We Still Have Much to Learn From Ebenezer Scrooge

George C. Scott as Scrooge by Robert Doucette
George C. Scott as Scrooge by Robert Doucette (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

On December 19th, 1843, a “ghostly little book” appeared in England in the form of A Christmas Carol In Prose: Being A Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. It took the country by storm immediately and has since become part of the Christmas traditions of the Western world, if not through the original book but through its representations in film. Equal to the story itself is its main character: Ebenezer Scrooge, that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” He is so ingrained in our consciousness that we refer to any hard-hearted miser as Scrooge. And I wondered, as reading the story again this year, if Scrooge can teach us anything after 172 years.

When Dickens took up his pen to write A Christmas Carol, the Industrial Age had consumed Britain’s major cities. With it came the quest for material prosperity and a shift in moral sensibilities to accommodate that quest. An expedient Utilitarianism took preeminence. Humans were dehumanized and regarded as assets, little more than machines. Women and, tragically, children were exploited in the factories and mines. The average Industrialist readily turned a blind eye to anything that might encroach on profits. The lack of sanitary or safe working conditions, the education, diet or health of workers was of little concern. Charles Dickens saw all of these things first-hand and embodied them in the person of Ebenezer Scrooge. Little wonder, then, that a Karl Marx emerged to create a philosophy for the oppressed workers.

Not merely a “miser,” Scrooge was the consummate Industrial Age character in thought and lifestyle. He was “solitary as an oyster” inasmuch as he avoided humanity. His business partner was the closest thing to family he had – and, even then, he responded with pure functionality to Marley’s death.

Scrooge was bitter and sarcastic. His humor, often forgotten by readers, was razor sharp (contrast it to a heart that “laughed” at the end of the book). Read again his exchanges with his nephews, or the charity workers, or even the ghosts themselves and a wry humor seeps through. Yet it was not humorous to him. It was a defense mechanism to side-step human engagement.

We can say this about Scrooge. He was no hypocrite. He was true to his ideals. He spent little on his own material well-being in what he wore or where he resided. There was neither opulence nor luxury as a result of all the money he’d made. Scrooge lived the way he expected others to live: in a state of isolation, function and austerity. The making of money was an end unto itself.

We see all of this in the early scenes of the story. His employee, Bob Cratchit, works in freezing conditions and is threatened when he asks for more coal. Scrooge does not care about Cratchit’s family, except to note how they steal from him in order to celebrate Christmas. The “lame boy” Tiny Tim is not part of Scrooge’s reality nor concern. As he states to the charity workers later, the lives and needs of other people are not his business – his own business occupies him constantly.

In his encounter with his nephew Fred, Scrooge shows us that love has no place in his world except as a practicality: to establish oneself in society or the business world.

The arrival of the charity workers to ask Scrooge for a donation highlights how Scrooge uses government laws and programs as a way to distance himself from the poor and their suffering. He asks about the Prisons, the Workhouses, The Tread Mill and the Poor Law. The charity workers lament that they are all in operation. Scrooge replies that those are the “establishments” he supports. Let the suffering people go there if they want help. The charity workers remind Scrooge that many can’t go there and “many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” is one of Scrooge’s most infamous retorts. Many readers may not realize that Scrooge is reflecting the writings of Thomas Robert Malthus, a political economist of the time, who argued that unrestrained human reproduction would outgrow the food supply. Further, he argued that the poor had no right to be born nor to live if their labor was not wanted, or if family could not support them. Scrooge echoes this sentiment as part of his personal isolationism. Pastor and writer Bailey Smith once said, “when Christians want to avoid people, they create programs.” Dickens beat Smith by a century in the person of Scrooge. Scrooge wanted the government to do what he didn’t want to do.

By today’s definitions, Dickens would be considered a Progressive. Yet he held no illusions about the government nor its ability to fix problems. That a government should attempt to help was within his worldview, but a quick glance at his novels, particularly Oliver Twist, shows how government efforts quickly become bureaucratic, inefficient, incompetent and downright corrupt, often working against the very people they purport to help. A Christmas Carol is a call to the individual to step up.

Even Tiny Tim, an embodiment in the story of Christian virtue, hoped that people would see him in church on Christmas Day and remember, because he was a cripple, “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” There was no victim mentality there, no demands. Dickens allows the heart to be the reader’s guide in response to Tiny Tim’s life and fate.

There is nothing about A Christmas Carol to suggest that Dickens was offering an economic plan to solve the poor’s problems. In Scrooge, he simply challenges us to think about how we make money, what we do with the money we’ve made, and the impact on the people around us. Dickens never begrudges the fact that Scrooge has money; only that he is not compassionate about he uses his money.

Unlike Marxist theory, Dickens offers no demands about Scrooge being forced to share his wealth. Dickens doesn’t advocate a government redistribution of wealth. In fact, he does not advocate anything about the government’s role in helping the poor nor gives specifics beyond individual intervention. A post-conversion Scrooge whispers to the charity workers the amount of money he decides to give to the poor, leaving it to the reader’s imagination about what was the right amount.

The brilliance of Dickens was that he introduces Scrooge as a caricature, but then spends the rest of the story dismantling the caricature he’d created. We learn how Scrooge became Scrooge, not as an excuse, but to give us understanding, lest we become hard-hearted ourselves about the industrialists. Dickens shows us the true man buried within the golden sarcophagus and brings him to a joyful resurrection. 

Relieved to be alive and given the opportunity to change his ways, Scrooge promises to allow the past, present and future to live within him. He takes immediate action by sending food to the Cratchits and going to his nephew’s in penitence. He later gives Bob Cratchit a raise. He helps Tiny Tim to get well. He is laughed at for his newfound life but doesn’t mind as he’d rather have them laugh at him than show their blindness is worst forms.

What can we learn from Scrooge in this age? We may discover that things haven’t changed much since A Christmas Carol was written. Men will be miserly, greedy, and indifferent – isolating themselves from the pain and struggles around them. We may also learn that a converted heart can do greater wonders than government prescriptions or programs.  In the end we’re told that Scrooge becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew. May that be truly said of us, of all of us!”

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