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).


Who are you, Miss Smith?

In the opening chapters of Cranford, I found it curious that it was difficult to place the role of the narrator. She seemed to have a feminine voice, and then slowly she revealed that she wasn’t an omniscient eye in the sky, but rather a participant in the narrative.

In chapter one, the first paragraphs suggest an omniscient narrator. She speaks in the first person, but makes generalized observations about Cranford and its inhabitants—everything from their dress, to their manners, to their quarrels. Such an opening seems to suggest that the focus of the novel will be on the lives of these women (which indeed it is).

However, then the narrator begins to align herself with the people she describes, saying “we none of us spoke of money” (emphasis mine 7). She includes herself with the Cranford women and their idiosyncrasies: “If we wore prints, instead of summer silks, it was because we preferred a washing material…we were, all of us, people of very moderate means” (emphasis mine 8). The repetition in these lines even draws particular attention to the narrator’s inclusion. She is part of this “we.”

As the narrative begins to pick up with descriptions of Captain Brown and his daughters, the narrator makes it clear that she is very much a part of the story, saying, “I was surprised to hear his opinions quoted as authority, at a visit which I paid to Cranford…My own friends had been among the bitterest opponents of any proposal to visit the Captain and his daughters” (9). With this the narrator becomes a person present (as well as absent at times) from Cranford with personal connections to the inhabitants. Indeed we find out that she is staying with Miss Jenkyns—the party detailed in the first chapter is thrown in her honor—and she begins to enter into the story at small moments (to fetch a book etc.) that begin to increase throughout the novel.

However it seems that her role in the novel is always odd—a blend of outsider and insider. By the end of chapter one, we don’t really know who she is, though she does seem important as the voice by which Gaskell delivers her satirical commentary. Indeed, we don’t even learn that her name is Mary Smith until nearly the end of the novel in chapter fourteen.

Despite this precarious role, though, Miss Smith (or rather perhaps Gaskell) certainly wants to emphasize her authority for assuming the position of storyteller. The second chapter begins with the assertion that “It was impossible to live a month at Cranford, and not know the daily habits of each resident; and long before my visit was ended, I knew much concerning the whole Brown trio” (16). Her presence, her observations, make her an alleged authority on the people of the town.

But when she isn’t present, correspondence becomes her conduit for truth. Several times she speaks of letters written to her, of “several correspondents who kept me au fait to the proceedings of the dear little town” (18). She trusts these letters as means for obtaining truth when her own observations cannot be made. She describes the letters of several of the women, characterizing their usefulness, and even including a selection from Miss Jenkyns’. In particular, she emphasizes that “in spite of a little bad spelling, Miss Matty’s account gave me the best idea of the commotion occasioned by his lordship’s visit…,” giving the impression that while the letters are key for keeping track of the goings on—they aren’t infallible.

Overall we ought to carefully consider how Gaskell begins the odd narration of this novel of observations. Martineau was certainly concerned with how one ought to observe and the origins of truth etc., and here we see Gaskell—in the midst of these comical vignettes—considering these questions of epistemology and objectivity. Who is this Mary Smith who begins as an outsider and yet is revealed to be a participant? Why does Gaskell give her the narrative voice? Are we to see her as merely a conduit for hearing the story? And perhaps if she’s primarily a conduit, we can indeed consider more closely Gaskell’s method of telling the stories through observations both epistolary and personal. Throw satire into the mix, and Gaskell’s given us quite the experiment with what it is to determine and interpret the truth.