by Gary North
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
~ Charles Dickens (December, 1843).
Little did Charles Dickens suspect in 1843, when he sat down to write "A Christmas Carol" in the hope of earning enough royalty income to pay off a debt, that his story would become the most popular piece of fiction in the English language. Generations that ceased to read it have seen it performed on stage and on screen, both large and small. I doubt that any other work of literature has been transferred from the printed page to the silver and digital screens with such artistic faithfulness to the original. In the case of Alastair Sim's 1951 portrayal of Scrooge, the movie version is better than the original.
The book sold out the entire edition of 6,000 copies in its first week: the week before Christmas.
It was in 1843 that the phrase "Merry Christmas and a happy New Year" first became popular, due to Dickens's story and the first Christmas card.
Dickens was obsessed with debt. His father had been imprisoned for debt, and Dickens was taken out of school and put to work to support his family. He made Scrooge a money-lender.
The story of Scrooge is the story of a redemption — the buying back of a lost soul. G. K. Chesterton was correct when he observed that Scrooge's redemption was like the redemption of a sinner at a Salvation Army meeting, with this exception: The Salvation Army's redeemed man was likely redeemed from the punchbowl, whereas Scrooge was redeemed to it.
Dickens saw Christmas as a festival: a celebration marked by feasting. All around Scrooge on the day before Christmas, there were preparations for a feast. From rich to poor, men were preparing for a great meal.
Scrooge makes no such preparations. Indeed, his rejection of an invitation to a feast is at the heart of his stiff-necked ways. When his nephew Fred, a poor man compared to Scrooge, invites him to Christmas meal, Scrooge resists to the point of rudeness, and not mere rudeness: a satanic affirmation. Dickens's language is subtle but profound.
"Don't be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow."
Scrooge said that he would see him — yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.
For Scrooge, food reveals his lifestyle. It is his silent affirmation.
Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker's-book, went home to bed.
In Sim's version of the story, Scrooge asks for extra bread. That will cost a half penny extra, the waiter tells him. "No more bread," answers Scrooge. The screenwriter got Scrooge exactly right, even though Scrooge would have known about the extra charge by then and would not have made the request.
Just before bedtime meal, he takes a bowl of gruel. He even explains Marley's apparition in terms of food.
"What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?"
"I don't know," said Scrooge.
"Why do you doubt your senses?"
"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"
In contrast to Scrooge was the society around him. Men prepared for the annual feast. No matter how poor, men spent their hard-earned money on the makings of a memorable meal.
Dickens sketched a compelling contrast between London's coal-blackened physical environment in 1843 and London's residents at Christmas.
The house fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and waggons; furrows that crossed and re-crossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts' content.
But Christmas stood as a public challenge to this hostile environment.
There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.
The people were happy.
For, the people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball — better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest — laughing heartily if it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong.
Matching the joy in the hearts of Londoners were shops filled with food. Here, Dickens's words serve as a primary source document regarding the monumental economic changes that the Industrial Revolution had begun to produce by 1843.
The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.
The people had hope for tomorrow's celebration, and through this feast, they affirmed hope for the future. It was a ritual affirmation, though Dickens did not see it this way. It was the same ritual affirmation that had brought the Hebrews to Jerusalem once a year at Passover.
It was an affirmation that announced to the world, "There's more where that came from."
By 1843, this was not a vain hope in London. It was verified daily by the world around them.
Dickens was living in the second generation after the Industrial Revolution began. Sometime around 1780, an economic revolution like no other in history had begun. It was marked by compound economic growth which did not permanently reverse — not in wartime, not in a post-war depression, not in times of bad harvest and bad weather. Men were escaping at long last from their dependence on the weather and the soil. Nature was losing its grip on men's lives because of the growing division of labor, described by Adam Smith in 1776 in his story of the output of a pin factory.
Specialization of production in 1843 was slowly extending its reign through voluntary exchange, releasing mankind from the tyranny of the weather. Excepting only the famine of the 1840s in Ireland, which began while Dickens was writing his story, the West would not again experience a famine. That long-dreaded horse of the apocalypse was put out to pasture.
The driving force of this revolution was specialization — specialization funded by capital, itself the product of thrift, by double-entry bookkeeping, and by attention to detail. In short, it was men like Ebenezer Scrooge who were the architects of capitalism.
In a heartless environment marked by scarcity, there must be careful attention to details, to ledgers, to costs of production. There must be alertness to profit opportunities, which are found where consumers demand to be served — demand through competitive bidding, one against the other. In short, there must be attention to business.
Here lies the great paradox of free market capitalism. The spread of capital is the basis for men's increased productivity. The spread of the bookkeeper's mindset is the basis of net retained earnings, which in turn finance additional capital. Taking care of business reduces poverty as nothing else in man's history ever has. Yet men like Scrooge take care of business.
Dickens did not understand this. Neither have generations of capitalism's critics. They accept Marley's self-condemnation.
"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!"
Yet no man can deal successfully with a comprehensive ocean of responsibility. It is the specialization of production and market competition — forced on all producers by consumers — that has reduced the burden of poverty. The results of the process of steady compound growth were visible in the shops of London in 1843, and Dickens described them well. He did not understand their origin.
In dismissing the two men who solicited a donation for the poor, Scrooge declared:
"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!"
Scrooge is a miser. He has a shriveled soul. He has a highly specialized notion of what constitutes a meaningful life, which he sees in terms of the ledger book. Yet without Scrooge and men like him, who are devoted to the details of their businesses, the shops of London would not be filled with cornucopias — at Christmas or all year round.
Something is missing here. What is it?
The ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to a party. Scrooge recognizes it instantly. He had been there as a young apprentice. So had the entire company.
In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother's particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow.
They ate. They drank. They danced. Oh, how they danced, most notably the Fezziwigs.
But if they had been twice as many — ah, four times — old Fezziwig would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs. Fezziwig. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that's not high praise, tell me higher, and I'll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig's calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn't have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next.
Here was what by the ledger was waste — and what waste it was!
Scrooge here had his first encounter with a successful businessman's ledger, but he had forgotten about this annual entry. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminded him.
"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 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."
Here, in his praise of Fezziwig, Scrooge condemned himself — not merely as a man but as a manager of men. Here, a trace of light pierced the gloomy clouds of his misunderstanding.
The whole story is about how the light eventually prevailed, insight by insight. This is why it is beloved.
The heart of capitalism is service to the consumer. In serving the consumer, the producer must pay attention to what the consumer wants, at what price, when, and where. But the same is true of the producers' attitude toward his employees. They, too, must be served: by better tools, better training, better work environments, and loyalty downward.
One mark of this attitude is the office Christmas party. Fezziwig had it right. Compared to the total annual budget, the party is a marginal expense. But it shows that the company is a team. Teams celebrate good news. Christmas is good news.
The most faithful person in "A Christmas Carol" is Fred, Scrooge's nephew, who invites him to dinner, is rejected, and vows to do it again every year.
"I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him. He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can't help thinking better of it — I defy him — if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you?"
This is the truest spirit of Christmas: to invite dour skeptics to celebrate the feast, despite their insistence of "humbug," despite their insistence that they wish to celebrate in their own way — by not celebrating.
In the end, Scrooge comes to his senses and shows up at the party. He had already sent Cratchit a turkey, which had cost him money. That was not the most costly of his expenses. To go to the party, he risked having to be forced to eat a large portion of Christmas crow with all the trimmings.
That is how it is each year at Christmas. Men who have said "humbug" all their lives, in various ways, with various degrees of commitment, are asked to join the festivities. The price of admission is always the same:
Scrooge found that the festive surroundings left in him an irreducible joy. He became a friend, which meant he ceased looking out exclusively for Number One.
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.
There were costs, of course. There always are.
Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
The free market does not make men good. It does encourage them to serve the consumer. It forces losses on them if they are less efficient in their service than their competitors. The free market society is not a dog-eat-dog world. It is dog-serve-master world. The consumer is the master.
Scrooge served the market well in both phases of his career. He did not wind up in poverty in phase two. Dickens understood the Fezziwig had the right approach.
In Sim's version of the story, Fezziwig goes out of business because he cannot compete in the new world of capitalism. Dickens never hinted that this was the outcome of Fezziwig's good cheer. My guess is that Fezziwig died rich. If he treated his employees well, he was probably in the habit of treating his customers well.
May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
December 23, 2006
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