We Are All Ebenezer Scrooge
Why Did A Christmas Carol Become Our Favorite Christmas Story?
“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge, indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
T.S. Eliot once wrote: “Charles Dickens excelled in character; in the creation of characters of greater intensity than human beings.”
This, I think, is how Dickens, maybe more than any author who ever lived, bridged the divide between serious literature and popular fiction. Dickens created characters of such intensity that we remember them, we recognize them, we relate to them.
And we learn from them.
The whole world has learned a valuable lesson or two from Ebenezer Scrooge.
As A Christmas Carol opens, Scrooge is so mired in his own problems and regrets that he’s made himself miserable, and in his misery, he is blind to his own ability to make a positive difference in the world. The transformation that we’ll see him undertake in this story is one we can relate to and draw from because we’ve all undertaken it ourselves. Every one of us has to make some form of the Scrooge transformation many times in our lives.
We have to stop what we’re doing, recognize that we’re making ourselves miserable with our own bad attitudes, and snap out of it.
Every one of us has to make some form of the Scrooge transformation many times in our lives.
A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843.
Dickens had early success with serializations of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, but he was in a bit of a lull in 1842, his most recent serial (the now largely forgotten Martin Chuzzlewit) having failed to connect with the public.
Dickens desperately needed to write a hit in order to reestablish his reputation.
He became excited about a story idea that celebrated Christmas as a season of generosity and goodwill.
It’s worth noting here that, in mid-19th century London, Christmas wasn’t as widely celebrated as it is in the English-speaking world of today. Christian Europe was deeply divided over the holiday for two centuries following the Reformation, and in England, the more Calvinist and Puritanical sects disapproved of the way the holiday incorporated so many pagan rituals of old.
Charles Dickens, in the 1840s, was part of a group of Victorians who were strong Christmas partisans, and saw the holiday tradition, particularly as it was commonly celebrated in the English countryside, as an opportunity to spread good cheer and Christian ethics in the cities.
One of Dickens’s biographers (John Forster), has written how, once he got going on this story, it utterly consumed him:
“He wept over it, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself to an extraordinary degree.”
When you read A Christmas Carol, within the first few pages you can sense that Dickens knew he had something special with this story.
It turned out that Dickens wasn’t the only Londoner who craved the joyous, generous Christmas traditions of the countryside. As soon as the novella was published it was a smash. The first edition printing sold out in five days. Over the next two years the novella became a Christmas phenomenon. By the Christmas of 1844, the novella was being read all over the world (in editions both legally and, more often, illegally released — Dickens, it turns out, never got rich off this story).
Though Dickens had experienced some success before A Christmas Carol, the trajectory of his career makes a clear spike with the novella’s publication. After A Christmas Carol came an extraordinary streak of successful works: David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.
Today, critics point to A Christmas Carol as being a story that put its author in the right place at the right time. Dickens just happened to be a strong advocate for a revival of Christmas tradition in newly industrialized cities at the same time that dwellers of those cities felt a yearning for exactly that kind of revival.
But clearly, the way the story still resonates so deeply 150 years later suggests there’s more to it than lucky circumstance of time and place.
A Christmas Carol didn’t just capture the zeitgeist of the mid-Victorian Christmas revival. It captured something universal and profound about the human experience.
The lesson that Scrooge must learn, on a large scale, as in, the whole-of-his-life scale, all of us must learn and relearn on a smaller scale. We may not be miserly old fools who are reviled by entire communities like Scrooge is, but we all struggle with bitterness, anger, and misery at times. We all, like Scrooge, have our reasons. Dig deep enough in our own Ghosts of Christmas Past and we’re sure to find, just like Scrooge, times when the world was horribly cruel and unfair to us.
Like Scrooge, we all have to find a way to deal with it. We all have a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that points to the cold, hard truth of the tombstone.
That’s why I love this story. That’s why, I think, it’s one of the most resonant stories ever written. We are all Ebenezer Scrooge. We have all been Scrooge. Scrooge opens the story as a wonderfully intense portrayal of a villain, a grump, and a jerk, but rather than scorn him, Dickens invites us to BE him.
Because we are. Many times throughout our lives, maybe even right now, we are the grouchy, embittered lout who needs a wakeup call that life is short, and there’s a whole world of joy around us if we’re willing to open our eyes and see it.
Spencer Baum is the author of 7 novels. He is releasing the audiobook of his newest novel as a free podcast.