Pressganging Story into Service: The Dickens, you say?


“Marley was dead” and so begins Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” which has been reprinted and remade so many times it is near impossible to avoid the cultural impact of this work in English-speaking areas. For those who have avoided it, for whatever reason, it is a simple story. An unpleasant miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, believes Christmas to be nothing but humbug, a waste of time, a period for the stupid to amuse themselves, and a way for those who work insufficiently hard to deprive him (Scrooge) of his hard-won money. Scrooge’s transformation within the book is the core of the story, initiated by the visit of his (long dead) business partner, Marley, who warns him that only a bleak and unpleasant afterlife awaits him after death. Marley tells Scrooge that three ghosts will visit him and to change while he still can.

The first ghost, Christmas Past, shows Scrooge a younger version of himself, when he was innocent and those obstacles he faced that put him onto his current (unpleasant, unloving and unloved) trajectory. The second ghost, Christmas Present, shows him the London he is in now. The joy of family and reuniting with old friends. The ghost takes Scrooge to visit the house of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s underpaid and overworked clerk, who lives with a large family and a seriously ill child, Tiny Tim, for whom no medical treatment is forthcoming because Scrooge pays Cratchit so little. Finally, Christmas Yet To Come arrives, and takes Scrooge on a dark journey to the death of Tiny Tim still as a young boy, Scrooge’s own death and the human vultures who pick over his belongings, and his untended grave in a dark corner of a forgotten cemetery.

Scrooge, reminded of his humanity, surrounded by humans and warned of the outcomes to others and himself of his perilous course, awakens on Christmas morning a changed man. His entire demeanour is permanently changed, not just for Christmas Day, but because he now seeks to be not just a better man, but the best man.

I have several film version of this that I like: the Patrick Stewart is good and the Bill Murray comedic-version “Scrooged” is slightly more delightful because Scrooge (Cross, in this version) is redeemed well before his course is as set. (And I like a happy ending.)

Yesterday I spoke about finding stories and myths that I could use and, even stripped of any religious overtones associated with the word Christmas, there’s still a lot to think about in the framing of A Christmas Carol. Dickens had suffered deep and lasting humiliation as a child and the engines of the Industrial Revolution had, by this time, ground up many older traditions and families along the way. Dickens appeal to the charity of those who can afford it is a core part of the work, as well as drawing back to pre-Cromwellian Christmas traditions that had been stamped out under the dour washed-out grey heel of the puritans. But, back to the framing.

The story starts with the description of Scrooge as someone who is happy with their lot, but shouldn’t be. His negative interpretation of the world is as much at odds with reality as his positive perception of the many flaws of his partner, Marley. Marley’s visit forces Scrooge to listen to the one person who could start him on his journey – because no-one else would have the authenticity to speak to him.

The journey begins with advice from a mentor who wishes you to avoid making their mistakes.

The three ghosts appear to force Scrooge to identify how he has changed, how flawed his perceptions are and that his actions, or inactions, will most likely have consequences that extend beyond his lifetime. 

In order to understand why (or if we need to change), we need to understand:

  • How we have already changed to this point
  • What our environment really looks like
  • Why change might be necessary

And none of this is any surprise for anyone who has read one, two or many self-help or realisation books – except that Dickens’ story is full of emotion and a reason for changing. In all of its forms, I have found the thread of the Cratchits to be one of the most moving. Scrooge’s loss and decline one could almost (well, I can’t but some could) write off as the unfortunate actions of a man who attained what he thought he wanted: wealth, and thus a derived happiness. Scrooge is obviously not happy but there are far too many who would ponder ‘why’ when he was so rich! (For every aphorism regarding “money not buying happiness”, there are many examples apparently to the contrary and Dave Gilmore’s famous riposte “… but it will let you park your yacht right next to it.”)

TinyTim, for me, is the core of this myth because Tim is ill, through no fault of his own but because of the time, the body and the family that he was born into.  It’s not Tim’s fault but that simple fact is not enough to save him from dying – he needs other people to realise that he deserves better just because of what he is (a child) rather than who he is (a child of poor parents). Scrooge is not an evil man, although he is most certainly not a good man at the start, and the death of the child is never what he intended, because it would never have occurred to him the Cratchit would have that much of a life outside of the office. Scrooge’s indifference to the world, to the city of London, to Cratchit and to his own humanity is part of the initial transformation that he undertook, to become the Scrooge that we saw. That is the essence of Scrooge – he can change because he changed before. When Scrooge changes, he finally starts down the path to happiness, which appears to hold him in this enlightened and positively changed state for the rest of his long (and happy) life.

I enjoy the story and it’s something I always revisit leading up to Christmas because it is very easy to start getting all ‘bah, humbug’ in the face of commercialism, over expectation and the sheer hype of the holiday season. However, looking at it as a story about change, I’m forced to think about who could come to me and say “Don’t be like me”. How have I changed from where I was 20, 10 or even 5 years ago? What am I ignoring around me that I could be appreciating more?

Where will this path take me?

What would you expect to see, if the mentor and the three ghosts came to see you?

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