If you call somebody a Scrooge today, everybody will know what you mean. You’re implying that someone is miserly, grumpy, and selfish, especially but not only during Christmastime.
Soon I want to examine what made Ebenezer Scrooge change from being, well, Scrooge, to being a generous man who loved both people and Christmas. But before I get to this, I want to consider what turned the human being named Ebenezer Scrooge into the archetypal mean-spirited miser.
I realize this question is more of a 21st century question than a 19th century question. It’s only been in recent times that we’ve become fascinated, one might say, obsessed by psychological causes of behavior. Yet, even though Charles Dickens didn’t supply a lengthy biography of Scrooge, we can nevertheless discover some of what made him the man he became. This knowledge may also help us to understand what unmade and remade him.
Scrooge’s Difficult Childhood
Most of what formed the soul of Ebenezer Scrooge appears in Stave 2 of A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge images of his past experiences. Our very first view of the younger Scrooge comes as he sits alone in his boarding school on Christmas Eve. He is “a solitary child, neglected by his friends.” Seeing his young, abandoned self, the grown up Scrooge sobs with a peculiar kind of empathy. The only joy in this lonely boy’s life comes from fantasy books. (Photo: The first page of the original edition of A Christmas Carol.)
The next scene from Scrooge’s past begins, once again, when he is abandoned by the other boys who had gone home for Christmas. But this time Ebenezer receives a surprise visit from his sister, Fan. She brings the good news that Ebenezer will be coming home for Christmas, and even beyond that. Here’s a bit of the dialogue:
‘Home, little Fan?’ returned the boy.
‘Yes!’ said the child, brimful of glee. ‘Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you’re to be a man!’ said the child, opening her eyes,’and are never to come back here; but first, we’re to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world.’
In this short paragraph, we learn some crucial facts about Ebenezer Scrooge’s sorry childhood:
• He had been sent away from home to a boarding school.
• His father used to be cruel.
• He had previously been left alone at school for Christmas.
• His mother was dead (implied, since she isn’t mentioned at all).
These bits of data begin to explain why Scrooge became Scrooge. But the next scene in Scrooge’s past shows that he hadn’t been completely corrupted by his difficult childhood. In this scene, he is serving as an apprentice for a fun-loving, generous man named Fezziwig. Ebenezer appears to have thrived under Fezziwig’s tutelage, and also been close to his fellow apprentice, Dick Wilkins. We have no hint of the selfish, Christmas-hating man whom Scrooge became.
Scrooge’s Young Adulthood
Yet something happened after Scrooge’s apprenticeship under Fezziwig that changed his heart for the worse. We learn about this from the next scene in Scrooge’s past. There his fiancée informs Ebenezer that she is to break their engagement. Why? Because “another idol has displaced me,” she explains. And this idol is “a golden one,” which Dickens calls “Gain” and we would call “Greed.” The dialogue continues:
[Scrooge says,] “There is nothing on which [the world] 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. Have I not?”
Scrooge has become the tight-fisted, hard-as-nails man who cares only about financial gain. What has driven him to this? Partly it’s his recognition of how difficult poverty is. This came for Scrooge, as it did for Charles Dickens, from his own bitter experience. And it has led him to be consumed, not just by materialism, but also by fear. He is so afraid of poverty’s lash that he has abandoned his “nobler aspirations,” including the desire to marry the woman he loves and who had once loved him.
No doubt the rejection Scrooge experienced from his fiancée hardened his heart still further. Love itself was to be scorned, which is exactly what Scrooge had done in the Stave 1, when his nephew admitted to marrying because he fell in love: “‘Because you fell in love!’ growled Scrooge, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas.”
The hard-hearted, grasping Scrooge found strength and solace in the social philosophy of his day, which thought of the poor as deserving their sorry fate, and even as being a threat to the well-being of the world. When, in Stave 1, Scrooge rejects the request of the two “portly gentlemen” for a charitable gift for the poor, he suggests that the poor might die “and decrease the surplus population.” Here Scrooge echoes the views of the influential economist Thomas Malthus, whose theories would have allowed a man like Scrooge to defend his greed and lack of compassion for the poor.
What Made Scrooge Scrooge?
So, what made Scrooge Scrooge? You start with an unhappy childhood: mother dead; cruel father; sent away from home to overly strict boarding schools; no friends among classmates; only solace in books; the only student not going home for Christmas. Then you throw in a strong fear of poverty along with a growing love for the safety represented by material gain. Add the rejection of a fiancée. And top it off with popular philosophy that praises acquisitiveness and derides the poor as deserving of their condition. What have you got? Scrooge! Scrooge: whose heart has been squeezed by the impact of a sorry life and his own sorry choices. Scrooge: who squeezes his hand around the only thing that gives him meaning and security in life . . . money.
So if this explains, at least in part, how Scrooge became Scrooge, now the question is: What caused Scrooge to change? To this question I will turn in my next post in this series.