Wednesday, December 02, 2020

“Another Idol Has Displaced Me” | Dickens

As I talk about Dickens' original version of the scene, I'm going to copy the entire text in bold italics and insert commentary in plain type. That'll help identify elements that we want to pay attention to in the adaptations.

“My time grows short,” observed the Spirit. “Quick!”

Before we get too deep into this year's text, let's recap the Spirit's tactics so far. Starting with the schoolhouse vision and continuing to Fezziwig's party, the Ghost has been showing Scrooge vivid memories in order to get past the mental defenses he's built up over the years. The Spirit is trying to speak directly to Scrooge's emotions by forcing him to remember what it was like to be an outsider: unloved by his father as a child, but taken in by his employer as part of what today we call a "found family." The Spirit is trying to build empathy in Scrooge and it's been working. Scrooge has been emotional during each vision.

But now, Scrooge is at a crucial stage. Having been reminded of the family that he missed out on as a child and found again as a young man, he's going to be forced to remember that he lost it yet again, but voluntarily this time. 

This was not addressed to Scrooge, or to any one whom he could see, but it produced an immediate effect. For again Scrooge saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of care and avarice. There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.

He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

I've never noticed the mourning-dress before, but there's a note in Michael Patrick Hearn's The Annotated Christmas Carol that suggests that it's important. I'll get to that in a minute, but I'm curious to see if any of the adaptations have Scrooge's girlfriend dressed in black.

Since Dickens mentions the light again here - and it's very important at the end of the scene - I just want to remember how it was introduced when Scrooge first met this Ghost. Dickens described a "bright clear jet of light" that shone from the Spirit's head and that Scrooge begged the Spirit to cover it with its "great extinguisher for a cap." The Spirit's response was to ask if Scrooge would "so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give?" 

I forget if Dickens explained later or if one of the adaptations clued me in, but the Spirit's light represents the memories that it's showing Scrooge. Like I said above, the purpose of these memories is to illuminate something for Scrooge.

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “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 no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

Hearn thinks this might be a reference to the Biblical golden calf, but it doesn't have to be. The meaning is clear enough. Scrooge is in love with gold (that is, money) now and is pursuing that rather than the deep, spiritual love offered by this woman.

“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”

This is actually a pretty great line. Scrooge isn't wrong about the world's priorities and prejudices. But he's thinking about it purely pragmatically when this woman is offering something more profound. Scrooge just refuses to see it. 

“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes 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?”

“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”

She shook her head.

“Am I?”

“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”

“I was a boy,” he said impatiently.

I like that so many adaptations had Scrooge fall in love with her while he was at Fezziwig's. The timeline works out and it makes sense that he was content to be poor while in Fezziwig's family-like employment. Since leaving Fezziwig though, Scrooge has been looking out for himself and it's changed him. Instead of building a new family with this woman who loves him, he believes it's entirely his responsibility to provide for and protect her. And it's ruined him.

This gets to the heart of why his relationship with Fred is so bad. Some adaptations suggest that Scrooge's sister died giving birth to Fred and that's why Scrooge is angry, but I think Dickens' biggest hint is when Fred visits Scrooge at the beginning of the story and Scrooge asks Fred why he got married. 

"Because I fell in love," Fred says.

"Because you fell in love!" Scrooge growls. And Dickens adds, "As if that were the only thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas."

Scrooge can't stand Fred and his wife because they made the choice that Scrooge was too cowardly to. They chose love and family over wealth and security. I think Scrooge deeply regrets his fear, but won't admit it. Fred unknowingly confronts him with it though and that's why Scrooge keeps his distance.

That's why I said earlier that showing Scrooge this memory is a crucial stage for the Spirit. Scrooge has been more or less on board up till now, but how will he react when confronted with this monumental decision that he is so, so sorry for? 

“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”

It's beautiful the way she puts this. They're no longer united, no longer a team, she realizes it, and she has no choice but to let him go. They're already separated, she's just formalizing it.

“Have I ever sought release?”

“In words. No. Never.”

“In what, then?”

“In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,” said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no!”

He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said with a struggle, “You think not.”

She's right and he knows it. He has no defense. One of the adaptations has her call out that his "You think not" is "a safe and terrible answer," which of course it is.

“I would gladly think otherwise if I could,” she answered, “Heaven knows! When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl—you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by Gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.”

Hearn explains that Dickens' original text had "dowerless orphan" instead of "dowerless girl" to further explain her poverty. That and her mourning-dress suggest that she's recently orphaned. Maybe that change in her financial circumstances has led to Scrooge's being even more cold towards her. Which makes him even more awful by emotionally punishing her just when she's also grieving the death of her parents. 

He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed.

“You may—the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will—have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!”

She left him, and they parted.

“Spirit!” said Scrooge, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”

Old Scrooge is distraught and wants to be done. He totally gets the Spirit's point and wants to be done.

“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.

“No more!” cried Scrooge. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”

But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms, and forced him to observe what happened next.

I've never noticed that the Ghost gets physical with Scrooge and forcibly restrains him. I'll be surprised if that comes up in adaptations.

They were in another scene and place; a room, not very large or handsome, but full of comfort. Near to the winter fire sat a beautiful young girl, so like that last that Scrooge believed it was the same, until he saw her, now a comely matron, sitting opposite her daughter. The noise in this room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there, than Scrooge in his agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty. 

I'm splitting Dickens' super long paragraph to mention that the "celebrated herd in the poem" refers to William Wordsworth's "Written in March," which goes:

"The oldest and the youngest
Are at work with the strongest;
The cattle are grazing,
Their heads never raising;
There are forty feeding like one!"

Dickens' point is that this is utter chaos.

The consequences were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn’t for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn’t have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn’t have done it; I should have expected my arm to have grown round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.

Dickens gets creepy as he editorializes about the daughter, but the point is that this is a mad, lovely scene and we're meant to appreciate and even envy this boisterous family.

But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued that she with laughing face and plundered dress was borne towards it the centre of a flushed and boisterous group, just in time to greet the father, who came home attended by a man laden with Christmas toys and presents. Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenceless porter! The scaling him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round his neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection! The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received! The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken in the act of putting a doll’s frying-pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter! The immense relief of finding this a false alarm! The joy, and gratitude, and ecstasy! They are all indescribable alike. It is enough that by degrees the children and their emotions got out of the parlour, and by one stair at a time, up to the top of the house; where they went to bed, and so subsided.

Most adaptations include Scrooge's breakup, but not many of them go on to show her crazy, happy, Scrooge-less life. We'll keep track of the ones that do and whether they communicate the fun insanity of this out of control household.

And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.


“Belle,” said the husband, turning to his wife with a smile, “I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon.”

We finally get the name of Scrooge's beloved. Hearn speculates that she might be named after Maria Beadnell, a woman whom Dickens - like Scrooge - gave up for financial reasons. But "Belle" of course means "beauty" and maybe the name is just symbolic of that.

“Who was it?”


“How can I? Tut, don’t I know?” she added in the same breath, laughing as he laughed. “Mr. Scrooge.”

I think it's weird that she guesses on the first try. Is Scrooge the only "old friend" she has?

“Mr. Scrooge it was. I passed his office window; and as it was not shut up, and he had a candle inside, I could scarcely help seeing him. His partner lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe.”

I love this detail. So this vision is from seven years ago when Marley died.

“Spirit!” said Scrooge in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

“Remove me!” Scrooge exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”

He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.

I don't think any adaptation has the Ghost's face suggest the various other faces that it's shown Scrooge: like Fan and Fezziwig and Belle. But let's keep an eye out.

“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”

In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Scrooge observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head.

Scrooge realizes that the Ghost's power is in the memories it's calling up, so that's what Scrooge attacks.

The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.

Still, Scrooge can't fully extinguish the light of these memories.

He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He gave the cap a parting squeeze, in which his hand relaxed; and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.

And we're ready for the Ghost of Christmas Present, but it'll be fun to see how each adaptation transitions from Scrooge's snuffing out Christmas Past to being back in his apartment.

So here's what we're on the look out for this year:
  • Is Belle wearing black or is there any sign that she's in mourning for recently deceased parents?
  • Does the adaptation offer a specific reason for Belle to leave Scrooge at this particular moment? Or is it just that they've generally grown apart?
  • If there's a final vision of Belle's life after Scrooge, does the Ghost forcibly restrain Scrooge to make him watch it?
  • Does Belle end up with a large, joyously boisterous family?
  • Does the Ghost's face transform into the various other faces that it's shown Scrooge in these memories?
  • How does the adaptation handle the transition from Christmas Past back to Scrooge's apartment?

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

Quite the poignant scene to look at this year. What Scrooge had, gave up and then, of what could have-maybe been his own happy family. Sad, but definitely shows him how narrow-minded his focus became and what it cost him. I think he knew, and grew more bitter each year in knowing, but being forced to face it all at once probably helps to cause the utter exhaustion that sends him back to bed. Can't wait to see how the different versions present this. Happy December!


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