“Throwing Off the Chains: Reflections on A Christmas Carol”
All Souls Bethlehem Church
Rev. Tom Martinez
December 14, 2014
I’m grateful to an actor buddy of mine, Ryder Dickson-Hobbs, who alerted me to these themes through his courageous decision to play the young Scrooge in a Seattle-based production of A Christmas Carol.
Once again we find ourselves tasked with the celebration of Advent amidst a world divided by race. Yesterday’s enormous rally here in New York City and replicated in cities around the world marked a watershed moment in which people poured out into the streets and said, to quote one succinct sign I saw, “enough!” How many more unarmed black men are going to be killed before we wake up to the racism endemic to our society?
It might seem counterintuitive, then, to be spending our time this morning reflecting on a story written by a white European who lived and wrote mostly in England. Truth be told I was wondering how I was going to make sense of that perceived disparity myself, until I discovered that Dickens wrote A Christmas Story soon after returning from America—where he had been invited to speak against slavery. The British Empire had already banned it, so abolitionists in this country were reaching out to Europe for support in their efforts to ban this barbaric practice in which human beings were being bought, sold, bred and tortured.
So despite the “all white cast” of A Christmas Story, Dickens himself was acutely aware of racism, which was part of his overall concern with the basic problem of oppression. One could argue in fact, that because the British Empire rose and declined before our own, the economic tension between greed and gratitude woven throughout the story of Scrooge anticipates the modern American scene, with our ever-increasing disparities of incomes and the vicious oppression of the poor. Viewed in this light the life of Ebenezer Scrooge becomes a fable on the nature and fate of society in general, with profound personal implications. The Jungian psychoanalyst Robert Johnson says that all great myths diagnosis the ills of the social world out of which they arise, while at the same time pointing in the direction of their cure. So let’s consider A Christmas Story as just that, a great myth with the power to diagnose our social ills, while pointing toward a cure.
The story begins with death. It’s Christmas Eve and we are told that Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner, died that very night seven years ago and that he’s “dead as a door-nail” (p. 9). In our death-denying western culture long-enthralled with youth, the introduction of death makes for an arresting start. It’s as if Dickens knows he has created such a highly defended, closed-off character that only the ultimate reality of mortality will be able to wake him from his emotional slumber—the threat of death, and the accumulated force of western religion.
It’s no coincidence of course that the myth circles around and around Christmas. Marley died on Christmas (Christ Mass) Eve. The narrative begins on Christmas Eve seven years later. Several of Scrooge’s subsequent visions of his past, present and future likewise revolve around Christmas. Dickens is here juxtaposing a very shut down and defended individual with the most sacred time of year (for the majority of his readers). On one level this sharpens the contrast around the edges of Scrooge’s stinginess. But at a deeper level it’s not about gradations of greed, but rather the tragically intact character armor that has almost entirely sealed off Scrooge from any meaningful relations with the outside world.
Dickens offers us a profound glimpse into the nature of Scrooge’s predicament through the visit of his young nephew, again, on Christmas Eve. The nephew has stopped by Scrooge’s office to invite him to join the rest of the family for a feast on Christmas day. Scrooge declines with his infamous, “Bah humbug.” After a frustrating conversation the nephew says in utter exasperation, “Why Uncle? Why?”
Scrooge retorts accusingly, “Why did you get married?”
What seems like an odd rejoinder is really Dickens putting his finger directly on Scrooge’s neurosis. Scrooge can’t celebrate Christmas, because he has chosen money over love. As we shall see, his inability to love and his preoccupation with money are flip sides of the same coin. So it comes as no surprise that another central feature of the story’s diagnostic power concerns the role of money.
Like death, money is interwoven throughout the myth in a way that highlights its psychological significance. On the heels of his nephew’s visit on that fateful Christmas Eve, two men stop by asking for charitable donations. Scrooge is so ensconced in his isolation it’s as if he cannot comprehend the question, so he replies with a question of his own:
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman….
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
Having abandoned all concern for anything other than his own financial profit, Scrooge views it as a matter of course that others are left to their own devices and that institutions exist for those whose actions warrant punishment and/or incarceration. It is, we could say, a purely economic view of the world with no consideration for the possibility of improvement or relief, and certainly no consideration for compassion. Anything involving human warmth or sympathy has been extracted from Scrooge’s world, leaving him entirely alone with his financial figures. The two solicitors stopping by on the heels of his nephew are but pesky gnats momentarily distracting him from his solitary world. He concludes the interaction this way.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentleman!”
It seems this is simply Scrooge’s nature, the way he has always been. But by invoking the ghosts of the past, present and future, Dickens probes beyond a merely superficial reading of Scrooge’s character to a universal depiction of character formation. He wasn’t always this way, nor need he remain cut off from the world. But in order to experience healing and new growth, he must engage in the growth pains associated with the inner journey.
This begins, for Scrooge, with a visit by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Marley. We’re told in the story’s opening pages that Marley’s name still hangs on the sign outside of the business and that people often mistake Scrooge for Marley, details which suggest some lingering thread of human relationships in Scrooge’s life and the deep bonds connecting the lifestyles of these two men. In fact we’re told that Scrooge has moved into the building where Marley once lived, further solidifying their identities.
Marley appears after long defunct bells once used for communication within the cavernous household mysteriously begin ringing. I see this as symbolizing the awakening of the Scrooge’s internal communication. The uncanny irrationality of such a thing happening alludes to the source of this awakening being rooted outside any purely rational understanding of the world.
Marley’s role within the narrative is interesting. One would think Dickens could have introduced his concerns as part of what Scrooge sees with the help of the Ghost of Christmas Past. But Marley is really past, present and future all rolled into one. He lived exactly as Scrooge is living, and Marley’s fate is what awaits Scrooge unless he is able to heed Marley’s warning. This warning, of course, is that the whole business enterprise amounts to the worship of the Golden Calf. The very mindset is a diminishment of the world, a shrinking down of all of life to what feels more manageable, to something that can be controlled. But Marley’s hideous appearance undercuts this lie and reveals the true cost of selling one’s soul to the devil in this way (replacing the sacred energy at the heart of the universe with the love of money).
In some of the most beautiful language in the story, Marley calls attention to the chains he carries in the afterlife:
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the ghost. “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. Is its pattern strange to you?
Scrooge trembled more and more.
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable; but he could see nothing.
We can see here that Scrooge is being drawn in to the state of his own inner world. We’ve noted how closely associated he is with his former partner, how similarly the two of them chose to navigate the world. Now his partner’s apparition has returned on Christmas Eve, the day he departed this world (invoking the power of death and the reality of mortality), to offer Scrooge a word of warning. So compelling is the spectre’s intonation that for a moment Scrooge blurs the distinction between the inner world of dreams and visions and the mundane waking world of brick and stone. He glances down fully expecting to see his own chains, suggesting he is beginning to awaken to his spiritual predicament. In spiritual language, he is beginning to be healed from his own inner blindness.
Lest there be any confusion as to the nature of Marley’s curse, Dickens has him ruminate out loud, wondering plaintively how he could have possibly been so callous as to be blind himself to the plight of the less fortunate, especially during the holiday season:
“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. 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!”
Dickens is bringing together the forever moving cyclical nature of time, the reality of suffering and its relation to the age-old Christian story of three ancient kings in search of the Divine, mysterious men of old who followed the light of a Star, religious language for the promise of spiritual illumination.
The force of Marley’s revelation was such that, even after he departed, Scrooge maintained the capacity to look out upon the many spiritual apparitions going to and fro throughout the city. One old ghost with a “monstrous safe attached to its ankle” was well-known to Scrooge. This ghost was tortured by the plight of a poor mother and child shivering on the street. All the ghosts shared this same inability to impact the suffering all around them that they all now were painfully aware of. “The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, [but] had lost the power forever” (p. 27). The message of hope concealed within this hellish vision is that so long as one is alive, we can do something to alleviate suffering.
But before Scrooge is able to fully awaken to the suffering of the world he must first confront his own personal situation. This is where the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future come to his aid. They essentially serve as his analysts, his guides to the underworld, or inner world as the case may be. They give him a vantage point outside his own narrow preoccupations and myopic awareness so that he can take in the entire narrative ark of his life. With their help he’s able to see how his life has been formed by his early experiences, how those shaped and delineated his current experience, and where it is all likely to lead were he to do nothing to change the otherwise inevitable fate that awaits him. These visionary revelations also help him to see anew how socially isolated his life has become, at the same time reminding him that there is a larger social world beyond the isolated dungeon he has built up around himself.
It’s worth noting that when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to the scene of his childhood and asks (Scrooge) if he recalls the way home, Scrooge replies, “Remember it! I could walk it blindfolded” (p. 31). This illustrates that no matter how old we are, we never forget the way back home to our earliest, most formative memories. Immediately Scrooge is flooded with a host of memories and impressions, all of which bring a tear to his eye, a subtle but telling herald of grief and healing.
Through his various depictions in popular culture we have come to view Scrooge as forever old, as having never had a childhood. But in the story we are taken back to when young Ebenezer is found sitting by himself in a deserted school house long after the other children have gone. Suddenly we are presented not with the cold old man who seems the very embodiment of winter in the story’s opening pages, but with “a solitary child, neglected by his friends…” (p. 31). A few pages later there is a reference to an experience young Ebenezer had while left alone on Christmas day, a sad detail that helps explain the adult Scrooge’s distaste for the holiday season.
But most telling of all from his journey through his past is his break with his first true love. In hindsight it’s clear that this was indeed a critical moment in Scrooge’s life, and yet even as a relatively young man he is already so deeply enthralled with the seductive power of money that he is confused as to why his lover is ending the relationship. Cutting to the heart of the matter, she says an idol has replaced her.
“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.
“A golden one.”
“This is the even handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.”
“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you” (p. 39).
His lover calls attention to what Ernest Becker refers to as the fetishization of the world, a shrinking down of its vast complexity and our own vulnerabilities so as to produce a less complicated and more manageable scenario. But these are inevitably cheap reproductions of real life. Like the archetypal image of the Golden Calf, fashioned by a restless people in need of distraction, Scrooge had indeed replaced the wondrous world with an idol, leaving no room for the vast complexity and mystery associated with real relationships. This kind of expulsion of meaning, of the sacred, produces a world in which an individual’s worth is understood strictly in economic terms. It’s no wonder we talk about what “so and so is worth” in reference to their wealth, since it’s all too easy to forget a person might have some worth outside the weights and measures of the economic standard. The net result of this worldview is the objectification of persons, leaving them to be manipulated and exploited. From this vantage point—and it is the dominant one—the only significance a person has is derived purely from his or her economic worth. Notions of love or compassion within this world-view get ridiculed as childish or naive.
This is why Dickens goes to such great lengths to emphasize that Scrooge has locked himself up in his bedroom. In the case of Scrooge, what masquerades as an attitude of mature adulthood and an acceptance of responsibility is in fact an emotional retreat from the world. By taking young Ebenezer back to his earliest childhood wounds the Ghost of Christmas Past helps the adult Scrooge understand why he has locked these doors, which then prepares him to contemplate the present and future with an eye toward unlocking them.
The Ghost of Christmas Present essentially offers Scrooge a view of the social world beyond the confines of his (Scrooge’s) isolated fiefdom. He’s shown the family of his employee, Bob Cratchit, the father of Tiny Tim. Scrooge watches first as Bob remarks to his wife that earlier in the evening when his son Tim and he were leaving church little Timmy said, “that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men to see” (p. 50). Here Dickens brings the full weight of the Christmas story, of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition we might say, to bear on Scrooge’s hardened heart. Tiny Tim not only looks beyond his own physical impediments, but he wants them to be soon in hopes that they will remind people of the healing power of Christ, the archetypal god-man whose birth the very season celebrates. This self-transcending love and compassion is the hallmark of Tiny Tim and the crux of the story. In the same conversation Bob’s wife asks him how Tim behaved at church and Bob replies, “pure gold.” Only it’s clear in the context of the story that we’re now talking about a different kind of gold whose value is rooted outside the monetary system. It’s no wonder that, immediately upon awakening from his three-fold vision (on Christmas day no less), Scrooge calls out the window to have a goose delivered to Tiny Tim’s house. This is both a revelation of his own inner conversion (motivated by compassion, his first thought is what he can do for others), while at the same time a reminder of why the Ghost of Christmas Present paused to bless the Cratchit’s doorway in reverence. Tiny Tim, a crippled little boy, is the embodiment of God in a world that is all but blind.
It’s worth noting, too, that through the magic employed by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge is able to look on as both Bob Cratchit and his nephew toast him. Though he has closed himself off from the possibility of meaningful relations, they continue to show good will toward him. This gives Scrooge pause as he ponders the nature of his social isolation and heralds the possibility of reconciliation with his immediate family and the larger human family writ large.
These basic themes of having opted for a shrinking down of the world and having emotionally closed off from meaningful relationship play out in the revelations made possible through the Ghost of Christmases to Come. That is to say, despite the best intentions of the noble people in Scrooge’s life, there are certain consequences for the way we live our lives. Traditionally this has been cast in terms of heaven and hell. Dickens seems to suggest that one version of hell is having to hear what people think of us once we’re gone! But by this time Scrooge is warming to the process of self-discovery and, as painful as that process can be, it also carries within it the exciting promise of healing and liberation. We see hints of this in Scrooge’s words to this third and final Spirit:
“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?” (p. 67)
It turns out Scrooge feared this ghost the most for good reason, for through its magic revelations Scrooge has a vision of the world after his death. The business men who knew him yawn and joke about going to the funeral if lunch will be served, a reminder of the ruthlessly utilitarian view of the world perfected by Scrooge himself. There’s no compassion or grief over the loss of his life, only a thought as to what might be gained. Similarly three people with opportunity to steal some of Scrooge’s valuables upon his demise meet by chance at the same unseemly underworld pawnshop. Their shameful banter over culpability only serves to darken an already bleak affair. In short there is nothing the least bit redemptive or praiseworthy in the remembered life of this bitter old man. It is the fate Marley warned Scrooge of in that early visitation which set the whole narrative in motion.
It is the threat of living an empty, meaningless life—not only meaningless but cruel, as it was going to lead to the death of Tiny Tim—that opens Scrooge’s heart to the possibilities of relationship. Once he symbolically “awakens” from the visions of the night (the wisdom of the unconscious), he realizes the possibilities afforded him by the gift of life. Having confronted to the pain and loneliness of his past and present, having gained a more objective understanding of his existence rooted beyond the confines of his limited ego, he realizes he has a choice concerning how he lives his life and how he treats other people.
As Scrooge said to the Ghost of Christmases to Come,
“Men’s courses in life foreshadow certain ends, but if these courses are departed from these ends will change.”
And so miracle of miracles Scrooge dares depart from the safe but doomed world of emotional isolation. Suddenly other people cease to be merely objects to be exploited, but beings deserving of attention and compassion. The gift and promise of Christmas begins to flow like living water back into his withered soul. He has come to see and understand his defensive posture and its limitations. Awakened to the possibility of love and life, he throws off the chains of Marley and opens to a life of compassion and generosity.
It is the very same world which Scrooge had lived in the day before; yet because he has changed it has transformed into a world full of opportunities for meaningful connection. The holiday becomes for him a truly holy day. He showers his newfound generosity on everyone he encounters and attends the Christmas meal his nephew had invited him to the day before. Before going in he paces back and forth outside, subject now to all the anxieties that accompany genuine personal risk in the face of relationship. And yet he enters and partakes of the meal, recognizing his long lost family and experiencing what was no doubt for him, the greatest gift of all, a sense of belonging and reconciliation.
Such a dramatic transformation would no doubt mark a glaring change and wouldn’t go without notice and ridicule. Dickens assures us this was in fact the case. “Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter at the outset” (p. 85). Scrooge knew first hand what it meant to be blind to the hidden meaning of such things. Meanwhile in “his own heart [he] laughed; and that was quite enough for him” (p. 85). And so the story of Scrooge’s spiritual transformation ends with him having successfully thrown off his spiritual chains.
I would be remiss in my ministerial duties if I were to end without mentioning the Biblical significance of the name, Ebenezer. The literal meaning of the Hebrew is “stone of help.” We find the word used in I Samuel chapter seven verse 12, when Samuel raises a stone to mark the spot where God helped the Israelites in their battle with the Philistines. I wonder if we might think of this in our modern context as a battle with the brutish, exploitative forces in our culture and in ourselves. I don’t see much point in battling over some external Promised Land in an age of planetary consciousness in which we are coming to recognize our interdependent relationship to the Earth and all people. But an inner battle against the ever-present temptation to shrink the world down, to become brutes to those we view as the “other,” that does make sense.
My contention is that we’ve all got our inner Scrooge, the wounded part that’s on the defensive and quick to dismiss the good intentions of those whose hearts are open. This is the part in all of us that’s got the door locked from the inside. My hope is that we might have the courage of Scrooge to examine our lives and listen to the wisdom that arises from our inner depths. There are great riches to discover when we open these doors. As was said about Tiny Tim, it’s “pure gold.”
May God bless us all, every one. Amen.