Scrooge’s Carol - losing the mask.
A Carol: ‘A song, especially of joy. A Christmas song or hymn’.
The traditionally taught timeline
Here’s the traditionally held linear plot of ‘A Christmas Carol’:
Miser is grumpy and treats people badly;
Miser is confronted with visions and tortures that impact him directly;
Miser sees the error of his ways and changes his behaviour forever
(though whether that is to avoid post-demise torture rather than due to a real personality change is arguable, and for another time).
But let’s argue that the transformation of the character isn't linear, and isn't really a transformation - what if it is a rediscovery of who he always was?
Think about our introduction to Scrooge in Stave 1. Bob Cratchit reminds Scrooge that Christmas is a holiday on which he (Bob) must be given the entire day off. This exordium to the two opposing characters is typically viewed as a scene in which Scrooge’s heartless nature is highlighted. But does it? Scrooge first rails weakly against the idea of a day off, and then capitulates, ‘but I suppose you must have the whole day’ (1). Is this a reluctant acknowledgement that workers have rights? A quick Dickensian social aside, perhaps, flickering briefly to remind the readers of the underlying allegiance of the author? Or is this quick consent to Cratchit’s request a hidden remembrance in Scrooge of the trials of his own poverty stricken genesis?
As Scrooge is confronted with his shadow self in the form of Bob Marley, his transformation takes very little time to begin. In his interaction with the ghost, his lexis changes almost immediately: ‘he tried to say ‘Humbug!’ but stopped at the first syllable’ (1). The abrupt shift in character traits is our first intimation that the mask Scrooge has adopted for himself to keep others at a distance is slipping.
We know that Scrooge is a dynamic character, with change having been enacted outside of the immediate view of the reader: he has been both poor and happy, and that he was once a man with moral and noble values: ’I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one , until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you’ (2). Dickens frequently peppers his novels with capitalisations with little regard for grammar conventions, often to reinforce observations and highlights concepts he believed were important; but here the capitalisation of ‘Gain’ elevates it to proper noun status and personifies it. ‘Gain’ transmutes to a mythical entity, one that has arisen and overwhelmed Scrooge, consuming him, erasing his childhood, liberal identity - poisoning and changing him.
It is often argued that by Stave 3, Scrooge’s transformation is complete. In reality what we see here is not a transformed character, but a broken, re-emerging one, ‘Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before the spirit’ (3); the change here is in stance and attitude, not necessarily in innate values and beliefs. The message that ‘he had been revolving in his mind a change of life’ (4) affirms this. It is a change of life, not a change of character or personality that Scrooge has been longing for. To change, he need only change the way in which he operates, not the person that he essentially is. He has thrown off the enchantment of ‘Gain’, and in doing so, has unearthed who he always was.
Indeed, the layer of compassion and empathy that we see emerge in Scrooge is so easily excavated from the surface of his personality that it suggests it has been hastily hidden, like pebbles in sand, and can be quickly uncovered as the winds of the novella progress: ‘Dear, old, honest Ali Baba,’ Scrooge reminisces of his childhood friend in Stave 2, and then quickly ponders afterwards, ‘there was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all’ (2) and ‘‘ I should just like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk now, that’s all’ (2). In Stave 2, this compassion is motivated by Scrooge’s reminiscence of his own struggles - he sees the struggles of others in the context of his own childhood. Yet, by Stave 5, ‘‘An intelligent boy! A remarkable boy!’, Scrooge’s empathy and desire to connect to others re-emerges suddenly as an indication of his long held ability to hold others in his heart.
So we see, that the novella highlights the change of path for Scrooge, a dropping of a facade, rather than the change of character. Scrooge’s final message that, ’I will live in the past, the present and the future’ (5) indicates that he has been the same character all along, and indeed will continue to be into the future. His identity is a culmination of his experiences and of his actions to come, not a curiosity which has been created in a dream state in just one night. In that sense, Dickens message to his readers is far deeper than simply ‘change to avoid damnation’; it is to rediscover the divinity and kindness that is already embedded within. A far more fitting message for Christmas, and certainly one more expedient to a Carol.