When we last left Scrooge, he had shrugged off the bizarre supernatural experience he had had and gone straight to bed. His procession to bed is described hastily and vaguely, leaving an impression that he is drawn to bed by a strange gravity.
Pushing the weird interpretations of what is happening to him to the side, it does come off like he’s avoiding. Considering how much he has cut himself off from the world in a kind of pre-death, it’s hard to see how he wouldn’t have adopted avoidance strategies, to maintain his separation from people. Now, however, he’s using it to put distance between himself and a fantastical mix of supernatural sights and experiences.
Having cut himself off from the world, Scrooge wakes up from his sleep woefully confused. He remembers it as having been in the wee hours of the morning that he had gone to bed, but it’s the chime of twelve, presumably midnight’s, that wakes him.
Curious explanations come to him – that he’s slept through the day into Christmas night, that it’s the apocalypse and all has become night – but none of that really seems to fit. Because he has no one in his home with him, there’s no one to clarify what time or even day it is. Oddly, it doesn’t occur to him to reach out and find someone to help make sense of his incomprehensible reality. Keeping himself cloistered has become so second nature that he can’t call for help from others to make sense out of the inexplicable.
His isolation and madness are interrupted by the chime of one, which Scrooge greets by stating that “nothing else” has come.
“Lights flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of the bed were drawn. The curtains of the bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand. Not the curtains at his feet, nor the curtains at his back, but those to which his face was addressed. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them”
Who had barged into Scrooge’s room? This is one of those details that almost every video adaptation I’ve seen has failed utterly in. Here’s how the original describes it – yes, that is the pronoun used:
“It was a strange figure – like a child, yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white, as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin.”
Its paradoxical nature is felt even in its accessories:
“It held a branch of fresh, green holly in its hand and, in singular contradiction to that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers.”
In spite of this explosion of oddity directly into Scrooge’s face, there’s one particularly attribute Scrooge first admits is oddest about it: the light that poured from its crown (which he presumes is why it carries an extinguisher, like for a candle, at its side like an unworn hat). After a moment, another aspect of it eclipses that, however:
“For as its belt sparkled and glittered, now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body, of which dissolving parts no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And, in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again, distinct and clear as ever.”
This is some unsettling, intrusive spirit that enters into Scrooge’s personal space in the midst of him being confused about unexplained events. Confronted with that kind of compounded oddness, Scrooge reacts in a telling way. He attempts to shut off contact.
“Perhaps Scrooge could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him, but he had a special desire to see the Spirit in his cap and begged him to be covered.
The spirit brushes off the request and makes it clear that it is there to shine and benefit him. It takes him by the hand and pulls him into what for many is a familiar romp through Scrooge’s past.
What’s often lost in adaptation’s at times perfunctory tour through Scrooge’s past are the ominous signs that he was being pushed into the type of bitter and isolated old age he now finds himself in. While Scrooge was not always distant from others and prone to separating himself, the patterns of that were foreshadowed ominously even in his childhood.
The first Christmas memory of Scrooge’s that he and this spirit visit shows him unvisited by family at school during the holiday, abandoned by friends, and mistreated by school staff. Confronting that past is a difficult process for Scrooge.
“It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire and Scrooge sat down upon a form and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.
In the next memory, in which his sister fetches him from exile at his school, one of the revealed aspects of his life is that his father instilled him and others with a doubt that they would be loved and respected. Without any assurance of appreciation and dignity, Scrooge has nothing to trust in but what he himself can create – potentially through purchases.
Even as these early childhood memories of neglect and ultimate inclusion march past, his early adulthood full of apprenticeships and other economic arrangements shows him curiously on the periphery of the holiday celebrations. The full blown avoidance of social interaction that highlights his later life was prefigured in a slower retreat earlier in life. He slid out of the social sphere, into more extreme isolation.
While his retreat had in some sense started, he was active enough in the world that he remembered certain lessons well. The spirit goads him into explaining the financial returns on the Christmas feast thrown for him, a fellow apprentice, and almost everyone else working in the shop’s vicinity.
“[The shop owner] 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.”
Charles Dickens, who himself had worked for a short time as a child laborer, is making the case for an economy centered on human wants and comfort, and what’s more having it tumble out of Scrooge’s mouth. In both Dickens’ time and ours, that’s a contested point. Then and now, resources are tightly concentrated in the hands of a few, and the basic security and happiness of almost everyone else is simply a cost to be questioned.
This can be seen in the on-going debate about whether healthcare is a human right. It’s also visible in the proliferation of work environments in which everything possible is done not to benefit the workers – with wage theft, stagnant wage growth, a proliferation of unpaid positions, and debates over the continuation of pension and entitlement programs. One of the first policy questions to come before the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, was about family leave, and his answer was entirely in that vein: that work in general should be structured to allow or even encourage everyone’s happiness is silly. His time with his family is a privilege he would like, however.
By the time his Christmas memories reach what the book describes as his prime years, Scrooge’s face has “begun to wear the signs of care and avarice.” His silent participation had begun to be eclipsed by an as-yet unnamed “eager, greedy, restless motion”. As his older self witnesses him parting ways with his almost-wife, his younger self shows the signs of someone beginning to withdraw from the broader world.
That woman looks “with steadiness upon him,” and asks, “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now?” The book describes how his younger self in the moment “seemed to “yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself.” Guided by the spirit, his older self sees him retreating inwards, cutting his ties.
That is the conclusion he unfortunately reaches in adulthood, from seeds sown in his childhood. He echoes the cheapness that his old schoolmaster tended towards – who served stale food to him and his sister and offered a servant something even worse. The coldness of his father, who sent him away for school, returns in his chilly romance. His own dead-like nature has begun to emerge after his sister has ominously disappeared from his Christmas memories.
From that memory between him and his unnamed romantic partner, they look in something akin to horror on a Christmas he had been elsewhere. On the Christmas of Marley’s death, his would-be-wife and her actual husband enjoy a Christmas with their children and speak of him briefly. Her husband had seen him “quite alone in the world” in passing earlier that day.
Overcome by the children he never had and the wife he never married, Scrooge begs that the spirit shield him from this tour of his past, only to look on it and see “a face in which, in some strange way, there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him.” Scrooge’s own tumultuous, unstable past has come to confront him, and he fights it, grabbing “the extinguisher cap and by a sudden action pressed it down upon [the spirit’s] head.”
He buries his past just as he cuts off his connections in the present, and leaves himself alone to avoid those in worse places than him. He finds himself in his room again and falls into a deep slumber, just like after meeting Marley’s ghost.