Study Guide

A Christmas Carol Philosophical Viewpoints: Rationality

By Charles Dickens

Philosophical Viewpoints: Rationality

Stave 1

"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! 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? If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!" (1.21)

Ah, here we are. This is a spot on summary of the kind of overreaching Dickens was worried about in the utilitarian theories of the economists—that the bottom line is the end all and be all, and that nothing else should matter to a self-interested individual but the state of his finances.

Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look […]

As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.

To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and lighted his candle. (1.82-84)

This is the first instance of Scrooge fighting off the supernatural and its effects—the "terrible sensation"—by committing to his nonsense-free and oh so "sturdy" approach to the world.

No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses. (1.100)

Okay, so now it really gets interesting. Scrooge's senses—arguably the very things you are supposed to use in order to get real information about what is happening—are telling him that Marley's ghost is indeed sitting smack dab in front of him. But (and this is a big but) Scrooge is now blocking even his senses by relying solely on the internal logic of his brain. He is secluding and isolating himself further and further as his only means of self-defense. That, and Alka-Seltzer, which is sure to clear up that indigestion and make the ghosts go bye-bye.

Ebenezer Scrooge

"There's another fellow," muttered Scrooge; who overheard him: "my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I'll retire to Bedlam." (1.44)

Okay, so first of all, a quick Shmoop FYI: Bedlam is the famous London hospital for the insane. Now that we've got that tidbit out of the way, we'll point out that Scrooge is unable to reconcile the idea of someone having positive emotions and at the same time being financially insecure—the very thought of mixing these two things seems crazy—Bedlam-worthy.

Stave 2
Ebenezer Scrooge

"Why, it's Ali Baba!" Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. "It's dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! And Valentine," said Scrooge, "and his wild brother, Orson; there they go!" […]

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed.

"There's the Parrot!" cried Scrooge. "Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island." (2.57-59)

The fact that little Ebenezer reads fantasy fiction rather than history or biography as a child is meant to be a tip-off about his eventual transformation, don't you think? If he was willing to buy into it then, he'll probably be able to buy into it again really soon.

Stave 3

Gentlemen of the free-and-easy sort, who plume themselves on being acquainted with a move or two, and being usually equal to the time-of-day, express the wide range of their capacity for adventure by observing that they are good for anything from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter; between which opposite extremes, no doubt, there lies a tolerably wide and comprehensive range of subjects. Without venturing for Scrooge quite as hardily as this, I don't mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much. (3.2)

Okay, but none of those things is actually supernatural, is it? Babies, rhinoceroses, manslaughter, and pitch-and-toss are all regularly occurring things. We're thinking that this passage might be a bit facetious.

Stave 4

Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black. (4.8-9)

Why does it make it even scarier that the phantom is watching and reacting to him rather than simply indifferently existing in space? Actually, wait, we just answered our own question.

Stave 5

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards. (5.71)

So does this mean that he still tries to rely on his rationality? We thought he just transformed, whole hog. Were we wrong?

Ebenezer Scrooge

"There's the saucepan that the gruel was in!" cried Scrooge, starting off again, and going round the fireplace. "There's the door, by which the Ghost of Jacob Marley entered! There's the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present, sat! There's the window where I saw the wandering Spirits! It's all right, it's all true, it all happened. Ha ha ha!" (5.8)

Look how far away from rationality and logic we've come—Scrooge's proof of the reality of the experience is the fact that… everything is back to the way that it was in his house. Think about every movie that has the protagonist waking up from a dream only to find some element of that dream actually exists in waking life, and now compare that to this, where nothing of the ghosts remains. What in the world are we supposed to do with that?

It was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped 'em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax.

"Why, it's impossible to carry that to Camden Town," said Scrooge. "You must have a cab." (5.32-33)

Scrooge's powers of logic are now entirely bent in the service and economic benefit of others. Check out how instead of shrugging his shoulder at the difficulties faced by others (as he had when he said that the poor should be satisfied with jail, the workhouse, or death), now he uses his resources to solve the logistical problems in front of him. Would this kind of thinking work on a larger scale though?