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.