Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol begins like this: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” The opening emphasis on Ebenezer Scrooge’s late business partner and friend Jacob Marley is crucial to understanding Dickens’ tale. A Christmas Carol isn’t about how one solitary, anti-social miser was frightened into a sanguine personality, and it’s not about the loneliness of self-centered living. In fact, when you think about it, Scrooge wasn’t a loner at all. Jacob Marley is proof of that.
But we modern readers seem to miss this. Our perception of Scrooge is that he is unfriendly because he dislikes people. We reckon that the three ghosts of Christmas–Past, Present, and Future–break Scrooge’s will by breaking through his defense mechanisms, perhaps like Robin Williams broke through Matt Damon’s child abuse-fueled mistrust of people. That is why we often use the word “Scrooge” to describe people we think are too dour or too introverted, those who rain on the parade.
But that’s not the Scrooge that Dickens created.
The ghost of Christmas Past helps us see this. The first spirit transports Scrooge back in time to three distinct scenes of his life. In the first, Scrooge sees himself as a boy at boarding school, forced to stay while his friends travel home for Christmas. But this moment quickly gives way to another, in which Scrooge’s sister arrives at the school and tells him that “Father is so much kinder than he used to be,” and has called for his son to come home. This moment in Scrooge’s childhood ends with happiness and reconciliation.
The next scene is likewise joyful. The ghost shows Scrooge his time as an apprentice to a garrulous man named Fezziwig. Fezziwig is kind and merry, and throws a delightful Christmas party for his family and apprentices. The point of this small act isn’t lost on Scrooge, who realizes that Fezziwig’s friends love him because he possessed “the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil…The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Under Fezziwig’s wing, Scrooge was a happy, cared for man, who rebounded the love he received into love–at least a temporary love–for others.
What happened to this love? Why did Scrooge lose it? Was it due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect? In our psychoanalytic culture, we would probably assume so. Surely such a change in character must have been precipitated by intense personal trauma? But that’s not what Dickens and the spirit show us. Instead, Dickens’ transformation of Ebenezer into Scrooge is far more subtle and far more perceptive of human nature:
He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”
“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.
“A golden one.”
“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”
“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”
“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”
She shook her head.
“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”
“I was a boy,” he said impatiently.
“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”
With that, the two lovers part, and the elderly Scrooge, unable to bear further the sight of this memory, tells the spirit to haunt him no longer.
Dickens is telling us that this moment in Scrooge’s life signals his descent into icy miserliness. Yet there is no psychological pain, no humiliation or unrequited love (from Scrooge, at least). His personal transformation defies Freudian explanation. Scrooge fears the world, yet the world had been kind to him. He fears poverty, yet the poor he had known for so long had shared their joy with him. How is it that this young man, reconciled to his father, rejoiced in by his master, and loved by a woman, becomes the kind of person to wish death on the poor so as to “decrease the surplus population”?
The answer is simple: We don’t know. That is the mystery of human nature, a topic that received Dickens’ masterful treatment many times. Scrooge’s past undermines our modern, convenient explanations of his present. In the end, all we are left with is the fact that somewhere, somehow, Ebenezer Scrooge fell in love with money.
This isn’t a lack of character development on Dickens’ part. On the contrary, this mystery is what gives A Christmas Carol its power. The Ebenezer Scrooge that is a cultural meme is someone to despise, someone on the outside that we may mock and jeer and never have to worry about. On the other hand, Scrooge the protagonist (yes, protagonist!) looks very much like me and you. No spectacular suffering, no singular moment of overwhelming seduction. Just a slow, gradual, sin-ward crawl, day by day, year by year, and decade by decade. His redemption was supernatural, but his moral decay was not.
Screwtape was right:
Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.