What’s not said: subtleties in action in A Christmas Carol

Following on from my post detailing the observations I had made using the stage directions of An Inspector Calls here , I looked back over notes from an intervention group two years ago, and discovered that I had looked at Scrooge’s development using a similar angle.

I find Scrooge a great character to hold up for psychological dissection with students; how he is a product of his parenting and the institution of the Victorian education system, or how his few relationships, relationships with an imbalance of power, respect or compassion, ultimately contribute to the Scrooge that we meet in the first stave. I do plan on writing a blog that explores these ideas through Scrooge’s actions alone, but for now, have just focused on the four ghosts that visit him, and what we could possibly interpret at each stage about his state of mind, his coping mechanisms and his inner conflict. This approach may be particularly useful for ensuring students understand the value of learning the language used at each key turning point, and how each point is a significant moment in shaping Scrooge’s journey to redemption and self reflection, as each moment portrays the change that has taken place in the previous stave.

Scrooge doubts Marley’s ghost’s very existence; he blames his meagre meals for the hallucination and dismisses the ghost even as Marley continues to deliver his sermon, stating that he has sat beside Scrooge on many a day before presenting himself on Christmas Eve.

Scrooge ‘fought his senses’ but the mask of resistance lasts less time than we expect, as he asks Jacob ‘imploringly,’ hinting at an early point that whilst he shuns human connection and in fact encourages solitude, this- as we see through the events of the second stave- is learned behaviour, a defence that he has developed to protect himself and in fact, he is incredibly curious. His doubt is a default response, the outer layer of a cynical adult, ‘caustic and cold’ but this rarely marries up with his genuine reaction. Dickens wants us to notice the child-like qualities in Scrooge that the character is trying so desperately to keep hidden: his fear and ‘dread’ as he checks around the room, his ‘incredulous’ state as he looks at the ghost for the very first time. His fear is almost pantomime in nature; he is a caricature, an elderly man taking on the role of damsel in distress, checking under the bed for intruders and swooning in reaction to terror.

Scrooge’s inner conflict is his biggest battle, with what his curiosity invites and what he thinks should be his mature, more socially accepted reaction, as,’returning quickly to the charge,’ worries that Marley’s ghost should see this vulnerability in him.

The contrast to a man prepared means Scrooge has time to adjust his mask and use the strategic tools of business here. He knows the Ghost will visit him, and works hard to ascertain a sense of control, because that, coupled with a defiant defence, have always worked effectively to keep Scrooge at a safe distance from unwanted surprises. His default response is one of opposition when he ‘demanded’ the identity of the ghost. His ‘bold’ nature challenges the ghost, almost as though he knows to steel himself against the memories that the ghost will force him to see.

He is unable to protect himself from his own tragic tale. As the ghost’s nostalgic journey is essential for the reader to endear themselves to Scrooge as a character, it is essential because Scrooge will only fold emotionally at this stage if it is the story of his own existence. Scrooge needs to break at a very early point, and the only way to do that is to show him his former self, before the world had tainted and tortured him. As a man that has spent the last at least twenty years of his life without practising the art of sympathy, his childhood isolation and comfort in imaginary friends conjured up from his only company in books breaks him immediately. That he begins with such a fierce approach emphasises a stark contrast with the raw, innocent nature of his sorrow in childhood and means that we understand just how complex he is as a man, and how deep rooted such behaviours are.

The arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present therefore takes place in the midst of Scrooge’s regression. Exposed, vulnerable and full of self loathing after watching Belle live her life in a way that he will never be able, he is furious and frustrated. Left to mull over his own hopelessness. he has furiously expelled the previous ghost.

Scrooge is now at a point of complete submission, not necessarily ready to learn, but ready to follow at least. He makes all the compliant noises as the Ghost guides him around London, but it is curiosity of what drives others that leads his musings rather than his own self reflection yet. His ‘timidly’ obedience is one of oblivion; Scrooge is not seeing the world with new eyes, but seeing a world that he has never seen at all. He has never witnessed the love and gratitude that the Cratchits have for one another, or the degradation that Ignorance and Want evoke. He’s amazed that people could experience emotions with such prominence. It is not the final stave of the novella that we see Scrooge reborn, truly, but here as he has to learn what it means to fall apart and come back together again, by observing the love of others.

We know it’s Death, but does he? It is not the first time Scrooge can,’hardly stand’- he falls to his knees repeatedly- he does not evoke a sense of masculinity, swooning at various moments throughout the novella. It is not death that Scrooge fears, but the idea of death- the anticipation and uncertainty of death- that truly fill Scrooge with repulsion and horror. Scrooge begs to the ghost as he has to all his visitors, but this time, he isn’t begging to be spared death, he’s begging to be spared the knowledge of death. Two fundamental motivators drive Scrooge’s repulsion: the presence of death, but his human condition of inquisitiveness. It is at this point that Scrooge appears in his most human form to the reader, because he feels as we feel, as everyone feels, about death. Along with love, Death is the other tool that the ghosts have to peel back the layers of Scrooge as the caricature that is presented to us at the start of his journey, to reveal that he is simply like one of us. Death is the entity that none of us will be able to control, and by laying out the stark, dismissive nature of Death for Scrooge- the abandoned corpse, the neglected grave- demonstrate to Scrooge how unforgiving, but most of all, how equalling death will be. Scrooge is not disgusted by this as such, but the idea of being alone in death is far more horrifying to him than his loneliness in life. To not be mourned means the painstaking loneliness that Scrooge has come to know so well, but for all eternity. Where he thought there may be comfort in death, all he sees is eternal solitude, which is true fear.

Essentially, Scrooge’s actions and reactions physically are key indicators to enable us as a reader to understand what drives him and what led to his discard of human connection. Solitude is his ironic companion because it is constant, and full of certainty. Collection of wealth is its friend in following because it is constant, and infinite. By looking forward in such an insular way, Scrooge doesn’t have to force himself to consider the kind of man he may be, or how happiness isn’t an attainable measure, or something that he must accumulate.

It may be useful to examine key turning points within each stave with classes, and consider the underlying reasons for Scrooge’s reactions, but also what it reveals to us about at what point in his journey he may be.

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