The Mechanics of Scrooge’s Repentance

Matthew Turnbull


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?



The Source of John Barton’s Rancor

Matthew Turnbull

Blog Post Three

ENG/REL 5362

22 October 2018

The Source of John Barton’s Rancor

In the penultimate chapter of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a grieving father and master of one of Manchester’s mills, Mr. Carson, asks Jem Wilson and Job Legh what becomes a leading question: do “you think [John Barton] acted from motives of revenge, in consequence of the part my son had taken in putting down the strike?” (470).  In the remaining pages of the chapter, Job strives to answer that question and, in effect, expresses a sort of manifesto regarding both causes and solutions to the soci0-economic inequity prevalent in English manufacturing towns in the mid-nineteenth century. Encountering this portion of the narrative, the reader begins to wonder if the novel’s fictional conceit has evaporated. It feels as if, when Job Legh humbly exposits his theories about the relationship between the working and middle classes to a prosperous business owner, the rhetorical mode sheds most of its novelistic traits and mutates into a hortatory address in which Elizabeth Gaskell begins direct, extended instruction to the reader. By so doing, is Gaskell observing a perfunctory rite required of authors of industrial fiction?  Or does the novel end this way in service of Gaskell’s own private aim? Given the blatant shift in narratorial quality, it is necessary to ask if this maneuver furthers her central rhetorical goals for Mary Barton, or possibly undermines them.

Such questions prompt reflection on the global structure of the whole work. But specific portions of Job Legh’s manifesto also raise questions. For example, Job theorizes that John Barton’s rancor proceeded primarily from spiritual disillusionment: “he were sadly put about to make great riches and great poverty square with Christ’s gospel” (470).  He could not reconcile his sense of justice with “the great and mocking contrasts presented by the varieties of human condition” (470). What part of the gospel of Christ does Job—or the narrator—have in mind here? Is it the obvious element of Christ’s teaching that human beings should love their neighbors as themselves? Surely a manufacturing master who sought to obey that command would find a way to express love to his workers tangibly, particularly if a neighbor—like John Barton—was suffering loss and privation. Monsieur Madeline, the owner of a bead factory in Hugo’s Les Miserables, managed to show substantial love and concern for his destitute, embittered employee, Fantine.  What good is it, asks the Apostle James, if a brother or sister needs clothing and food and “you do not give them what is necessary for their body? What use is that?” (James 2:15). Or, does Job have in mind the teachings of Christ on the mountain when He assumes that His followers will “give to the poor” (Matthew 6:2)?  Any of these elements of the gospel, and many others, would seem to lend force to Job’s concerns.

Of course, it appears that the unstated assumption behind Job’s idea (and John Barton’s trouble) is that the possession of “great riches” and the suffering of “great poverty” indicates that the gospel of Christ is being disregarded—especially by the masters. It is implied that if masters and men were obeying the gospel, human beings would not experience great riches or great poverty, and the “great and mocking contrasts presented by the varieties of human condition” would disappear. This unstated presupposition raises two further important questions.

First, is it true that gospel-obedience will eliminate great wealth and great poverty? Possibly. What Paul reports in 2 Corinthians 8 may shed light on this question. He writes to the Corinthian Christians that the churches in Macedonia were under “a great ordeal of affliction” and suffered “deep poverty.” Nevertheless, remarkably, because of their “abundance of joy” they gave, “in the wealth of their liberality” and “beyond their ability,” to the suffering Christians in Jerusalem (2-3). Why were the Macedonian Christians so joyful and liberal even though they were so poor? Paul states that it flows directly from the gospel.  Their gracious liberality proceeds from their knowledge of “the grace of [the] Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for [their] sake[s] He became poor, so that [they] through His poverty might become rich” (9). The Macedonians were generous and thoughtful because of the gospel and (it seems safe to assume) those who were suffering were helped and encouraged by their generosity. According to Job, it would seem the disparity between what John Barton experienced, and what he knew the gospel required, was the major source of his bitterness.

But is Job’s interpretation accurate? Does this representation of John Barton’s animosity square with the depiction of his character and his words in the text of Mary Barton? It may be possible that Job over-spiritualizes Barton’s motivations. When he and Wilson are discussing the wretched conditions in which the Davenports are living and dying, the narrator tells the reader that the thoughts of Barton’s heart “were touched by sin” and by “bitter hatred of the happy” (101). Speaking of the masters, Barton asks Wilson, “how come they’re rich and we’re poor?” (104).  He complains that “they’n screwed us down to the th’ lowest peg, in order to make their great big fortunes, and build their great big houses, and we, why we’re just clemming, many and many of us” (104).  As the author presents it in chapter VI, the disparity between the filth and deprivation of the Davenport residence and the opulence and luxury of the Carson home is deeply troubling to the reader. But are Barton’s words more reflective of a philosophical, spiritual difficulty or a sense of spite and jealousy brought on by endless want and suffering?


Was it spiritual disillusionment that needled John Barton and stoked his resentment toward the Carsons? Did he really struggle with their apparent disobedience to the gospel? Or was John Barton angry with God for allowing an endless chain of sorrow and grief to infuse his experience? In response to the death of his wife, the death of his son, the death of his friend, and the death of his hopes for economic and political change, did he provoke his fellow chartists to desperate resolutions and willingly act as their deadly messenger? Was his murder of Harry Carson mostly an act of frantic political strategy, or more an expression of personal rancor towards God aimed at a human target?


Mary Shelley and the Purpose of Power

Matthew Turnbull

Blog Post Two

ENG/REL 5362

1 October 2018

Mary Shelley and the Purpose of Power

In Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, the character of Raymond emerges as a man of power.  Yet, the way he (and the narrator) define power, the way he is vexed by the conflict between external versus internal power, and the way he uses his power, all present difficulties and questions.

First, Raymond seems to seek the kind of power defined as political leadership and acclaim. Like Achilles, he seems willing to sacrifice nearly everything for the classically Greek values of kleos and time. As Raymond is introduced into the story, the narrator describes his motive: “power therefore was the aim of all his endeavors; aggrandizement the mark at which he for ever shot;” whatever his action, his “end was the same—to attain the first station in his own country” (40).  Early on, possession of power, itself, seems to be his goal.

After early military success in the Greek wars, he returns to England to strive for the highest office in the country. Paradoxically, even when he successfully acquired the political power he desired, when his goals are fully realized, he is not at rest. He holds the absolute admiration of the English. He is adored by his wife, Perdita, with whom he shares the most satisfying intimacy.  Raymond possesses every traditional conception of power: social, political, and military. Yet, at this zenith of honor and glory and earthly happiness, he sacrifices it all. Why?

The ostensible cause seems to be his attraction to Evadne. What is it about Evadne that merits the potential sacrifice of all he possesses?  Was it simply that he was “struck by the fortitude and beauty of the ill-fated Greek” (121)? Was it the inevitable result of the expressions of Evadne’s “constant tenderness” toward him? Is Mary Shelley making the simple point that people in power are vulnerable to misusing the privileges of their office to engender and to cover up a liaison? Or is she implying that earthly happiness and personal-fulfillment approaches to power are unsustainable and necessarily ephemeral?  These explanations are plausible, but also possibly too superficial.

According to the narrative, there seems to be a deeper cause of Raymond’s demise. This cause has to do with the idea of external versus internal power. Though he “appear[s] to have strength, power, victory,” as he tells Verney, in reality he knows he is “a reed” (64). While he rules the world around him, he recognizes that his own “over-ruling heart” is the “rebel” and “stumbling block” to which he is enslaved (64).  What does this declaration imply regarding earthly forms and motives of power?  What is Shelley teaching the reader when the heroic character is simultaneously politically powerful and a slave to his own passion?  Isn’t this an ironic contradiction in a single soul?  Is this a further judgment made by the author that Raymond-like motives to power are evanescent and corrupt?

That Raymond is enslaved to certain passions seems apparent from his response to the discovery of his relationship with Evadne. In haughty pride he refuses to be “watched, cross-questioned, and disbelieved” by Perdita. Rather, he tells his wife that they should separate because his “honor is not yet so tarnished” as to tolerate her suspicions (124). Thus, he would rather sacrifice his marriage and the warm of their fellowship than humble himself. This seems like a man enchained to pride. Moreover, when his liaison with Evadne is made known he descends into a series of licentious indulgences.  As the narrator describes it, “love of pleasure . . . made a prominent part of his character, conquering the conqueror, . . . making him forget the toil of weeks for the sake of one moment’s indulgence of the new and actual object of his wishes” (148). Thus, pleasure and immediate satisfaction seem to govern Raymond, as opposed to Raymond governing his pleasures. In other words, there is an internal flaw apparent in Raymond’s character that makes his relationship to power problematic.  Are we to take Raymond as Mary Shelley’s creation of a doubly-Byronic hero?

Considering his relationship with Evadne, his conquering of her affections was, ironically then, her conquering of his. While Lord Protector of the nation and former military hero, by following his desire for her, Raymond manifests outwardly his own inner powerlessness.  Indeed, he confesses this much to Adrian: “I cannot rule myself. My passions are my masters.” (152).  What does Shelley mean by creating a character blatantly great according to every customary index of earthly greatness, who is yet a “slave” “conquered” and “mastered” by his tyrannical impulses? What are we intended to think about Raymond?

Whatever it is, the narrative seems to pronounce judgment on his character through his inglorious end. Before his death, he is fraught with anxiety. He calls himself “the sport of fortune” (194). His final, solitary “invasion” of unguarded Constantinople, “galloping up the broad and desart street” to die, alone, as the victim of a landmine appears tragic and ludicrous. Surely this is not the death an author gives to a character they wish to glorify.

Perhaps the most significant questions arise when Adrian’s conception and use of power is contrasted with Raymond’s.  What does it mean for our understanding of Shelley’s treatment of power when Adrian is, throughout the novel, in a classic sense, weak and sickly? What does it mean when, in moral and even political terms, he exercises more influence than Raymond? What does it mean that Adrian, not Raymond, ably leads the desperate people of England and surrounding countries through the worst of hardships, through the deepest test of national and international character: the decimation of the Plague? What does it mean that Adrian, not Raymond, is one of the final three survivors of the human race?  Is Mary Shelley giving us a vision of power properly conceived and properly used when she has Adrian pronounce his aims as Lord Protector in his conversation with Verney?

“I can bring patience, and sympathy, and such aid as art affords, to the bed of disease; I can raise from the earth the miserable orphan, and awaken to new hopes the shut heart of the mourner . . . courage, forbearance, and watchfulness, are the forces I bring towards this great work. . . . To England and to Englishmen I dedicate myself. . . . if I can ward disease from one of her smiling cottages, I shall have not lived in vain” (247).

When, after his death in the Adriatic, Verney reflects on Adrian’s power and influence over his countrymen and his friends, he recognized it was from Adrian he learned that “goodness, pure and single, can be an attribute of man” (451).  At the very least, this is a radically different vision of power and its purpose than the one Raymond pursued.





What Did Abraham Know?

What Did Abraham Know?

Matthew Turnbull

As Erich Auerbach noted in Mimesis, the biblical accounts often seem to us as mere adumbrations of their respective narratives (11).  The visit by the LORD to Abraham in Genesis 18 is, accordingly, an acutely spare account of an incident which is rendered in light of values not always obvious to the reader and (in our case as 21st century American readers) not always in harmony with our narrative norms and preferences. Whenever I read this account I want more information. The narrative generates as much darkness as light. Especially in view of the present thematic focus on hospitality, I finish the text with as many questions as insights. The most pressing one for me is this: Did Abraham think that one or all of the men were the LORD? If so, at what point did he comprehend that he was entertaining God? On the way to addressing these questions, it seems wise to consider how this passage is to be properly read.

Immediately, the first two verses of Genesis 18 present an interpretive problem for the reader. In verse one, the text says that “The LORD appeared to Abraham.” In verse two, it says that Abraham “looked up and saw three men standing near him.” The Hebrew word for “LORD” here is Jehovah or YAHWEH, the proper name for the God of the Israelites. In the second sentence, the phrase used to describe the subject of Abraham’s visitation is “three men.” There is an immediate tension created by this juxtaposition. How are we supposed to compare these two verses? Are the three men to be understood as the LORD?

On the initial reading of this chapter, it would seem that the LORD’s appearance to Abraham is in the form of three human visitors. While our readings on the Rublev icon—and the iconographic iterations of the visit to Abraham which historically precede Rublev’s rendition—clearly trace the logic of a Trinitarian, retrospective interpretation of this kind of epiphany (Bunge 46, 52, 89), it seems reasonable to wonder how an Old Testament believer in YAHWEH would have heard or read this. How would an Israelite recently emerged from the bondage of Egypt, camped at the foot of Sinai, hear and understand Moses’ account of this visit? In biblical context, by this point in Israel’s history, the notion of God as Trinity might only be discerned in the faintest sense, and possibly only by those who are viewing the text from the vantage of later revelation. In fact, this passage (if we are to interpret it so) is itself one of the earliest biblical foreshadowings of the Trinitarian idea. Thus, it is probable that an Israelite camped at Sinai would experience even more tension between verses one and two than I do. How should this tension be understood, much less addressed?

Perhaps the ostensible conflict between the idea of YAHWEH appearing to Abraham, and three men appearing to Abraham, can be resolved by framing the first verse as a heading for the narrative that follows. Is the opening sentence actually not the commencement of the story, but rather the way the author prepares his readers for the entire chapter (granting that the chapter breaks, of course, are not in the original text)? Under this view, there would seem to be a diminished dissonance between verse one and two. The first sentence announces the topic of the whole encounter. The second sentence is the actual starting place of the narrative and does not, at least initially, have to be read as the specific way that the Lord appeared to Abraham. The three men, then, are not necessarily epiphanic. Does this interpretation really work?

If we read the whole chapter under this notion, we are allowed to see the three men as simply men. Thus, the men Abraham sees when “he looked up” were three human beings. When Abraham says “My lord . . . do not pass by your servant” and offers to wash their feet and feed them, he is offering hospitality to three human strangers, not the LORD. When the men agree—“Do as you have said” (v. 5)—Abraham urges Sarah to hastily make cakes as he runs off to slaughter a calf and prepare the curds and milk. At the end of this first phase of the visit, the text says that the men ate the food Abraham had prepared (v. 8). So far, this interpretation adequately accounts for the details of the text. The interchange between Abraham and the men, the behavior of the men, seems quite natural.

But then, in verse 10, the text reads: “Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son.’” The focus in the text constricts from the initial three, to the “one.” After Sarah laughs at the practical difficulties associated with the fulfillment of this prophecy, the text grows even more specific: “The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh . . . Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?’” Now we see that the “one” who spoke the prophecy of Sarah’s future childbearing is, apparently, named in the text as the LORD Himself. Immediately, it becomes obvious that the attempt to ameliorate the interpretive tension by separating verse one from the following verses fails.

Furthermore, the tension is reestablished at the commencement of the next phase of the visit. The LORD announces a second and third foretelling. He declares that “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation” (v. 18), and then He declares that He is going to judge Sodom (vv. 20-21).  Given the significance of word choices in the account, does it seem reasonable to suppose that the three men are, corporately, the “appearance of the LORD” to Abraham? And, further, it would seem logical to assume that “one” of those men is labeled in the text as “the LORD.”

If we conclude this, there are still unresolved interpretive questions. If one of the men is actually “the LORD,” are we to assume that, since the Son will, in the future, become incarnate, “the LORD” here is a preincarnate manifestation of Christ? Moreover, what is the ontological status of the other two men? Are they, as the Rublev icon treats them, to be considered representative of the other members of the Trinity? Or are they just men? Or are they angels accompanying the LORD? I am inclined, based on other biblical passages to think they are angels. In Genesis 19, the two men are explicitly called “the two angels” (v. 1). And in Hebrews 13:2—in a clear allusion to Genesis 18—disciples of Jesus are called to show hospitality to strangers knowing that some (referring most famously to Abraham) have entertained angels without knowing it.

To return to the opening questions: did Abraham not know that he was entertaining angels? At what point did he realize that his three visitors were two angels and the LORD? It seems very apparent that he did know it at some point in the course of the visit, but we are left to speculate where that juncture occurs.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Bunge, Gabriel. The Rublev Trinity: The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-Painter Andrei Rublev. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007.