IN DEFENSE OF EBENEZER SCROOGE
A Christmas Plea For Leniency For A Misunderstood Freethinking Capitalist
Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.
– Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
’Tis the season for forgiveness and empathy; which works both ways, bub. Caring for the less fortunate, giving to those in emotional need, understanding those who may be ostracized and forlorn; these are the sentiments I wish to bestow upon one of the most despised characters in the English language, the brilliantly named Ebenezer Scrooge from the master Charles Dickens’ seasonal-standard 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol.
I maintain, if the jury would allow, that Scrooge, while being obstinate and crotchety, mostly rude and myopic, is hardly a villain and does not deserve the kind of black mark rendered upon him next to some of the most vile of literature’s rogues, like say, Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, Shakespeare’s Claudius, Stoker’s Dracula or even Milton’s Satan.
We have here a psychopathic monster, the greatest villain in English literature, the king of vampires, and Satan.
I read an essay two years ago, and the author escapes me, but he compared Scrooge to Grendel from the epic one-thousand year old poem, Beowulf, the original monster introduced to the language. The argument if I can paraphrase had the similarities of loneliness, isolation, abandonment, mommy issues, etc. This is lazy and presumptuous analysis since, of course, these fill all manner of villain back story from Dr. Moriarty to the Wicked Witch of the West to the Grinch to the Joker.
Murderer? Monster? Villain?
What exactly are Ebenezer Scrooge’s crimes?
He hates Christmas? He is cheap? He does not care about anyone, not even himself?
How about he refuses to partake in a phony celebration of humanity in a glaringly inhuman urban setting of blight and disease, poverty and despair, or in other words 19th century London? This crushing economic nightmare has strangled anything resembling a middle class and has led to a reality of paranoia and hording and a sense that if one does not hang onto one’s meager possessions, one is likely to become a freezing, homeless carcass.
Scrooge, as the novel tells us right off the bat, works in finance, lending finance to be exact, and is faced day after day with his and the next generation’s dwindling largesse, seeing his friends and colleagues, once prosperous men of business, reduced to begging, borrowing cretins for whom he must prop up with no manner of end. And so he treats his clients and his employee, the terminally optimistic Bob Cratchit with a sense of dread well earned. Cratchit wants to put more coal on the fire. He is cold. Scrooge is adamant that to waste it is a sin. In these times he finds himself, with so much evidence of doom, Scrooge is nothing but pragmatic. He treats his family and his associates with equal caution, rightly bursting their fantasy bubble that “all will be well”, because there is no reason for such gaiety on December 24 or July 10 or frankly anytime on the calendar.
If anything Scrooge appears to be – and I believe it has since been sussed out that this was Dickens’ aim – a microcosm for the era. Scrooge, like all of Dickens’ characters is a victim of his age. His reaction to this is not charity, but survival; the basic human response to crisis. This is Victorian England at the crossroads, as Dickens had painfully and vividly unfurled in some of his most striking polemics (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby) against the untenable Industrial Revolution – its progress obliterating the working class and replacing it with greed, antipathy, pollution, and unchecked power.
However, perhaps it is what Scrooge’s environment has done to him physically that allows Dickens to begin to riff with glee; the manifestation of avarice and the pursuit of soulless profits from faceless factories that not only operate beyond human frailty, but in spite of it. It is the inhumanity towards humanity that fuels A Christmas Carol, which transforms Scrooge into a twisted creature.
To wit: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, 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, shriveled 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 dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
These external features, while rendering Scrooge a physical wreck like, say, eating poorly or incessant smoking and drinking can alter a person’s outward appearance, are merely self-inflicted. I applaud Scrooge’s internalizing of his loathing of a system he did not create but that created him. He does not go out and shoot anyone or go on a murderous spree, or steal from or destroy his competition. He does not start a movement to defend the blatantly cold and anti-Christian machinations of capitalism or use that power to manipulate an already corrupt system. If anything, he means to protect and enhance his dearly departed partner Jacob Marley’s legacy by not giving into sentiment in a time of grave economic and social dangers, not to mention disease and crime.
Beside Marley, Scrooge has another man for whom he must pay homage in A Christmas Carol; his once gregarious boss, Fezziwig (another fantastic name that paints a picture of a preternaturally gleeful and foppish English businessman) introduced to readers during the visitation of the first of the three promised ghosts by the apparition of his fallen friend. Fezziwig hosts a grand party for his employees, something completely alien in Scrooge’s current times, sharing his wealth and laughing in the face of the oncoming economic deluge, which will cause him to be swallowed up by the industrial cabal that will also gobble up his earnings, absorb his beloved business, and cause him ruin. This indeed is a cautionary tale, and not that of the heart, but the stomach that will soon be empty if one tosses away his fortune on fun, frolic and the frivolity of Christmas.
Also, if I may, I think that Scrooge’s infamous blurting of “Humbug!” at the mention of the holiday is quite enviable. He will not give into banal social niceties at a time of utter predatory corruption. His honesty, even in the face of self-denial (which I can surely argue is an unwavering self-awareness), is extraordinary. Everyone tries to get this guy to lighten up, and, ironically, most of them represent Scrooge’s fears; they are broke and in dire need of assistance, as they can no longer provide for themselves. Why in the name of all that is holy would Bob Cratchit have six children in this economic apocalypse and then complain that he cannot feed or clothe them properly? And why is this dubious at best and immoral at worst behavior Scrooge’s problem, or his problem that the sixth of the brood is a sickly boy? Maybe Cratchit should have stopped at five or maybe four or two or even one. The man is clearly insane or sexually insatiable and is quite frankly lucky to have a gig. He should have worked on Christmas or at least kept it in his pants.
The key discussion that drives the rest of the novel’s narrative occurs right before Scrooge calls it a night and before being haunted mercilessly by having to view himself as an abandoned child, a jilted lover, a miserable miser and a forgotten and despised dead man standing above his shallow grave. It involved men seeking Scrooge’s charity, despite knowing well that such a request will send him up a wall. When pressed for his sympathies, Scrooge answers with the query that haunts humanity time immemorial; “`It’s not my business,’ Scrooge returned. `It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!’”
Why in the name of all that is holy would Bob Cratchit have six children in this economic apocalypse and then complain that he cannot feed or clothe them properly?
And so when our former villain protagonist becomes our newly reborn hero, “cured” as it were by the ghosts of his past, present and future, and begins forgiving debts and throwing his money around like a drunken sailor, we rejoice. He is filled with the Christmas spirit! Yahoo!
And then what?
For all of his days, writes Dickens assuredly, he would “keep Christmas”. But how many more of those did he have before he was faced with the same horrors of reality he once embraced over a philosophy of sudden philanthropy? What then becomes of our Scrooge?
Not sure. But I know this, each year we relive this tale (my Dad has a running tradition of sitting down near midnight on Christmas Eve each year to enjoy the 1951 Alastair Sim version, and in the autumn of 2008 I even purchased him a copy at Dickens’ London house where he wrote the thing in an amazing six weeks) and Scrooge becomes our miser villain once more before plunging into the vortex of his psyche and coming out the other side a man who he would never recognize and his times would likely swallow up hole.
I forgive you, Mr. Scrooge, and so should we all.