In the commercialized Christmas we have come to know and love (?), we often frame A Christmas Carol as full of cheer and goodwill . . . an old man moved by the intervention of ghosts to care for a young crippled boy in the spirit of the holiday. When we call someone “Scrooge,” we usually mean they are not being cheery enough: perhaps they are refusing to listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. This collapse of emotions into “cheer” is why I was surprised by the range of emotions represented in A Christmas Carol when I came back to it this year. Difficulty and grief are placed alongside brilliant happiness and cheer. I’d like to explore how the cheer and troubles are placed together, though, since there is danger in representing suffering and pain in art. Does A Christmas Carol ultimately handle suffering ethically?
One of the biggest hurdles for me in saying “yes” is that the most vivid moments of people suffering are within the ghost sequences, not the “real present” of the frame, and all the suffering is very immediately solvable by personal action. In the “real present,” the gentlemen request funds to support the poor and describe “Want” as “keenly felt,” and we see Bob shivering at his small fire, but that is all (45). If Scrooge simply gave them money and wasn’t rude, then those problems would go away. If we view A Christmas Carol as tackling the problem of suffering and poverty in general, this is dissatisfying: the text would seem to be saying that if we individually just gave more money, there would be no suffering.
Within the ghost sequences, we see more moments of people suffering—like Tiny Tim dying—but even these are then alleviated or are “what ifs” that Scrooge’s actions can stave off. What if Scrooge met more people than could be supported by his personal generosity? All the suffering people he sees in the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present are ultimately made cheerful by the Ghost’s happy blessing: “the Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge . . . he left his blessing” (99). They are fixed. The two sad figures at the end of the stave might complicate this, because they are not helped, but they are not even individual humans but allegorical figures of Ignorance and Want. They do not have hopes and dreams; they do not have stories with which to grab the imagination, and so they do not complicate the narrative as much as they could. If Scrooge met more poor individuals suffering in poverty instead of allegorical figures, he would also be prompted to help them, and his own financial resources would eventually run out.
This raises the question: would running out of personal financial resources actually be problematic for Scrooge’s attempts to alleviate suffering? Perhaps not—the Spirit does not sprinkle money on the people he spreads cheer to. The problem is, though, that in the last stave Scrooge fixes the suffering around him by giving money to the boy, to the Cratchit family, to the gentlemen representing the charity, and to Bob Cratchit. So it does seem that representing larger suffering would create difficulties: what does one do with suffering that refuses financial solutions, and how would that frustrate the text’s tone?
Please understand me, dear reader: I am not trying to cry “humbug!” on the tale. But it does seem important to ask the question of how we should portray suffering and its solutions, and what the consequences are of doing so. How does one include suffering in a text that ultimately seeks to persuade us that our actions can remove suffering …when those actions actually can’t remove it completely? Tiny Tim lives in the end because Scrooge helps provide for his family. What if he had a terminal illness and could not have been saved by financial help?
Perhaps I am asking the tale to bear a weight it was not trying to—not all works involving suffering have to be theodicies or be comprehensive.
Or perhaps I am overly limiting my definition of suffering. What if I broaden my definition from physical want to emotional pain? Maybe it is also tackling the problem of dealing with our own experiences of emotional suffering.
In my summary of that last stave, I left something off of my “things money helps to fix” list, and it’s a big one: it is Scrooge’s acceptance of Fred’s hospitality. Scrooge does not fix this relationship with money—he does not even show up with a host gift. But here there is “wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!” (122). There was not suffering in Fred’s house before, but now Scrooge is included in the happiness. To me, this hints that part of the happy ending is that Scrooge is no longer suffering, and that reframes the tale not just as one of a man ignoring the physical suffering of others but also one of a man ignoring his own emotional suffering.
At the beginning of the book, Scrooge asserts, “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly” (45). This tale obviously shows how “interfering” with others is actually good. I think it is equally important to see that the text also proves false another aspect of this statement. Scrooge implies that he understands his own business. If we take “business” to mean what he means when he refers to other people’s business (their lives), then his implied claim to understand his own business is patently false. He ignores many aspects of his life…who he has been, who he is to others now, and who he might be becoming: what life is left in that construction? His healing comes when he reintegrates those selves, and he does so via grief. When the ghost takes him to his past, he “wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be” and “he said, in pity for his former self, ‘Poor boy!’ and cried again” (65-66). In the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present, he feels “penitence and grief” over his own cruel words the ghost repeats back to him (89). With the Ghost of Christmas Future, he is confronted with his own lonely death and his sadness at that way of dying. He can no longer equate money with happiness as he does at the beginning (42). He has to own his unhappy state. This explains why the lesson he repeats at the end of the tale is “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me” (117). Instead of focusing on what he will do for others, he focuses on an integration of his various selves, past, present, and future, despite the painfulness of owning who he has been and the pain of his experiences. This adds additional weight to his words “I am here” near the ending, when he realizes he is back in the true present (118). Of course, this integration then leads to helping others in the rest of that final stave.
After all this, though, I am still unsure if this emphasis on Scrooge owning his own emotional suffering makes the text more of an ethical representation of suffering or not. Could it be it terribly solipsistic to focus on Scrooge’s suffering in this way? Hopefully the way he moves from reintegration of his self to providing for others means not. Either way, though, I should hesitate before casting the first stone: I too have been guilty of limited vision. In remembering A Christmas Carol, I had forgotten the different types of suffering hidden within it. Whether this misremembering is all my own fault or is encouraged by the text—well, I leave that up to you.