A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
A miserable, bitter old miser, Scrooge hates irrational things like happiness, generosity, and Christmas, until a trio of Ghosts shows him the error of his ways.
Really, what's the deal with Scrooge? It's probably safe to say that there were exactly zero people like him in Dickens's reading public (nobody's that mean, right?), so he's certainly not here to make us identify with his awfulness. So what function does this character play? Well, here are two good ways to think about him.
Cold Is As Cold Does
Check out our first description of Scrooge:
Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him. (1.7)
So… anything jump out at you as the major characterization here? Would you say that Dickens might be a bit fixated on the whole "cold" thing? Yeah, good call. Scrooge is cold. Really, really cold. He's Mr. Freeze. The cold is a part of him, not only changing what he looks like and how he moves, but also affecting his relationships—or lack thereof—with other people. Basically, he is an "oyster" with a shell made of his own "low temperature." Lovely.
All of this frozen inhumanness makes Scrooge a really great foil for the warmth that the holiday season is supposed to bring. And, sure enough, we get a lot of contrasting imagery of actual physical warmth, as families huddle around their fireplaces and grow hot through dancing at parties, and also of course the emotional warmth of human closeness.
So where does this cold/hot thing lead us? Well, we don't know about you, but when Shmoop thinks of a friendless and very cold body, we can't help but think of a corpse. Is Scrooge in a way already dead at the start of the novella, and not just in the one potential future he sees?
Think about it. He lives alone in a building that isn't actually housing, eating almost nothing, and trying to speak with as few people as possible. If he's not actually dead, he's certainly more machine than human at this point.
Or is the point of the cold to drive home the overriding message that the only way to be a living human being is to engage with others? After all, almost all of the activities that create warmth are shared with other people—eating a large dinner, getting warm in a welcoming living room, socializing, dancing. The more Scrooge avoids interaction, the colder and more cut-off he becomes (starting with his rejection of the warm fiancée in favor of the cold metal of money).
Or, potentially, does the cold connect Scrooge to something else—the unyielding winter itself, perhaps? What do you think?
Economics and Altruism
Alternatively, there is the Scrooge that is primarily a stand-in for the way the rise of classical economic theory and utilitarianism were starting to affect England in the middle of the 19th century (a.k.a. the Victorian period).
Whoa, don't panic. Here comes Shmoop to the what-on-earth-is-that-terminology?-rescue.
Utilitarianism is the idea that we should set up society to do the greatest good for the most number of people.
And sure, it sounds good when we say it like that, but the utilitarian focus tends to be primarily on the physical—health and nutrition, for example—or on the financial—like, say, the gap between the rich and the poor. This is all well and good, but do you notice anything that's missing?
That's right, emotions and spirituality, which are really hard to quantify and make logical, so they ended up not quite making the cutoff for all those "greatest good" calculations. We mean, how do you quantify happiness?
This omission hugely bothered Dickens—and many others. Other things that bothered the anti-utilitarians included questions like, what happens to the people who aren't part of that "greatest number"? Or, was it really such a great idea to replace older Judeo-Christian ideas of morality with mathy rationality?
This statistically based rationality, by the way, tended to argue that poor people were at fault for being poor and shouldn't be helped, and that all others should act only in their own self-interest. Dickens, meanwhile, was deeply committed to the idea of acting for the sake of others. Self-sacrifice, altruism, generosity, and compassion were all high on his must-do list, and he believed that these behaviors would be lost in the developing economic system.
Scrooge-onomics Versus Dickensianomics
So, with all that lofty stuff in mind, let's turn back to Scrooge. For one thing, Scrooge is a moneylender, meaning he makes money without actually producing anything of substance (because his income comes from interest on the loans he gives out, not from selling goods to others). Now, sure, in reality, a modern economy would struggle and peter out without credit (hey, check out the recent financial crisis, y'all!).
But, to Dickens—who wasn't too up on the facts of how modern capitalism actually functions and mostly relied on his gut—creditors were the people who sucked the poor dry and then condemned them to wretchedness. Remember, those are Dickens's words, not Shmoop's.
For another thing, Scrooge isn't adding anything to the economy on the other end either, since instead of spending his money on goods and services (if only for himself), he hoards it. He is basically a leech on the system, and he hates everyone who doesn't live the same way:
"I live in such a world of fools […] What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?" (1.21)
Scrooge's main beef is with people who use the very credit that he provides. These are the folks who "pay bills without money" and then find the balance books "presented dead" against themselves. But of course, in reality, he is the one who's the problem because he has taken himself entirely out of the economic system that makes the world, or at least the country, go around.
In the end, Scrooge becomes the perfect consumer. It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when this happens, since the ghosts don't spend a lot of time talking about how you gotta go out there and buy stuff to make the whole thing go. But maybe it happens in the memory about Fezziwig, when the Ghost of Christmas Past makes a pretty pointed comment that the happy party is at Fezziwig's expense: "he has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps" (2.101).
In and of itself it's not much, but Scrooge is pretty smart when he replies that spending money is a way of getting and using power—in this case, the power of making other people happy. It's not the amount of money spent that matters, he answers, but the fact that by spending his income, Fezziwig gains "the power to render us happy or unhappy […] his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune" (2.102).
In other words, in A Christmas Carol, spending money on consumer goods is an investment (a wise investment) in friendship, in human society, and in life itself. Scrooge really seems to hang on to this lesson. Check out how when he reforms himself, the very first thing he does is become a customer and a donor—he buys the big turkey, he hires a cab, he chips in to the charity pool, coming back into life by buying into the economy.Scrooge's Timeline