of the inscription and prays that his own recollections— of the good as well as of the painful—shall be kept alive.
Dickens, Charles. The Letter of Charles Dickens: The Pilgrim Edition, vol. 5: 1847–1849. Edited by Graham Story and Kenneth Fielding. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and the Short Story. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
Stone, Harry. “Dickens’ Artistry and The Haunted Man,” South Atlantic Quarterly 61, no. 4 (1962): 492–505.