Some stories are so famous one approaches them knowing that anything worth saying has been said a thousand times. Such a story is A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s well-worn tale of a miser who learns that there’s more to life than he thinks. For reasons that are frankly a mystery to me, my family has a long tradition of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol every Thanksgiving to open the holiday season. A few years ago, watching it again, I realized that I had never really understood it.
In the 1992 Muppet adaptation of the familiar story, Scrooge, played by Michael Caine, is dramatically and cruelly indifferent toward others; not only in his famous condemnation of the immiserated poor to death, but in hurling a Christmas wreath at an unlucky Muppet who comes a-caroling at his door. He steps onto the screen accompanied by a nasty wind and a judgmental chorus calling him “Mr. Greed.” And, curiously, though the story you are about to see is Scrooge’s story, you are actively invited not to sympathize with him—when a chorus of Muppets sings, “he must be so lonely, he must be so sad,” it’s a joke, even though future events will reveal Scrooge to be both.
So there I was, watching this movie, dinner in the oven and a little drunk, when Scrooge stepped onto the screen and instead of enjoying, as I usually do, his deliciously cold persona, I realized that Scrooge’s life is a tragedy, that A Christmas Carol is a story of a man who changes all but too late, and that Scrooge is haunted by time in part because nothing can go back and change the long years of his sorry life into something less blighted and lonely.
As presented to children, A Christmas Carol—much like all the other stories around Christmas—is primarily a morality tale of mistake and correction. Ebenezer Scrooge is mistaken, to put it in school-lesson terms, about what’s really important. The lesson imparted by the story is that one ought not to be Scrooge, and not being him seems relatively simple to achieve.
A lot of what’s going on here is lost on children, and lost most of all is why Scrooge, a man approaching old age, is haunted by time. Doesn’t everyone have a past, a present, and a future? Scrooge could be anybody; Scrooge could be you, the 7-year-old rapt before the story, no doubt also failing to value what’s really important, whatever that happens to be. And, anyway, it’s not so serious—Tiny Tim doesn’t die, Scrooge reforms, they enjoy a turkey, everybody sings a song, Kermit the Frog is there, and so on.
But the stakes are, in fact, as high as they come. A Christmas Carol is marked by death, the moment when things are too late. Dickens’s story opens with the theatrical statement “Marley was dead” because it is key that death has come for Scrooge’s partner and is coming for him. “Nothing wonderful can come of the story” without its ghosts; but without death, nothing would make sense. Even the death of Tiny Tim, hovering uncertainly in the future, represents yet another moment in Scrooge’s life when he would have changed too late. Scrooge reforms, not too late, but his escape from his hellish future doesn’t mean he pays no price for his past.
Here’s something else you miss as a child: Scrooge isn’t a good man, but he’s not a villainous man. This statement should not be taken as a brief for his defense, but the ways in which Scrooge is a moral failure are more complicated than a love of money. And if any story can be treated as a straightforward morality tale, it’s surely this one.
Whether in the Muppet version or Dickens’s original, Scrooge sticks to his business and follows the rules. In the movie, for all the literal song and dance that ushers him darkly onto the screen, his harshest action is chucking that wreath, an unwanted gift, out the door. To rebuke the charitable men who ask him for donations to the poor (played in the movie by the Muppets Bunsen and Beaker), he hides behind institutions and legislation meant to help the poor: He pays his taxes, after all. When, in the book, Scrooge is informed that many would rather die than rely on such institutions, he doesn’t only say they might as well, but adds, defensively, “I don’t know that.” To this, one of the dogged philanthropists responds, “But you might know it,” leading to an outburst:
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
For Scrooge’s life to have gone the way that it did requires little but that he doesn’t take certain actions which he is, after all, not obliged to take. He doesn’t marry the girl he fell in love with as a young man (but then, marriage is not always a road to happiness—just ask Charles Dickens); he doesn’t concern himself with other people’s business; he doesn’t bend the rules to give people who owe him a break, but then he doesn’t ask for a break, either. He doesn’t ask himself if there’s something fundamentally bad about his job, if he has accommodated it and been corrupted—but neither do most of us.
Only Scrooge is responsible for his life, of course, but it is striking, reviewing it, that at no point did he choose it. He fell into it because that was the simplest thing to do. He stayed in it without realizing what it was. There was no moment when Scrooge held up his hands and cried, Money is the only thing that matters! As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again! He commits no great sins. He’s not even greedy, if greed implies wanting more than you’re rightfully owed. He’s indifferent. Well, who isn’t—to some things, at some times?
“What’s Christmas-time to you,” Scrooge demands early in Dickens’s book, “but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and 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?” He’s scolding his impecunious nephew, Fred, but we who have lived through this story before know he’s describing his near future. On his own balance sheet, Scrooge comes out at zero: nothing owing, nothing owed.
The point Scrooge resists is that his not-knowing, his indifference, can be morally questionable—that it is, at least, a choice he has to own. There’s an “enough,” a resting-point of zero. He can stay there if he wants. Not good, not bad; that’s Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s this idea that will be taken from him, as he is forced to relive his past and understand that his zero came at a terrible cost. His vast wasted life is linked and contrasted cruelly with Tiny Tim’s, full of promise and love but over almost as soon as it’s begun.
Dickens is predictably selective in the characters to whom he extends miraculous second chances. For his heroines, as a rule, there’s only one shot; Miss Havisham lives a life that is merely wasted, full stop, “her punishment in the ruin she was,” no three ghosts to help her. (Then again, she inhabits a story altogether more dubious about second chances.) But Scrooge, who could easily have been a comic side note in any other story, and almost is in his own, does get another chance despite being old, crabbed, and ridiculous.
While Scrooge’s redemption involves some good deeds—the Muppets and Dickens both have him, moments after awakening from his last ghostly journey, buy a Christmas turkey for Bob Cratchit’s family and make a donation to the philanthropists he earlier spurned—it would be a mistake to attribute his redemption to his own work. When he promises to “honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” he is accepting the gift that he has been given, an act as important in his moral transformation as his own turn toward generosity. He places himself in debt—to his damned friend who has intervened for him; to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; and to his nephew, whose consistently refused hospitality Scrooge at last accepts.
Having dedicated his life to demanding the repayment of debts, Scrooge incurs a debt he cannot repay. It is not enough to reject his old rules; he must become guilty before them as he reckons with his guilt under the standard he now accepts. That guilt, like this debt, will always remain. His redemption is also a fall. But under the new rules, debt becomes gift. Everything has changed.
Cautionary tales become, for most of us, descriptive. The children reared on some version of Dickens will go on to be Scrooges, not because they are stupid but because they can’t help it—that’s what the world is set up to make of them. They will not think of themselves as bad people, merely busy ones. And this story, one of many warnings along the way, has become so familiar that for most of us it barely means anything at all. Whether looking into Scrooge’s face and seeing mine changed me is hard to say. I gained a little respect for time. And, one hopes, a dram of compassion.