I think it’s about time someone stuck up for one of literature’s most maligned characters. I refer of course, to that glorious old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge esq.
There can be few characters in fiction, other than perhaps Milton’s Satan, to have got so raw a deal as this ageing Victorian businessman, better known as the perennial Christmas whipping boy.
I know I’m not the first person to put pen – or should that be quill? – to paper to defend this seemingly unsympathetic old gent, but nonetheless I intend to have a try. It is the season of goodwill, after all.
A Christmas Carol first saw print in 1843, and recounts the transformation of the cantankerous Scrooge from misanthropic miser who cares only for money, to warm-hearted philanthropist who fully embraces the spirit of a Christmas he had once dubbed ‘humbug.’
This transformation is effected by a visit from four spirits, the first being the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley one Christmas Eve, who proceeds to warn Scrooge he must mend his ways or suffer the same damnation which had befallen him.
He is then visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, respectively, who show him visions from his life which finally cause our anti-hero to abandon his miserly ways and embrace the festive spirit.
It’s fair to say Scrooge is not meant to be a sympathetic character. After all, his creator spares no efforts in giving him a thorough character assassination in the first few paragraphs:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
Scrooge, then, is portrayed as the archetypal miser – a miserable old skinflint who sucks the joy out of life, hoards money despite spending precious little on himself and certainly none on anyone else and who, in short, is the antithesis of everything Christmas is supposed to be. His one surviving relative – his nephew Fred, says as much in the story.
But before we join in the chorus of condemnation let’s look at what, precisely, Scrooge is being accused.
First, he is charged with being a miser and second with hating Christmas. And while I am more concerned with the latter, I shall spend a little time debunking the former.
Nowadays, Scrooge’s very name is synonymous with being mean-spirited and penny-pinching. Bosses who won’t let their staff put up decorations at Christmas are Scrooges, councils who refuse to let their workers get a fortnight off are likewise denounced.
To the modern eye, Scrooge may seem very mean indeed – and yet that’s precisely the point everyone forgets. Modern Britain is used to a world with the NHS and the welfare state, but in Scrooge’s day it was a very different story.
In Victorian Britain, the poor were often faced with a stark choice – work, or starve – a situation which no doubt would delight many a Thatcherite were it ever to return.
As Scrooge tells the charitable gentlemen who try to tap him up for a donation to the poor, he supports institutions such as the workhouses and the debtors’ prisons by paying taxes and ‘those who are badly off must go there.’
Nowadays, the idea of jailing people simply for being poor seems abhorrent, and yet the fault lies with the system – not with Scrooge.
After all, Scrooge didn’t make the rules, he is just unswervingly honest when it comes to pointing them out. We may not appreciate his callousness, but it seems unfair to hold one man responsible for the inequality of the world in which he lives. These days we’d surely blame the government and demand it got off its backside and did something.
Dickens was clearly using Scrooge as a kind of perverse mouthpiece to call for social change, a noble endeavour to be sure, but poor old Scrooge I fear was but the messenger boy in this sorry state of affairs, not the instigator of the problems.
Then there’s the matter of the miserliness. Scrooge, we are told, paid his clerk Bob Cratchit 15 shillings a week which admittedly was a pittance.
However – in 1843, jobs were far more easy to come by than they are these days, particularly for skilled workers like Cratchit.
The industrial revolution was in full swing and the country had yet to face the horrendous recessions of the 20th Century such as those of the Hungry Thirties or the three-day-weeks of the 1970s.
If Cratchit had been so disgruntled with his lot he could more easily have found himself a new job at that time than he could have nowadays. We can only assume a lack of ambition was the root cause of his staying put.
As for Scrooge hoarding money and not spending it on himself, my response is frankly, so what? Is it not up to Scrooge to decide how he spends his hard-earned cash?
Money after all, is but a unit of exchange and if Scrooge chose to exchange it for very little other than the bare means of survival, that was surely up to him.
Having dealt with the miserliness, let us now head for the second of the ‘problems’ with Scrooge – namely, his hatred of Christmas.
This seems to be the final nail in the coffin for the character as far as Dickens is concerned. Scrooge may as well wear a tee-shirt to announce his contemptibility to the whole world. ‘I am a miserable old miser who pays my clerk a pittance – AND I HATE CHRISTMAS TOO!’
You can imagine the little children hissing poor old Scrooge like some pantomime villain and chorus of ‘boos’ greeting him each time he sets foot on the snow-covered streets.
And yet, it is this very aspect of Scrooge’s character which seems to me to be the most defensible – and – dare I say, appealing.
We have already established what a dreadful place Victorian London was for the poor, of whom there were many.
The rich sat back and dined in their clubs while starving children died in alleyways, child prostitution was commonplace and there were some parts of the old city where even the London Police, who had only been formed a few years before the story was published, would not venture.
Against this backdrop, the notion of the Dickensian Christmas, itself an anachronistic concept, seems to reek of hypocrisy.
Most of those affluent enough to be able to afford a juicy turkey and a plum pudding would no doubt have merrily ignored the rampant inequality around them while braying ‘Merry Christmas!’ to anyone in earshot as if by doing so, they somehow salved their guilty consciences.
Perhaps they walked past skeletal beggar children and mothers with hungry babies to get to the markets to snap up the last string of sausages?
Scrooge, of course, had no truck with this whatsoever. He had no hesitation in calling out the hypocrisy of the Christmas season, denouncing it as ‘humbug’ – meaning a fraud, or a con.
He was quite right, of course – and his fundamental point makes even more sense in today’s world than it did back then.
We have got to the early 21st Century and yet mankind seems ever more determined to destroy itself through war, corrupt governments, disease and famine.
Yet in Western countries, Christmas advertising starts earlier each year with greedy supermarkets running to outdo each other in the festive stakes.
‘If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge, ‘Every idiot who goes about with merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.’
We must surely appreciate Scrooge’s honesty if not necessarily his sentiments. Here is a man who sees the hypocrisy of the world around him and refuses to play ball.
Unlike the fat merchants of old London town who spent all year stuffing their pockets with cash before flipping a token coin into a beggar’s bowl at Christmas Eve in a bid to delude themselves they were ‘charitable’ after all, Scrooge spots them for what they are – and calls them out on it.
For Scrooge, Christmas Day is simply another day of the year, and why not? Having neither wife nor children, there is no reason for him to participate in the cycle of conspicuous consumption if he does not wish to.
And while Scrooge, for Dickens, is largely a straw-man misanthrope ready for conversion, it would be a cold-heart indeed to feel no sympathy at all for him when the Spirit of Christmas Past shows him his childhood.
The young Scrooge, remember, was left behind at school during the Christmas holidays, for years at a time, while all the other little brats were whisked back to the loving bosom of their families. This continued until Scrooge’s (clearly horrible) father finally repented and had Ebenezer back into the family home.
We can only imagine what such parental rejection would do to a child and it’s no wonder Scrooge isn’t exactly bursting with enthusiasm for the season. Under those circumstances I’m not sure I would be, either.
In the end, though, the will of the author must always prevail and Scrooge is redeemed and brought back into the fold. He spends the last part of the story in a gleeful orgy of spending, his first act being to hurl coins into the street for an urchin child to rush to the stores and buy the ‘turkey as big as me.’
We, the audience, are supposed to welcome Scrooge’s conversion with the eagerness we supposedly feel for Christmas itself.
And yet we have lost an honest man and gained only another person rushing about braying ‘Merry Christmas!’
The message seems rather hollow. The resistor is always wrong, the crowd is always right. Don’t think for yourself and just go along with it, because that’s what everyone else does.
Are we supposed to like Scrooge more because he is suddenly like everyone else? I say no. I’d sooner an honest heretic than a mindless conformist any day.
Another thing – why did no ghosts appear to Jacob Marley to save him from damnation? Did the afterlife feel his case was a less deserving one than Scrooge’s?
And why, despite his repentance is Scrooge’s name still used as a byword for being stingy and Grinch-like at Christmas? Why is he still being vilified after almost 200 years?
Before the modern-day critics of Scrooge start on me, I am not rejecting the warm humanism of Dickens’ Christmas fable. On the contrary, I say things like kindness and compassion are wonderful – but they should surely be with us all year round, not simply for a few arbitrary weeks.
If Christmas exists solely as a marketing tool to offload colour TVs, video games and smart phones or so idiots can have punch-ups in the supermarket aisles on December 24 over the last loaf of bread, it is not worthy of our indulgence, merely our contempt.
And as Scrooge would say, Bah Humbug!