A Reading of Dickens’s Christmas Carol, 1

The Christmas Carol is one of the best stories by one of the best story tellers in the English world. It never fails to charm and delight and instruct people every year about the meaning of Christmas. Scrooge is a household term for the sin of avarice. The night visitations by the spirits of Christmas serve to enlighten Scrooge’s heart and mind and he turns from his sin to the way of Christ(mas). It is a story of metanoia –  a repentance based upon the grace of self-knowledge and an invitation to generosity. 

The Christmas Carol follows the path of Christian conversion; Dickens may have directly drawn upon Dante’s Divine Comedy. Victorian England still retained the knowledge and memory of the Christian message and thus Dickens could appeal to a deep religious sensibility, however much he may have embroidered it with sentimentality. But in the brave new world of the twenty-first century such memory, “knowledge carried to the heart,” is all but absent. Dickens’ story can still rouse a good examination of conscience if we can approach it with the memory of Christian culture. We should read a Christmas Carol in light of fundamental Christian categories of sin, penance and reconciliation and pursue some philosophical reflections on the same. Pope John Paul II’s 1984 exhortation Reconciliation and Penance refers to “The Church in the Modern World.” For the Church to “understand modern man and the contemporary world” we need the gaze not only of philosophers and theologians, but also the gaze of historians, psychologists, and poets. Surely Dickens can add to our understanding of the problem of sin and conversion. Pope John Paul II and Charles Dickens are mutually illuminating.

“We live a world shattered to its very foundations.” With such a somber thought John Paul II opens his reflections on reconciliation and penance. From the depth of the anguish of modern world he famously said “Be not afraid” and he discerned the stirring of a “longing for reconciliation.” Such longing is a sign of the time. He called the Church, the whole community of believers, to witness to reconciliation and to help bring it about throughout the world. In this way the Church will fulfill its mandate articulated in Lumen Gentium to be a sign and instrument, a sacrament, of communion with God and unity of people. Through its prayer, preaching, and witness the whole Church takes on the mission of reconciliation. The witness he says is almost always “silent,” but the preaching must include the condemnation of sin and the invitation to conversion. (§12) One might say then that Dickens’ Christmas Carol fulfills in its own way the preaching of the gospel and the call to repentance. Old Marley holds forth as a prophetic voice chastising the avaricious and alienated Scrooge – “Blind man, blind man,” he rails before his departure from Scrooge’s apartment, calling Scrooge to repentance.

Dicken’s first description of Scrooge is that of “sinner”: “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” He is consumed by the sin of avarice. That much is well known, hence the term “Scrooge.” But Scrooge is also described as “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire.” He is hard and sharp – never struck for fire. What can we do with that image? Hard and sharp, yes, but he is perhaps still apt for a “generous fire,” if only someone would strike him with the importune steel of their claim. He is “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” He is solitary and closed – he must be pried open, but a pearl lies within. The pearl of the reconciled self!

            Next Dickens speaks about the coldness of his character. His features are “frozen, stiffened, shriveled. A “frosty rime” was on his head, his eyebrows, and his chin. The man is encased in his own isolation and his greed. He is impervious even to the weather, let alone human beings.  Scrooge is like the inclement weather – bitter, implacable. He is so withdrawn into himself and intent on his acquisition that people no longer approach him. Even the blind man’s dog would get out of his way. There we have our portrait of scrooge; is there any hope for such a man? Is reconciliation possible? Is community ready to welcome him? Only through Christ(mas) and the intervention of his old partner Marley.

            It is Christmas Eve – of all good days in the year – and Scrooge shows his typical attitudes – “bah” “Humbug.” Christmas does not fit the regularity of his schedule – it is a time of festival and celebration, when as Pieper says, “calculation is thrown to the winds.” First he scoffs at his nephew and belittles him and his co-worker for their cheerfulness and their love. Then he turns away the gentlemen asking money for the poor. He is a man quick to speak of justice – as minding his own business. As paying the proper wage for a proper day of work, and no more. And he promotes the work houses and prisons. No need for making “idle people merry.” The weather forms into a sign of Scrooge’s gloom – dark, cold, with a “misanthropic ice.” Chesterton said that Dickens is great at the describing the “atmosphere” as a sign of the inner story. Scrooge finishes his evening routine and walks out into the fog. He consumes dinner and retires to his house, noticing something strange on his way on – the face of Marley on the door knocker. Marley is ghost like, but he appeared ghost life in real life, so there is no difference. But Scrooge is on guard. He locks himself in. The fireplace is a sacred hearth – it is surrounded by tiles with scenes and personages from the bible. And Marley’s face takes his place among the biblical personages – “like the ancient prophet’s rod.” His name is Jacob, the one who wrestled with the angel, and blessed the many tribes of Israel. In the mercy of God, Scrooge will hear the word of God through the face, the ghost of Marley. Marley appears dragging his chains with stern warning to Scrooge, a scrooge who in his fear asks for words of comfort, even though he chased away the carolers who were singing “God rest ye merry gentlemen” — bringing the tidings of comfort and joy.

They discuss the reality of the apparition. Was it a dream. Was it indigestion? Marley asked Scrooge to “believe in him” to believe in his presence. Scrooge continues to quibble. Marley “raised a frightful cry” and shook his chains, and at last Scrooge falls on his knees. Marley accuses him of being of “worldly mind.” And he explains that he must now walk among his fellows because he failed to do so in life. Men are destined to community with others – to evade it in this life, one must come to terms in the next. It must travel far and wide to behold human community, solidarity, or sharing.  Next the ghost shakes his chains and explains them as forged by by his own free will. It is a common “pattern,” but strange to Scrooge. Indeed, we may find the common chain in St. Paul and  St Augustine’s Confessions on the chain of sin. And there is reason to believe that Dickens read Dante and has in mind the fourth circle of Hell where the avaricious are condemned to roll great weights. Indeed, Marley comes from a hellish region, when he says that he cannot give comfort because such “comes from other regions” and conveyed by “other ministers, to other kinds of men.” But Marley brings not comfort – the tidings of comfort and joy – the good news of Christmas, but he is like an old testament prophet. “O Blind man, blind man” he warns Scrooge. Scrooge is blind to the meaning of life on earth, which is to “work kindly” in one’s sphere. Scrooge says you were good at business. And Marley utters the famous words of the Dicksonian temper – “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.” Indeed, Chesterton refers to Dickens as the last great man, because he had such an eye for the beauty of the common man and the beauty of the everyday. 

Marley acknowledges that he needed to have found Christ. For at Christmas he is most sad and suffers most as he walks through the “crowd of fellow beings.” If only he had looked up at the “blessed star” as had the wise men of old, who came to a “poor abode.” A poor home will show the meaning of Christ(mas). Prophetically we hear where Scrooge must make his way, not by way of the three wise men of old, but by way of the three ghosts of Christmas. Marley speaks about paying his penance; but the way is open for Scrooge, he has a “chance and a hope.” But he must learn to shun the path of greed and isolation, he must break through the “narrow limits of our money changing table.” Marley departs and joins the dirge of the lost souls who utter their sorrow and self-accusation. Dickens has rendered a vision of the lost souls from an inferno of endless regrets at their incapacity to do good. They had lost that power, forever. But not so Scrooge, who is a man alive, a man still at the crossroads. As Chesterton points out – the Christian vision is always about man at the crossroads: “All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads.  The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug,  all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments. The true philosophy of man is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that?”
 

The three spirits of the night will rouse up in Scrooge the proper horror at his chosen path and he will begin to feel the keen delight of love. He must turn from sin and embrace the way of virtue. He must understand the connection between penance, or conversion, and reconciliation. The spirits will lead him to rediscover love, the goodness of being, and the reality of conscience.

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