A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol
In defence of humbug
And everyone knows the moral of the story. If there's one great fictional piece of writing with an obvious ethical ambition, it's this one. Dickens and all the adaptations spell it out quite clearly: it's about keeping Christmas—a time of good cheer and good will among all people. Moreover, those willing to go a little deeper find it's about keeping the Christmas spirit of humanity all the year. It's against miserliness, crude materialism, profit for profit's sake. It's for lifelong generosity, helping the poor, family togetherness.
It's obvious. We recognize it easily. We read the book or watch the film, shed a tear, laugh a little, and come away with at least a momentary desire to be better people. We are converted as much as Scrooge.
Or are we? One thing that has always puzzled me: how exactly is Scrooge converted to humanitarianism? In all the literary and cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol he always seems to give in too easily. If he really is the old money-grubbing capitalist misanthrope he's first depicted as, how could such sentimental arguments win him over?
Look at the lessons taught to Scrooge by his successive hauntings.
The ghost of Marley seems straightforward enough. He's suffering torments in the afterlife because when alive he had devoted himself to the business of making money, rather than to the business of mankind. Clear enough. So be charitable, rather than focus only on your own profit. And why? So you'll have a more pleasant afterlife.
All right, this threat of damnation—if one believes it, which Scrooge doesn't—might make one change one's behaviour. Maybe give some money to the poor. But it would hardly turn one into a kind, bubbly figure.
Then the Spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood. We see he was neglected at a private school until his father, a grouch in his own right, reformed and reunited him at home with his sister. And we see that he was early on apprenticed to a kindly businessman. And that he alienated his fiancée by putting his business dealings ahead of her. Then Scrooge is led to see the warm family life his ex has in later years—the life that could have been his if he had not been so hard. It seems that business to the detriment of personal relations leads to loneliness.
The ghost of Christmas Present illustrates how the Yuletide spirit, sprinkled from his horn, creates good fellowship among men. And we see that the Cratchits enjoy their meagre celebration together despite their poverty, as do miners underground, isolated lighthouse keepers and sailors at sea, as well as do nephew Fred's more comfortable friends and family. It seems Christmas gives people of all classes happiness. And, just before leaving, this Christmas spirit shows in the metaphors of two deformed children that Ignorance and Want will lead to doom; it is in the interests of mankind to help others.
So what have we learned so far? In short, that celebrating Christmas and helping others brings both personal and social benefits.
Stacking the emotional deck
The third spirit—that of Christmas Yet to Come—delivers the oddest message: by living as he does, Scrooge will die friendless. Now certainly Dickens cannot be saying that Scrooge's miserliness would cause him to die sometime in the future—that's going to happen to everyone. Rather he's playing upon our irrational desire to be mourned by others after we're gone.
But isn't that a form of selfishness too? And don't many very good people die unrecognized or scorned by society, while the bad are often honoured upon their deaths? Hardly seems a sure bet, being good. Surely Scrooge the cynic would see that. And why would Scrooge the misanthrope care about whether others weep after his death? Won't do him any good then.
Meanwhile the Cratchit family is bereaved by Tiny Tim's death—due to an unnamed malady that Scrooge's help could have stopped, it seems. This is stacking the emotional deck too high: the poor crippled little boy dies somehow because Scrooge is a bad man, although the connection is never made explicitly. It reminds me of the famous National Lampoon cover: "If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll shoot this dog."
Why would Scrooge be moved by such appeals?
Yet he is. "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year," he vows. "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me."
It happens too quickly. The shock of being haunted, seeing his own grave, and so on, should perhaps stun him, frighten him out of his wits, or maybe drive him mad. But instead he becomes a good, kindly man, full of joie de vivre in the company of his fellows.
It's a mystery.
But here's the solution: A Christmas Carol is not really written to show the light to irredeemable old misers, to reform diehard capitalists, whether found in the fiction or among its readers. And I doubt many dark cases are brought to the light side by the films. Nor are they even the intended audience. Rather, like most moral literature (and what literature isn't moral, though not always as obviously as this story?), A Christmas Carol is preaching largely to the choir.
It is meant to bolster the Freds and the Cratchits among us, to show us that we are right in our righteousness, despite the pressures of the materialistic world upon us. The prickles of pleasure we feel at Scrooge's step-by-step comeuppance and our swelling of joyousness at the end when he is fully converted and joins us—joins our social network, adopts our mores—are the assurances that we are the true humanity.
Does Scrooge give up business? Does he give away all his ill-gotten wealth? No, he becomes fatherly to Tim, a good friend to others, a good master at work, a good all-round person. Becomes a kinder, gentler capitalist. Meaning mainly that he becomes ostentatiously generous and gregarious—keeping Christmas all year-round.
Interestingly, apart from a few pious phrases stuck in here and there, A Christmas Carol is not very religious. Scrooge is never seriously offered heaven, asked to pray, or urged to take Christ as his saviour. Marley's posthumous travails seem to be out of sync with Protestant or Catholic notions of the afterlife, and the spirits of Christmas who visit are rather pagan figures. For it is not piety or religious salvation pressed upon old Ebenezer, but rather the fellowship of his peers and earthly goodwill. A humanistic conversion really.
A Christmas Carol is also one of Dickens's best written works—in a very modern sense of "good writing". Short sentences and paragraphs. Direct language. Even some stream of consciousness as we follow Scrooge's internal rationalizations. It moves along quickly with little verbal filler or the descriptive digressions Dickens' longer works are known for. He's sardonic, colloquial, and entertainingly dramatic. Even cinematic. No wonder so many films adopt huge chunks of the dialogue and stage directions exactly as Dickens wrote them a century and a half ago.
And no wonder we are still comforted by the message of A Christmas Carol.