Revisiting “A Christmas Carol”…

24 Dec

“A Christmas Carol,” which Charles Dickens wrote in 1843, combines the chilling thrills of a ghost story fit for Halloween but delivered two months late with the spirit-lifting redemption of the best Christmas story.

From the political lens through which I view all entertainment, “A Christmas Carol” fascinates me in its complexity: It is simultaneously a promotion of the rights of the underclass and the abuse it faces from the wealthy and an illustrative example of how charity comes best from the individual rather than the government. It is also distinctly religious yet not really: The spirits are not necessarily guardian angels of the Cary Grant (“The Bishop’s Wife”) and Henry Travers (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) variety. The story is more a distilliation of Christ’s teachings without the fire and damnation.

Scrooge is a bitter, money-obsessed old man. His clerk, Bob Cratchit, must work in bleak conditions (Scrooge is as stingy with the coal supply as he is everything else). Cratchit has no recourse. There is no mention of his choosing to work for someone more amenable. He must bite his tongue and accept the treatment his master doles out.

When Scrooge’s nephew arrives to invite him to Christmas dinner, Scrooge runs down Christmas as a waste of time. He is not entirely incorrect in what he observes: Life — especially in Victorian England — is pretty crummy and it’ll be crummy after Christmas. What good does it do anyone to try to forget that for one measly day? It is thus a “humbug,” a “hoax” or “jest.” Scrooge’s nephew doesn’t disagree with Scrooge’s assessment but with how Scrooge chooses to react to this reality. OK, life is bad, but if it can be less so for just one day, maybe it can be better every day of the year, and if not, one good day out of 364 bad ones is better than nothing. Cratchit applauds the sentiment and Scrooge threatens to fire him. He cruelly points out that Cratchit least of all has any reason to believe in the merriness of Christmas — too many kids and too little money. Here we see that Scrooge knows the “price of everything and the value of nothing” (a memorable line from the Susan Lucci adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” in 1995).

Scrooge does, though, grant Cratchit the day off for Christmas. He complains about it but he doesn’t insist that the need to make more money on “doorbuster” specials demands that Cratchit spend the day away from his family. Even the drive for profit had its limits in those days.

Scrooge is also visited by gentlemen soliciting for a charity. The exchange here is famous for Scrooge’s asking them “are there no prisons” or “union workhouses.” However, in contrast to many politicians today, Scrooge does not object to their existence. He simply wishes to be “left alone” in so far as providing anything on an individual level. He pays enough to support the existing institutions and can’t afford to make “idle” people merry. The use of the word “idle” underscores a belief, common even today, that the poor are poor by choice or are lazy. If they worked harder, their issues would resolve themselves. Regardless, it doesn’t involve Scrooge, arguably the first Libertarian.

Dickens diverges from Biblical teaches in Scrooge’s encounter with Marley, who warns him of his upcoming visit from the three spirits. Unlike that trio, Marley is clearly damned but you don’t get the impression that he’s burning in hell. No, his punishment is the inability to either enjoy or promote happiness — two gifts that Scrooge is currently squandering. When Scrooge attempts to console Marley by complimenting his life as a businessman, Marley is quick to correct him: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Today we proclaim that corporations are people yet at the same time debate whether certain people are even people. This is the same folly that consumed Marley. I always wondered why Marley never got the opportunity for redemption that Scrooge did. Or perhaps Marley had the chance and refused to take it. Either way, Marley is for this one night able to make mankind his business — a Christmas gift for both Scrooge and himself.

Scrooge’s first visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge’s childhood had been difficult, and we glimpse the roots of his current misanthropy. As a youth, he’d apprenticed for the magnamious Mr. Fezziwig, who is the complete opposite of the adult Scrooge. Instead of whining about having to give his staff the day off for Christmas, Fezziwig throws a grand office party on Christmas Eve. His employees probably don’t suffer from frostbite, either. I’ve seen firsthand the Fezziwig approach vanish from the workplace. The standard list of excuses has replaced it: In a “merit-based” culture, the cost of a Christmas party for everyone is better spent on Christmas bonuses for the few. And what good does an office party serve anyway? Scrooge himself is quick to respond to this theory:

“(Fezziwg) has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

As soon as the words are spoken, Scrooge realizes that he has the power to do these things but doesn’t. He pursues profit instead. If profit is the goal, people will always suffer. Fezziwig no doubt sees the success of his company as a responsibility. His goal is to provide a decent living for his workers. Scrooge’s goal is merely to make a profit.

This theme continues during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present. He takes him to see the Cratchits on Christmas Day. Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim, is not long for the world. The spark of humanity lingering in Scrooge wonders if there’s any way Tim might live. The Spirit informs him that if the course of events isn’t altered, Tim will die, but quoting Scrooge, “he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge had previously spoken with the Darwinian harshness of distance. Imagine how much easier that is to do now with global corporations boasting thousands of employees. When Wal-Mart cuts health insurance for its part time employees, the CEO — safely remote in his gated community — has no insight into the long-term pain that is caused for short-term profit.

The Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge to “forbear his wicked cant,” to reflect on “what the surplus is and where it is.” The trap so many fall into is to view misfortunate as a choice, to hold poverty in as much contempt as substance abuse. No one wants to think that the summer home paid for with the bonus money earned by downsizing people might have a human cost. And simply being on the top of the economic pyramid does not necessarily make you superior in any sense to those at the bottom.

This is where Dickens most clearly echoes the New Testament: “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.”

This line is often interpreted as the spirit chastising Scrooge for daring to decide who “lives or who dies.” I think it’s the opposite: He’s condemning his inaction in the face of suffering. This inaction will send Tim to his death, something Scrooge can easily prevent if he opens his eyes to his responsibilities as a member of society.

For his part, Cratchit toasts Scrooge at Christmas dinner, acknowledging the role his employer pays in providing for his family. His wife is less gracious. Scrooge, she says, is “an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man.” She relents for his husband’s sake and the day’s and joins Cratchit in his toast. She believes Scrooge is bound to be “very merry and very happy.” She is wrong in thinking that Scrooge’s wealth alone would make him happy. We know — as his nephew does — that Scrooge’s cruelty punishes him as well. However, Mrs. Cratchit is correct that just because Scrooge rejects the comfort his wealth could provide himself and others, this does not excuse his ill treatment of those beneath him.

In a scene in the 1984 TV adaptation with George C. Scott that’s not in Dickens’s story, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a desolate area where the poor huddle for warmth. Scrooge cannot believe people live like this: Women and children in rags. Why aren’t they in those nice workhouses, Scrooge wonders. He, of course, has never personally visited one. He has no knowledge of how miserable they are and how they separate families forever. He sees the desperation of poverty. A poor father laments that it’s not fair there’s no work. He wants to work. He sees that even the poor have a work ethic, even if they aren’t fortunate enough to be as wealthy as he.

Scrooge questions the Spirit, “What does this have to do with me?,” and the Spirit thunders, “Are they not of the human race?” Indeed. We then return to Dickens’s text, as the Spirit opens his robe to reveal two “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” children — a boy, “Ignorance,” and a girl, “Want.” Scrooge, still in denial, asks if they belong to the Spirit, who informs him that they are the work of all mankind.

“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, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

Great art is timeless, and these words could have been written today.

Every adaptation differs in its depiction of Scrooge’s reclamation. Some have him close to the light after his meeting with the first spirit. Others have him unmoved until he learns the potential fate of Tiny Tim. The original story allows the actors the flexibility to plot out Scrooge’s transformation. However, one question that is rarely asked is why Scrooge changes at all. This is what makes the story so uplifting for me. Scrooge is an old man. He’s seen how he’s wasted his life, how everything he thought he believed in was false and empty. This would break the average man. Why bother to change now? Standard Christian teaching would say eternal damnation is reason enough. Dickens, however, doesn’t go there.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge the inevitable end of his selfish life. He dies alone. Tiny Tim is dead. And the only true emotion over his passing is the relief a couple feels in knowing that their debt to him will be transferred to someone who couldn’t possibly be more loathsome. Scrooge is taken to his gravesite, where he begs the Spirit for a chance to change to course of his existence.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

He obviously can’t avoid death, but what he wants to erase is his metaphorical death. He wants to live — even if just for the few years he has left.

This is naturally easy to grant. Much like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, Scrooge had the ability to change his world whenever he wanted. And the reformed Scrooge is a resoundingly bad businessman: He gives Cratchit an enormous turkey — a generous Christmas bonus. It’s not intended as an economic bribe to keep Cratchit from bolting to another company (as I’ve had bonuses explained to me in more flowery terms though the meaning was clear). It’s sent anonymously. It’s an acknowledgment of Cratchit’s hard work all year. That’s all.

Scrooge also doubles Cratchit’s salary and commits himself to helping Tiny Tim to walk again. What CEO would do this today? Double the staff’s salary for no reason other than they probably deserve it? It obviously won’t send Scrooge to the poorhouse, and we can only imagine the good it will do for the Cratchit family.

Yes, Scrooge is a bad businessman as we hear business defined today. It’s a definition that has crushed families and sunk the economy, but we refuse to sponge away those words. If we did, we could define business as Scrooge came to define it. He put people first and understood the responsibility of a business to remain profitable for the purpose of providing a living for its employees and not merely for profit’s sake. They’d call Scrooge a socialist today. I prefer to think of him as a man who understood his true business.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.


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