With the fiscal cliff looming and the holiday season nearly upon us, the name of Scrooge is again being thrown around as a concise way to represent the wealthiest among us whose income is on the chopping block to steady the nation as a whole. Social reformers worldwide can take great solace each year in the support Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol lends to their work and worldview. Rather than publishing a nonfiction pamphlet bound to get bogged down in generalities, Dickens humanized the faceless poor by focusing on the sufferings of a single family, even a single child. More than the threat of eternal damnation, the Cratchits’ grief at the loss of Tiny Tim cuts to Scrooge’s heart and also makes the reader connect to the victims of 19th-century British industrialization.
But Dickens reveals his full scope as a writer in how the story not only humanizes its victims but also its villain, the same Ebenezer Scrooge. Though he is first described as a “covetous old sinner,” only a shallow reading would associate his name with incorrigible greed. The crux of the story is the redemption of that sinner, by revealing to him not only the external facts of the outside world, but also how his internal history had hardened him into a callous misanthrope. His past Christmases reveal a lonely youth who chases money and power to fill the vacuum left by his absent family. By amplifying the productive part of his nature while losing all personal relationships, Scrooge’s life becomes grossly distorted and out of balance.
Some scholars believe Dickens based Scrooge’s past in part on experience as a child, which helps us see why the wealthy businessman rather than the poor pauper is the story’s protagonist. While Dickens was certainly concerned with the physical wellbeing of those downtrodden victims, he was also worried about the souls of the upper classes who could so easily dismiss the plight of their fellows. Scrooge’s statement that “the case of this unhappy man might be my own” rings a double-meaning for Dickens, who no doubt realized that he could also easily have fallen into the blithe ignorance that affected so many of his peers.
Villain and Hero
Dickens’s masterpiece speaks powerfully today to a nation divided along lines nearly as deep as the class divisions in Scrooge’s London. Social reformers should remember that Scrooge is not only the story’s villain, but also its redemptive hero. He initially treats everyone around him like objects, using them only for his gain and denying their personhood. Yet it would be a mistake for us today to only embrace Tiny Tim’s humanity but continue to caricature Scrooge himself.
The answer Dickens presents, love, is as old as the season itself—-a way in which the old miser learns his greatest happiness is found in seeking the happiness of others. The presentation of this truth in ways large and small thaws Scrooge’s icy heart and makes him “as good a man as the good old city knew.”
The Athenaeum claimed that A Christmas Carol could make the reader “open his heart to charity even towards the uncharitable.” To those of us who wish to practice the Christian virtue of charity this Christmas, the miserly and ignorant in our lives will pose a worthy challenge. It is easy to draw battle lines between Right and Wrong and withdraw all respect from those on the other side. It is fiendishly difficult to withstand the temptations of self-aggrandizement to better understand our opponents and gently nudge them toward grace. Yet this is the true legacy of Dickens’s classic tale: there is nothing better we could wish for the uncaring wealthy than that each of them would become a true, repentant Ebenezer Scrooge.