Dickens' A Christmas Carol: A Psychiatric Primer on Character and Redemption

Robert A. Berezin, MD


December 21, 2018

Forty-three years before Freud arrived on the scene with The Interpretation of Dreams, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. In this exemplar of psychotherapy, Dickens taught us all we need to know about character formation, the effects of trauma, and the healing process of mourning.

This most illuminating story prefigures the psychotherapy of character and shows that each of us has his own unique story. We adapt to trauma through our temperament as we write the plot of our play of consciousness. This story-plot crystallizes into our adult character. Dickens had the wisdom to write all of this into a profound understanding of Ebenezer Scrooge's character, whom he then takes through a transformational journey to the recovery of his authentic being.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Psychotherapy's Future

As his vehicle, Dickens employs the visitations of the three Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The ghosts take Scrooge back to the future, through a kind of a time travel, by which he comes face to face with his life. As such, he mourns the trauma of his life, which allows him to emerge as a truly changed man. The ghosts are the analog of the processes of psychotherapy, which we are familiar with 160 years later.

What do we know of Scrooge's character? Dickens writes, "Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice."

The ghosts are the analog of the processes of psychotherapy, which we are familiar with 160 years later.

On Christmas Eve, Scrooge's deceased business partner, Marley, appears as an apparition, warning Scrooge that if he does not change his ways, he will live an afterlife of ongoing torment, just like him. Marley is a horror show of dirty gauze, ugliness, chains, moans, and physical and emotional pain. Although Scrooge's character is a carbon copy of Marley's, he argues that Marley was a successful businessman, a great man. Marley answers, "Business! 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!"

He tells Scrooge that he still has a chance to escape his fate through the visitation of the three Christmas ghosts. Scrooge, of course, does not listen and dismisses him as an undigested piece of meat. He pays no heed to Marley's warning, although it leaves him a bit unnerved.

Scrooge has been firmly set in his ways for a long, long time. How in the world could such a man as he ever change? Is it possible for him to reverse his hostile and judgmental attitudes? Can he rejoin the human race and feel and care about his fellow man? Can he reach out and engage in a loving way instead of nastily? Can he use his intelligence and gifts in the service of humanity rather than in the service of selfishness and pitilessness?

Ghost of Christmas Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past arrives, just as Marley had prophesized. He takes Scrooge back to his old school where he finds himself alone, a solitary child neglected by his friends. He sits in a melancholy room reading near a small fire. He "wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be." He wept again when "there he was, alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays."

In point of fact, Ebenezer was an abandoned child. He had been totally rejected by his father and sent off to school, never to come home again. His younger sister remained at home with the father.

Ebenezer was a sweet little boy who became so damaged by the deprivation of a home and love.

Parental love and guidance is the source of our inner sustenance. It nourishes us and serves as the foundation that carries us through the trials of life. Ebenezer was a sweet little boy who became so damaged by the deprivation of a home and love.

His sister surprised him and arrived at his school to bring him home after begging her father, who finally softened and agreed to her request. She tells him he'll never come back to this school and they'll be together all Christmas long and be merry. The memory of his sister was the only source of love in his life. There certainly wasn't any from his father. There's no mention of a mother.

Nonetheless, it was too late. As an abandoned child, the pain informs the writing of his inner story. The hurt, the anger, the lack of self-worth, and the shame it generated would leave its indelible mark later.

The next scene takes place during Christmas Eve at the office of Old Fezziwig, to whom he was apprenticed. His mentor was a kind, warm, generous, and loving man. Old Fezziwig treated his employees like family. He was loved by everybody, including Ebenezer. He rejoiced at the memories of the old Christmas party, where he was a happy participant.

Scrooge had two models: his father and Fezziwig. But because of the abandonments and emotional deprivation, he, predictably, would reject the model of his mentor. He didn't have a real choice. He lacked the foundation of internal love from which to build a loving life. He was too angry. He turned bitter and teamed up with the older Marley as the empty promises of gold and egotism became his false idols. He would eventually settle into his ways of hardness, mendacity, and judgmental anger.

As it turned out, the next loss was the last straw. His beloved sister died while giving birth to his nephew, whom Scrooge blamed for her death. This is the same nephew who invited Scrooge to Christmas every year and was rejected by the famous declaration of "Bah! Humbug!"

In the context of Christmas Past, his old self began to remember about real giving. In the course of mourning the pain of these memories, Scrooge began to soften. He acknowledged and genuinely regretted not being kind to his clerk, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim's father.

The final crystallization of his character solidified when his fiancée released him from his vow to marry. She said, "Another idol has displaced me...A golden one. You are changed. When your vow was made, you were another man... I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were."

She had realized that the old Ebenezer was gone. His character changed into one that she no longer recognized or loved. It was too late. Scrooge would play out his character story of hardness, cruelty, and the inability to love.

With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge visited his ex-fiancée and her family. He realized that he missed out on love and being a father with a happy home. He saw that he would die like Marley, all alone. He saw her daughter. "He thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father." This brought out such regret and pain.

Scrooge was deeply affected by his formative past. He wept and mourned his pain. He began to feel genuine regret for his life decisions. He regretted hardening his heart to love. He regretted how he conducted himself with a meanness of spirit. He had lost all of the pleasures of life that the innocent, little Ebenezer had once relished. He missed out on the warmth and comfort of a family and children. He was lost and empty. Mourning the trauma began to allow him to reopen his heart.

Ghost of Christmas Present

With the second ghost, who also appeared early Christmas morning, Scrooge visits Tiny Tim's house, his nephew's, and many of the poor and bereft homes throughout the world. There is Christmas joy and giving in all of them, in contrast to his solitary and joyless state of misery. Scrooge is a miser in matters of both money and spirit. They are, in fact, inseparable.

Psychotherapy is not only about mourning and facing the formative past, but also about our present relationships. We need to mourn the pain that we give and receive in the present. Facing the truth is what sets us free.

As Scrooge starts to feel, he begins to care about Tiny Tim and learns that the boy will die. The ghost quotes Scrooge from his earlier disposition: "If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

The real mensch in this story is Bob Cratchit. He never complains and will not criticize Scrooge. Even at Christmas, the family is so poor (due to Scrooge) that they wear threadbare clothes and make do with a tiny Christmas goose. His tender devotion to his family and to Tiny Tim shows Scrooge a richness he never dreamed of.

Cratchit suffers the unbearable pain of Tiny Tim's death, the cherished child he lost because he couldn't afford medical care. And yet he still takes the blow with such grace and a generosity of feeling for others. The model of Bob Cratchit stands in contrast to Scrooge's response to the death of his sister. He couldn't mourn and was filled with bitterness, as he blamed and rejected his innocent nephew.

With the visitation to the nephew's house, Scrooge sees that he is viewed as the ogre of the family. Even so, his nephew, his dear sister's son, still loves him. Scrooge had cut him off in his unforgiving anger. His niece looks exactly like Scrooge's sister and awakens memories of the feeling of loving her. Likewise, he wants to participate in the celebrations, the loving games that he so recently considered "humbug."

Finally, Scrooge has to confront the dual evils of the world—two gaunt, neglected, and starved children hidden under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present: The girl is Want and the boy is Ignorance. Most of all, the boy represents his own doom. The ghost again quotes Scrooge's old heartless attitude: "Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"

Starvation is not just physical hunger; it is also a metaphor for the absence of loving nurturance. It's worth noting that Scrooge didn't live well off of his own wealth; he continued to eat gruel in the dungeon of his rundown home. He horded his money. He accumulated the gold and deprived others of it, but he didn't actually enjoy it or spend it. He lived a dark, empty, unhappy, and mean life.

Ghost of Christmas Future

With the arrival of the final ghost, Scrooge now sees the future. One cannot really predict the specifics of the future, but on the other hand, the future is very predictable. Character always plays true unless it is mourned and dealt with. Wisdom understands that character is destiny. Of course, Dickens understood this as well.

Nobody comes to mourn Scrooge's death. Three robbers steal his belongings and sell them to a bottom-of-the-barrel broker. Scrooge does not yet know that the loathsome man who died in this vision was indeed him. "If this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard dealing, griping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!...If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man's death," said Scrooge, quite agonized, "show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!"

One cannot really predict the specifics of the future, but on the other hand, the future is very predictable. Character always plays true...

The upshot of our Dickensian psychotherapy: "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!"

Finally, in desperation, Scrooge begs, "Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

Back to the Land of the Living

The therapy works. Scrooge recovers his lost and authentic self. This joyless, judgmental, hateful man now walks around transformed, back to the sweet and innocent boy he always was but couldn't be. He laughs, he cries, he feels, he cares, he loves, he gives. His laughing is almost embarrassing, because the lightness of his being is so new. He's come back from the dead.

He makes up for lost time by giving a large sum of money to the men he had browbeaten for wanting to help the poor. He buys the Cratchit family the biggest goose in town. He plays a joke on Bob Cratchit, pretending that he is mad that Cratchit has come to work late and that he is going to dock his pay. Instead, he raises Cratchit's salary. Scrooge ends the joke quickly because he doesn't want Cratchit to suffer. Scrooge hadn't joked in decades. He also supplies the funds needed for Tiny Tim's medical care, which allows the boy to walk again and thrive. Although it is too late for Scrooge to have children, he becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim, loving him as his own.

One cannot undo the past but one can live and love well now. Scrooge forgives his nephew and reunites with his family. He joins them in celebrating Christmas with cheer and kindness. He gets to be with his niece, who reminds him so much of his deceased sister. He laughs and joins the games and fun he had as a child. Scrooge now participates fully in life and leaves the world of the walking dead. His old life was empty; now he is alive.

Scrooge's character was forged from his own emotional pain. Indeed, we can change the course of our lives by facing and mourning that pain. Want, deprivation, and cruelty create the evils of the world. Mourning and trust, in the context of love, are its antidotes. Dickens teaches us that we must rediscover this truth over and over again, as he helps us all to find our way.

There is a reason why so many people of all ages read and watch A Christmas Carol every year. It is a sacrament of renewal of the human spirit.

All quotations are from the Dover Thrift Edition of A Christmas Carol (editor, Stanley Appelbaum), first published in 1991, which reprints the text of the original edition (Chapman and Hall, London, 1843).


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