12 November 2018
In the opening scene, Dickens introduces the protagonist of A Christmas Carol as a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner;” Ebenezer Scrooge is as “hard and sharp as flint” and “as solitary as an oyster” (40). Nevertheless, 24 hours later (which magically comprise three nights) he is transformed into “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” (123). Scrooge suffers a moral revolution, and this revolution forms the substance of the action of the plot. Notwithstanding, it seems hard to account for the rapidity and thoroughness of his not necessarily religious conversion. How could such a radical change occur in such a hard heart? To explain this transformation, it seems worthwhile to ask what mechanisms Dickens embeds in the course of the narrative to account for Scrooge’s reversal.
The first measurable moral movement occurs when Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge. While he struggles to dismiss the appearance of Marley’s face on his door knocker and in the tiles surrounding the fireplace with a “humbug!”, when the ghost later materializes to his view, Scrooge’s struggle intensifies: “though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him . . . he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses” (51). Even after the ghost is seated and they briefly converse about the veridicality of Scrooge’s perceptions, he resists the obvious by claiming that such appearances can be accounted for by “a slight disorder of the stomach” such as “a blot of mustard” or “a fragment of underdone potato” (52). Despite all empirical testimony to the contrary, Scrooge maintains his skepticism with another “humbug.” This word elicits a “frightful cry” from Marley’s ghost, as he shakes the chains and removes his bandage allowing his jaw to fall (54). In response, Scrooge falls to the ground, cries for mercy, and confesses to Marley’s spirit that he believes in him. What provoked this initial reversal of position? Apparently, it is fear. Scrooge is terrified; and his fear makes him willing to forsake the materialist philosophy he had hitherto held. Is it true that a fear-inducing experience will cause moral change in a person? Is it realistic to assert that skeptical materialists who are frightened by a supernatural occurrence abandon their metaphysical stance and accept the reality of the spiritual realm? Or is this believable only in the world of this story? For Scrooge (and Dickens), sharp fear seems to be the proper preface to deep moral transformation.
A second instance of change in Scrooge occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Past makes his visit. He leads Ebenezer on a journey into the places and times of his childhood and youth. At the double vision of his own, young self, reading all alone in the decrepit schoolhouse, and of Ali Baba, Valentine and Robinson Crusoe parading past the nearby window (a picture of the scenes in his youthful mind as he reads), Scrooge weeps. After expressing pity for his former, lonely self, he remarks that he laments not giving something to the young caroler who had visited his office earlier that night. Taken in context, these are significant manifestations of change in the “old sinner.” Weeping is not his habit. Regret over a missed opportunity to show kindness is not his way. Thus, the soul of Scrooge moves further away from his former hardness. Curiously, this movement is provoked not by terror or a morbid spectral visitation, but by revisiting the past and seeing himself as a forlorn child. Why would this vision have such power to move? Does revisiting long-forgotten places soften a hard heart? Does a feeling of sympathy for one’s past suffering engender sympathy for others who likewise suffer in the present? Or, is repentance birthed out of nostalgia? Is it the fruit of sentimental recollection? What is Dickens implying?
Next, the Ghost of Christmas Present displays several scenes to Scrooge. First, he shows him the friendly aspect of the city on Christmas morning where people shoveling snow are “jovial and full of glee,” while poulterers, fruiterers, and Grocers generously invite shoppers to partake of abundance before the churches call them all to worship—after which the whole town shines with “good humour” (82, 84). Second, the Ghost grants him a long and detailed view of Bob Cratchit’s family, poor people rejoicing in what they have and treasuring one another as the best gifts of the season. But as this scene closes, Scrooge grows concerned and asks what will become of Tiny Tim. When the Ghost tells him that Tim will die and reminds Scrooge of his own remark about reducing the surplus population, Ebenezer “was overcome with penitence and grief” (89). What is it about Tiny Tim, or Bob Cratchit’s humble family that pierced and cracked the casing on Scrooge’s compassion? Is it the obvious implication that poor people might find joy from something other and more than wealth? Does Scrooge realize his own poverty through these visions? Or is it, again, the sight of a young boy’s future suffering (and his family’s) that compels him to sorrow and “penitence”?
Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come resembles Marley more than the other two Christmas Ghosts. Seeing it, Scrooge “feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled” (102). Now, as though completing a circle, Scrooge is terrified once more. But this time he seems ready and willing to believe what the Ghost teaches: “I know your purpose is to do me good, and . . . I hope to live to be another man from what I was” (103). These are not the words of a grasping, narcissistic materialist, but a man already changed and wanting to change more. After the frightful visions of businessmen coldly speaking of his own death, of scavengers rejoicing in the spoil of his earthly possessions, of the Cratchit family grieving at the loss of Tiny Tim, and of his own headstone, Ebenezer cries out to the Ghost: “I am not the man I was” and thus declares his repentance complete. By what means was it completed? By a vision of his own mortality? By a conviction that he cared for another person—Tim and Tim’s family—more than he knew? By a final, fearful, transforming encounter with the supernatural? As we watch the progression of Ebenezer Scrooge from a man who warned “all human sympathy to keep its distance” to a man who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge” (41, 125), what should we think Dickens asserts about the mechanics of repentance?