There are no less than 135 movie versions of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. The author has even been dubbed “The Man Who Invented Christmas” in a recent book and film. Being a fan of classic literature, I have read many of his works but I hadn’t read this book, a glaring oversight, I know. Upon completion of it this last week, I found myself surprised by the original work. I had the message of the book all wrong. In the movie versions, I have seen Scrooge is depicted as miserly, cheap, and solely focused on gaining wealth. While this is a very prominent part of his character, I was surprised by how Dickens described his most famous character as living a rather modest lifestyle.
I had imagined that Scrooge was using his money for his own comfort. Some of this probably came from modern usage of his name as a verb. Instead, I found a man who was sitting in front of a nearly extinguished fire, too stubborn to use more coal, eating simple peasant food when he’s beset upon by the ghost of his former partner. Later, when visiting his nephew Fred with the ghost of Christmas Present the point is further drawn when Fred describes Scrooge’s circumstances.
“His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it. …I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always. Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? …the consequence of his taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his mouldy old office, or his dusty chambers. “
The tragedic flaw of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t that he loves money (that isn’t a good choice either.) It’s that he loves work. And by Marley’s own warning we learn the detriment of loving work instead of people.
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “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! Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”
As I read the book I kept wondering, why is Scrooge’s heart changing? Why would someone who loves money become charitable? Changing his goal from obtaining wealth to obtaining status and social position makes his conversion more sensible.
The ghost of Christmas Past shows him how as he pulled away from friends, family, and loved ones, he isolated himself. He contrasts this with his mentor’s ability to balance his work and family and how Fezziwig has become truly rich by not letting his work rule his life.
The ghost of Christmas Present shows him how he’s seen by the people around him. Fred pity’s him. Fred’s wife and Bob Cratchit’s wife dislikes him. Bob hopes he lives a long life only because the security of his own family depending on it. He is not the pillar of the community he thought he was and they are not miserable, even in poverty, as Scrooge might have expected.
The ghost of Christmas Future is most poignant in teaching Scrooge that his life has been wasted. He shows him grave robbers, passersby, and those that should have cared about his death devoid of any positive things to say about him.
If Scrooge’s heart had been set on his wealth he would not have been deterred by the warnings from these three spirits. He would have used his money to create an existence filled with the feasts he missed at Fred’s house, he would have been proud of the fact that Bob was happy on his meager salary, thought Fezziwig a fool for throwing a big party, rationalized how much money he saved severing connections with his sister and fiance’, and would have only been upset that his funeral wasn’t grander.
Instead, he feels a deep desire to be apart of all of the scenes of joy unfolding in front of him. He regrets the times he chose his work over relationships and he is changed by the comparison of the two. Upon waking he uses his money for good AND reaches out to build better relationships seeing that Marley was right from the beginning.
Why does this even matter? Because while we are not all rich, we all can easily become Scrooge. Too often we fill out lives with work that might make us good in business but fail to give us what we really need. Or we become so busy we fail to connect with those around us. Scrooge learned that his goals had been misaligned. He would never find the fulfillment he longed for in his work, only doing as Marley suggested and making mankind his business would give Ebenezer the riches he truly desired.
This 19th-century ghost story has real 21st century lessons. What do we work for? What are we sacrificing for? Are we following the example of Christ and putting our relationships with others at the center of our lives? May we all of the presence of mind to say with Scrooge,
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”