Books

Rereading A Christmas Carol with a Fresh Perspective in 2017

Cover detail from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Years after I had first read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, I still remembered the exchange that occurs early in the story, when on the day before Christmas, two businessmen come to see Ebeneezer Scrooge in order to solicit funds for the poor.

“Are there no prisons? … And the Union workhouses… Are they still in operation?” Scrooge demands to know whether the legal “remedies” for poverty are still at work in 1843 England. The gentlemen respond that they are still working, but that the institutions are so awful that “…some would rather die.”

If they would rather die… they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge’s argument is that he pays his taxes in order to support the government’s response to poverty, and he sounds as if he has absorbed the argument of Thomas Malthus who argued in his writings on population that when humans pushed the “natural” limits of what the food supply could support, people would die off in catastrophic famines.

In this way, Charles Dickens alerted readers to the fact that Ebeneezer Scrooge was an educated, rational man conversant with the ideas of his time. It wasn’t so much that Scrooge wished evil upon others; it was, rather, that he preferred not to participate.

“I wish to be left alone, said Scrooge. Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

What I remember from my first reading of Scrooge was how shocked I was that someone could believe such a thing. And then I grew up and realized that America is full of people who believe that as long as they look out for themselves, everything is okay. If other people are suffering, it’s most likely the fault of those who have fallen into bad times. It’s the Horatio Alger story in reverse. Just as the rise from penniless to riches was due to bootstrapping one’s way to success, so, too, was indigence due to their inability to manage.

Just this week, a prominent congressman echoed Scrooge when discussing why the tax bill passed by the GOP Senate is justified in benefiting the rich while taking money from those with less. “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said in an interview last week, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” Having decided that investment is the “proper” use for money, while entertaining oneself is wasteful (in addition to Grassley’s archaic views of women), Grassley establishes himself as a judge who distributes money to those he sees as fit.

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The only holiday that my immigrant parents made a big deal out of was Christmas Day. We were nominally Christian; my brothers and I had been baptized not to become members of the church, but rather because “unbaptized babies don’t thrive,” the sort of peasant/working-class mixture of old beliefs overlay with Christianity that plagued the Catholic Church for centuries. Christmas, therefore, was a day for celebrating family and honoring traditions, but had been long-separated from its meaning as a Christian Feast Day.

One of our traditions – which in the days before VCR, DVD, and streaming services, meant scouring the television listings looking for its broadcast date and time – was to sit down together and watch the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (called Scrooge in the U.K.) that starred Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge. We had watched the film so often that we competed with one another to blurt lines out in time with the telly. We laughed at the same moments – “Waiter. More bread.” “That’ll be hayp’ny  extra, Sir.” “No more bread!” – finding Scrooge’s refusal to spend a half-penny to finish his dinner a source of hilarity.

Despite the multiple iterations of Charles Dickens’ classic that are available to watch, for me, it’s Sim’s version of the misanthropic Scrooge that resonates most. Scrooge may present himself to the world as both a misanthrope and a miser, but Sim’s acting clues the viewer into the fact that Scrooge is not “evil,” he is, instead,  an embittered, terribly lonely, deeply cynical old man. Cynicism is a reaction to a world that has hurt Scrooge over and over again. It will be the job of the ghosts of Christmas to remind Scrooge that his rejection of human kinship and kindness has been a choice. And Scrooge must also let go of the types of philosophy – such as Malthusianism – that could allow him to justify his neglect of other people as part of some natural order.

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I first read A Christmas Carol in elementary school, and realized recently that I had never re-read it. Did the novella contain parts of the story that I had never seen dramatized? Was there more to Scrooge than I had remembered? Does the story of Scrooge offer us any hope right now?

The novella held a number of surprises for me, one of which was how brief the story is. Dickens’ “novel” may inspire thoughts of doorstop-thick books, but Scrooge’s story has fewer than 100 pages, the sort of story that is perfect for an evening’s read. And while some readers may find themselves intimidated by reading nineteenth-century prose, thinking it may be dense and difficult, A Christmas Carol invites readers to tumble through its pages, carried along by the chatty nature of the story’s unseen narrator.

The other surprise is just how comic parts of the novella are. When Scrooge arrives at his house to discover that his door knocker has turned into the face of his former partner, rather than cast light to break up the shadows, Dickens writes that “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” The scene when Jacob Marley shows up as Scrooge is eating a bowl of gruel is full of laughs, as Scrooge attempts to convince himself that he is suffering from hallucinations brought about by bad food. Of course, Marley refuses to accept Scrooge’s explanations and his scream reminds both Scrooge and readers that this is a ghost story. And because Dickens creates the sort of tension on the page typical of scary books, the joy and relief that Scrooge feels upon recognizing that he has been changed feel organic.

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I imagined, when I picked the book back up, that A Christmas Carol might have a message for this particular holiday season, even going so far as to think that there might be resemblances between Ebeneezer Scrooge and the current occupant of the Oval Office. And perhaps that is the most surprising part of my re-reading, which was the realization that Scrooge is a much more likable and redeemable human being than POTUS. Scrooge’s change begins almost immediately while still in the company of the first ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past. Shown his behavior as a young man, Scrooge recognizes his failures and acknowledges them. He never once denies that he said the things he said, or that he acted in certain ways. And he is genuinely shamed when, after asking whether there is hope that Bob Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim, will not die, the Ghost of Christmas Present repeats back to him his words that “he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population!”

The Ghost of Christmas Past also points out to Scrooge the fatal error that always occurs when people who are unaffected by trouble comment that someone else’s misfortune is somehow “natural” or “to be expected.” Because people who say such things always assume that they are somehow worth more than those who suffer, they make the assumption that they are safe. But the Ghost corrects Scrooge:

…if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

It is impossible for me to imagine that the president would be capable of learning the lessons that Scrooge does. The gift bestowed on him by the ghosts’ visits is a recognition on Scrooge’s part that his former perspective of himself had been skewed. Rather than recognizing himself as but one more tiny grain of sand upon a beach, Scrooge had adapted the perspective that he was an island unto himself. Through the brutal tactics used by the ghosts, Scrooge becomes “right-sized” in the world, neither above or below his neighbor, and thus the best way to keep his neighbor’s troubles from his door is to assist his neighbor in coping.

We have seen the president react to having his foibles and mistakes pointed out to him by denying that he did the thing he is said to have done – even when it is based on something he said while on camera or in a tweet. And after he tells the lie, he then attacks his accuser, sometimes rage-tweeting for days at a time. In all the time that he has been president, he has yet to accept blame for anything he has said or done, and has argued that any factual evidence against him must be fake. One wonders if even the arrival of Dickens’ three ghosts would be enough to redeem a man who has shown no evidence that he understands his true size in the world, or what Charles Dickens might have understood about the POTUS and what drives him to behave in the ways that he does.