The reams dedicated to this question are copious. Those in the religious allegory camp point to the Christian themes of sin, pride, repentance, redemption, and salvation, while those who adhere to the secular perspective argue that Scrooge’s miraculous transformation derives from the humanistic currents of philanthropy, charity, social injustice, and altruism conquering the old miser’s unfeeling capitalistic greed and cold Malthusian unconcern for humanity.
As interesting as many of these positions are, I can’t help but feel that they all sorely miss the point, the very same point Dickens himself missed when his ghostly tale was published on December 19, 1843, nearly 120 days ago to the day.
Though A Christmas Carol contains both Christian and secular themes, it is neither secular nor religious in any pure sense. Instead, it presents an inadvertent insight into man’s consciousness development in the West near the beginning of what would eventually be known in British history as the Victorian era.
For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this inadvertent insight as the eclipsing of the eternal heart-set in Christian consciousness in the West. I use the term heart-set instead of mindset intentionally here to indicate that though man still thought and reasoned about eternity, heaven, and life-everlasting at that time, his ability to think about such assumptions via the heart had all but faded away.
Bob Cratchit’s refusal or inability to resent Scrooge exemplifies the purest example of genuine Christian virtue and vitality within the story, and Dickens’ is quick to juxtapose Mrs. Cratchit’s modern lower-class resentment against her husband’s high virtuousness.
Yet one can’t help but wonder how Victorian readers responded to the juxtaposition. Did it cause a flicker of recognition in the heart? Later generations of readers were quick to label Cratchit’s refusal to resent Scrooge as foolish and sentimental. Contemporary readers probably scoff and label it internalized oppression or some such thing.
The supernatural provokes – yes, provokes – Scrooge into choosing freedom-from the eternal hell that has consumed his former business partner, Jacob Marley, which is very different from an internal, freedom-for commitment based on Jesus’s offer of heaven and everlasting life.
Marley’s ghost is a disembodied being whose this-worldly deeds condemn him to walk the earth dragging a ponderous chain as a clanking testament to his evil and sin. His repentance came too late – after death – and hence, means nothing other than to serve as salt to eternally rub and irritate the unforgivable spiritual wounds of not realizing that mankind was his business.
The best Marley can do is attempt to save Scrooge from the same fate, which might have been a purely vital and spiritual motivation had it not focused entirely on the issue of good works in mortal life and the eventual dramatic revelation of Ignorance and Want later in the story.
Altruism was the mankind business Marley failed to learn, the very same business Scrooge refuses to do unless it is to remind the charity gentlemen of what prisons and workhouses amply provide. That all changes at the end after Scrooge bursts forth from his chambers, enraptured by an uber-Romantic passion for life that quickly whittles to something akin to manic philanthropism.
Scrooge’s transformation subconsciously tears away at Dickens. The sudden generosity and disregard for the material trappings that had congealed the old miser’s heart into ice over a lifetime suggests authentic spiritual transformation, the value of which lies in the transformation itself and its consequent outpouring of love for Creation, not in any apparent this-worldly good the transformation initiates.
The suggestion lingers, yet Dickens cannot commit to it. The outpouring of this-worldly good ultimately reigns. After all, Tiny Tim did NOT die, and not dying is, in this sense, Dickens’ proof of ultimate good.
A Christmas Carol is both secular and religious. At the same time, A Christmas Carol is neither secular nor religious. Any seeming process of hybridization between these two disparate components is a flagrant misreading, not of what Dickens wrote, but of what Dickens reveals in his ghostly Christmas allegory.
Christianity continued to live in the minds of Dickens and his contemporaries, where it freely mixed and blended with the enlightened, the scientific, the democratic, and the progressive, transforming it from a religion of eternal life to a religion of NOT dying and everyone being blessed.
Yes, Tiny Tim did NOT die, yet not dying is not the same as living eternally.