It is time to rehabilitate Scrooge. Not the character Scrooge that is rehabilitated within Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, but simply the name, even the word, “Scrooge.” That moniker persists as shorthand for all that is humbug; all that is miserly, miserable, alone, grumpy and unkind.
Why not rather have Scrooge become the name we associate with learning and personal change? After all, Ebenezer Scrooge did have a change of heart, quite remarkably so.
If we consider ourselves to be Scrooge of the teachable kind, we can read in Dickens’ tale an exposé of our deepest selves—our fears, loves, idolatries and the lessons we derive from them. Scrooge may be an extreme case, both in the extreme of his first self and his almost-too-cheerful post-repentance, but exaggeration can be a poetic means to nail us with a truth that we would miss with subtler examples.
True change is primal. It sets up a war for our deepest affections. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebenezer on a tour of his personal history, one of the time-travels to his former self was to view the demise of his relationship with his fiancée. She showed sorrow over what he had become: “You fear the world too much… All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you.”
It might be said that the young Scrooge had come to worship wealth (indeed, his former love called his new affection an “Idol”), but a close reading shows that it was, for him, a shallow and unsatisfying affair he had with Gain. For he did not love it for its own sake, but for what he nervously hoped it would do—alleviate his fear of poverty. Hence he did not love money as much as he feared the lack of it.
This makes the fiancée’s use of the word “idol” to be genius, for what is an idol but a false image that we cajole for favors or advantages against threats and want? As fear increases, we go to the idol all the more; we serve and worship, finding its provision never enough to deal with the fear. It increases in imagined power, and thus, in the fiancée’s words, the idol has “displaced” his affection for anyone else. It is impossible to multitask between fear and love.
Scrooge achieved his wealth but ironically the fear of poverty never left him. His fear festered, requiring more stinginess to build walls against poverty, and yet it simply encased his fears, shut out others, and left him to his misery.
The story provides numerous unsuccessful remedies for this—unsuccessful because they are surface actions that do not go to the heart. Organized charities, and social remedies like workhouses or the “poor laws” do not inspire any generosity. Scrooge resists any persuasion to give to them, and considers them only “useful” as minimal provisions for the poor, and ultimately to thin out the excess population. No inspiration to generosity is effective with Scrooge, whether free market solutions like charities or social programming solutions like the poor laws of mid-19th Century England.
It is more about heart than money. Scrooge learns this when he is shown the memory of his former employer’s kindness. This employer, Mr. Fezziwig, threw a hearty celebration for his employees at Christmas time and the time-traveling elder Scrooge, with his ghost escort, saw his young former self at the party. Scrooge is swept up in the memory of it. The ghost almost seems to tease him. “[Fezziwig] has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money… Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that, Spirit,” Scrooge replies. “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil… his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up … The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
The author here guides us to understand that employer kindness has nothing to do with his team-building budget. Dickens would rather we know the value of truly caring for employees, showing the regard that comes freely in an employer’s “words and looks,” the free, slight, and insignificant things.
These sort of lessons continue through the visits of three ghost escorts, scene after scene of Scrooge’s Christmas past, present and future. After these lessons, Scrooge repents in joy to have his future still before him, that he has every opportunity to strike a new path. He finds that his future is not condemned to live out all the consequences of his former meanness, that he can begin to be kind today. “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future,” he says. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”
And with this line he invites us to see that all change is about learning. And that one has the ability to shape the heart, and to act in new ways.
This comes off as unbelievable to some. A cynical headline showed on my newsfeed a
few days ago: “A Christmas Carol is Victorian comfort food – switch off your brain and embrace the syrup” (The Telegraph, UK). This view is not without merit—it’s almost too good to be true, too hokey, too cheesy and “goody two-shoes.” Good people, like good news, make for boring copy. Bad people are more interesting, which may explain why the pre-repentant Scrooge persists in our imaginations. In politics we’d watch a show about Underwood and not Carter; in Les Miz we admire Valjean but find Javert’s rages and fears to be more interesting.
Even so, if it is syrup, I’ll take a gallon, please. The capacity for change is our only hope as a species.
The post-change Scrooge acknowledged that his change would bring derision. “Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them,” Dickens writes in the final chapter. “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.” Scrooge is charitable in this, allowing that at least laughter is more attractive than other negative responses to his change. “His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”
It seems that some would keep their distance from both kinds of Scrooge, avoiding him when he is mean, scoffing at him, perhaps disbelieving him, when he becomes a better person. In this matter—our avoidance of either Scrooge—the nephew puts us to shame. The nephew reached out to the former Scrooge when all others avoided him, persisting with invitations to holiday family gatherings. “[He’s] not so pleasant is he might be,” the nephew admitted, “however, his offenses carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.”
We read nothing in the story about the nephew’s outreach as conditioned on whether Scrooge would ever change, neither do we read that the nephew’s invitations to the old man were part of a strategy to reform him. He simply reached out to connect with him, to include him. Period. Unlike some “personal evangelism” examples I’ve seen in Christian circles, the nephew did not consider Uncle Scrooge to be his “salvation project.”
If Scrooge is to be our new word for change, let the nephew be a surprising example of love, bridging relational gaps with his own efforts. This he does when the gaps themselves are none of his fault, but rather the fault entirely of the person he loved, a fact that does not even seem to matter to him.
It is we who must change. To reform the “Scrooge” moniker is to believe in the possibility of change and to reject the prejudices by which we lock-in persons to the view we had of them at the start. Will they change? Will it matter to us if they do not? People will confront their own ghosts and hopefully many will change. Our job is to consider them as they are, to connect, and together to be Scrooges of the changing kind.
Cal Stevens 12/26/17