In Defense of Scrooge
In the spirit of the season I recently found myself enjoying The Muppet Christmas Carol and feeling sympathy for the central character and villain, Mr. Scrooge. I reread Dickens’ original work and felt affirmed that Hollywood wasn’t taking artistic license with his true character profile. The way I see it, aside from being a miserable grouch, Scrooge is rather relatable.
Scrooge’s most noteworthy and character-defaming trait is his frugality. To me, frugality has always been defined by characteristics of living well within one’s means, not necessarily for any higher purpose other than to live grander feels wasteful. Frugal behavior today is lauded, marking sensible spenders who are aware of what they need and what they can do without. They are saving for a rainy day and will be prepared for whatever comes. Frugal people might be the secret millionaires next door, with pots of gold in the bank despite wearing threadbare pants. They have let go of the trappings of material things. A frugal person will suffer through a hot summer without air conditioning and always make their own lattes.
I admire frugal people; because I like climate control and the occasional barista prepared beverage, my retirement account is not as robust as it could be. However, I consider these traits completely different from those of a greedy person. Greed is ugly. A greedy person will hoard things for their own comforts, refusing to give charitably in order to buy something for their own pleasure. A greedy person seems more likely to live a comfortable and lavish life at the expense of those less fortunate.
What strikes me about Scrooge is that he was suffering right along with everyone else, rather than maliciously forcing hardship on others. When Kermit as Bob Cratchit was cold in the office on Christmas Eve, so was Scrooge. Though the Cratchit family was eating gruel, it was not as though Scrooge was going home to a turkey feast. In fact, he criticizes his nephew for his lavish spending simply to celebrate what he considers a nonsense holiday. He claims that a day of celebration is no reason to go into debt, stating in the original text, “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money?” It sounds as though Scrooge is the only one who doesn’t get caught up in holiday commercialism. He wants to encourage responsible spending.
Scrooge goes home after work to a sparsely furnished and dimly lit home. Gonzo as Dickens reminds us that “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Many film iterations of Scrooge sit in the dark by a meager fire and eat a lackluster and minimal dinner. Even when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come brings him to view scenes after his death, the town scavengers note the low quality of his belongings and how surprisingly little he owned.
How did he get to this point in his life? As Scrooge travels through his past, you see snapshots of a young boy who is taught to work hard and be successful, without solid examples to define said success. I was surprised to see in the original text that Scrooge identifies the missed opportunities for compassionate behavior almost immediately, something the films take longer to capitulate. His narrow focus on advancement is his sole motivation, and he becomes oblivious to the importance of human connection.
It is also clear that he suffered loss, growing up in schools away from the love of a family, having a relationship with his parents so minimal Dickens doesn’t note it, and later losing his sister to an early death. Grief is a powerful emotion, and it would not be surprising if suppressed grief made him a bitter and lonely man as he matured.
Scrooge carries himself as though he has been through some hard times. He reminds me of someone’s curmudgeonly grandfather, grunting “That’s how they get ya,” when he sees a commercial for a giveaway or promotional offer. It is evident that Scrooge spent his life chasing wealth. He came from a relative degree of privilege, being able to afford private education and apprenticing in a vague world of business and finance. What defines wealth is an age-old question; do we value money in the bank or friendships affirmed over happy hour? Is loneliness superior because it increases our net worth? It is evident that Scrooge skewed to the far end of the spectrum, choosing financial security over love at every turn in his life.
In Charles Dickens’ England, perhaps the fear of poverty was so absolute that a man without any immediate family needed to squirrel away every penny to ensure he would be well taken care of when he could no longer care for himself. The fear of the unknown is powerful and can motivate all of us to make foolish choices. With mentors who were also in the business of increasing profit margins, it seems nobody took the time to bonk him on the head and say, “Look around you, what is happening here is important. Connect with your fellow man!” Belle tried, and Scrooge rejected her for it.
Scrooge says things about other people that we hear echoed every day, sometimes in our own voices. A homeless man asks me if I can spare any change so he can get food, and, too busy to get to my destination, I give an offhanded, “Sorry, I have no cash on me.” It is the truth, and perhaps I should give him a banana from my lunch bag, but I’m already late for work and the train is approaching. Essentially, I’m putting my needs to be a part of profiting society ahead of my needs to help my fellow man, in the same way Scrooge belittles the caroler and the gentlemen putting together a fund to help the poor. I am not nearly as abrasive, but I am just as unhelpful.
We criticize Scrooge for being stingy, yet we don’t separate self-imposed frugality from his overall miserly attitude. It is one thing to deprive yourself of something to the advancement of your own goals, but quite another to deprive others. While he may certainly be a successful businessman, the master of doing more with less, he is surely not a role model. Let’s compare his business strategy to that of a character in another holiday classic, George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life. Scrooge is the type of business owner who would cut staff in half and expect the quality of work to stay the same, while Bailey would align himself closer with the principles of Costco, investing more in his staff and seeing greater returns. He runs a business that puts helping people first even at his own expense, and people return the favor because they like, trust, and value him.
However I think we are too quick to assign Scrooge into the Mr. Potter category. Where villains like Mr. Potter — and Dr. Seuss’s Grinch — seem to delight in the misery of others, Scrooge simply can’t be bothered with a festive spirit. He chooses to opt out of the holidays the way many of us fantasize about, in the middle of a particularly long lengthy shopping queue or hateful airport scene.
Perhaps it is because Scrooge is relatable that the morals of this story are so clearly delivered. At the close of the story, we see Scrooge understanding the value of being a part of his community, stepping over class divides to spread cheer, lessening the burden of his fellow man for that day and presumably many days to come. Some might say he overcompensates, but he has a lot of making up to do. Scrooge is a damaged man trying to figure out his place in the world. There is a little bit of Scrooge in all of us, and from a personal finance perspective perhaps we should embrace that; but it is in making the choice to have an open heart that we separate ourselves from his overall character profile. A Christmas Carol speaks to the importance of being a better neighbor and friend. Rich, poor, 401(k) or debt out your ears, no matter how we handle money, this is a lesson all of us can appreciate at this time of the year, and all year.
Sarah Feldstein laughs every year at Statler and Waldorf’s Bob Marley joke.
Source material quoted from The Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm