A Christmas Carol, Atheism, Bah Humbug!, Book review., Books, Charity, Charles Dickens, Christian, Christianity, Christmas, Clement Atlee, David Hume, Ebenezer Scrooge, Freud, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Humor, Irony, Jacob Marley, Literary criticism, Literature, Maximilien Robespierre, Morality, Opinion, Politics, Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, Satire, Schizophrenia, Scrooge, Socialism
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) begins with an insistence that Jacob Marley is as dead as Hamlet’s father, but Ebenezer Scrooge’s religious-style conversion to Christmas – and the downfall of his sceptical intelligence, Diogenic eccentricity, and progressive political ideals – evoke less of the Shakespearean tragedy and more of a horrific nervous collapse. Scrooge is initially a heroic figure – a champion of liberty and independence in a world of grinding conformity – and his role is to articulate the things which we ourselves are typically forbidden from saying. The reader can indulge vicariously in the freedoms and forbidden pleasures of Scrooge’s gravity-defying rhetoric. The introductory account of this character anticipates the delicious wit and cynicism of Oscar Wilde:
“Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
The funniest line in the book is Scrooge’s suggestion that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” In this opening scene, Scrooge is at the height of his powers – he is an impish, boyish wit and a fearless adversary of “humbug” – and one of his most attractive features is his multicultural tolerance, a quality notably lacking in the zombies who are trying to mindlessly stuff Christmas down everybody’s throats. It is rarely observed that Scrooge behaves with an impeccable courtesy to his earthly and ghostly tormentors alike. He implores his nephew to “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” Those who are remorselessly implementing Christmas would do well to mind Scrooge’s proposal that, “it’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.” Yet although not sharing his clerk’s enthusiasm for Christmas, he generously allows that, “But I suppose you must have the whole day” – and on full pay too!
Why, we may wonder, is Christmas such a humbug? This is partially a question of politics – Scrooge dissents from the quintessentially “right-wing” position that welfare should be left to charity and private philanthropy. Although the prisons, workhouses, and Poor Law which Scrooge commends were far from ideal, they upheld the principle that the State should provide for the poor, funded by the taxation of society’s wealthiest members. There is evident pride in Scrooge’s assertion that, “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.” Scrooge is a wealthy man and his taxes undoubtedly yield a more reliable provision for the poor than all the one-off charitable donations collected by the “portly gentlemen” ( and the adjective surely indicates hefty administrative fees).
Although he is ahead of his time, it is possible to identify Scrooge as a welfare socialist in the vein of Clement Attlee (who would reason that “Charity is a cold, grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim”). The Christmas Spirits, however, posit a chilling image of unimpeded bourgeois power – the tyranny of the employer unregulated by the State:
He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.
How gratifying for Dickens’ well-to-do readers to conclude that rather than being compelled by the State to provide holidays, Fezziwig should merely host the occasional Christmas party and his “power” to exploit will be vindicated for the rest of the year.
The humbug of Christmas also derives from its grounding in the Christian faith. One may initially suspect that Scrooge is Jewish – more of a Shylock than a Hamlet – and that his downfall amounts to an unpleasant fantasy of Jewish annihilation. The “Christmas carol” which drives Scrooge to seize his ruler with exasperation is “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and the lyric which remains unsung articulates the gentile assumption that “…Jesus Christ our Savour/ Was born upon this day.” Yet Scrooge is more likely a deist or an atheist: at one point he charges the Ghost of Christmas Present with the Puritanical tendencies of Christians – their desire to deprive ordinary people “of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all,” – and the flummoxed spirit can only plead that bigotry is “as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived.”
Perhaps Scrooge’s deism is affirmed in a curious little exchange with Marley’s ghost, the conclusion of which precipitates his nervous collapse. When confronted with the spirit, Scrooge delivers one of the most famous and eloquent articulations of Humean scepticism in Western literature:
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Nonetheless, Scrooge’s nerves are fatally undermined by an odd, apparently-inexplicable act: Marley wails, rattles his chains, and his lower jaw drops down upon his breast. Why should Scrooge be so shaken by this incident, given that Marley has previously walked through a locked door? Because this apparition cannot fail to remind Scrooge of the example of Maximilien Robespierre, who advanced a deist alternative to Christianity – the Cult of the Supreme Being – and whose jaw reputedly fell off on the guillotine, after the executioner ripped away the bandage holding it in place. Faced with the aftermath of Robespierre‘s experiment, Scrooge is cowed into the old Christian conformity.
If taken at face value, Scrooge’s “conversion” is the result of shallow emotional manipulation rather than free choice. He is terrorised with an awful ex-girlfriend and the prospect of dying alone, rather than persuaded by a convincing moral case for Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Past is particularly smug and obnoxious, bullying Scrooge to tears and then moralising priggishly at his distress, until Scrooge demands “Why do you delight to torture me?”
Yet these spirits are ultimately evidence of Scrooge’s increasingly irrational and morbid mind, and their lobbying expresses the caprices of a deteriorating psyche. We know that Scrooge suffered from psychotic delusions as a boy, when he hallucinated that he held company with Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe. There is no sense to Marley’s haunting at all – if he cares so much about his old friend’s salvation, then why wait “seven years” until approaching him? – and when taken as a whole, the hauntings convey the recognisably schizophrenic delusions of grandeur and persecution. Scrooge seemingly believes that he alone merits a personalised visitation by Christmas itself, as embodied in a trinity of spirits, whereas the rest of the damned were presumably undeserving of such a tyrannical intervention (they could hardly have ignored such insistent ghosts). In the panorama of Christmas which is conjured up by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge is apparently the only man on the planet who is alone on Christmas day – a preposterous, paranoid delusion. An obsessive paranoia equally characterises the portrayal of this ghost, who, like the servant of a totalitarian regime, polices every detail of Christmas and banishes the tiniest flickers of dissent with incense from his torch.
These ghosts are assuredly curtains and bedposts animated by morsels of underdone potato, but Scrooge is so overwhelmed by such delusions that he degenerates into total senility. (“I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.”) Bob Cratchit recognises that his boss has gone potty and needs a “straight-waistcoat,” although he eventually manages to calm him down. Scrooge’s psyche is so destabilised by the end of the tale that he is reduced to wandering aimlessly around the city. We may wonder whether Tiny Tim – who is more symbolic and ghostly than the straightforwardly human children who huddle beneath the Ghost of Christmas Present – ever existed in the first place: there is insufficient evidence for believing that he lives outside of Scrooge’s head.
The impetus for the hallucinations is Scrooge’s mysterious companion and soul mate Jacob Marley. Scrooge and Marley are two indistinguishable “kindred spirits” who are locked together in a living death. Scrooge “answered to both names” as they were “all the same to him,” and a description of Scrooge could equally pass for one of Marley‘s ghost:
External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge…Foul weather didn’t know where to have him… Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”
Both characters have their own “infernal atmosphere” which is unimpaired by their surroundings, and like Poe’s Dupin and his companion, Scrooge and Marley spend years closeted up in a dark, lonely house, a shared sanctuary from the outside world. One suspects that Scrooge simply cannot accept that his partner is dead – he is, after all, so unaffected by Marley’s death as to conclude a business deal on the day of his funeral – and Scrooge’s laboured solitude assuredly indicates that he is afraid of establishing new affections and supplanting the memory of his old “partner,” whom he still imagines sitting invisibly beside him “many and many a day.”
When Scrooge’s nephew evokes “love,” and the charitable gentlemen assume Marley’s “liberality,” the seeds of Scrooge’s delusions are sown. He nods off on Christmas Eve whilst reflecting obsessively on Marley’s face, and the horror of his consequent nightmare is that Marley returns from the grave in a cold, impersonal, and aloofly theatrical haunting, in which he is rendered as mundane and unlovely as a “door knocker.” Scrooge’s paranoid terror is that his mourning and melancholia will be buried beneath the garish pageantry, cheap sentiment, and heaped up comfort foods of Christmas. Humbug indeed.
Tychy wishes all readers a Merry Christmas.