The Case of Ebenezer Scrooge: Therapeutic Reflections on A Christmas Carol By Michael R. Jackson, PhD on 12/24/19 - 10:20 AM

A friend of mine once told me that when psychology encounters great literature, literature comes out the loser. I took her point. And yet, every Christmas I find myself thinking that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is, among other things, a singularly brilliant psychological treatise. The transformation of the story’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is, of course, legendary. But the actions of the spirits who guide him are not just supernatural; some of them are surprisingly psychotherapeutic. And seasoned therapists may even find them—if I may say so—hauntingly familiar.

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The Scrooge we meet at the beginning of the story is not the kind of guy who typically comes to us for help. He is rigid, compulsive and defensive—far more likely to resist than to seek out a therapeutic process. He scorns human kindness, and he callously says the poor should die “and decrease the surplus population.” To be fair, though, Scrooge is also quick and spunky, and he is not without occasional flashes of wit. He attempts to disarm Marley’s ghost as a “disorder of the stomach,” quipping “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you!” And who among us has never wanted to see some exceedingly cheerful person boiled in his own pudding?

Ah, but Scrooge is a hard case! As Dickens says, he is “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” Yet on the seventh anniversary of Marley’s death, something else is at work. As Scrooge enters his cold, dark, empty house, eerie things begin to happen: he sees Marley’s face on his door knocker. And before long, Marley himself appears in ghostly form, terrifying Scrooge and warning him that three more spirits will follow—his only chance to avoid a fate worse than Marley’s.

Where is all this coming from? Seemingly from the spirit world. But might it not also be coming from within Scrooge himself? For hasn’t the old man buried parts of his own fractured self—his hopes, his humanity, his guilt about bad acts? And, once buried—undead—in Scrooge’s personal underworld, might not these fragments be struggling now to return in uncanny and ghostly form?

The three spirits do come to Scrooge, and they come, periodically, through the night like dreams. At times, it seems as though they might actually be dreams. The first spirit, gentle and kindly, conducts Scrooge back through his childhood, and we start to see him in a more sympathetic light: a motherless child banished from his family by a resentful father, living in books, and finally turning to a pursuit of wealth so obsessive that it leaves him unable to love even his sweetheart. Immersed in this past with his spirit companion, Scrooge is unexpectedly wrenched by human emotions—laughing at happy memories and sobbing about the love he lost. Surely, there is real therapy happening here!

But insight without change is empty, and, as stated before, Scrooge is a hard case. His rediscovered emotions have begun to chip away at his character armor, but this armor is formidable, and it requires something equally formidable to break it apart. The second spirit, therefore, is a “jolly giant,” impressive to behold, commanding in nature and more than a little intimidating. Flying with this spirit through the city of London and places unknown, Scrooge sees rich and poor alike, including those he knows, celebrating Christmas, warming the bitter cold of the night with their cheer. In the homes of his clerk and his nephew, he shares the glow of the season—only to be mortified when the mere mention of his name casts a pall on the merriment. Worse, the spirit informs him that “if these shadows remain unaltered,” his clerk’s sickly child, Tiny Tim, will soon die. Scrooge’s distress at hearing this turns to shame when the spirit cuts him to the core with his own previous callous words: “If he be like to die, he’d better do it and decrease the surplus population.” For the first time, Scrooge is confronted with the reality of the human suffering he has so lightly dismissed.

A shaken Scrooge now encounters the third spirit. Frightening, faceless, and shrouded in a black garment, this spirit points silently at future events that seem to have existential significance for Scrooge. Most of these events involve a wealthy man who has recently died, leaving no one to mourn or care about his passing except a few seedy characters who are busy stealing bits and pieces of his estate. Although the answer is obvious, Scrooge repeatedly entreats the spirit to name the man who has died. The spirit says nothing but takes him to the cemetery, where it points to a neglected gravestone bearing Scrooge’s own name. Begging to know if change is still possible, Scrooge tries to seize hold of the spirit—who shrinks down into his bedpost!

Was it a dream? Does it matter? Christmas morning, it turns out, is just starting. The shadows can still be altered, and Scrooge is a changed man. He is elated—feeling like “a baby,” “light as a feather,” simultaneously laughing and crying. In some versions of the story, his maid runs from the house, hysterically proclaiming that the old miser has gone mad. But if this is madness, it is a madness touched by divinity—for Scrooge is transformed, and he begins a new life of goodness, kindness and generosity.

How though, has this transformation been accomplished? Certainly, one element was revisiting the past with a nonjudgmental guide to unearth his childhood wounds and to initiate a process of healing. Another element was the second spirit’s unsparing confrontation of Scrooge with the real-life ramifications of his previous behavior. Finally, the third spirit brings Scrooge face to face with the ultimate and timely fact of his own mortality.

And yet, my friend’s warning about psychology and literature still weighs heavily on my mind. Can we really reduce Scrooge’s transformation to an “intervention” by a trio of psychodynamic, confrontational and existential spirit therapists? That seems a bit too easy, and even vapid. Scrooge’s transformation is not just a psychological change. It is a matter of the soul, a full-fledged spiritual rebirth. He has shed some kind of unspeakable hubris that deeply infects, in varying degrees, all of humanity.

The full depth of the actions that have reanimated Scrooge, therefore, will not be found in psychotherapy manuals or textbooks, or in lists of best practices. Insurance will not cover them.

Perhaps we’d best leave them to the spirits.

File under: Musings and Reflections