Five Christmas Chestnuts from Dickens

Fictional characters have always been powerful vessels within which to carry political, theological and philosophical arguments. The dramatic impact of a well-drawn character takes us places that purely reasoned debate simply cannot. We may not want a chastened Ebenezer Scrooge making modern social welfare policy (nor would we want a defiant John Galt) but Scrooge’s Christmas conversion story annually whispers deep into the psyche of each businessperson.

A Christmas Carol resonates in part because Dickens assumes social virtue that tempers self-interest with generosity. We can acknowledge the superiority of a free market to create wealth and yet we can still retain a healthy fear of the of the unfettered market’s natural disposition toward class inequality, just as we relish the benefit of nuclear power but govern the handling of fissionable material with great care.

For those that are “haves” either by virtue of good fortune or hard work, these five tiny gobbets of Dickens should remind us that the “have nots” do not disappear simply because we are busy increasing wealth. And for those of us who manage teams of colleagues, old Fezziwig’s example is well worth remembering during this season and beyond.

Here are five chestnuts for Christmas:

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Some gentlemen visit Ebenezer Scrooge in hopes that he will make a charitable contribution to benefit the poor at Christmas time:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge.  “Are they still in operation?”

“They are.  Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”  said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.  “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. 

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Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former business partner who rues his earthly preoccupation with business and has come to warn Scrooge of the same fate:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

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The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to witness a merry Christmas party put on by Fezziwig, his first employer. As they overhear two apprentices discussing Fezziwig, Scrooge remembers how his old mentor treated his employees with warmth and regard:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

“Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing in particular,” said Scrooge.

“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.

“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now! That’s all.”

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Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past overhear a conversation between the young Scrooge and a girl he has loved:

He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it 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?”

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The Ghost of Christmas Future reveals to Scrooge two hideous urchins and haunts Scrooge with Scrooge’s own words:

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

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Applications:

“I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now,” Scrooge says. Could you make that statement for yourself this holiday season?

“I should like to be able to say a word or two to _________ just now.”

Holidays are times when professionals are likeliest to accept sentiments of gratitude sincerely and gratefully, without fear of hidden meaning or ulterior motive. Take advantage of that with a co-worker.

Perhaps also make a sacrificial charitable contribution this week (by sacrificial, the contribution should be such that it deprives you of something you would have otherwise purchased for yourself or your family).

Merry Christmas from The Stubborn Glebe!

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