Monday, December 12, 2016
Christmas time. For many of us, the season would lose much of its atmosphere and charm without what is perhaps the second most famous Christmas story: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Reading it is as much a part of my family's tradition as baking cookies, trimming the tree, and eating the chocolate in our Christmas stockings before having breakfast.
As a writer, an English literature tutor, and a huge fan of Dickens, I've read and analyzed several of his works, most notably A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Indeed, I have notebooks filled with vocabulary, plot and character information, quiz questions, essay prompts, and all manner of things Dickensian. While I pride myself on knowing these works fairly well, I readily admit there is still much I can learn about and from one of my favorite masters of the English language.
That point was brought home to me just a few days ago by my brother. Now, my brother hasn't read any Dickens except A Christmas Carol, but he managed to point out a simile that occurs early in the story (page 15 in my copy) which I had managed to blow right past. Scrooge has just returned home after begrudgingly giving his clerk Christmas Day off.
"And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Marley's face. Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar."
Huh??? A bad lobster in a dark cellar?
What kind of a simile is that?
So, here's what I learned from my brother, who may not be an English lit scholar, but he knows his way around the sciences better than anyone I've ever met. He'd been reading a book called A Field Guide to Bacteria by Betsy Dexter Dyer when he ran across a passage explaining Dickens' seemingly bizarre reference to cellar-dwelling lobsters. Ms. Dyer explained that in Dickens' era, it was common to store lobsters in the cellar. Lobster exoskeletons are apparently covered in a bacteria that thrives in salty conditions (sea water) and phosphoresces in low temperatures such as those found in an ice chest or the cellar of a 19th century house. Indeed, a quick search of the internet will reveal that this trait is common to other seafood, especially crabmeat, shrimp, and prawns.
Just for kicks, if you happen to be at a holiday party where a platter of shrimp is on the buffet, turn out the lights and see if it glows in the dark. Guaranteed to be a conversation starter.