Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Christmas Carol 4

`Why wasn't he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself.'
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears immediately after Scrooge's visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Present; for the first time, there is not even a token return to Scrooge's bedroom. The Spirit's appearance is obviously intended to be reminiscent of the Grim Reaper, and the typical way of understanding this section is to focus on death itself: Scrooge is going to die, this fact is revealed to him over the course of several visions, it is ultimately brought home to him by his seeing his own tombstone, and he falls into a total repentance due to his terror. The only problem with this interpretation is, it's implausible.

Unlike Tiny Tim, who clearly has a disease from which, presumably, he could recover given proper medical care, there has been no hint in the story that Scrooge is ill in any way. Nor is there any explanation for his death given in the visions that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him. Scrooge is elderly, and it appears that he simply dies from natural causes and old age. The point is, a change of heart is not going to prevent this from occurring, and nothing in the story suggests that it will. Scrooge is smart; he knows that he is elderly, and the certainty that he will one day die cannot be new to him. So having that fact pointed out by the Spirit cannot possibly have a significant effect on Scrooge. Nonetheless, the visions shown to Scrooge do have that effect. So the point of the visions must be something other than simply the fact that Scrooge will die.

The Spirit first shows Scrooge some seemingly random conversations among businessmen, discussing the death of someone they knew.

`It's likely to be a very cheap funeral,' said the same speaker; `for upon my life I don't know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer?'

`I don't mind going if a lunch is provided,' observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. `But I must be fed, if I make one!'

Another laugh.

`Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,' said the first speaker, `for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I'll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I'm not at all sure that I wasn't his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye.'

And from another conversation,
`Well,' said the first. `Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?'

`So I am told,' returned the second. `Cold, isn't it?'
The discussions are not merely about the death of someone: they are disinterested discussions. The general mood is indifference.

The Phantom next leads Scrooge to a rundown shop in a bad section of town, in which three people meet to sell some wares to Old Joe, the proprietor. It soon becomes evident that what they are selling they have stolen from the dead man. The items produced by the first two are simply odds and ends, but the last woman produces bed curtains and blankets from the bed on which the dead man was lying, and the shirt that had been put on him for burial.
`Ha, ha!' laughed the same woman, when old Joe, producing a flannel bag with money in it, told out their several gains upon the ground. `This is the end of it, you see. He frightened every one away from him when he was alive, to profit us when he was dead! Ha, ha, ha!'
And then suddenly the Ghost and Scrooge are in a room alone with a corpse, covered with a sheet.
He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares. They have brought him to a rich end, truly.

He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him.
The Spirit indicates for Scrooge to move the sheet and reveal the face of the dead man, but Scrooge can't. Instead, he begs the Ghost to show him someone who feels emotion at the man's death. The Spirit shows him a conversation between a man and his wife.

`We are quite ruined!'

`No. There is hope yet, Caroline.'

`If he relents,' she said, amazed, `there is. Nothing is past hope, if such a miracle has happened!'

`He is past relenting,' said her husband. `He is dead.'

She was a mild and patient creature if her face spoke truth; but she was thankful in her soul to hear it, and she said so, with clasped hands. She prayed forgiveness the next moment, and was sorry; but the first was the emotion of her heart.

"The only emotion that the Ghost could show him, caused by the event, was one of pleasure." Scrooge then begs to see "some tenderness connected with a death," and is shown Bob Cratchit's house, in which is being mourned the recent death of Tiny Tim. By contrast to the dark, empty room in which the dead man had lain, the room in which Tiny Tim is lying
was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face.
So Scrooge finds tenderness, but not for the man lying on the bed.

The Spirit finally conveys Scrooge past his place of business and his home, to a churchyard. "It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds." Before even seeing the stone, Scrooge begins to plead with the Ghost. But in all his pleading, Scrooge never once mentions dying, or expresses a wish not to die. What he asks is, "Am I that man who lay upon the bed?"

It is not merely the fear of death that so affects Scrooge: it is the fear of being alone, uncared for, unmourned; that no one will have any emotion other than relief or satisfaction from his death. It is being cut off from all of humanity, and all his wealth having become meaningless. He has finally understood that while he can manipulate and control people through his wealth during his lifetime, only kindness and participation in their lives can gain any reciprocal kindness from them once he dies. He wants, not never to die, but to have been a part of others' lives when he does.

It is worthwhile to look at our own dealings with others. If we hold people at a distance, use them for our own ends, manipulate them to do what we want, ignore them when they're inconvenient, place wealth or personal possessions or accomplishments higher than them, then we have no cause to expect or hope for their kindness to us when we are in need, or past needing anything in this world. Our net worth is not something to be found in bankbooks and ledgers; it is to be found in the place we've made for ourselves in others' hearts. Our accomplishments and accumulations mean nothing if they are not valued by others, and we create value only by investment--investment in the hearts and lives of others.

This insight, by the way, is not merely of temporal value, or related only to people's thoughts and memories of us after we are gone. 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

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