I recently attended a live performance of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. The cast did an excellent job portraying the well-known tale in a new and creative way while remaining diligently faithful to the book. This fidelity to the authentic work allowed for the original themes, the ones that Dickens intended to highlight, to shine through to the audience.
Dickens wrote the original story in his early 30’s when he was beginning to fade from the limelight. Besides wanting to be popular again, he sought to highlight the utilitarianism and injustice involved in the mistreatment of workers and their families that occurred during the Industrial Revolution in London. This included the horrors of child labor, the innocent victims of which Dickens desired to catechize through his engaging story.
The rich narrative of A Christmas Carol is multifaceted, with many themes for one to touch on as a starting point for great philosophical and theological discussions. The one I found most profound and edifying is the theme of Scrooge’s transformation from a money-grubbing crank to a generous and spiritual philanthropist. This manifests the truth that misery comes from selfishness and life-giving joy will spring forth from selflessness.
At the beginning of the story, Scrooge was beyond tolerable with his stingy intentions of saving as best he could down to the last penny, even at the expense and health of his workers. This misdirection and disorder of his affections affected his understanding of the world around him, impeded his relationships with others, and of course, destroyed a rational perception of the goodness and beauty of Christmas.
After a miraculous experience which allows him to explore his past, present, and future, enabling him to see where he came from, who he had become, and where his decisions were taking him, Scrooge had a profound conversion. The scales fell from his eyes and he was able to see the errors of his miserly ways. He had a newfound understanding of reality and was able to detach himself from the vices that enabled his mistreatment of others, and, in turn, brought about his crotchety behavior, a behavior one can assume to be a symptom of inward anguish.
It is important to highlight that the change in Scrooge catalyzed by the visits from the Christmas spirits emphasizes the difference between a person who is attached to his or her self and possessions and a person who is detached from these things. When Scrooge fell under the former category, he was a miserable crank enslaved to the need to cut costs even at the cost of others, but at the moment he joins the latter category, he is happy and free to love and be loved by others. We can see that this freedom to love and be happy came about from his detachment from the world and the foggy outlook on life that occurs in one who focuses too much on the material aspect of reality.
Detaching himself from love of his fortune, he began seeking out those to bless with his charity, giving gifts and raising the salary of his clerk Bob Cratchit. Additionally, he detaches himself from his pride to attend the Christmas festivities of his nephew and enjoys the company of all those in attendance. Furthermore, with his time and treasure, Scrooge actually becomes a witness to others of how a good Christian should live, especially during Christmastime.
In our own lives, we might not be as bad as Scrooge was, but we can still learn from his transformation. We can easily comprehend the truth that living for ourselves at the detriment of others will leave us unfulfilled and empty. We can recognize that, even at a lesser degree than Scrooge, an overemphasis on material things can leave us craving more from life and subsequently unsatisfied.
As humans we are made for more than simply what comes to us through our senses. Christians recognize the true nature of the human person as a body and a soul. At our essence, we are more than a body, we are also spirit, and therefore belong to the spiritual realm just as much as we do to the physical. Due to this aspect of our existence, remembering that to be human is to be both of body and of soul, forgetting or ignoring that we are more than material bodies reduces the human person to less than human, it dehumanizes them. Moreover, we dehumanize ourselves when we forget this, especially if we treat ourselves as beings only in need of material things or beings that can only be happy with material things.
When we view ourselves in this light, treating ourselves as less than human, we restrict ourselves from the things that only humans can enjoy, such as joy, peace, and freedom. It is therefore essential that we remember our humanity and also focus on the spiritual aspect of reality within ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Doing this will allow us to change for the better just like Scrooge did. By letting go of the world, we will be able to soar to grand new heights.
I would like to think that if someone was given only the two different Scrooges portrayed in A Christmas Carol, without the rest of the story, and granted the choice of which Scrooge he or she would prefer to be like, most people would choose the happy, generous, and free Scrooge. When shown the rest of the story we see two supporting characters that help to identify the direction of each path the two Scrooges are going down. The first is the opening image of Jacob Marley, lonely, wailing, and in chains. The second is Tiny Tim, who, even through discomfort and inconvenience, is happy, grateful, and loved by all.
Scrooge is able to escape the slavish fate of Marley and embrace the freedom of Tiny Tim by way of detachment. We can assume that the further Scrooge continues down this path, the better his life will become. Moreover, we can assume that we too can escape the miserable chains of Marley and embrace the true love and unaffected joy of Tiny Tim if we too detach ourselves from the world.
Images: A Christmas Carol title page; Marley’s Ghost (John Leech, 1843) / PD-US