Dickens' Carol, part 2

Early on in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge has the encounter with Marley's ghost, Scrooge asks the ghost: "Why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

Marley replies, "It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death."

The moral is clear: we must "walk abroad" among each other. We must "go forth" with our lives and not hole up by our lonesomes. We are given but this one brief lifespan, and we must spend it sharing of ourselves – entering into relationships – being a part of other people’s lives and having them be a part of ours. We must go forth – life calls us to go forth – though we may also "go forth" by staying home and extending hospitality to travelers who come to us. Hospitality, too, is a going forth – a whole-hearted sharing of ourselves with others – and this, too, is the spirit of Christmas.

In the mythology of Dickens's novella, if you don’t connect in life, you’ll have to roam about seeking connection after death. With this one brief lifespan we are given, we must become who we are -- which is a collaborative project of taking our shape through the interactions with others -- the giving to and receiving from other people. With this one brief lifespan we are given, we must fashion a life, and that is a joint liability. We create ourselves through our linkages with other people – linkages which set us free. Or we are linked only to narrow material interests, and we are constrained.

As Marley says, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” Linked to narrow material interests, we are bound. As the saying goes, a person all wrapped up in themselves makes a mighty small package.

A page later, Marley observes, with rueful passion: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Linked to one another, we are liberated and expanded. The chain we make can tie us down, or can be used to let others pull us up out of the pit of self-absorption. Marley’s point might be put this way: What you don’t share, you wear.

Most of us are a mix – neither entirely like Scrooge at the beginning of the book, nor entirely like Scrooge at the end of the book. Scrooge’s redemption is of interest to us because we are all partly like him – we have an inner Scrooge. There have been times we turned away instead of turning toward – and we, too, recognize we are in need of redemption.

* * *

One of the newer adaptations of A Christmas Carol is one with Guy Pearce as Scrooge. It was first aired just a couple years ago, December 2019. With a run-time of 3 hours, it is twice as long as most film adaptations – so it’s an expansion of the story and has a number of plot elements that aren’t in Dickens. The focus is on this redemption issue, and it’s handled rather differently than Dickens handles it.

Toward the end, Pearce's Scrooge tells the mute ghost of Christmas future: “Well, actually, Spirit, I don’t care. I don’t care what will become of me. I only care about one thing.”

The viewer is wondering, what is this one thing? Can it still be money? The Pearce Scrooge is then transported to a graveyard where he looks down on a gravestone that says “Ebenezer Scrooge.” As he gazes, a young man approaches and pees on the grave. Scrooge says, “Bravo. Bravo. I know my fate.” Turning to the ghost of Christmas future, he says, “And you know my question. What happens to Tim Cratchit?”

Then Scrooge looks around and not far away sees another gravestone bearing the name “Timothy Cratchit.” Tiny Tim. Scrooge slumps to the ground and sits, leaning back against his own gravestone. He says: “Spirit, I need to know why. What was the reason for all of this? Why did you spirits come to me? Why did you show me all of this? What purpose?”

At that point, in this version Marley’s ghost re-appears, and says: “I’m not sure what the reason is, Ebenezer. But I know the purpose. It’s all to do with redemption, and our joint liability. All three spirits have done their work. I asked them to let me have a final try. We were so, so wrong. Admit that, at least.”

And the Pearce Scrooge says, “No. No, I refuse. I refuse to change. All their efforts were for nothing because I refuse redemption.”

Marley says: “What in God’s name, Ebenezer, why?” The Pearce Scrooge replies: “This fate, this piss-covered second-class grave – is exactly what I deserve. And if redemption were to result in some kind of forgiveness, I do not want it. Because I would find a way to justify everything I have done according to the consequence. ‘Cause that’s who I am. The only thing – the only thing I want the spirits to do – the only change I want them to make – is to spare the life of him.” Scrooge is now pointing at Tiny Tim’s grave.

And we get it. Even redemption can be just one more self-centered concern. This version depicts in more detail than Dickens does how Scrooge justifies himself and everything he does solely by the calculated consequences. This Scrooge now sees what a mistake that is, and he so wants to be rid of it that he refuses even redemption because he knows he would turn redemption into one more calculated consequence.

But we, the viewers, also get the tension. Even as he renounces redemption, at that very moment he is redeemed. There is a point there that is worth remembering: that even compassion can turn into a strategy – one more self-centered concern. Yes, that is true.

But obsessing about how compassion can turn into a strategy is ALSO a strategy. This new Scrooge’s preoccupation with embracing the horrible fate he is convinced he deserves also becomes one more self-absorbed concern. Just drop all that. Let the fates worry about what fate you deserve. You’ve got one job: love.

Dickens’s original showed us something that this new version hides: that everyone deserves joy and love, no matter how rotten they have been. With the Universalist aspect of his Unitarian faith, Dickens understood that even Scrooge deserves salvation. Dickens’ Scrooge is redeemed -- and implicitly grasps that it’s OK to be redeemed. It’s OK to accept a life of joyous loving because redemption isn’t about putting others ahead while accepting for yourself punishment you think you deserve. It’s about recognizing that others ARE yourself, and that we are all redeemed together. Or none of us are.

Scrooge needs to see that Scrooge, too, counts. As Tiny Tim said: “God bless us, EVERY one.”

It’s OK to be happy – indeed, the world needs you to be. So I conclude with this, from Dickens’ Carol:
“‘I don’t know what to do!’ cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. ‘I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’”
To that, I say: Amen.

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