Of all the works written about Christmas, perhaps the most influential, save Clement Moore’s poem, The Night Before Christmas, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Published in 1843, the story of the curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge has entertained millions with its altruistic message of Christmas giving by the rich to those unable to buy their Christmas goose. In Dickens’ time the holiday was undergoing a metamorphosis, from a day of benign neglect to one of family celebration, feasting, gift giving and guilt. In other words, Christmas was becoming a true religious experience. As a popular magazine of the time chided: “What have you done, this ‘merry Christmas’, for the happiness of those about, below you? Nothing? Do you dare, with those sirloin cheeks and that port-wine nose, to answer — Nothing?”
The growing Victorian awareness of the poor was made possible by the success of the Industrial Revolution begun one hundred years earlier. Back then society was emerging from a world of agrarianism and individual craftsmen; the poor were copious, the Scrooges few. By the mid-nineteenth century people were in general wealthy enough to notice the poor and feel guilty about them. Enter the first great writer to cash in on the new sensibility, Charles Dickens. His story was an immediate and overwhelming success.
The plot is a wondrous account of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. His greatest desires are to make money and to be left alone. Dickens, who had a flair for characterization, played these traits to the hilt:
Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
The Dickensian universe could not long tolerate a being as this. During the course of the night Scrooge is visited by three spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, of Christmas Present and of Christmas Yet To Come. These spirits transcend time and space to show Scrooge the error of his parsimonious ways. They know the key threads comprising what was, is and will be his life’s tapestry. Through the cunning use of regret, guilt and fear the ghostly trio bully Scrooge into loosening his tightly bound purse strings. By story’s end, after a night of continual fright and emotional body blows, Scrooge awakens on Christmas day, gleeful for his chance at redemption. He begins his penance by thankfully flinging guineas to any and everyone. The moral of the story: the primary value of Christmas is altruism. Those who have “more” than they “need” are expected to share their wealth in order to know true happiness.
How can one possibly fault such a message? Is it not clear that Scrooge is a better, happier person after his night time revelations? Is not Christmas about giving to others? Given the influence of A Christmas Carol over the past one hundred sixty years (remember Newt Gingrich portrayed as Scrooge on the cover of Time Magazine?) it is time to critically analyze this work.
Two aspects deserve particular consideration. The first is thematic. The second is consistency. A work of art, even one employing imagination to the degree this story does, must still be consistent if we are to learn from it and be able to apply its lessons. This is so as art results from individual human philosophies that are clothed as such by skillful construction of a story plot, a painting composition or whatever the medium happens to be. And it is philosophy that guides human action.
The metaphysical setting of A Christmas Carol is that of the Christian universe. Earth exists in reality as does an unseen heaven and hell. One source described the story as “… the one great Christmas myth of modern literature”. Given this metaphysical foundation one might expect contradictions galore. Dickens does not disappoint. Of numerous logical flaws the greatest is Scrooge’s transformation from selfish miser to cheerful altruist by the intervention of Christmas ghosts . A literal interpretation of this transformation is impossible to believe. The premises are hopelessly flawed. No proof(s) exist to verify Christian metaphysics. Likewise the notion of Christmas ghosts is logically challenged. Since this is true Scrooge has no reason to change his way of living. Without such an impetus the story is an artful contrivance, simply Dickens’ well written, albeit poorly reasoned, statement of personal ethics. With no coherent argument offered the reader he has no obligation to take Dickens’ conclusion seriously, let alone act upon it.
Putting this fatal criticism aside, even those who believe such ghosts are possible cannot ignore the implications of the metaphysics that permit ghosts to exist. First the reader must believe that the spirit world is the exclusive province of representatives of the poor. Dickens seemed to recognize this objection in the following exchange between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present:
‘Is there a peculiar flavour in what you sprinkle from your torch?’ asked Scrooge. ‘There is. My own.’ ‘Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day?’ asked Scrooge. ‘To any kindly given. To a poor one most.’ ‘Why to a poor one most?’ asked Scrooge. ‘Because it needs it most.’
The universe is configured in such a manner that an all knowing, omnipresent being will meddle in human affairs using one’s material possessions as criteria to determine punishment or reward. Need is a crucial indicator. One can imagine Karl Marx reading this passage and running to the British Museum to write his famous tome.
Further, only Scrooge must account for his behavior while Cratchit and others are never responsible for what they do. Of course Cratchit is poor, apparently a key attribute if one wishes to avoid incessant nagging by disgruntled ghosts. Scrooge possesses means (i.e., money wealth) so he automatically shoulders responsibility for the actions of others. This view of man is twisted, unfair and evil.
It is here one we arrive at the theme. At the heart of this short story lies an abomination: that man— productive man as sordidly portrayed by Dickens— is a being to be stomped into the dust, a creature to be forced to submit to the whims of others. Indeed the very universe demands it. Man’s values are those imposed upon him by others. Chief among these are self-sacrifice, humility and guilt. An Augustinian view of man as “crooked, sordid, bespotted and ulcerous” pervades the work. Individual man cannot aspire to greatness for the sole reason that he is a hopelessly flawed. He simply must accept his lot as a pack animal.
Dickens does not stop there. His characterization of Scrooge as a heartless businessman, flawed in part because he is successful in business, created an archetype that survives to the present day. Scrooge is a gross caricature, a malevolent cartoon figure existing in the heart of Victorian London. Other than the author’s philosophical predilections there is no reason that he should have been portrayed in such a diabolical manner. No mention is made of his business (what is it that he does exactly?), his creation of wealth, his employment of others or any other positive aspect of his life. Nary is a mention made of the fact that Cratchit is able to feed a large family on his supposedly small salary. Further, those with less material wealth — Scrooge’s nephew, Cratchit, et al — are happy while Scrooge himself wallows in misery. Again note that life is divided between rich and poor, the productive and those less so. Using this standard, we can now divine who may rightly expect happiness.
As noted, altruism is the way to true happiness. Self sacrifice is good in the Dickensian universe. Dickens constantly harps on the niggardliness of Scrooge but then abruptly contradicts himself when the Ghost of Christmas Past examines Scrooge’s life. Scrooge has indeed sacrificed in his pursuit of self-sufficiency and business success. In a poignant scene Scrooge is reminded of the loss of his betrothed:
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 evenhanded 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. ‘Am I?’ ‘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.’
A heartbroken Scrooge sacrifices potential happiness in pursuit of a business career. In his hierarchy of values self-sufficiency wins over poverty and, in his case at least, a family of his own.
Contrast the preceding point with the life of Bob Cratchit. Scrooge made a choice and chose self-sufficiency; Cratchit chose a wife and a family over the “pursuit of wealth”. Yet somehow Dickens twists these life choices as the responsibility solely of Scrooge. It is not enough that Scrooge is a grumpy, lonely bachelor; he is descended upon by cosmic forces to come to the aid of the Cratchits. His frugality is his downfall (had he spent every last farthing he made he too would be poor!). Dickens might have phrased it as follows: “Alas, poor Scrooge had the misfortune to pursue his nature by making a living! He compounded his crime by success. For all his business acumen, unbeknownst he lived in a world that disparaged and condemned those who create wealth for their own selfish ends”.
The ghosts keep a close eye on Scrooge as they did with another business miscreant, his late partner Jacob Marley. For his crime of making a living without giving alms, the dead Marley is cast in chains to forlornly wander spirit land until he atones for his sins. The question therefore arises why the spirits themselves do not take matters into hand and help the poor directly. Why do they require a middleman? Why do they waste effort doggedly pursuing and reproving businessmen? To engage in these pointless actions only serve to punish innocent people while the poor remain poor.
Scrooge’s new found altruism will help only marginally in any case; Tiny Tim Cratchit, Scrooge’s nephew and a few charities will be the beneficiaries. Spirits that are capable of flying to-and-fro across time and space to interfere in the lives of men would surely be able to provide aid to many more poor folks then Scrooge could ever realize. Thus they are guilty of what they accuse Scrooge; they can make a difference but refuse to do so. Perhaps the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future need to be visited by higher ranking ghosts to illustrate their respective failings. These higher spirits, who possess the same or greater power as our original trio, must then submit to visits from higher ranking ghosts since they too are guilty of indifference to the poor. And so on ad infinitum.
There exist other flaws in this story. Why do these spirits appear when man’s prosperity is rising (did they appear when most men were poor as dirt, say in Charlemagne’s era)? Were the spirits working their magic in places like mid-nineteenth century Africa or was this strictly a capitalist country phenomenon? Did a rich person such as Queen Victoria receive a nocturnal visit urging her to open up a palace or two to the homeless? Why would a benevolent deity cripple Tiny Tim in the first place? How is justice served by divine punishment of those who employ others, create wealth, increase prosperity and reduce poverty through a true miracle, the free market? I think you get the idea. Those who accept Dickens’ metaphysics and subsequent conclusions do so at there own intellectual peril.
I end this essay with a brief dialogue that Dickens should have employed that is somewhat more consistent with reality. Rather than Scrooge being visited by ghosts Bob Cratchit receives the dubious honor. The Ghost of Christmas Past whisks him off and chastises him:
Bob Cratchit! Look how you spent the years of your youth! You who have assumed to sire a family yet wasted this precious time on idle amusements. Your training was not sufficient to provide you with adequate employment; your marriage I declare premature though based upon true affection. Your desire for a family did not equal your need to provide for them. Endless struggle was the result. A string of children increased your burdens. A sick child, Tiny Tim, must suffer needlessly due to your lack of foresight. Look, Bob Cratchit, look and see! You and others like you must beg your fellow man to come to your aid. You eye enviously the wealth of others when the eye of suspicion must focus only upon yourself. It is not Mr. Scrooge you must blame; if you desire more wealth you must prove yourself of more value to him. Or offer your talents to another employer more in need of your services. Use your mind to improve your condition. This Sir is the state of reality; this Sir is what you must comprehend and act upon! Make haste to correct the suffering you have created. Inflame your sense of self interest and prosper before life passes you and yours!