Friday, December 12, 2014

Chesterton on Scrooge's Conversion--and Ours

As Chesterton points out, A Christmas Carol is a conversion story. The first ghost, Jacob Marley, comes to save Ebenezer Scrooge from a fate like his, loaded in chains, unable to do what he should have done while alive:

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

"Mercy!'' he said." Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?''

"Man of the worldly mind!'' replied the Ghost, "do you believe in me or not?''

"I do,'' said Scrooge. "I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?''

"It is required of every man,'' the Ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world -- oh, woe is me! -- and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!''

Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain, and wrung its shadowy hands.

"You are fettered,'' said Scrooge, trembling. ``Tell me why?''

"I wear the chain I forged in life,'' replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?''

Scrooge trembled more and more.

"Or would you know,'' pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!''

Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.

"Jacob,'' he said, imploringly. "Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob.''

"I have none to give,'' the Ghost replied. "It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house -- mark me! -- in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!''

After Scrooge complains that Marley might have come sooner if he knew Scrooge was in trouble:

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Ward would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

"Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,'' cried the phantom, "not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!''

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,'' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"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!''

It held up its chain at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"At this time of the rolling year,'' the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!''

And that's the purpose of the next three Spirits, to get Scrooge to look up, visit the poor, see the want and need around him, and even in himself. But he also sees the joy and love around him and in himself. Chesterton makes the point that Scrooge isn't all bad--but that we aren't all good either. We need conversion as much as Scrooge: we need to begin to apply this warning to ourselves:

Scrooge is not really inhuman at the beginning any more than he is at the end. There is a heartiness in his inhospitable sentiments that is akin to humour and therefore to humanity; he is only a crusty old bachelor, and had (I strongly suspect) given away turkeys secretly all his life. The beauty and the real blessing of the story do not lie in the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or improbable; they lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything around him; that great furnace, the heart of Dickens. Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us. Whether or no the visions were evoked by real Spirits of the Past, Present, and Future, they were evoked by that truly exalted order of angels who are correctly called High Spirits. They are impelled and sustained by a quality which our contemporary artists ignore or almost deny, but which in a life decently lived is as normal and attainable as sleep, positive, passionate, conscious joy. The story sings from end to end like a happy man going home; and, like a happy and good man, when it cannot sing it yells. It is lyric and exclamatory, from the first exclamatory words of it. It is strictly a Christmas carol.

A Final Reminder: the Greater Wichita local chapter of the American Chesterton Society will host A Chesterton Christmas at Eighth Day Books tonight from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Readings, carols, refreshments, gift ideas, and other Christmas preparations will be provided--and a visit, not by St. Nick, Jacob Marley or three other Spirits, but of G.K. Chesterton!

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