“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. O God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
Thus spoke the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, coincidentally the genesis of the greeting: “Merry Christmas.”
The novella has been in print since its publication nearly 170 years ago, and has inspired countless stage, television and cinematic adaptations. Its cultural significance often is cast reductively as “those who have should share with those who don’t.” While nearly all holiday broadcasts seem to support this assessment, a closer reading of Dickens’ actual text reveals something a bit more complex, including the negative impact government-allocated charity has on personal giving.
That Ebenezer Scrooge was a successful businessman in the story is indisputable. He and his partner, Jacob Marley, filled the respective voids in their lives with the pursuit of profits. The reader can’t be certain as to the reasons why Marley myopically dedicated his life to earning money, but we know he died a wealthy man who may or may not have been forced to pay for his skin-flinted, uncharitable ways by wandering the Earth after death bound in chains festooned with account books and money boxes. (Scrooge has a head cold and, perhaps, indigestion, and may or may not be dreaming/hallucinating the apparitions of Marley and the three subsequent phantoms.)
What the reader is told, however, are details of Scrooge’s – in modern parlance – dysfunctional past, and how it formed him into a lonely, cantankerous near-recluse who employs his wealth as a shield against the human interaction which has injured him in the past. For it isn’t the possession of money that makes Scrooge a miserable man, it is his lack of human connection. His disconnection from his family leads to his single-minded pursuit of income, which, in turn, leads to the breakup with his fiancée, further perpetuating his loneliness.
But money isn’t the means to the happiness that Scrooge witnesses fleetingly in his own past or in the present circumstances of his nephew, Fred, and his employee, Bob Cratchit. As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past survey events at Fezziwig’s Christmas party, the phantom observes that Fezziwig “has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” Scrooge responds that it wasn’t the spending of money that made his employer’s party so successful but that “his power lies in words and looks.”
And, from his fiancée: “You fear the world too much…. 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. Have I not?”
When Scrooge visits the present, he observes the cruel circumstances of an indifferent Earth, but also the power of humankind to transform it with optimism: “There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or town, and yet there was an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavored to diffuse in vain.”
And Scrooge witnesses Fred defend his uncle from the uncharitable assessments of his wife and guests:
I am sorry for him: I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? He doesn’t lose much of a dinner…. [T]he consequence of his taking a dislike to us and making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his moldy old office or his dusty chambers.
As the Spirit of Christmas Present prepares to leave, the ghost introduces Scrooge to the two waifs, Ignorance and Want, hiding in his coats. “Have they no refuge or resource?” asks Scrooge, to which the Spirit echoes Scrooge’s earlier interrogative to the men seeking a charitable donation from the businessman: “Are there no prisons? … Are there no workhouses?”
Readers for decades have interpreted this line as another indication of Scrooge’s selfishness and miserly ways. This interpretation isn’t helped by the numerous visual adaptations of Scrooge as willingly hoarding his money out of spite for the poor, disadvantaged and under-industrious. But what if Scrooge actually has a point – if one relies on government programs to help the poor, how can one be blamed for asserting “I gave at the office” rather than ponying up at the Salvation Army drum or the church collection basket, or buying a Christmas goose for the laid-off father of the family at the end of the block?
It’s easy to turn one’s attention from a community’s immediate needs if there is an assumption that one’s taxes are doing the job that might better be done through charitable contributions. Dickens acknowledges during Marley’s visitation:
“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom he saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”
Eventually Ebenezer Scrooge awakens and reenters the world of humankind, a kinder, gentler individual who willingly gives of himself – and portions of his earnings – to benefit the families of his nephew and employee, and further donates to the charity whose solicitors he had chased from his office the day before.
Scrooge’s transformation is a personal epiphany—perhaps brought about by the supernatural, but personal nonetheless. His observations of the deprivation of his fellow man lead him to realize government’s limitations as a protector of the poor and needy. Government doesn’t lead Scrooge to adopt Christian principles of charitable giving, but it is government that absolves him of guilt for not initially meeting the responsibility of caring for his fellow man.
Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.