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Scrooge’s Christmas conversion: A psychiatrist reflects on its credibility

December 2020 | by Alan Thomas

Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most famous names in English literature. Scrooge has become a synonym for miser as a result of his brilliant characterisation in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a family film favourite each Christmas.

In this short novel Dickens commits many errors about the afterlife, if we take his description of ghosts floating around and visiting Scrooge and so on at face value. But we accept this is fiction and so may allow the author some literary license here.

Of more importance and concern is the central message of the book: that a man may radically change himself from evil to good. Is this realistic? Can someone reform himself so much?

We are first shown how evil Scrooge is. He is portrayed as a cruel employer who is heartless towards others, especially the many desperate poor people around him in 19th century London.

We see his harsh treatment of his kind, honest, and diligent clerk Bob Cratchit, his cold dismissal of his nephew Fred, and his rude banishing of ‘portly gentlemen’ seeking to collect Christmas gifts for the local poor.

His words of cold indifference to these businessmen about the needs of the destitute, ‘Are there no prisons?’ and ‘Are there no workhouses?’ are later repeated back to him by the Ghost of Christmas Present to drive home his callous, selfish lack of concern.

The story is built around Jacob Marley somehow returning from beyond the grave to warn Scrooge about his cruel behaviour and to say that he will receive three other ghostly visitors who will give him the chance to change his lifestyle.

And so the three other ghosts visit Scrooge in one peculiar night. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows him key episodes in his life at earlier Christmases which shows how his life might have been filled with family happiness and kindness had he made different choices.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him Bob Cratchit and his family celebrating Christmas joyfully in spite of their poverty and Bob speaking generously of him in spite of his meanness to him; he sees his nephew Fred enjoying a happy time with family and friends, a time he might have enjoyed.

Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come tugs at our hearts and Scrooge’s by showing us the grief over the death of Tiny Tim and, in stark contrast, that no one at all misses Scrooge himself at his own death.

So when he awakes he is a changed man. He has learned his lessons. He is suddenly very different. He finds it is still Christmas day after all and sets out to be generous to Bob Cratchit and his family, to give a huge gift for the poor to the portly gentlemen, and to live a happy and generous life ever after.

He doesn’t change in some small area of life for a day or so, like so many with New Year’s Resolutions. He changes completely and for the rest of his life.

Is such a radical and enduring change credible? As a psychiatrist I work with older people (and Scrooge is an old man) and over the years have visited thousands, also engaging with their many relatives and friends. I have interviewed them to understand their illnesses and learned about their long lives.

But I have never met anyone with a change like Scrooge. I’ve observed many people get worse, but none show such drastic and sustained personality change for the better.

I have supervised many psychiatric registrars who are completing their final training to be consultants and from time to time the question arises about personality disorders in older people (people with personality disorders used to be called psychopaths).

It used to be said that personality disorders only occurred in younger people and sometimes my registrars think that is true. So I tell them that older people just get better at pretending to be good.

Ageing reduces our energy and experiences do modify our behaviour. The 76-year-old man is nice as pie to me but his wife cowers. He no longer hits her but instead has learned to inflict pain on her through targeted criticism of her appearance and cooking.

The 80-year-old woman used to manipulate her parents when young by self-harming, now she manipulates her daughters by feigning sickness; she is an expert at inventing symptoms to keep them in her power.

Such people have changed, but have they improved? They may look better superficially but once you go beneath the surface they are as bad as ever, usually clearly worse in my opinion.

Is it really possible that someone like Scrooge, who has lived a life of callous cruelty over many decades, can overnight become a kindly, generous benefactor? And not just for a day or so but for the rest of his life?

No, I’ve never seen anything like this. Or rather I haven’t seen it outside the church, not without God’s help. Human effort produces outward reforms but cannot deal with the depths of wickedness in all of us.

The Bible teaches us that our real problem is not our obvious sins or even the subtle ones we learn as we get older. It is sin itself. In the core of our being, what the Bible calls our heart, we are bad, not good, and so, as Jesus taught, ‘out of our hearts’ come bad things. This heart-badness can only be cured by God himself through his Son and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Alan Thomas is Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.