I’m not the first person to point this out, but I still wanted to provide an analysis, since I just posted a review of A Christmas Carol. I neglected to mention this topic there, which is why I decided to make an additional post. Get ready for a short essay that is actually more a ramble.
In brief, it seems to me that A Christmas Carol shows the journey of a probably-Jewish man converting to Christianity.
Dickens introduces Scrooge as a miser, describing him as a “covetous old sinner” with a “pointed nose”—being greedy and having a large, pointed nose are both common stereotypes of Jewish people. Furthermore, the name Ebenezer is Hebrew in origin. Now while that in itself is not grounds for declaring this character is Jewish, that combined with the stereotypical elements of his appearance and personality make it pretty clear—at least to me—that Dickens intends him to be seen by his contemporary audience as a Jewish man.
At the beginning of the story, Scrooge degrades Christmas and anyone who celebrates it. He argues with his nephew Fred, saying that “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry…” (from chapter “Marley’s Ghost; my emphasis). Clearly, he prioritizes work and making money over the values Fred sees in the celebration that lauds love and giving and family. None of this is made to be overtly due to the Jewishness of his portrayal, but still serves to make him quite unpleasant.
There is further imagery of both Judaism and Christianity when we arrive at Scrooge’s home. Around his fireplace are tiles, which show many images:
Cains and Abels, Pharaoh’s daughters; Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts… (from chapter “Marley’s Ghost”)
Most of these images, figures, and events are from the Old Testament of the Bible. The only exception I can see is the mention of the “Apostles putting off to sea…” which calls to mind Christ’s disciples in the New Testament. Still, the majority is Old Testament imagery from Genesis or Exodus, which is telling, as those are both key texts in Judaism.
Marley is the one who explicitly brings up Jesus. He reveals the chains he wears to represent the sins he committed in life, and goes on to say:
At this time of the rolling year, I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me! (from chapter “Marley’s Ghost”)
The Star, the Wise Men, the “poor abode”—all clear references to the setting, events, and players involved in Christ’s birth. The fact that these images are left out of the art on Scrooge’s fireplace implies that the New Testament are not really on Scrooge’s radar. Nor are they really anything he seems to care about at all. This serves as further evidence he could be Jewish.
Another telltale aspect of Marley’s visit is he first mentions the “three Spirits” which will visit Scrooge. An important aspect of Christianity is the Trinity: that of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are one God in three figures, basically. Now, this is not to say that the Spirits Scrooge sees—Christmases Past, Present, and Future—are supposed to correspond with the Holy Trinity. I just find the fact that it’s three spirits a little too coincidental, given the rest of the religious symbolism.
Then, upon Scrooge’s awakening, he is ecstatic, crying out:
I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees! (from chapter “The End of It”)
Again, ideas of the Trinity appear, as well as the image that Scrooge, for the first time (or perhaps, the first time since he was a child), is praying. And his saying that the spirits will live within him… does he mean the Christmases, or the Holy Trinity? It seems likely to me that Dickens means both. Scrooge continues:
I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. (from chapter “The End of It”)
To me, that sounds a lot like being “reborn”—Scrooge has become a infant again, has gotten a fresh start, because of Christmas, and his apparent change of faith.
Sure, Scrooge 2.0 is a better man, kinder and more giving. He helps the Cratchit family, reconnects with Fred, and generally just becomes a more pleasant person when he lets go of greed. He honors “Christmas in [his] heart, and tr[ies] to keep it all the year.” This in itself isn’t a bad thing. I have nothing against redemption arcs. I only see it as problematic when I consider the rather blatant stereotyping, the evident Jewish-ness of Scrooge 1.0.
In general, this is not at all a sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish person, as there are no other examples in this story. In order to become a “good man,” Scrooge has to turn his back on those behaviors and beliefs. Considering just that, it’s awful. But otherwise, A Christmas Carol does teach good lessons: don’t be a greedy, hateful jerk. Care about the plight of your fellow man, and don’t consider yourself better than anyone else. I just wish it didn’t have to stomp all over another faith to get its message across.
I don’t know how to feel about it, really. I suppose, perhaps, we should not write off the lessons Dickens is presenting, not entirely. But we also should not ignore or try to excuse the problematic portrayal of Jewishness that is Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps that was a more common attitude of Dickens’ world, and we have to keep that in mind, but that doesn’t make it okay.
Does it make the entire message of the story irrelevant though?
That, I don’t know.
Anyway, if you’re still reading, thanks for sticking around as I ramble and come to no conclusion whatsoever.