Opinion: Revisit 'Scrooge' this Christmas

John O'Neill

Few if any characters in literature are as familiar as Ebenezer Scrooge, the elderly miser who begrudges the holiday season in Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol." Everyone knows the story of Scrooge being haunted into goodwill and generosity by the three spirits of Christmas, foretold by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's late business partner.

January, 1970: English actor Albert Finney as Dickensian anti-hero Scrooge in the musical film 'Scrooge.'

But whereas all of us know the story of Scrooge, it is not clear whether we know Scrooge himself. Despite the character's conversion at the end of the tale, the name "Scrooge" remains synonymous with avarice and greed. The term "scrooge" is never associated with the character's post-conversion identity. We often refer to one void of generosity and Christmas spirit as a "Scrooge" with no account of Scrooge in the context of redemption.

Why is Scrooge forever perceived in his uncharitable context?

The most obvious reason is that "A Christmas Carol" is a story told on an annual basis. Watching one of the screen adaptations of Scrooge and Carol is for many a Christmas ritual. Some of us even read the actual book every Christmas season. 

Our annual exposure to Scrooge reinforces our perception of him as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner."  And the length of the tale involves more the sinful Scrooge than the man who endures a conversion at the end of the story.

There remains, then, a valid question: Is Scrooge's conversion permanent or temporary? Do you think Scrooge reverts to his ungenerous nature as soon as the Christmas holidays expire? Or is his conversion legitimate and permanent?

The story's narrator indicates the latter. Indeed, regarding the character's promise that he is no longer the sinner he had been, Dickens writes, "Scrooge was better than his word."  Dickens goes on to say of Scrooge, "that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge."

Shouldn't Dickens have the final word? After all, he is Scrooge's creator.

Elsewhere in the tale, however, Dickens contradicts himself. When Scrooge is haunted by Marley's ghost at the beginning of the story, for example, the specter forces Scrooge to look upon God-forsaken spirits. One of the spirits is making a futile attempt to assist "a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below upon a door-step." Of these spirits, Dickens writes "that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever."

But Jacob Marley himself is a condemned spirit, and he has not lost the power to "interfere, for good, in human matters." Though he haunts Scrooge, Marley's Ghost is really doing Scrooge a huge favor by subjecting the latter to the three Christmas spirits (Past, Present, and Future) that Scrooge might salvage late in life his own ability "to interfere, for good, in human matters."

Can we then rely on Dickens' proclamation at the end of the story that Scrooge is redeemed and that his conversion is both sincere and permanent?

It goes back to the author's intent that the story of Scrooge was to be re-visited on an annual basis (and to be enjoyed not only at Christmas time, but throughout the year).

The tale of Scrooge is not a one-time experience. Dickens intended the story to be repeated, and it is this intention which has very much been realized throughout western civilization. It is also this repetition which gives Scrooge his infamous reputation.

John O'Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer and a Dickens enthusiast.