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True Riches of A Christmas Carol

August 13, 2004

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. - Philippians 2:4

In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge learns that he is not truly rich. Since young adulthood Scrooge has clung to money alone, which led to him losing his joy in living, and in return he becomes a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" (Dickens 1358). His scathing view on life contrasts sharply with the bright perspective of his peasant clerk. Although poor financially, Bob Cratchit is actually quite rich with regard to relationships with his family members. Alone in his pitiful house on Christmas Eve, Scrooge, by the aid of four spirits, learns that true riches in life are found in relationships with others. Once transformed, Scrooge freely and gladly gives his money, time, and affection to others, signifying that his change results in the knowledge that true riches in life lie not in money, but in relationships.

The Scrooge in the beginning of A Christmas Carol is radically different from the Scrooge at the end of the story. Scrooge's conversion, argues critic William Morris, is what A Christmas Carol is all about (46). Thus, it is imperative to know who Scrooge is at the beginning of the story. Referring to his business, Scrooge says, "Mine occupies me constantly" (1362). He makes no time for other people outside of his work at his counting house. Dennis Walder aptly describes Scrooge as "a man whose relationships are fundamentally self-centered, impersonal and directed towards the acquisition of material wealth" (121). He lives a solitary life like an oyster (1359) and stays in the chambers of his deceased partner's old house (1363). Although Marley was his coworker for many years, Scrooge did not even act like a true friend when he passed away. Instead, he "was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but . . . was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral" (1358). Scrooge's name is a testament to his character; Morris defines a scrooge as "one [who] is a party-pooper, afflicted with general overtones of inhumanity" (1).

Scrooge's whole outlook on life is skewed by his lens of wealth that he uses to judge his surroundings. Critic Craig Buckwald argues that Scrooge's "obsession with business and wealth not only occupies his time and energy but constitutes the frame of reference by which he judges everything and everyone in his world" (4). When his nephew, Fred, comes to his office to wish him a Merry Christmas, Scrooge responds by saying, "What right have you to be merry? . . . You're poor enough" (1360). Scrooge believes that only monetary riches can bring true happiness. Fred ironically points out this flaw in reasoning when he says to his uncle, "What right have you to be dismal? . . . You're rich enough" (1360). Once he dismisses his nephew, Scrooge also scares away two men who are collecting donations for the poor of England. Scrooge heartlessly asks the kind gentlemen if there are no more prisons and workhouses for the poor (1361). Critic Mary Fitzgerald-Hoyt explains, "Scrooge believes that the poor were responsible for their plight" (1). The old miser then cruelly says, "If [the poor] would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population" (1362). On that note, the two collectors skeddadle out of the office of a man who, Audrey Jaffe notes, "has forgotten how to feel" (31). Viewing his actions, it is not surprising that one critic states that business has dehumanized Scrooge (Morris 2).

On a cold Christmas Eve, Scrooge returns to his house with no plans to celebrate Christmas with anyone the following morning. Noting that Scrooge shuns openness, contact, and love, critic Joseph Gold argues that it is only natural at Christmastime for Scrooge to be "particularly careful to shut himself away" (150). Scrooge goes through this process in vain as the ghost of Marley meets him later that night with a warning to change his lifestyle. Marley urges Scrooge to "walk among his fellowmen" and "turn to happiness" (1366) or in other words, to form meaningful relationships. If he does not do so, then he, like Marley, would be "condemned . . . after death . . . to wander through the world" (1366). Utilizing his skewed viewpoint, Scrooge encourages Marley by telling him that he was "a good man of business" (1367). Marley, however, tells Scrooge that his narrow view of the world business caused him to miss out on the more important things, such as "charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence" (1367).

On the opposite end of the spectrum of riches is Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's worker, who is a representative of the urban poor in 1840s England (Fitzgerald-Hoyt 1). Although he does not have great monetary wealth, he continues to have an optimistic outlook on life and devotes much of his time to his family. To keep warm in the counting house, Scrooge has a small fire, but Bob has only a coal-sized one (1359). Interestingly, the narrator observes that the external and internal temperatures of Bob Cratchit are opposites, when he says that "cold as he was, [Bob] was warmer than Scrooge" (1361). On hearing Fred describe Christmas as a "kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time . . . when men and women . . . think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave," Bob cannot help but applaud because he knows that true enjoyment in life is found in giving of oneself to family and friends (1360).

The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of the previous relationships in his life that gave him happiness. He sees a previous Christmas Eve of dancing, eating, and spending time with friends that was sponsored by his boss, Fezziwig. Scrooge painfully realizes that he has the choice to invest in his employee, Bob, much like Fezziwig did in him. In his reflection that a boss "has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil" (1376), Scrooge slowly begins to realize that the riches of life lie in people and not personal economic security. Before he can proceed, however, the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his previous beliefs. He watches as his previous girlfriend, Belle, breaks up with him because he has invested his security and happiness in money. She tells him that he has replaced her with a golden idol named Gain, which he uses to evaluate everything (1376-77). Years later, Scrooge watches as Belle's husband informs her that he had seen her old boyfriend and believed him to be "quite alone in the world" (1378). Scrooge can no longer endure these images because he realizes that the end result of a life "allied . . . with Mammon" (Pykett 197) only results in painful loneliness.

On the other hand, a life based on close relationships will result in true fulfillment, and Scrooge sees this when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him the Bob Cratchit family in Camden Town. Critic John Lucas contends that this family is the image of successful human relationships (139). Though monetarily impoverished, the Cratchits are able to lead happy lives when they are together. When an elder sibling, Martha, arrives home, her younger siblings cheer and her mother, Mrs. Cratchit, assures her that it doesn't matter that she is late "so long as [she is] come" (1383). Whereas Scrooge places his priorities in want and greed, the Cratchits place theirs in the relationships that they have with each other. They maintain their healthy family relationships by caring for each other emotionally. For example, after a meager yet filling Christmas dinner, each family member praises the pudding that Mrs. Cratchit made for dessert, and "nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family" (1385) even though in reality it was. The narrator realistically summarizes the Cratchits by saying, "They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; . . . But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time" (1386). Indeed, the Cratchit Christmas demonstrates that "the poorest of people can celebrate Christmas with joy and magnanimity" (Fitzgerald-Hoyt 2).

By the time that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrives for Scrooge, he already appears to be a changed man (Jaffe 40). He tells the spirit, "I hope to be another man from what I was" (1392). Perhaps Scrooge knows by now that true riches in life lie in people and not money, but the spirit drives this point home with visions of Scrooge's bleak future. In it, Scrooge dies very much alone, and a businessman deduces that his funeral is "likely to be . . . very cheap" because he doesn't "know of anybody to go to it" (1393). Scrooge fears that he will be left in a world where no one will care about him or his death (Morris 4). One critic observes that Scrooge is horrified by this possibility of isolation (Lucas 139). In the process of seeing people's reactions to his funeral, Scrooge realizes that avarice, hard dealing, and griping cares only lead to a man's death (1397).

In the end, Scrooge promises to live an altered life. He proclaims, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach" (1400). Scrooge awakens to find that it is the morning of Christmas after all and immediately jumps into leading his new life by sending a prize turkey to the Bob Cratchit family (1402). Scrooge realizes that by meeting the monetary need of the Cratchits that he is contributing to their well being as a whole. Although his nephew, Fred, deemed it impossible, Scrooge has actually learned that he can use his wealth to benefit others (1388). He even discovers the truth in the clich