Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Christmas Carol-Characters Pt 1

Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol and is described by Dickens thusly:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge...I enjoy the performance, but I always thought Scott looked a bit too well-fed to match Dickens's description.

The three paragraphs that follow continue to explore the character of the character himself, establishing and underlining the secret, self-contained personality of the man.  The physical description, while somewhat allegorical to his personality, accurately paints a picture of the thin, white haired man who cares little for personal comforts and appearance, preferring to be known by reputation alone.  We see in him characteristics common to Dickens's villains more than his heroes, but then Scrooge is not properly a hero, although he is the protagonist of the work.  He does have positive qualities however and Dickens takes care to point them out where appropriate, especially as we observe Scrooge's progress on the path to redemption.
Of these positive qualities we can count Ebenezer Scrooge as a rational man, having little 'fancy' about him, he is also shrewd in business, cunning and quite intelligent.  Dickens says of him, "... or wholly forgetting in the interest he had in what was going on, that his voice made no sound in their ears, he sometimes came out with his guess quite loud, and very often guessed quite right, too; for the sharpest needle, best Whitechapel, warranted not to cut in the eye, was not sharper than Scrooge; blunt as he took it in his head to be."  It can also be said that Scrooge has a sense of humor, if somewhat sardonic, as evidenced by certain comments such as, “’You’re particular, for a shade.’ He was going to say ‘to a shade,’ but substituted this, as more appropriate.”

In Scrooge we see a character who is unlike previous Dickens protagonists in that he is already quite aged when the story begins, however as Carol is shorter than such classics as Oliver Twist by hundreds of pages, we are not dealing with the life and adventures of the protagonist, but merely a single spectacular event in that life, with attendant notes on the future progress of the protagonist.  The story is functional in its presentation of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge with Dickens drawing a picture of a thoroughly unpleasant person that becomes completely changed as a result of the events of the story.  Some critics have suggested that Scrooge's conversion is accomplished too quickly, but I disagree.  Scrooge's time with the spirits is not a fixed period of a single night but is a limbo of sorts during which time Scrooge experiences more than any living man could.  Dickens employs a three part arc to bring his protagonist to his redemption.

The Ghost of Christmas Past:  During Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Past his simple boyhood joy, empathy and sympathy are first re-awakened.  By showing him scenes of his childhood Scrooge is first brought to tears of sadness and then laughter before finally having indignation and anger awakened within him.  Given his solitary personality and his insistence that it is enough that he know his own business without needing to know the business of others, it was necessary to first crack the icy exterior of the man with a flood of memories before attempting to entreat any good nature that may be hiding within.  The Ghost of Christmas Past is somewhat sarcastic at moments and harsh toward the very end of the chapter, but is aloof throughout its encounter with Scrooge.  It is during this chapter that we learn of Scrooge's essential weakness, which is fear.  Scrooge, according to Belle, fears the world and seeks to be beyond it's 'sordid reproach.'

The Ghost of Christmas Present:  The second part of the redemption process and by far the longest of the ghostly encounters is the third chapter featuring Christmas Present.  Christmas Present is a jolly figure who takes Scrooge throughout the world to see and experience the Christmas holidays, finally terminating their journeys after a children's Twelfth Night party.  Christmas Present's method is to awaken in Scrooge a sense of joy and humility by showing him how much there is in the world and his fellow man to love and appreciate, while also showing Scrooge how much there is that needs the helping hand of those fortunate, such as Scrooge himself.  In his past Scrooge was reminded of the growth of his own dark nature and fears.  By contrast Christmas Present plays a friendlier role with our protagonist, yet when he leaves he leaves Scrooge with bitter words and a harsh lesson in the nature of the world seen through the wretched allegorical children "ignorance" and "want".

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present being shown "ignorance" and "want"

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come:  Described as a faceless, voiceless phantom seemingly a burial shroud of a figure, this ghost operates solely through gestures and has no comfort or joy to impart to Scrooge.  The first ghost awakened sympathy in Scrooge and the second joy, but the third offers nothing but fear.  Through this operation is Scrooge finally brought to his full redemption, for upon awakening he is truly a new man, in every way the opposite of his former self.

Dickens's creation of Ebenezer Scrooge has become quite famous in English speaking countries and is arguably his best known character, outstripping Oliver Twist, Pip, and even David Copperfield (American stage illusionists notwithstanding).  This is due in no small part to the character's memorable portrayal in prose and film and the work's theme, which is Christmas itself.  The Internet Repository of Common Knowledge (IRCK, aka Wikipedia) lists 46 actors to have played Scrooge (or an equivalent character in a version of A Christmas Carol) since 1908.  The work is a popular choice for holiday theatre as well (I've seen it twice on stage).  As a result of this popularity the character has become synonymous with misers and curmudgeons.  This is unfortunate as after his conversion, Scrooge becomes, "...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." Yet perhaps the reasons that people choose to use Scrooge to express the negative aspects of a person are simple: Scrooge spends more time in the book being nasty than he does nice and frankly he's more memorable as the sharp-tongued miser than as the changed man who is, by his own admission, "...as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man."
Whether you prefer him nice or nasty, mean-spirited or warm-hearted, he is in a few short pages one of Dickens's best written and most psychologically satisfying characters and an icon of Christmas as much as trees, dinners, and jolly old elves that bring presents down chimneys and long may he be read and performed to teach us all a lesson about Christmas Spirits.

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