Be a man, Scrooge.

We are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge in the early pages of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on a particularly cold day, made all the colder by the man himself. Scrooge’s internal chill is a defining feature of Dicken’s description:

The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas. (40)

This description dramatically illustrates Scrooge’s lack of human warmth and is emphasized repeatedly by the hearths in his rooms, lit poorly—or rather, miserly—wherever he goes. Scrooge is a cold man, within and without.

Shortly after this litany of chills, we meet Scrooge’s nephew, who had “so heated himself…that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again” (41). This nephew is able to turn even the chill of a late December morning into an opportunity for warmth. He is a good man, appearing on the scene with a cheerful “merry Christmas” and “God save you” for the uncle who gives him no greeting or blessing in return. And from the consistency of Dickens’ descriptions, we would know him to be a good man from his self-creating warmth alone. Cold defines the miser, after all, not the generous.

There seems to be something to this description that goes beyond obvious associations with cold-heartedness and warm-heartedness, however. After all, Scrooge is actually cold. His resistance to warm fires in his office suggests that he pursues cold. He even “had a cold in his head” (49). And one of the clearest signs of his transformation at the end of the story is that he tells Bob Cratchit to “Make up the fires, and buy another coal-shuttle before you dot another i” (123).

I suspect Scrooge’s physical coldness says something about his refusal to recognize himself as an embodied participant in the life of the world around him, and that his transformation from a cold miser to a warm man occurs through an encounter with disembodiment—the shifting forms of the spirits—and embodiment—his own dead body.

The early descriptions of Scrooge might as well be of a dead man, or worse, a spirit. He goes unacknowledged in the streets, except to be feared (40). Even his own sense of self is disembodied, as he refuses to trust his senses when Marley’s ghost comes to him in sight and sound. When Marley asks, “Why do you doubt your senses?” his response is that “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats” (52). Here is a man who would do away with the limitations of his flesh if he could.

Small surprise, then, that the only way for him to see the world—and himself—with any clarity is through the guidance of tenuously embodied spirits. Marley’s body is transparent. The first ghost’s figure is particularly changeable:

The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. (62)

The second ghost seems physically substantial, perhaps the most richly embodied and particular character in the story up to this point with his bare chest and feet, dark brown curls, and rusty, empty scabbard. But his embodiment is also unstable: “notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease” (85), and by the end of his tour with Scrooge, in the space of a single night, he grows old (99). The last of the spirits is so insubstantial we can’t even see his face under the shroud. Besides these disembodied spirits, Scrooge himself becomes as disembodied as he would have liked it to be in his actual life, unseen by the figures in his visions, the “shadows” of things that were, are, and could be. It is beside the last spirit, that formless figure, that Scrooge is faced with his own dead body.

Scrooge’s first introduction to his death is actually quite disembodied to begin with. He hears about it from his business acquaintances, and then watches his charwoman, laundress, and undertaker’s man hock his belongings—some stolen right off of his dead body. Their conversation about his body is telling, as they make a direct association between his miserly character and the absence of anyone attending to him in his dying and death. If he’d been “natural in his lifetime,” then there would have been “somebody to look after him” (107). As a result, his body is pillaged and abandoned. Scrooge cannot even bear to look on his own face under the sheet. Having his death confirmed is as horrifying as the possibility of staring at the truth of himself. After all, what the spirit is essentially showing him is that the dead face of Scrooge is the real face of Scrooge.

Of course, Dickens prepares Scrooge for this epiphany through the previous spirits. The second spirit in particular clarifies for both Scrooge and the reader just what’s at stake, even in his first line: “Come in! and know me better, man!” Three times in this spirit’s encounter with Scrooge, he refers to the miser by the simple address of “man.” To begin with, it sounds merely stylistic. But the second use shows it to be intentional: “‘Man,’ said the Ghost, ‘if man you be in heart, not adamant’” (89). What is ultimately at stake here isn’t Scrooge’s life or death, but his humanity.

What will it take for Scrooge to be a man? The spirit’s last commandment clarifies this: “Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” (99, italics mine). Simultaneously, the ghost speaks to Scrooge as representative humanity and as a particular man, commanding him to look. No wonder, then, that the defining feature of the newly transformed Scrooge in the final pages of the story is that he does just that—he looks at his bedcurtains, out the window, at every passerby along the road. He has become, like his nephew, a good man. Scrooge’s transformation suggests that to be a good human being is to be aware of yourself as an embodied participant humanity, to look at those around you—and to look at yourself.

The Incursion of Allegory in A Christmas Carol

The children produced from under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present are strange additions to Dickens’ tale, and not just because of their disturbing appearances. Up to that point in the narrative, all characters have been characters proper, and not symbolic stand-ins for abstract ideals. Even the ghosts enjoy a level of development and distinction from one another that is typical of complex human characters, and not mere representatives of the immaterial.

Dickens, with his usual adjectival-liberality, describes the children as “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” creatures (99). We learn that they are “a boy and a girl”, and that each has a name; “The boy is Ignorance,” explains the Ghost of Christmas Present, and “The girl is Want” (Dickens 99-101). They have only names—no backstory, no hopes and dreams, not even the courtesy of an exuent on the part of Dickens.

Why does Dickens interrupt the semi-realism (magical realism? Spiritual realism?) of A Christmas Carol with such a brief allegorical episode? And, to compound the oddity of the allegory’s inclusion, the details of the encounter are bizarre: why represent such evils as Ignorance and Want as the very things that ought to be taken in and cherished most—namely, children? I will consider the second question first, as understanding the meaning of the allegory will help us to understand Dickens’ motivation for the inclusion of the device in the first place.

Certainly, if I were writing A Christmas Carol, and allegory suggested itself to me at the end of Stave Three, I would represent Ignorance and Want as something inherently repulsive, and something that people would be right to repel—rats, maybe, or cockroaches. But Dickens chooses children. He describes them as very ugly children, to be fair—they are “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, [and] wolfish” (Dickens 99). He writes that, “where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacingly” (Dickens 101). Dickens has to work hard to make them repulsive, because they are members of the most vulnerable and lovable subsection of humanity.

The Ghost of Christmas Present verbalizes and encourages the revulsion Scrooge feels toward them. He says of Ignorance and Want, “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom” (Dickens 101). He goes on to warn Scrooge, “Deny it!” (Dickens 101). It isn’t entirely clear what the referent of that “it” is—Doom? Ignorance alone? Both of the children? In any case, there are clear, inhospitable overtones to the Ghost’s instructions. Scrooge is to turn away the evils that the two children represent.

But the command that Scrooge turn away destitute children, even symbolically, is of course antithetical to the message of the story as a whole. Scrooge has already made a practice of neglecting poor children, and the ghostly intervention is certainly not meant to affirm him in his inhospitality. Similarly, it would be absurd to suggest that Dickens intends the reader to take away such an inhumane message.

How, then, do we reconcile the book’s obvious call for charity towards children, and its allegorical association of children with that which ought to be driven away?

This episode draws directly on Scrooge’s past treatment of children, rather than the proper treatment of children—even ones as repulsive and terrifying as these two. In response to Scrooge’s plea, “Have they no refuge or resource?” the Ghost of Christmas Present responds with Scrooge’s earlier dismissal, “Are there no prisons?…Are there no workhouses?” (Dickens 101). I would submit, then, that the Ghost’s purpose in presenting the evils of Ignorance and Want as children, amounts to a dark and convicting taunt to Scrooge: Drive away Ignorance with the ferocity with which you drove away the caroler yesterday. Let Want suffer in the same way you have let the Cratchit children suffer. Surely you are capable of denying Doom entrance to your society—you have been denying the poorest among you for years.

If the Ghost’s rhetorical purpose for the introduction of the children to Scrooge is primarily one of conviction, let us return to our original question of Dickens’ rhetorical purpose for the use of allegory. Beyond the fact that this episode is among the most disturbing and memorable in the novel, the device of allegory, used sparingly and tastefully, offers a utility to the author that his ordinary narrative mode does not. It allows him to directly and unmistakably admonish the reader to beware ignorance and want, while simultaneously forwarding Scrooge’s drastic character arc in a compelling and believable way. I say “believable”, not because of the likelihood of encountering such grotesque children in real life, but because of the likelihood that Scrooge, having so mistreated the poor in the past, will be hastened by their appearance in the direction of his ultimate redemption.

The Epistemology of Hospitality in A Christmas Carol

          “Bah! Humbug” has come to be one of the most recognizable and frequently uttered literary allusions, especially around the Christmas season, expressing an often ironical disillusionment with the holiday foofaraw. It is originally, of course, the catch-phrase of the inimitable Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is employed by that gentleman in Dickens’s classic tale most famously to deny the worth of Christmas and his nephew’s Christmas blessing. It is also used later on, however, when Scrooge denies the appearance of Jacob Marley in Jacob’s erstwhile doorknocker. Having double-locked himself into his chamber after this alarming encounter, Scrooge reflects upon the experience with the singular exclamation: “Humbug!” He denies the reality, even the possibility, of what he has witnessed, and this recalcitrance to believe in the reality of his strange spectral visitors persists in Scrooge for a strikingly long time. Indeed, a key part of Scrooge’s dramatic personal transformation could be described as epistemological. He incrementally learns new ways to know and to believe through his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas, gradually accepting the reality of what he at first denied. In such a tightly woven tale as Dickens’s, this element of Scrooge’s change is unlikely to be disconnected from his broader transformation, and so we might wonder how Scrooge’s evolving epistemological position on spooks and spirits facilitates his newfound commitment to loving and caring for others?

We can begin seeking an answer to this question by considering more closely how Scrooge’s ability or willingness to believe in the supernatural alters throughout the story. Scrooge’s initial resistance to believing in the real existence of the spirits is shown clearly in his engagement with Marley’s specter. When Marley’s ghost enters the room and comes into Scrooge’s view, Dickens writes, “the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him! Marley’s ghost!’ and fell again” (51). Contrary to the fire’s epistemological certainty, Scrooge has just before this once again declared humbug of all the ghostly sounds approaching him and even after witnessing and speaking with the ghost, Scrooge is unconvinced. Marley states: “You don’t believe in me” (52), and Scrooge affirms this fact, explaining his disavowal of his own senses’ report by asserting “a little thing affects them…There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” (52). Scrooge recognizes that he is seeing something, but he calls into question what that something is. Strikingly, he denies the strangeness of the ghost by reducing it not only from the supernatural to the natural but from the natural particularly to the psychological. Scrooge attempts to render the ghost as nothing but an extension of himself. He attempts in this encounter to obliterate the other altogether.

This denial becomes increasingly difficult for Scrooge to maintain and quite quickly becomes impossible altogether. Indeed, while waiting for the arrival of the first spirit, Scrooge attempts to convince himself that the ordeal with Marley was mere nonsense, but he is unable to do so fully, such that when the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives Scrooge seems to more or less accept its reality. The supernatural being of the ghost is quickly made apparent through its time-travelling tendencies, and Scrooge’s resistance shifts to an attempt to deny the truth that the ghost reveals rather than an attempt to deny the ghost itself.

Even before the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge then has come to recognize the reality of an other and not just any other but a supernatural spirit. Ebenezer has jumped right into the deep end of the otherness pool, moving from an unwillingness to acknowledge being beyond himself to affirming the stark reality of a strangeness transcending the traditional bounds of reality itself.

Scrooge’s epistemological journey is not complete yet, however, as revealed in the invitation proffered by the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Come in! and know me better, man!” (80). Here, the ghost demonstrates to Scrooge the hospitality that he has persisted throughout most of his life in refusing to practice. Although the Spirit is in fact visiting Scrooge’s apartments, he invites Scrooge into Scrooge’s own rooms and into fuller knowledge of himself. With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge only needed to recognize the ghost’s existence. The knowledge that ghost imparted to Scrooge was knowledge of Scrooge himself. But the Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge to go a step further, beckoning him to not merely recognize the existence of the stranger but to actively seek knowledge of the stranger. For this reason, the second ghost leads Scrooge not to scenes of his own life but rather to scenes of others’ lives. Indeed, “Stave Three” emphasizes the wide variety of households that Scrooge visits with the spirit, beginning with others with whom Scrooge is at least acquainted such as his nephew and Bob Cratchit but proceeding to others of whom Scrooge has no knowledge at all, even sweeping beyond Britain and across the sea. Thus, coming to know Christmas is parallel, if not synonymous, with coming to understand others and otherness.

All of this begins to suggest how Scrooge’s burgeoning ability to believe in the ghosts is essential to his transformation into a loving and generous man. The spirits are, in a sense, the ultimate strangers, and they invite themselves into Scrooge’s house. They enter his home as if they are guests, although in fact they have come for Scrooge’s benefit and are truly the ones offering him an invitation, thus exemplifying the mutual exchange of love and hospitality which Scrooge has for so long denied himself. By the time, Scrooge encounters the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come he is ready to greet that ghost with gratitude, even in spite of the fact that that ghost is the strangest and most frightening specter by far! Scrooge has learned to accept the reality of the other and actively seek understanding of that other.

To confirm our suspicion that Scrooge’s decision to practice charity and hospitality was predicated on his epistemological alteration, we can look back to an early incident in the first stave. When Scrooge has uttered his notoriously Malthusian recommendation that the death of the destitute might decrease the surplus population, he then remarks, “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that” (45). It might at first seem as if Scrooge is denying his pseudo-eugenicist remark, but the gentleman collecting charity retorts: “But you might know it” (45). It seems that Scrooge is denying knowledge of the kinds of suffering and ways of thinking about suffering his interlocutor had described. In response, Scrooge insists that such efforts of knowing are not his concern. His business is with himself and himself alone. This is what Scrooge must grow past. Before he can overcome his selfishness and his greed, he must learn to see others as others and accept that his knowledge of himself and his own experience cannot explain them.

Indeed, we might even read Scrooge’s education in Christmas love as a partial repudiation of the doctrine of sympathy. Scrooge at first tries to reduce the ghostly other to a projection of his own digestion-muddled mind, and similarly he refuses to extend charity because his own self-knowledge does not enable him to know the reality of the sufferings the charitable gentleman describes. Scrooge grows in the tale not so much by recognizing the sameness of himself and others as by embracing others in their otherness. He could hardly have come to accept the Ghosts of Christmas by virtue of the humanity he shares with them, since they are not, in fact, human. Rather, they are just about as strange as a stranger can come and it is in learning to see and seek them as such that Scrooge becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” (123).