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.





“Living Encounters” and the Problem of Charity

Third Blog Post:

Anderson’s “Melodrama, Morbidity, and Unthinking Sympathy”

            Amanda Anderson’s chapter takes two of Gaskell’s novels, Ruth and Mary Barton, to explore the theme of the “fallen woman” and, at least in the case of Mary Barton, it intersects with the novel’s political concerns. She begins by noting “Gaskell’s recurrent ambivalence toward the workers she wants to help” (109), which manifests itself in both the in-novel depictions of characters such as John Barton and in the author’s extra-literary attitude toward reformist movements in her day. For the latter, Anderson draws a contrast with Dickens in particular. According to Anderson, Gaskell placed her hopes in individual charity rooted in the “actual encounter between living persons” (110), linking the suspicion of systemic or “depersonalized” reform to Unitarian belief and practice. I frankly don’t know enough about Victorian era Unitarianism to comment on the accuracy of this characterization. It does raise a question germane to the themes of this course, however. Within Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox contexts, the sources for conceptualizing both hospitality and charity arguably privilege precisely these “encounters between living persons.” The Scriptures that we examined earlier in the course featured biblical persons such as Abraham receiving the three Strangers in a highly personal manner, cooking for them, making his home available to them. This also reflects the Near Eastern cultural context standing behind the text, in which individual hospitality is highly prized. One might also think of moments in the Gospels—Mary and Martha’s frequent receptions of Jesus, the anonymous homeowner who makes the “upper room” available for Jesus to eat with his disciples, the wealthy women who support Jesus’s ministry out of their means, even Joseph of Arimathea’s donation of a tomb—that exemplify this sort of individualized, “face to face” charity. Jesus was nothing if not the “worthy poor.” On the other hand, the Hebrew prophets frequently called for a broader, more systemic approach to poverty. We rarely find prophets advocating for this or that poor person. Rather, they call on kings and those in authorityto address the conditions that create poverty in the first place. It is no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting the prophet Amos.

The two streams, personal and systemic, run throughout Christian history as well. The traditional sources that we’ve examined so far have centered on the tales of saints and monks who received individual travelers (including a few who turned out to be far more than they seemed!). Charity in high and late medieval western Christianity was highly individualized as well. From about the fourteenth century on, it was strongly rooted in beliefs concerning merit and the afterlife. The explosive growth of ecclesial—and charitable—structures connected to the doctrine of purgatory has been identified by historians such as Eamon Duffy as thedefining characteristic of late medieval Christianity. “Charity” often meant endowing masses to be sung for suffering souls, who naturally were the worthiest of the poor (their very presence in purgatory rather than hell guaranteed that they were destined for salvation, eventually). Sir Thomas More authored a polemical treatise, “Supplication for Souls,” in 1529 that essentially argued that that to donate alms for departed souls was a far greater deed than relieving the hunger of bodies (early English evangelicals like John Frith and Simon Fish were arguing the opposite).  Social historians such as Carter Lindberg have also noted the increasing and occasionally violent tensions between pre-Reformation city councils (i.e. Strasbourg) and the clerical establishment precisely on this point: cities wanted to feed their hungry poor and were developing elaborate “poor relief” systems to accomplish it. The church wanted to succor souls (and, well, endow large clerical foundations). Which project would claim the territory’s limited resources?

This historic detour is my attempt to show that the tension that Gaskell experienced in the nineteenth century between “personal” and “systemic” approaches to poverty was not at all newin Christian thought. Indeed, the text of Mary Barton arguably serves as a forum in which this tension is negotiated. Anderson dwells at length on the ambivalent character of Esther. In traditional terms, she is “fallen,” the undeserving poor. Nonetheless, Gaskell has the virtuous Jem regret his paltry efforts at aiding her. Anderson attributes this to the nature of Esther’s character; her presence in the novel represents “the kinds of sympathetic encounters and acts of mutual cooperation that [Gaskell] believes can heal a class-divided social world” (119). On the other hand, the “melodramatic” tropes scripting Esther’s story essentially doom her; no amount of sympathy or individual action can ultimately recall her from her fallenness. She hovers as a sort of specter over the text, complicating the notion that personal encounters are sufficient for reform. Her burial side-by-side with John Barton—the novel’s spokesperson for systemtic and political action—becomes emblematic for the unresolved tension between the two approaches. Gaskell seems neither comfortable with fully endorsing Barton’s Chartist vision nor does she allow Esther to be “saved” (at least in a this-worldly sense). The novel’s conclusion may thus leave the reader questioning just what can be donefor the industrialized poor the author depicts. Anderson points to the “reconciliation” of Mr. Carson and Barton as embodying the problem. Carson recognizes to some extent his sins, and yet there is little suggestion that the fundamental system over which he presides will change. Meanwhile, Barton is still corpse (120).

Ultimately, I don’t believe that Gaskell “answers” the question of charity. Her novel wonderfully narrates its complexities, however. I should also add that I don’t think that “personal” and “corporate” charity must be in competition; a Christian ethic may and should embrace both. But it’s also helpful to recognize that the church has historically struggled with just how to conceptualize that balance. For example, the rise of “liberation” thought in Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century and the initially quite negative reactions from some in the hierarchy (including a young Joseph Ratzinger) suggest that the tension remains with us. In our discussion of Mary Barton’s conclusion, I will be eager to explore how the novel presents these questions to us and how the text might serve as a resource for reflection.  It will also be worth asking how “charity” relates to hospitality—they are distinct concepts, and yet I doubt whether they can be wholly disentangled either.