A Stranger to Oneself: A Hellish Scene in A Christmas Carol?

It is interesting how an audience’s setting and expectations can alter how a text (whether read or performed) is received. The last time I read the Christmas Carolwas in a Dickens seminar as an undergrad at UC Davis. The effort there was to place it in the context of Dickens’ overall life and work, especially its thematic relation to the author’s other novels. Ebenezer Scrooge cast shadows of Fagin (from Oliver Twist), David Copperfield’s stepfather, and the litigants in the darkly hilarious “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce” (from Bleak House). Scrooge, however, is ultimately redeemed—though the manner and nature of his redemption is also quintessentially Dickensian, as it arguably reinforces Victorian middle class values. This is no story of St. Anthony or St. Francis, wherein Scrooge might have given all of his riches as alms and assumed the life of a holy poor man in penitence. In Dickens’ moral universe, he ought to remain rich, but generouslyrich—a pillar of his community and fount of charitable deeds. Scrooge’s position as a wealthy businessman with the power to exploit his employees or community is not critiqued at any structural level (or so I would argue). Rather, he is instructed to wield that power benevolently, in the service of London’s Tiny Tims, for which benevolence he will also presumably reap rewards in the hereafter. One wonders if John Barton would have found the point of the story sufficiently moral.

Of course, most people (myself included) don’t experience the Christmas Carolin the context of studying Dickens. The tale has taken on an independent life in western culture comparable to the Santa Claus tradition—it’s simply a fixture of the “holiday season” and experienced as one of a series of cultural performances and practices. It’s easy to know the story without ever having read the novella (has anyone ever attempted to catalogue all of the adaptations in theater or film?). Its very ubiquity is perhaps revelatory of modern western values: nobody is much threatened by a story in which a mean rich man learns to be a nice rich man. And that, it seems, is how the story is typically received, as a parable about generosity. There’s a reason that “Scrooge” has become a universally recognized epithet for a miser.

With those two receptions of the text—as a part of the Dickensian corpus and as a cultural commonplace—in mind, it was all the more interesting to approach the story as the final installment in our course this semester. To think about Scrooge and his encounters with the living and the spectral as loci for acts of hospitality and strangeness.

Especially with regard to the later (strangeness), one scene in the tale struck me in a way it hadn’t before. It occurs in the context of Scrooge’s the third and final ghostly encounter, wherein he glimpses the future:

“Scrooge listened to this dialogue in horror. As they sat grouped about their spoil, in the scanty light afforded by the old man’s lamp, he viewed them with detestation and disgust, which could hardly have been greater, though they had been obscene demons, marketing the corpse itself.”

Scrooge witnesses the scavengers going over an (as yet unknown) corpse. The scene is deliberately hellish—the dim lightning, the grotesque figures who are explicitly compared to demons. It is also pregnant with dramatic irony, at least for those who know the story (and arguably, Dickens has also given enough narrative clues for first time readers to sense it as well). The dead man whose possessions are being pilfered is none other than Scrooge himself, yet he remains strange to himself. The strongest connection he can fathom between himself and the deceased is a moral analogy:

“Spirit!” said Scrooge, shuddering from head to foot. “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way.”

But of course Scrooge does not yet see, and to emphasize his blindness, the scene immediately shifts to the vision of the corpse on the table, covered by the shroud. Scrooge desires to take away the cloth and reveal the dead man’s face—his own face—yet he “had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at his side.”

Scrooge has perhaps begun to suspect the true identity of the corpse, and yet is kept from gazing on its face. A veil literally lies between himself and self-recognition. It is at this point that Dickens invites the reader to imagine a resurrection:

[Scrooge] thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard dealings, griping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!

This image, coupled with the demonic language just above, leads me to think that Dickens is deliberately evoking the motif of judgment: even if the man on the table were to experience a resurrection, he would remain enmeshed and burdened by his sins. Such a resurrection would in fact be condemnation, because it would be eternity without hope for moral improvement, without growth in love or charity. It would merely confirm him to be a broken creature beyond repair. This couples well with how Scrooge’s ghostly encounters began, with Marley’s thick chains, which he is forced to drag along his ghostly way. When Scrooge finally does recognize the corpse as himself, it is as if he has been cast into hell—except for him, there is still time.

All of this, it seems to me, bears on this semester’s theme of the “Stranger.” There are different kinds of strangeness that we have encountered in our texts, scriptures, and treatises. On the one hand, strangeness is divine—God comes to us as the weary traveler seeking hospitality, as the unknown “mulatto” in Waco, TX. But there is a strangeness that comes from embracing what is not God, too. Scrooge can only meet the image of himself confirmed in his sin with horror—“that’s not me!” (except it is). Indeed, that the image still evokes strangeness may be a sign that it’s not too late, that there is still a part of him that recoils and so can be redeemed. The texts this semester may encourage us to think of human life as existing between poles of strangeness, with the challenge being of recognizing God in the midst. It’s a theme that’s often explored in medieval mystical texts and also some Reformation theologies (Luther’s Deus absconditus). Maybe by these lights we could even talk of Christian life as a journey from estrangement into strangeness.

Regardless, finding these themes in A Christmas Carolis certainly more interesting than a bland parable about being generous. If we are to give Dickens credit, perhaps he intended a much more complex tale that has subsequently been flattened out by popular culture. It would be interesting in class how contemporary artists might attempt to adapt the story in fresh ways that make it (what else) strange again to readers and audiences.

 

 

 

 

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