By Mike McManus
It matters little…to you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come as I would have tried to do, I have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not? - Scrooge’s fiancée as she breaks their engagement
Contemporary renderings of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens often emphasize a penny-pinching Scrooge becoming a man of giving. But when consulting the text of Stave 2 in the original work, it is clear that too much emphasis on how Scrooge treats his material possessions provides a focus on the effects of the story rather than the heart of what the story is truly about, Scrooge’s conversion.
As the quote at the top suggests, A Christmas Carol is in actuality a story of conversion. Scrooge is not internally shackled and corroding because he is wealthy. Many wealthy people gave to the gentleman asking to pay for the hungry and destitute. Scrooge does not. Many business owners, such as Scrooge’s mentor Fezziwig, act charitably to their employees and create a festive atmosphere of celebration in their places of work. Scrooge does not. Others in the story, rich and poor, are surrounded by family and friends. Scrooge is not. These are all symptomatic of the real problem that Scrooge is facing in A Christmas Carol. The true struggle is that Scrooge has lost his ability to see the extraordinary wonders in ordinary life because he has turned his heart from that which animates all true seeing, he has turned his heart from Love. As a result, he sees only material profit, fails to see the humanity in mankind, and has turned inward to a state of isolation. The story is about Scrooge’s journey away from his bitter, cold view of the world and the conversion of his heart to the capability once again of not only giving gift, but lovingly receiving it in community. Stave 2 is the critical point in the story where this journey begins, and Scrooge discovers the origins and process of his slow turning away from seeing the joy of life in the simple and ordinary.
The ghost of Christmas past is integral in Scrooge’s journey as it aids him in the recovery of memory, the first and most crucial step in his conversion. It is clear that as Christmas Past takes Scrooge from event to event, he doesn’t remember the events until brought back to his attention. This lack of memory has shielded Scrooge from great pain and suffering, the pain of having to examine his conscience of the life he has lived, the decisions he has made that he wishes he could take back. But it also has cut him off from the source of his pain, that fact that he has loved and lost. Not looking back has shielded him from the suffering, but also isolated him from loving again.
The journey with Christmas Past is clearly both joyous and excruciatingly painful. In order for Scrooge to rediscover joy, he must confront the heartache. He is brought instant by instant to sources of joy and then remembers pain that follows as the love he had is breached, pierced, and wounded. First, he sees the loving embrace of his sister. He is reminded of the gift of her warm affection, a gift he received without necessarily deserving it or earning it. And then comes the revelation of her death, and the reminder that she did have a child. Scrooge’s moment of joy turns to guilt, not only as he reflects on her loss from his life, but also on the treatment of her son, his nephew in Stave 1 as he chased him from his office.
Next Scrooge sees the joy of mentorship under Fezziwig. He sees not only how Fezziwig teaches him how to make money, but brings true joy to the office with a gathering of families. He sees true friendship with his co-workers and companions. Next comes the guilt of the treatment of his own employee in contrast to the gifts he received.
This is followed by the climax of the scene, the dissolution of his relationship with his fiancée. Here he is exposed to the love of his life turning away from him, as he has chosen money over her. As the quote above states, Scrooge’s nobler aspirations have slowly disappeared, and only his passion to gain remains and dwarfs all other aspects of his life. The final straw in this glimpse of his past occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him a picture of his former fiancée with the family life she has gained since moving on from him. The scene Scrooge sees is ordinary recognizable family life: it is hectic, chaotic, noisy, and joyous. It involves a mother knitting, a daughter gently laying her head on her father’s shoulder, and brothers noisily cheering as Christmas presents enter. It is the most common scene that people around the world see daily. But for the first time Scrooge sees it for the extraordinariness and beauty that it in reality holds. He sees the joy and love that could have been. He sees painfully what he lacks and what he has given up. As a result, he laments for Christmas Past to end his torture immediately and take him away.
By the end of Stave 2, the recovery of Scrooge’s memory is complete. Through the piercing agony of his suffering, he has once again recovered the ability for love to seep out of his wounded heart. And while his conversion is not yet complete, that can only come after Scrooge confronts the reality of his own mortality, Scrooge is well on his way. With the recovery of his memory, he now recognizes not only how hard he worked, but also the extraordinary amount that he received. He is now ready to continue the next phase of his journey.