Marley was dead, to begin with.
Well before “once upon a time,” Dickens paints us a portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge, which seems to have more to do with Jacob Marley, his late business partner. While there’s quite a lot of talk of Marley, and his being dead, and tangential notes about ironmongery and Shakespeare, the characterization here serves to suggest something. Scrooge himself is all but dead.
Over Scrooge’s (and previously, Marley’s) warehouse hang still, both of their names, and “people new to the business [at times] called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes [called him] Marley, but he answered to both names.” If that’s merely a path of least resistance to their confusion, Scrooge plods along it oddly, feeling no strange stirrings over being called by the name of his dead friend – “It was all the same to him.”
More than emotionally deadened, he seems beyond almost any sensation as “heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.”Physically, Dickens describes Scrooge as weathered, like a corpse. “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue” – that doesn’t sound much like someone who’s living, in any sense does it?
Finally, in the social sphere, Scrooge was also largely outside the vibrant living world. “Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, ‘My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?'” Scrooge, in his rare moments of agency, walks in a way encouraging others to stay away and “warning all human sympathy to keep its distance”.
Before we reach the sentence “Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Scrooge sat busy in his countinghouse” we have been told in Dickens’ typically flowery prose that Scrooge’s harshness has left him in essence dead.
How does someone already dead to the world – emotionally, spiritually, socially – interact with people? Now that the story has started in earnest, most people are familiar with a few of the basics. Scrooge doesn’t care for the basic comfort of his clerk, who has draped a comforter over himself in the woefully inadequately heated office. Scrooge discounts his visiting nephew’s well wishes, invitation to dinner, and even cheerful call for help for the unfortunate. The only moment he expresses something like interest or pride in him is when he thinks about how his nephew could capitalize on his speaking ability with a run for political office.
His nephew and his clerk, both yet unnamed, aren’t people to him. They’re investments. Sometimes they don’t yield what’s expected of them, or perform in ways that don’t fully utilize their apparent strengths. At other times, they even incur unexpected costs – like his clerk whom he warns he would fire if he used more coal to warm himself with. Like most investments, they’re easy to quickly and cleanly dispose if they run past their expected liabilities.
Those are a member of his family and a coworker. If they’re so thoroughly less than living, breathing humans to him, what chance do impoverished strangers have? We find out exactly how vastly little they mean to him when some visitors approach him, asking for donations for the poor.
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentlemen, 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 vigor, 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.”
“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.”
This is where, sadly, what Dickens wrote nearly two centuries ago, becomes horrifyingly familiar. Over the past few decades, debtors’ prisons have reemerged as a part of the judicial terrain in many parts of the United States. Nationally, the welfare system has been restructured to reduce benefits and add work requirements. The effects have been catastrophic, and prominent voices in our society have been asking for even more “reforms” along those lines.
So far, the ways in which Scrooge accepts the social disposal of those unworthy of his attention have been terrible, but non-lethal. He threatens to lay off his clerk, tries to estrange his nephew, and calls for the imprisonment and exploitation of the poor. The ultimate price impoverishment can exact is mentioned, and he doesn’t flinch.
“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. […]”
We can gaze back at Scrooge, declaring that a few years before the Great Famine in Ireland in which the government and well-to-do in the United Kingdom made horrifyingly clear which populations it thought were in surplus. From our tidier future, that seems so horrible and reflective of another time. Nowadays, in discussions about the deportation of millions of people, even someone like Donald Trump, takes care to stress that no one would be killed.
In spite of that, however. We live in a future in which a staggering number do needlessly die. They die at the hands of the police in moments of fear created or heightened by racial paranoia. They die for providing a legal medical service. They die from lack of access to medical and social services.
Greeted with that stomach-churning reality, many do what Scrooge does. They retreat to their own world, or wherever they won’t be confronted by the lives (and deaths) of those without.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned, “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
With his visitors shortly cast out, Scrooge heads home in the fog and the cold. There’s a flood of scenes familiar to most who have watched an adaptation – Marley’s head appears in the doorknob, the dark stairwell to Scrooge’s room seems haunted by a hearse, and Scrooge somehow manages to after those unsettling images sit in his room by the fire. Then, the house’s bells peal and Marley’s ghost arrives.
Marley comes bearing a message that echoes the deadened nature of Scrooge’s life that we’ve seen so far. He has fashioned himself his own ghostly chains, made in his mortal life by cutting himself off from the concerns of others and which in his next life will weigh him down confine him to that distance.
The situation explained by Marley’s while his hair and clothing wafts “as by the hot vapor of an oven” recalls a parable from Luke. One of the few biblical accounts that depict a fiery hell, a rich man damned for his miserliness pleads with those in heaven to let him or other dead be seen by the living to tell them to help the poor or suffer. In the biblical tale, those in heaven shrug off the suggestion, but in “A Christmas Carol,” we hear of Scrooge’s glimpse at precisely that.
Having delivered the warning to be charitable and expect furthering hauntings from other guests, Marley extends Scrooge’s vision outside. He sees in summary what he has been warned about.
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none was free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom he saw below, upon a doorstep
With that image of what fate awaits someone like him, Scrooge seems to continue to rely on his strategy of withdrawal, and goes to bed.