The Scrooges in Our Hearts

Vincent ChangDecember 4, 2023Finding MeaningMedia
The Scrooges in Our Hearts

Artwork by John Leech, 1843, engravings for A Christmas Carol

The story of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens begins on a frosty Christmas Eve.

We are quickly introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser who has a disdain for the festivity, which he dismisses as “humbug!” and regards as a squandering of his hard-earned wealth. Scrooge's sour disposition and generally unpleasant demeanor hardly endears him to anyone. For this reason, the spirits of Christmas decide to pay him a visit, with the hope of prompting some kind of introspection.

That night, Scrooge encounters three spectral visitors representing Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a meek and radiant figure with a wise disposition. Through its guidance the elderly Scrooge comes face-to-face with his younger, more hopeful self. Scrooge experiences the painful moments of his youth, including an especially painful break-up with his lover Belle, all due to his growing greed and fear of love. The night goes on, and soon another ghostly visitor arrives. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a jolly giant full of life and heartiness, dressed in a magnificent emerald robe and accompanied by a feast of Christmas delicacies. He leads Scrooge into the lives of the people around him — familiar people whom he has shunned due to his own miserliness. Scrooge sees his employee, Bob Cratchit, and realizes how Cratchit’s family struggles to scrape together enough money for a warm hearth fire. He witnesses Cratchit’s frail son Tiny Tim, who suffers from an unknown illness and might not survive the winter. Although this suffering was always around him, Scrooge was blind to it until the Ghost of the Christmas Present opened his eyes. As the morning comes, Scrooge's final visitor manifests in his room. Faceless and covered in a misty cloak, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is silent and lifeless. It uses a long, bony finger to point Scrooge toward tragic events of the future, where the Cratchits mourn the death of Tiny Tim, and where Scrooge himself is finally buried in a little churchyard, his gravestone unvisited and weathering away.

Throughout the night, Scrooge undergoes a remarkable transformation, becoming a more welcoming and cheerful individual by dawn — someone who no longer avoids the affection of those around him, but cherishes it.

However, what struck me the most was this: the spirits of Christmas do not visit Scrooge solely to make him a nicer person or to appease those bothered by his behavior. They probe deeper, peeling away his façade to reveal the true person concealed beneath his tough exterior, and helping the miserable man come to terms with all the fear, anger, and regret he has accumulated.

These spirits discern a lonely soul, haunted by a troubling past. Scrooge is incapable of savoring the present Christmas, not only because he has only valued the accumulation of his own wealth, but because he has become so desensitized toward suffering that he himself can no longer feel anything at all.

We often find ourselves quick to judge disagreeable individuals, criticizing them and placing ourselves on a pedestal as virtuous and superior beings. We often assume that people would willingly choose malice over kindness if given the chance.

The reality is, however, that sometimes people are powerless to help themselves. They construct intricate defenses to shield their inner fears and sorrows from prying eyes. Consequently, they struggle to reach out to others, just as others hesitate to lend a hand to them. Scrooge might not be the most approachable, but the moment we decide to turn him away, do we also become indifferent?

Such a fantastic holiday read would get five stars immediately, if not for a very small issue — the structure. Dickens particularly enjoys long sentences, and sometimes attempts to delay his full-stops as much as he can. Readers might find A Christmas Carol slightly more difficult to follow than more contemporary pieces. Sometimes a dictionary is necessary, and half a star is deducted for the complex and nuanced language within this novella. This feature, combined with a handful of rather obscure references to life in Victorian England, could make for an equally challenging and unique reading experience.

Not particularly bulky, A Christmas Carol makes up for its length by hiding a series of deep ideas beneath every line. Charles Dickens writes with an intense saturation: he pays attention to every minute detail, he is not afraid to thrust his characters into the middle of their darkest experiences, and he tightly controls the pace of every chapter for a wholesome and triumphant conclusion. And the story is not always serious, either. There are moments when Scrooge appears less offending, and more comically absurd. The best part about Dickens’ humor, then, is that we can laugh with the character as he himself begins to grow. We are encouraged to laugh with him, and reflect upon ourselves afterwards. Beneath his precise (and sometimes rather dense) narration, is a kind of emotional honesty that can catch the reader by surprise.

There is a scene earlier in the night, when Scrooge meets the ghost of Marley, an old business partner, who is forever doomed to wander the afterlife tangled in chains:

“You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?"
"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

The emphasis on being “fettered” suggests that Scrooge's fears encompass more than just losing monetary wealth. Scrooge's interactions at the story's beginning and during this spectral encounter reveal that he assesses every action and interaction based on personal benefit. If there's no direct gain, he becomes miserly. The narrative even recounts how, on the day of his former business partner's funeral (an event seemingly devoid of personal benefit), he conducted himself as a shrewd businessman, minimizing expenses on formalities like the coffin. Beyond the surface of financial matters, this is a reflection of his incapacity to make room in his life for anything beyond his self-interest, and also his helplessness to save himself from the clutches of loneliness.

During the visit to the Past, Scrooge is transported to the house where he grew up as a young boy. He sees himself as a lonely and neglected child, left at the boarding school while his peers return home for Christmas. But it was during this time that he was surrounded by loving individuals such as Mr. Fezziwig and Belle — yet he failed to see the “gain” in embracing compassion, which is itself an intangible thing. The hollowness of Scrooge's inner being prompted him to chase things he could hold and see and manipulate. In doing so, he created a loop where he tried to find meaning through hoarding money and valuables, but lost himself in his isolation. Scrooge is miserable not because he is greedy, but because he is empty.

Our personal pursuits extend beyond mere accumulation of wealth, and also encompass desires for status, ego, and pride. We may aspire to excel academically and secure prestigious positions, attain a flawless appearance, be acknowledged as the most virtuous member of our community, or outshine our peers by exploring the world. Pursuing such aspirations isn't inherently wrong; the peril arises when we pursue them single-mindedly, extinguishing our “noble aspirations” in the process. The moment we stop focusing solely on personal achievement in every passing event is the moment when we can reflect within and find the root of all our wants. The moment we break out of this thought process altogether is the moment when we have truly realized the purpose behind each of our actions.

Vincent Chang is a Year 10 student from Australia. When he isn’t preparing for a debate or rehearsing at choir, you can find him reading and writing about literature and the arts, history and linguistics, theater and poetry. He is especially interested in narrative: because a story isn’t about “what happens,” but about how what happens transforms the characters.