Few books are more consistently misread than A Christmas Carol (1843), by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Everyone has seen some adaption of the story – featuring anyone from Basil Rathbone to Michael Caine to Mr. Magoo – or, more ubiquitous still, some parody or sendup of the tale.
Ask anyone what A Christmas Carol is about, and almost certainly they will tell you it’s a parable about greed. Ebenezer Scrooge, they will tell you, is a miser, hoarding his money at the expense of his employee, Bob Crachit, and refusing to use a portion of it for the common good. His late partner, Jacob Marley, sends to him the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, they will go on to say, showing him the error of his ways, and he reforms by becoming more generous.
That, however, is not the story Dickens wrote, nor the lesson he wished to impart.
Scrooge as miser is a woeful misreading of Dickens’ story. The great sin of which Scrooge was guilty was not a niggardly withholding of money, but of personal warmth, distancing himself from the rest of humanity, and refusing his place in the community.
Again and again the mighty Ghosts of Christmas haunt our protagonist with his refusals of human interaction, not mere miserliness. As a boy, Scrooge was left at school during the holidays, alone and unloved. His mother is never mentioned, and his father only in passing (‘he is so much kinder now’), but not in any way that demonstrates he loves his son. Worse yet, Scrooge’s beloved sister Fran dies early; and Scrooge is later apprenticed to a man who provides one of the few positive influences of his life, Mr. Fezziwig. But the lessons of Fezziwig do not take, and Scrooge turns away his chance at lifelong love by allowing his fiancée, Belle, to leave him. Scrooge devotes himself to business, not simply to grow rich and comfortable, but to fill up his ever emptying life. He keeps fellow human beings at a distance… alienating his one relative, his nephew Fred (presumably Fran’s child), and closing himself off from his colleagues or employees.
The great tragedy of Scrooge is that we see him as an imaginative boy, delighting in childhood tales of Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe … and we watch that boy almost obliterated by the unimaginative and unforgiving man he becomes. What the Ghosts do, in essence, is connect Scrooge with his inner child.
Few authors wrote of children with the insight and intelligence of Dickens; perhaps that is because he was one of those few adults gifted with a childlike sense of wonder. Mind – not a childish sense of wonder, for that rare commodity is no such thing. Dickens, as Scrooge would, too, after his visitations, was able to see the world with the clear-eyed view of a child, and reprioritize what’s important. As Dickens himself writes in the book, for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.
Though not a children’s novel by any stretch of the imagination, A Christmas Carol has been read and enjoyed by children for more than a century. This is fascinating, because a great deal of children’s literature (most notably Peter Pan) is about putting away childhood things and parting ways with wonder and childhood passions. That is the way, these books argue, to health.
Dickens, on the other hand, believes in an integration of wonder into the adult for successful and happy maturity. Scrooge becomes whole by adopting the wonders of his vision of the Christmas Ghosts. They are not, like a visit to Neverland, temporary, but permanent. This is much to our taste. We here at The Jade Sphinx like our heroes (and worldview) to incorporate wonder! Bravo Dickens. At ‘em Scrooge!
If you are visited by Christmas Ghosts tonight, we sincerely hope that the experience is as terrible, as wondrous, and as life-affirming as that of Ebenezer Scrooge. We could wish you no greater gift.
A special Christmas message tomorrow!