Monday, December 17, 2007

A Christmas Carol 2

"I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were."
--Belle, to her erstwhile fiance Ebenezer Scrooge

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a journey through various Christmases of his earlier life. The temptation of a 20th or 21st century author would have been to "psychologize" Scrooge, to see what terrible circumstances in his youth had made him into the man he now is. To some degree, this does happen in this section of the novella, but Dickens does more than merely blame Scrooge's demeanor on a bad upbringing. He deals with Scrooge's responses to life experiences.

Scrooge first sees himself as a child, abandoned at a boarding school, unable to return home for Christmas, with only his books for companions. His mother has evidently died, and his father, possibly grieving, refuses to allow him to come home. While young, he populates his time with the imaginary inhabitants of his books; a few years older, he spends his time "walking up and down despairingly." But on the latter occasion, his sister Fan arrives to bring him home, since "Father is so much kinder than he used to be." So although he has had painful experiences, he chooses his response to them, and good things happen as well as bad.

In the next vision, Scrooge sees himself at the warehouse where he had been apprenticed. His boss, Old Fezziwig, puts on a Christmas party for his apprentices, his family, and their servants and neighbors. Dickens describes the party in some detail, and portrays both the younger and older Scrooges entering into the festivities wholeheartedly and praising Fezziwig lavishly. When the Spirit asks why he should be praised so highly for spending only a modest amount, Scrooge responds, "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.... The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

The next sequence, however, indicates more than any other the change that makes Scrooge become the man we are introduced to in the beginning of the story. Scrooge is forced to watch as his former fiancee, Belle, breaks off their engagement. Her reasoning is telling:
`Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.'

`What Idol has displaced you?' he rejoined.

`A golden one.'

`This is the even-handed dealing of the world,' he said. `There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.'

`You fear the world too much,' she answered, gently. `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.
Scrooge is afraid of falling back into poverty, so he has focused all his energies into gaining wealth. His "nobler passions" have been displaced by this overriding concern. Belle recognizes that the man he has now become would never have chosen her, "a dowerless girl," to marry. All he cares about is money. He has lost the capacity to value anything else.

The final vision is the only one in which Scrooge's younger self is not present. It functions as an epilogue to the last one. We have already seen where Scrooge's path has taken him; now we see Belle with husband and family. This is the life Scrooge could have had; one which he gave up for what he has now. The time frame is seven years earlier; Marley is lying on his deathbed, and even Belle's husband pities Scrooge, who is "quite alone in the world."

Scrooge gains one major thing in this section of the novella: he relearns the ability to view things from outside his own point of view. He recognizes himself as someone who could be seen as pitiable, not simply as the astute businessman he had regarded himself as before. More importantly, he learns to identify with others. He sees them in the images of his earlier self and in the people who were parts of his life before. His young self alone at the boarding school makes him think of the caroler whom he had frightened away; his sister fan makes him think of his nephew; his regard for Fezziwig makes him think of his own relationship with Bob Cratchit. In each case, he wishes he could have taken a different approach with someone he had met earlier in the day. That ability--to see ourselves in others, and to see ourselves as others see us--could have changed his whole life.

How often do we get stuck in our own heads, seeing only our own point of view? How often do we dismiss others' feelings and concerns, just because they don't fit the template of what we consider important? And in what ways have we changed, slowly, imperceptibly, over time? We focus on something because it seems necessary, because we're afraid of what will happen to us if we don't focus on it. And then it becomes the only way in which we can view life. It's so easy for our "nobler passions" to be replaced. We need consciously, actively, to fight that tendency and keep that from happening.

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