A Christmas Carol: Remorse, Self-Consciousness and Spirit

Charles Dickens (1812–70) was perhaps the greatest novelist of the first half of the nineteenth century. Soren Kierkegaard (1813–55) was possibly the greatest philosopher of that period. Both men were alert to the societal trends that trampled individuals. Dickens disliked the inhumanity of utilitarianism which measured a person’s worth by their usefulness: too bad for the decrepit, the handicapped or the excess poor. Kierkegaard mocked the vortex effect of Hegel’s dynamic philosophy, sweeping people into a vast historical play of mute Reason and impersonal Spirit. The individual and their choices mattered little in this inevitable, all-enveloping process.

A Christmas Carol is among Dickens’s most popular novels, with numerous adaptations for film, television and stage. It has never been out of print. The reason for its enduring popularity is its psychological and spiritual relevance. It illuminates crucial aspects of what it means to be fully alive and fully human. It dramatises the process necessary to achieve this fulfilment. This combination is rare in the fiction of any age.

Kierkegaard’s many books in total are unlikely to have had sales near those of A Christmas Carol. But close to the heart and mind of both writers were two related subjects: society distorted as it chases inadequate or malign values; and the individual distorted by his or her repressed spirit and occluded self-consciousness. Dickens explored these ideas in his highly readable, part-tragic, part-comic Christmas story. Kierkegaard’s exploration was less entertaining or accessible, although deeper and more explicit. Together, the two masters of the individual’s spirit provide a clear view of each person’s battle with themselves and their consequent troubles with other people. Both men promoted the possibility of positive, reverent change.

Dickens’s dramatic genius used ghosts to propel the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s play, the ghosts in A Christmas Carol provide a disturbing but energising vision leading the main character to a major reassessment of his life and responsibilities. In Kierkegaard’s terms, the ghosts have a maieutic role—they assist, like midwives, in a birth. The ghosts assist in the rebirth of Scrooge. The ghosts know this is their role. They also know it will be a pain-filled process for Scrooge. But the ghosts aren’t sentimental; they’re wise enough to know that suffering can be beneficial. It’s often necessary for growth.

Jacob Marley’s Ghost, seven years dead—Marley was Scrooge’s business partner—is the first to haunt Scrooge. Marley’s Ghost is stuck on a kind of purgatorial pilgrimage, visiting former acquaintances locked in selfishness as Marley was in his own life. Marley’s afterlife is defined by tormenting remorse. He wishes his life had been different, less concerned with business, office work and money and more concerned with the business of humanity: to display kindness and enjoy companionship. He made the thick chains—festooned with cash boxes, keys, deeds and ledgers—that encumber him. Marley warns Scrooge that he too has been busily making heavy chains of remorse for himself. Scrooge’s chains were already burdensome when Marley died. Since then Scrooge has riveted many more loathsome links to his fetters. Marley’s Ghost wants to spare Scrooge that terrible self-induced punishment by leading Scrooge to remorse now while there is still time to make better choices. It’s a constant motif in A Christmas Carol: we’re harmed by our selfish habits, just as we’re judged by our words.

 Scrooge asks the Ghost why he has visited him.

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the ghost. “I am here tonight to warn you, that you have a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer!”

“You were always a good friend to me,” said Scrooge. “Thank ’ee.”

Scrooge displayed wisdom by calling Marley’s Ghost a good friend. He’s a special friend, who with three other ghosts, won’t let Scrooge go to his death self-deluded and suffer the lamentable consequences.

Kierkegaard called remorse a sincere and faithful friend whom we should never wish to leave us. In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, he wrote:

There is a danger that is called delusion. It is unable to check itself. It goes on and on: then it is called perdition. But there is a concerned guide, a knowing one, who attracts the attention of the wanderer, who calls out to him that he should take care. That guide is remorse. He is not so quick of foot as the indulgent imagination, which is the servant of desire. He is not so strongly built as the victorious intention. He comes on slowly afterwards. He grieves. But he is a sincere and faithful friend … So wonderful a power is remorse, so sincere is its friendship that to escape it entirely is the most terrible thing of all.

Dickens wasn’t especially devout, although a regular churchgoer. In the 1840s he and his family moved from Anglicanism to attend a Unitarian church, but later in life he returned to Anglican services. Kierkegaard was seriously devout, a conscientious student of Christian scriptures. Both men are likely to have been familiar with St Paul’s discussion of remorse (2 Corinthians 7:11–13), its grief and its beneficial results:

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter.

When Marley’s Ghost leaves Scrooge, the Ghost raises his hand and warns Scrooge to let him go. Scrooge watches the spectre join others, likewise miserable:

Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon a bleak, dark night.

Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.

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 were free…

We mustn’t think Scrooge is a rare case of a distorted person with self-defeating values. Both Dickens and Kierkegaard knew this was man’s common predicament because it’s man’s common temptation. Many spectres are wailing in self-accusation and regret. Marley is one among multitudes. Scrooge is potentially another, and so am I.

Attending to remorse can lead to healing and fruitfulness; ignoring it can lead to spiritual dereliction. This is the choice confronting Scrooge. First, Scrooge needs to see himself truly and this requires an enlargement of his imagination. Marley’s Ghost starts this process merely by appearing to Scrooge, jolting his materialistic presuppositions. Scrooge is forced by the Ghost—and the alarming truths he conveys—to consider divine possibilities.

Kierkegaard knew that imagination was central to how we see ourselves. A truncated imagination results in a truncated self. He wrote:

What feelings, understanding and will a person has depends in the last resort upon what imagination he has—how he represents himself to himself, that is, upon imagination … The self is reflection and the imagination is reflection, the self’s representation of itself in the form of the self’s possibility.

It isn’t enough to possess imagination. Imagin­ation needs a degree of realistic precision to yield self-knowledge. Kierkegaard explained:

The law for the development of the self in respect of understanding, so long as it remains true that the self is becoming itself, is that every increase in understanding corresponds to a greater degree of self-understanding, the more it knows the more it knows itself. When this does not happen, the more understanding increases, the more it becomes a kind of unhuman knowledge in production of which man’s self is squandered, much as men were squandered in the building of the pyramids, or as men were squandered in Russian brass bands on playing just one note, neither more or less.

Scrooge has (thus far) squandered his self by playing the one note of money. Any knowledge he gained became a sort of inhuman knowledge leading him to neglect himself and other people.

Scrooge needs more knowledge, properly synthesised by reflective imagination, to gain self-consciousness. Three ghosts—Christmas Past, Present and Future—continue the maieutic process initiated by Marley’s Ghost. The three Christmas ghosts aren’t disembodied former acquaintances but seem angelic figures: angelos meaning messenger. They aren’t afflicted by regret like Marley’s Ghost. They don’t conform to the popular image of angels, but if Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light, we may presume with Dickens that angels can disguise themselves as a homunculus, a plump giant or gesturing darkness.

The Ghost of Christmas Past—a wizened, luminescent figure—takes Scrooge back to his childhood and early manhood. This leads him to see himself with clarity. A sweet sister was dear to Scrooge. She died after giving birth to her only child, Scrooge’s good-natured nephew Fred who Scrooge rebuffs in the first few pages of the novel. Scrooge’s fiancée, Belle, was also dear to him. She breaks off their engagement—shrewd woman—because she sees that Scrooge doesn’t value her as much as he values money. Avarice has started to dominate Scrooge’s character. She sees it and warns him away from it. She correctly discerns that fear is the basis of Scrooge’s greed: he fears the world’s reproach of poverty. The Ghost shows him Belle later in life happily surrounded by a riot of children on Christmas Eve. It’s a future that could have been Scrooge’s but he didn’t value Belle, children or conviviality. Scrooge sees that his choices have an opportunity cost. He has hurt himself as well as other people.

Scrooge begs the Ghost not to show him more of his follies, but the Ghost pinions Scrooge’s arms and forces his attention. This type of forcing action is repeated by the next two ghosts when Scrooge—growing wretched—would prefer not to know more about himself. But their grip on him is emblematic: we may want to evade or forget our faults and cruelties but we know what we’ve done at some level of memory and consciousness. Plus, the Christmas Ghosts want these distressing truths to move Scrooge from forgetfulness to confession. It’s another aspect of their maieutic role.

Kierkegaard observed a correlation between self-consciousness and spirit: the greater the self-consciousness the greater the intensity of spirit. The Ghosts of Christmas push Scrooge towards self-consciousness and he consequently gains in spirit, measured by the grief of his remorse. Kierkegaard wrote:

People who … say they are in despair are as a rule either those who have so much more profound a nature that they are bound to come to consciousness of themselves as spirit, or those who have been helped by painful experience and difficult decisions to become conscious of themselves as spirit …

Scrooge, helped by painful experiences and difficult decisions, begins to see that money pales compared to faith, hope and charity. He has made the common mistake, defined by Kierkegaard as the essence of worldliness: Scrooge has made relative values absolute and absolute values relative. Scrooge doesn’t articulate this error, he begins to intuit it. He now understands that his flesh will die, while his spirit persists. His vision of himself has changed: self-consciousness has increased, suffering has begun its healing work and his spirit has emerged with the reappraisal of his values.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is a green-robed giant bearing a horn of plenty. He takes Scrooge to see people celebrating Christmas. An abundance of food, described with delighted particularity, characterises this trip. Poor people spend their sparse spare money to celebrate, blest by the goodwill that spills from the giant’s horn. The point of the trip is to contrast their delight in each other with the joyless misanthropy of Scrooge. He hears what his employee Bob Cratchit and his nephew Fred’s family think of him. They describe him as parsimonious, cold-hearted, benefiting no one, especially himself. What joy does he get from his money? What assistance has he ever given? The mention of his name casts a gloom over the Cratchit family and among Fred’s family. They mockingly repeat Scrooge’s miserable sayings. Twice he is judged by his own words and the judgments hit hard.

The Ghost of Christmas Present disturbs Scrooge even more by showing Scrooge two shrivelled ghostly waifs: a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want. These small, wretched figures are products of Scrooge’s—and society’s—indifference to the plight of others. The Ghost warns Scrooge that if their vital needs are neglected they may turn vengeful.

The Ghost of Christmas Future is a mute, shrouded figure who communicates using gestures. This Ghost shows Scrooge the aftermath of his death. Scrooge dies alone. No one mourns his passing. Scroungers sell his few possessions. Debtors are thankful that his death will likely mean a reprieve. Scrooge is shown his own neglected tombstone. Shaken, he asks the Ghost if all he’s seen must be the case; is there no chance of changing the bleak future to a better future?

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” …

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as he fell down on the ground before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I may yet change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

Scrooge asks one of the questions of the ages: are we given a measure of possibility or are we determined by unyielding necessities? Kierkegaard wrote that necessity and possibility are two aspects of our self that need to be synthesised. If we believe we are governed by necessity alone, we despair because we lack possibility. Scrooge fears that his future is set and he can’t change it. However, if we believe we’re free to explore possibility but ignore fundamental necessities—our biology, historical context, our physical limitations—then we likewise despair because we’re baseless. Wherever we are, we’ll feel homesick for the home we’ve scorned because our necessities are exactly this home. The proper balance is to accept our limiting necessities and, given that context, to explore our possibilities. This is what Scrooge starts to do and it’s a joyful process.

The distortions in Ebenezer Scrooge are corrected by an altered life. He begins, not by proclaiming a love for all mankind, but by showing kindness to his immediate circle. It’s a much harder change because they know us and our proclivities. And they might laugh, as some did at Scrooge’s remarkable turnaround.

A Christmas Carol is an overtly edifying story which, along with some sentimentality, might be its small weakness. Some religious literary critics have worried that it doesn’t edify enough in a conventional sense: no prayers, worship or sacraments are evident. But it is edifying and Advent is the perfect time to enjoy it.

Dickens, like Kierkegaard, mocked any scientific or philosophical view that denigrated humanity. The protection of our sacred dignity is paramount, expressed in Kierkegaard’s precept: “In a Christian sense, the superior elevation of disinterested knowing, far from being greater seriousness, is frivolity and pretence. But again, what edifies is seriousness.” Edification has a place in art and scholarship because, Kierkegaard insisted, humanity had a majestic goal:

Christian heroism, and indeed one sees little enough of that, is to risk unreservedly being oneself, an individual human being, this specific individual human being alone before God, alone in this enormous exertion and this enormous accountability.

Gary Furnell, a frequent contributor, lives in coastal New South Wales. The Kierkegaard quotes in this article are from The Sickness unto Death translated by Alastair Hannay (Penguin) except where noted.


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