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Many have found the dramatic transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge mysterious, and some have even taken issue with Dickens's reformation of his curmudgeon as wildly implausible. At the heart of the critical debate over Scrooge's change is not only the question of why he changed but also, and more fundamentally, what changed within him. This article argues that Scrooge's newfound magnanimity is made possible by a dramatic but progressive change in the ways he does and does not allow himself to know others. Through a series of close readings, it demonstrates that Scrooge is at first unable to sympathize with others because he restricts his knowledge only to that which he can know through himself and his own experience, and it then traces how his growth in sympathy stems from his burgeoning self-knowledge and subsequent willingness to know others. In the end, however, he must move beyond knowledge and sympathy altogether, embracing the other not in spite of but because of her mystery. Finally, this article briefly observes how Dickens leads his readers on a parallel journey, inviting them to know Scrooge by seeing the ways they are alike and to love Scrooge by accepting what they cannot know.


Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, epistemology, knowledge, sympathy

Few lines of literature are more well-known or more often quoted than those two iconic words uttered by Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge: "Bah! Humbug." However, relatively little attention has been paid to the epistemological implications of Scrooge's crusty catchphrase. The word humbug [End Page 20] denotes not primarily that something is silly or meaningless but rather that it is false. Thus, the denotation of humbug suggests that Scrooge is rejecting Christmas and, more fundamentally, charity for others because he does not or cannot believe in these things, and what changes throughout the Carol, I will argue, is Scrooge's ability or willingness to believe. In making this argument, I will join a substantial body of criticism examining how Scrooge's orientation toward others evolves, and I will contend that an alteration in his operative epistemology is a key part of that change.1 Scrooge's transformation from greed to graciousness in A Christmas Carol is made possible by an underlying evolution in the way he acquires knowledge. He progresses from an epistemology based on a distorted application of sympathy into a hospitable epistemology that combines the logic of sympathy, seeing ourselves in another, with an almost proto-Levinasian emphasis on embracing the strangeness of the other. Dickens reveals this progression through Scrooge's series of visitations from very strange others indeed, but he also advances it through the way that he makes the readers aware of their own role in creating A Christmas Carol from the text. Just as Scrooge is led by the Ghosts to both recognize the life he shares with others and acknowledge an otherness he cannot control or comprehend, so the readers are guided by Dickens to create Scrooge as a character who is felt to be familiar as a construct of their own mind but is simultaneously sensed as other due to the work of the ghostly authorial guide.

Scrooge's rejections of Christmas, of charity, and of ghostly spirits are all based in a sort of epistemological skepticism. Scrooge's default defenses of his miserly ways are based in epistemic objections rather than in explicitly pragmatic or moral argumentation. When confronted by an unwelcome concept, such as Christmas, or an unwelcome character, such as his dead former business partner, he responds by either appealing to his own inability to know or by accusing the intruding other of not being true. In this way, Scrooge bases his miserably self-centered life on a carefully cultivated ignorance of the other that depends in part on an ignorance of his self. However, it is striking that, while Scrooge begins the novel by justifying his lack of charity by declaring his ignorance, he ends the novel by making a proclamation of his ignorance central to his newfound love of life and others: "I don't know anything!" (101: Stave 5). What has changed to give these claims to ignorance such different import? I believe that the answer is found in the way that Dickens repairs Scrooge's practice of sympathy but then also moves beyond the scope of sympathy altogether. Scrooge nimbly dodges knowledge of the other as long as he can, but eventually that knowledge is forced upon him through a renewal of his self-knowledge and through the [End Page 21] extreme otherness of his ghostly visitors. This process prompts Scrooge's journey from an ignorance-based denial of duty to a knowledge-driven sympathy and finally even beyond that sympathy to a love that is not contingent on knowledge or understanding. Finally, Dickens's narration of this trajectory brings not only Scrooge but also the reader into a position of newfound connection to the mystery of the other.

Scrooge begins the novel by persistently understanding (or misunderstanding) others by understanding them through himself. If we define sympathy broadly as the practice of understanding the other by imagining oneself in their position, then Scrooge's curtailing of his knowledge amounts to a distorted application of sympathy, distorted in part by Scrooge's faulty knowledge of himself. This initial flawed way of knowing is most clearly demonstrated in his encounters with the charitable gentlemen and with Jacob Marley, but a brief observation of Scrooge's deployment of his eponymous catchphrase can help elucidate the extent to which an epistemological skepticism shapes his life. Scrooge's first and perhaps most iconic accusation of humbuggery comes after his nephew Fred's buoyant interruption of Scrooge's work routine with a "Merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" (8: Stave 1). In the ensuing conversation, Scrooge reiterates his declaration of "Bah! Humbug," and defends his position by pointing out what he sees as the absurd incongruity between the physical and financial realities of Christmas and the unjustifiably merry experience of Christmas that others profess in this "world of fools" (8: Stave 1). He applies his own understanding of the world and its worth to Christmas, considering how he would feel if Christmastime were to him "a time for paying bills without money" (8: Stave 1). Scrooge concludes, of course, that he would not be merry under these circumstances and he deems others' merriment incomprehensible accordingly. In fact, the use of the word "humbug" seems even to suggest that their happiness is un-real. If it cannot be known by Scrooge and through Scrooge, it cannot be known at all, and it is clear that for Scrooge what cannot be known provides no basis for justified feeling or action. Scrooge violently rejects any other that cannot be purged of its otherness by being understood through his own self.

This point is reinforced by a later application of Scrooge's catchall defense against encroaching otherness, when he deploys the word "Humbug!" to attempt to convince himself of the un-reality of Marley's ghost (18: Stave 1). This incident occurs before Marley enters Scrooge's room but after he has already witnessed Marley's face on his doorknocker. Just as Scrooge repudiates the possibility of Christmas merriment because it cannot be understood through his own self, he labels his perception of Marley's [End Page 22] face as humbug because the possibility of an other so far outside the scope of his own experience is unknowable to him (a point that we shall reinforce shortly in examining Scrooge's subsequent engagement with Marley's ghost itself). Scrooge refuses to accept the other in the natural world, so it is hardly surprising that he should resist believing in the supernatural other as well. For Scrooge at the beginning of the Carol, Christmas and the undead are both humbug. They are categorically ridiculous as objects for belief because neither can be understood through recourse to Scrooge's own internal resources.

Scrooge believes only those aspects of the outside world that make sense in light of his own internal world, and an inevitable result of this stringently subjective epistemology is that he refuses to practice charity toward others. This refusal is most famously revealed in Scrooge's conversation with the gentlemen who call at his office collecting charity for the poor when he declares: "If they [the destitute] would rather die … they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population" (12: Stave 1). Although Scrooge's vicious Malthusian moment here is often quoted both popularly and in criticism, an examination of the preceding and subsequent context for that statement reveals that it is rooted in an appeal to limitations of knowledge:

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [the prisons and workhouses]: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

(12–13: Stave 1)

Scrooge's notorious remark about reducing the surplus population is striking, but his following comment basing that vicious exclamation in a lack of knowledge might be easier to miss.2 However, the remark is essential to understanding Scrooge's Malthusian outburst, because it is actually a [End Page 23] justification of that outburst. Scrooge links his unwillingness to give charity to others in a purported inability to know the needs of those others when he states, "Besides—excuse me—I don't know that" (12: Stave 1). At first it might appear as if Scrooge is saying that he cannot know that it would be better for the destitute to die. He does after all approach some degree of civility by inserting a brief "excuse me." However, the gentleman's response makes it clear that Scrooge is actually referring to the gentleman's previous remark about some of the poor preferring death to the prisons and workhouses. The gentleman claims, "But you might know it," and Scrooge responds by arguing that his responsibility does not extend beyond "his own business" (12–13: Stave 1). Scrooge confines his ethical responsibilities within his own sphere and particularly within the bounds of his knowledge. He justifies his lack of empathy by the constraints of his ability to know others, and this situates him in a position to be uniquely aided in his ethical growth by unwanted other-worldly visitations.

Before we begin to consider how Scrooge's ghostly guests initiate his transformation, however, we should consider more closely how his skepticism-driven denial of ethical responsibility to the other is a distortion of the practice of sympathy. Sympathy and the related ideal of sentiment were of course much debated topics in the Victorian era and accordingly continue to galvanize considerable discussion among literary critics of the period today.3 While a fuller engagement with this wealth of criticism would be requisite for a more in-depth reading of sympathy in Dickens or the Carol, my argument here will draw on only the most fundamental, and thus fairly agreed upon, aspects of sympathy. Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments provides an influential articulation of what, in its most basic essence, sympathy was understood to be: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him" (10).4 Scrooge might at first glance seem to be a strong counter example to Smith's claim; the flint-hard Ebenezer might appear so selfish as not to possess the capacity for sympathetic connection that Smith views as innate to all persons. However, our epistemological lens allows us to see how this is not the case. Rae Greiner has convincingly demonstrated that Dickens's seemingly excessively emotional characters highlight the importance of intentional effort in sympathy by making the practice of sympathy, particularly as described by Smith, notably difficult, and Scrooge is certainly an example of a character whose extremities might seem to frustrate not only his own sympathetic capacity but the reader's efforts to sympathize with him as well.5 Nonetheless, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear [End Page 24] that Scrooge's natural sympathies are present; they are simply unknown to Scrooge. Scrooge constrains his understanding to only what he can know through himself, a practice that could accommodate sympathy as "conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation" (Smith 10). But Scrooge cannot effectively conceive of himself in any situation because he has cut himself off from a true knowledge of himself and in so doing has cut himself off from knowledge of the other. As such, Scrooge's epistemological correction must begin with self-knowledge to enable him to practice sympathy by imaginatively knowing the other.

That correction gets off to a startling start when Scrooge's distorted sympathy is put to the test through his encountering a familiar face in a most unfamiliar manner. Scrooge's initial encounter with Marley's ghost reveals the extent to which he is committed to understanding reality through himself alone, but ultimately that encounter overwhelms his epistemological defenses. Given what we have observed so far, it might be possible to conclude that Scrooge is a radical empiricist, accepting as truth what and only what his senses convey to him directly, but his conversation with Marley proves that that is not the case. Even as Scrooge stares at and through the incorporeal body of Marley, Dickens writes that he did not "believe it even now" because he "fought against his senses" (20: Stave 1). Marley observes Scrooge's unbelief, prompts him to confess it, and then inquires: "Why do you doubt your senses?" (21: Stave 1). Scrooge's response reveals that he holds even his own senses to the same solipsistic epistemological rubric to which he holds the words of others. "Because … a little thing affects them," Scrooge insists, "A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" (21: Stave 1). Tellingly, Scrooge does not only deny the ghost reality; he reduces it to a mere extension of his own person. Unwilling or unable to believe in the ghost's existence as a truly other being, he attempts to convince himself that it is merely the effect of a gastrointestinal complication. When he comes face to face with almost the starkest possible instantiation of the other, Scrooge attempts to swallow it up into himself, almost literally as he locates it inside of his stomach.

The extent to which this encounter can be taken as emblematic of Scrooge's response to alterity more broadly is highlighted by Paul K. Saint-Amour who follows Richard Cohen to observe that "the strange are like the dead to us" (Saint-Amour 97). Saint-Amour goes on to consider how Scrooge's encounter with his own future death enables him to see how he has objectified himself and others in life, thus prompting his change, and I would [End Page 25] argue that we can similarly read Scrooge's eventual acceptance of the reality of Marley's specter as a necessary precondition to the subsequent stages of his evolution in knowing and related ethical growth. Scrooge attempts to escape the reality of the other by denying Marley's objective reality on the grounds of epistemological skepticism, but Marley does not let Scrooge get away with this denial. To the contrary, Marley batters down Scrooge's epistemological barriers by intensifying the incomprehensibility of his otherness. Slightly buoyed up by his gravy and the grave remark, Scrooge goes on to make the same point with a toothpick: "I have but to swallow this [toothpick], and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you—humbug!" (21: Stave 1). Here again we see the epistemological import of the word humbug as Scrooge seeks desperately to preserve his worldview by doubling down on his dedicated doubting. With his argumentum ex toothpick, Scrooge is attempting to build upon his gravy theory, reducing the ghost from an other to a mere extension of himself. The ghost, however, does not take this denial of his selfhood lying down: "At this, the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chains with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon" (21: Stave 1). When the ghost removes the bandage around his mouth, Scrooge drops to his knees, and, when the spirit repeats its inquiry as to whether he believes in him, Scrooge replies: "I do … I must" (22: Stave 1). The ghostly Marley does not persuade Scrooge to acknowledge his existence by appealing to something he shares with Scrooge. Rather, he forces Scrooge to abandon altogether his practice of arbitrating reality through himself. Marley increases the visibility of his alterity with his unearthly wailing, and he amplifies his strangeness by accentuating his deadness by removing the bandage holding his jaw up from his throat. Thus, Scrooge's effort to comprehend the other as part of himself is confounded by so incomprehensible a degree of strangeness that he is incapable of deceiving himself into thinking it is not separate from himself.

After Marley forces Scrooge to make this unwilling but genuine confession of belief, the door to more thoroughgoing epistemological, and therefore ethical, development is opened. Consequently, Scrooge's encounters with the three spirits of Christmas are marked by an increasing willingness to believe in their otherness, beginning with a begrudging admission of ghostly existence but culminating in a willingness to welcome the other. The beginning of this shift can be seen directly after Marley's ghost departs. Scrooge examines the window through which the ghost mysteriously departed and Dickens tells us: "He tried to say 'Humbug!' but stopped at [End Page 26] the first syllable" (26: Stave 1). Even without Marley's slack-jawed face before him, Scrooge can no longer deny the reality of the otherness he experienced. I should reiterate, however, that Scrooge's journey is not straightforwardly away from a system of belief wherein he understands others through himself and directly into a system where radical alterity is embraced as such. To the contrary, Dickens first repairs Scrooge's application of sympathy and then adds an embrace of mystery in otherness to a still operative sympathy in the redeemed Scrooge. Scrooge's sympathy is distorted, in large part, because of Scrooge's lack of self-knowledge. He cannot understand others through recourse to his own self if he does not have a true knowledge of his own self, so the first step to repairing Scrooge's solipsistic epistemology is, perhaps unintuitively, to give back to him a fuller knowledge of his self.

This project extends throughout the visits of all three Christmas Ghosts, but it is especially apparent in the ministrations of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge certainly learns about himself through the visions that the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Yet to Come show him, but notably he never actually sees himself in any of those visions. In every one of the scenes presented by the Ghost of Christmas Past, on the other hand, Scrooge sees past versions of himself. Whatever the glowing child-ghost is up to it clearly involves aiding Scrooge in remembering who he once was and thus understanding who he now is. We might infer from what we have seen already that this acquisition of self-knowledge will, at least potentially, pave the way for a greater application of sympathy, and this inference is clearly confirmed in one of the more touching scenes of Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Past. The very first Christmas the spirit leads Scrooge to is one of many which wee Ebenezer spent alone, abandoned at his school. After tearfully watching his isolated past self for a while, Scrooge begins to enter with the boy back into his old imaginings of Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe, his sole companions during these times. Immediately after once again exclaiming "Poor boy!" in well-warranted commiseration with his past self, Scrooge mutters, "I wish … but it's too late now" (37: Stave 2). The spirit asks Scrooge what he means by this and Scrooge clarifies: "Nothing … Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all" (37: Stave 2). While uttering this first "I wish," Scrooge puts "his hand in his pocket," exemplifying how he is reflectively moving to give the boy some change even as he looks at his own self as a boy. Remembering that he too was once a boy, being reminded what it was like to be a child and to be alone, impels Scrooge to acknowledge the needs of the boy in a way that before he did not. And I choose the word "acknowledge" here carefully as [End Page 27] it accentuates the ways in which his connection to the other derives from knowledge of the other made possible through knowledge of himself.

Scrooge's retrieved self-knowledge has already begun to reform his epistemology even in this first scene he visits with the Ghost of Christmas Past. He discovers new knowledge of others along with a willingness to act on that knowledge for others' benefit. It is important that we understand, however, that what Scrooge is gaining here is not merely empirical knowledge. To the contrary, Scrooge's gradually reviving capacity for sympathy stems from his burgeoning acquisition of imaginative self-knowledge specifically. Brian Sabey has pointed out how this scene where Scrooge watches himself in the schoolhouse marks the initial reawakening of his imagination, suggesting that memory and by extension individual identity are imagined in a way analogous to the way young Scrooge peoples his world with imagined companions through his reading (129–30).6 Active imagination is essential to Smith's conception of sympathy, so it is unsurprising that imagination should be clearly shown as central to Scrooge's burgeoning capacity for empathetic connection with others. However, I would not go quite so far as to affirm with Sabey that "Scrooge's imagination is what reanimates his moral being" (Sabey 130). Imagination certainly plays an essential role in Scrooge's reanimation, as Sabey ably demonstrates, but I would argue that the function of imagination is best understood within the broader category of Scrooge's epistemology. What alters Scrooge is a rediscovered access to knowledge, an access which depends in part upon imagination. In imaginatively remembering his past Scrooge discovers knowledge which then enables him to attain some understanding of the plight of the young caroling boy he encountered earlier. This is not quite the same as saying that Scrooge's imagination of his past enabled him to imagine the plight of the caroling lad; reason and the senses also play a part in the formation of Scrooge's knowledge and subsequent extrapolation to understanding. Indeed, Scrooge's denial of Marley demonstrates that his initial epistemology not only denied imagination but also denied his senses when necessary, and his belligerent insistence on knowing only what he could know through his own sense of himself borders on the irrational. The Ghost of Christmas Past then does work to rekindle Scrooge's imagination, but he does so as part of the larger goal of reviving Scrooge's understanding of himself and, by extension, his understanding of others.

This goal is by no means accomplished by the end of Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Past. The scene we examined includes a particularly clear example of the way that Scrooge's acquisition of imagination and self-knowledge is already awakening him to the needs of others, but [End Page 28] Scrooge's progress is not so fast and easy as that incident might imply. To the contrary, a succession of far more painful memories drives Scrooge to try to stifle the illumination of the Ghost. He endeavors to put a stop to the knowledge and understanding he feels himself being led into: "Scrooge observed that [the Ghost's] 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" (49: Stave 2). Scrooge's efforts are ineffectual; he cannot stifle the Spirit's light. But his attempt is telling. Before Scrooge tries taking this direct approach, he implores: "Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!" (49: Stave 2). These words are spoken as a direct response to his observing that the Ghost "looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him" (49: Stave 2). Scrooge is reacting against not only the pain of the past but also the threat of the other. In the Ghost's face he encounters simultaneously many others at once. He becomes conscious that the knowledge of otherness he has so long refused is breaking in upon him, pouring through the chinks in his crumbling epistemological armor, and he is not yet ready to welcome that knowledge and the duty and danger it entails.

Nonetheless, despite the suboptimal termination of Scrooge's journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past, his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals that he has made significant strides in expanding his capacity for knowledge of the other. Whereas before the Ghost of Christmas Past drew aside Scrooge's encompassing bed-curtain by his own hand, this time around Scrooge opens them all "with his own hand" in anticipation of the coming Ghost (51: Stave 2). Regardless of Scrooge's physical and mental preparation for its appearance, the Ghost of Christmas Present does not appear at his bedside like the Ghost of Christmas Past did. Rather, the spirit keeps his distance in an adjoining room, waiting for Scrooge to come seeking him, and after a tense quarter of an hour Scrooge does so. As Scrooge approaches the light of the Ghost, the spirit addresses him: "Come in! and know me better, man!" (52: Stave 3). This invitation offers Scrooge a decision. He can consciously seek knowledge of the other before him, or he can reject that opportunity and remain in his own dark chamber. Scrooge is standing at this moment at the doorway between his bedroom and the illuminated adjoining chamber, with his hand on the handle. He is both literally and metaphorically choosing to either remain in darkness, neither seeing or being seen, or to step into the light where he will see and be seen by the other. His decision to step out of his cloistered room and into the chamber occupied by the Ghost of Christmas Present marks a striking departure from his previous response to possible knowledge of the other. [End Page 29]

To highlight this change, we can look back to Scrooge's conversation with the charity-collecting gentlemen in Stave 1. As we observed earlier, Scrooge bases his virulent rejection of charitable giving in his inability to know the truth of the gentleman's assertion about some poor persons preferring death to prison or the workhouse. The gentleman responds in turn by pointing out that Scrooge's ignorance is not necessary but rather is volitional. He remarks simply: "But you might know it" (12: Stave 1). Although this observation does not proffer as clear an invitation to knowledge of the other as that declared by the Ghost of Christmas Present, it is certainly implying such an invitation. The word "might" indicates that Scrooge could know the plight of the poor if he chose to know it. It challenges him to choose to know, to learn of the other from the other. Scrooge rejects that implicit invitation in no uncertain terms, so the fact that he willingly seeks knowledge of such an other as the Ghost of Christmas Present whom he had "never seen the like of" before, indicates a conscious adjustment of an epistemology which previously denied the possibility of such knowledge altogether (53: Stave 3).

The Ghost of Christmas Present's hearty invitation into knowledge of himself is appropriately also an invitation into knowledge of others generally. As we noted, the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge images of his own past, all of which feature Scrooge himself, but the second Ghost leads Scrooge into many more overtly unfamiliar scenes, none of which include Scrooge and all of which include others. The tour begins with the household of an acquaintance, Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit, and ends in the home of a relative, his nephew Fred, but in between these intervals the Spirit leads Scrooge through a series of progressively more unfamiliar places. After traversing the streets of London, they appear suddenly in an isolated moor and visit the home of a miner and his family. After this, they leave England altogether, flying out over the sea to experience Christmas in the company of sailors aboard a ship. The diversity of these very different persons in their very different situations accentuates the way that they all are united in their love of Christmas. Scrooge is struck by the fact that even aboard the distant ship "every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas day" (68: Stave 3). The thrust of the many scenes of Christmas cheer revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present is toward a vision of universal unity even through difference. Christmas is a thread shown to be drawing diverse others together, and in inviting Scrooge into fuller knowledge of Christmas, the Spirit invites him likewise into closer union with others.

This journey toward knowledge of others via knowledge of sameness with those others continues through Scrooge's final haunting. The Ghost [End Page 30] of Christmas Yet to Come reveals to Scrooge the greatest link that binds all persons together: death. Where the Ghost of Christmas Present allowed Scrooge to witness how he might choose to know others through love in life, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come reveals to him the reality of the fate that he shares with everyone else no matter what he may choose. The lesson that the third ghost impresses upon Scrooge by bringing him face-to-face with his own death and the apathy and gladness it might occasion was extended to him in a much more agreeable guise by his nephew Fred in the very first Stave of the novel. Fred's passionate defense of Christmas against the accusation of humbuggery curiously identifies one of the season's most crowning achievements as its ability to arouse awareness of all humankind's unity through mortality. Fred observes, "[Christmas is] the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys" (9: Stave 1). This language of "different races" might put us in mind of Disraeli's two nations, and the lesson imparted by both Fred and the Ghost of Christmas yet to come is that the key to a sympathy capable of erasing such perceived fissures is a conscious knowledge of death as the final end of life. Scrooge is morally transformed when he regains imaginative knowledge of himself that makes possible the practice of sympathy toward others. Where before he practiced a solipsistic epistemology that was almost a parody of sympathy as it sought to remake everything other in his own image, the rekindling of his imagination has now made it possible for him to know himself, his past as a child and his future as a corpse, and then to use that self-knowledge to imaginatively place himself in the position of others.

However, although this ability to understand others through the life he shares with them is without doubt an essential part of Scrooge's restoration, his epistemological arc could not be accurately described as one moving from ignorance to knowledge. To the contrary, just as we saw that Scrooge's moral and epistemic isolation is marked by his declaration of his ignorance in his conversation with the charitable gentleman in Stave 1, so his moment of moral rebirth in the fifth and final stave is marked by another even stronger proclamation of ignorance. After Scrooge's distressing journey with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he finds himself back in his bedchamber and begins rejoicing exuberantly in his life and the possibility of living in love with others. In part, Scrooge's gleeful exultations affirm the importance of knowing how he is like the other. He bursts into a litany of comparisons, describing himself by identifying different aspects of his emotional [End Page 31] experience as something shared with different others: "I am as happy as an angel. I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man" (100: Stave 5), but shortly after this demonstration of his self-knowledge based connection to others, Scrooge links his newfound passion for connecting with others to a sweeping claim of ignorance. Scrooge exclaims, "I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo there!" (101: Stave 5). Not only does Scrooge claim to be vastly ignorant; he indicates his intention to remain that way. We might be oddly reminded of Scrooge's response in Stave 1 when the gentleman reminds Scrooge that he could choose to not be ignorant and Scrooge obstinately maintains his ignorance. Why, after an extended process of expanding the scope of his knowledge, does Scrooge state that he does not know and prefers to keep things that way?

Examining the context before and after Scrooge's perplexing statement suggests an answer. First, we should note that a mere few lines before Scrooge claims not to know anything he demonstrates confident knowledge of past events based on present phenomena: "There's the door, by which the Ghost of Jacob Marley entered! There's the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present, sat! There's the window where I saw the wandering Spirits! It's all right, it's all true, it all happened. Ha ha ha!" (100: Stave 5). Scrooge's reveling in his knowledge appears equal to his subsequent reveling in his ignorance, so it seems reasonable to infer that some hyperbole is in play when Scrooge declares that he does not know anything. Whatever ignorance Scrooge embraces is clearly commensurable with knowledge, including most importantly knowledge of himself and what he shares with others. Nonetheless, just as knowledge has been shown to be key to Scrooge's burgeoning capacity for love, so his ignorance is shown to facilitate connection to others as well. Although Scrooge is alone in his chamber throughout all of this revelry, he follows his discovery of his baby-like lack of knowledge with an outburst of "Hallo! Whoop! Hallo there!" The exclamation "hallo" can function as simply an expression of excitement, but it more frequently functions as a means of greeting another person, and in this case I believe it is functioning as both simultaneously. It appears that Scrooge is excited by the possibilities that both his newfound knowledge and newfound ignorance provide for connection with others.

This is because the knowledge Scrooge lays claim to here is, in large part, an ignorance of the other. Scrooge has learned to expand his knowledge to encompass some knowledge of the other through himself, but ultimately he has also learned to conceive of encountering the other as an event that extends beyond the scope of even his newly expanded ways of knowing. [End Page 32] Scrooge reaches out to the other not only because he knows the other is like himself but also because he knows the other is ultimately unknowable. Saint-Amour makes this latter point well in his excellent Derridean and Levinasian reading of the Carol. Saint-Amour concludes that: "A Christmas Carol testifies to the difference of the other even as it insists that 'mankind was my business' (62), in other words, that social life—what Marley's Ghost calls 'the requirement that the spirit within us should walk abroad among our fellows, and travel far and wide' (60–61)—is none other than the encounter with radical alterity" (97). Saint-Amour's summary helpfully explains how Scrooge's connection to others is motivated by his acknowledgement of the otherness that we saw him so vigorously shielding himself from in his earlier encounter with Jacob Marley's ghost. The mystery is no longer threatening to Scrooge, or, if it is, he is willing to undergo that risk for the sake of mutual sociality. That said, our study of Scrooge's epistemological evolution does not permit us fully to follow Saint-Amour in accepting a Levinasian account of the encounter with the other as explanatory of where Scrooge ends up at the end of his regenerative journey. While we can affirm that Scrooge has indeed learned that "the relationship with the other is a relationship with a Mystery," we certainly cannot conclude that Scrooge has likewise learned that "the relationship with the other" is not "a sympathy, through which we put ourselves in the other's place" (Lévinas 75). We have, in fact, dedicated a great deal of our reading to demonstrating that Scrooge is learning throughout the novel to know himself so that he can perform that very act of sympathy Lévinas describes. What Lévinas considers incommensurable, Dickens seems to view as complimentary. The vision of engaging with the other that Scrooge eagerly sets out to practice at the end of A Christmas Carol begins with a sympathy motivated by a knowledge of those aspects of the other that can be known through imaginative comparison with himself but ends with a loving embrace of the mystery that lies beyond the range of such sympathetic knowledge.

What is more, the reader is led into a similar position of sympathetic knowledge and sensed mystery in relation to Scrooge himself. Dickens indicates his intention to guide the reader on a journey of discovery parallel to that of Scrooge early on in the novel. He casts himself in the role of ghostly guide and thus implicitly casts the reader, like Scrooge, in the role of guided learner. When Scrooge's bedcurtains are opened by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Dickens states that Scrooge was "as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow" (31: Stave 2). Dickens's implied author, or at the very least his narrator, positions himself as a ghost standing spatially in a relation to the reader that mirrors the spatial relation of [End Page 33] the Ghost of Christmas Past to Scrooge, and this spatial parallel suggests a parallel purpose as well. The work of the Carol's narrator as guiding ghost has been best explored to date by Brian Sabey, who argues incisively that the work of the Ghosts is to teach Scrooge how to understand reality through imagination in a way that resembles the creation of fiction from the page through imagination. Thus, the reader, in the act of reading, is led to recognize that the way they are imagining the text can act as a model for a fuller way of engaging the world around them. It is, of course, potentially dangerous to take the act of reading as prescriptive for the exercise of imagination in the world, and Sabey is very aware of this, drawing on Lévinas to delineate fictive literature from reality since the other can only be truly encountered in the world: "Because of the ethical encounter in the real world, there is more than comprehension, more than meaning-making" (Sabey 135). In Sabey's analysis then reading the Carol can simulate the imagining of others and of the world but cannot simulate the encounter with the other which also plays a key role in Scrooge's redemption.

In many, even most, respects I am persuaded by Sabey's argument, but in a couple important ways I will depart from (or at least go beyond) his conclusions. The first of these departures we have noted earlier when we considered how imagination can best be understood as an essential but partial component of Scrooge's gradually reviving ability to know. When imagination is relegated to this slightly more confined role, then it appears the role of the ghostly narrator is primarily to lead the reader into knowing (in part through imagining) rather than into imagining as constitutive of reality in itself. Sabey demonstrates the limits of imagination by going outside of the text, but I believe that Dickens successfully leads the reader into both a simulated knowledge of the other through imagination and a simulated encounter with unknowable alterity within the text itself.

The former of these encounters occurs inevitably on some level, although Scrooge's own journey works to make the reader particularly aware of it. Scrooge, like any literary character in Sartre's words, "has no other substance than the reader's subjectivity" (45). Even as Dickens's descriptions of Scrooge's extreme selfishness and coldness might repel us, we sense that we share his every passion at least in potentia because we ourselves created those feelings in him. To paraphrase Sartre, Scrooge's greed is our greed which we lend him; his coldness is our coldness (Sartre 45). Everything we are told about Scrooge, we can understand through ourselves because it is from ourselves that Scrooge has proceeded. Clearly, this is not exactly the same as understanding the other through oneself in reality, but the reader's experience will in practice feel far more like getting to know a stranger [End Page 34] since, in the act of reading, we are not usually so consciously aware of our role in producing the characters and world from the text. Indeed, Dickens initially emphasizes the strangeness of Scrooge to the reader. We have seen how Scrooge at the end of his long Christmas Eve night compares himself to a series of human fellows, but at the beginning of the story the narrator compares Scrooge not to human figures but instead to inanimate objects: "Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster" (6: Stave 1). Here, the narrator directs the reader to know Scrooge by knowing the properties of flint and of oysters, rather than by knowing themselves. This might make it easy for the reader to feel that Scrooge's coldness is not in fact their own.

However, in reality, Scrooge can only feel as cold as the reader imagines him to feel, and this interdependence of Scrooge and the reader is nowhere made clearer than in Scrooge's and the reader's parallel ignorance. Dickens famously begins the Carol by asserting: "Marley was dead: to begin with" (1: Stave 1). Shortly after informing the reader of this fact, he writes: "Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did" (1: Stave 1). Dickens goes on to explain that it is important the reader know this, so that they can appreciate the wondrousness of the coming story. The appearance of Marley is mysterious and frightening to the reader and to Scrooge alike, because Dickens has made them equally knowledgeable about Marley's demise. Indeed, he makes sure the reader knows that Marley is dead before he ever tells the reader that Scrooge knows that fact, so that the reader is positioned to create this state of knowing in Scrooge by extending her own state of knowing. Building on this initial linking of the reader's and Scrooge's epistemic states, the reader's connection to Scrooge is foregrounded throughout the Carol by their shared ignorance. The reader will have no trouble imagining Scrooge's befuddlement before Marley's specter, since the reader is held equally in a state of suspense. Even the reader's process of learning more about Scrooge by seeing Scrooge's past parallels Scrooge's own journey of self-discovery, since, as we have seen, Scrooge had forgotten what he had once known about himself, and thus he and the reader are both simultaneously learning how to understand Scrooge better. And by learning more about Scrooge, both Scrooge and the reader are led into knowledge of the other through sympathy. We have seen how this occurs for Scrooge. For the reader, coming to see in Scrooge increasingly more human and inevitably relatable qualities, such as loneliness, love, and grief, makes them aware that they hold all these things in common with him. Naturally, the reader is more willing to acknowledge on some level that the sorrow encountered in Scrooge is a projection of the reader's own subjectivity, and that awareness [End Page 35] may retroactively force a sense that Scrooge's earlier viciousness is also a product of the reader's own imagination. Thus, the way that Dickens pairs the readers with Scrooge as ghost-guided learners impels the readers to contemplate this connection to Scrooge and to sympathize with Scrooge through knowing themselves.

However, the fact that Scrooge is constructed through the reader's subjectivity does present a serious challenge to simulating the encounter of the other in the book. If Scrooge's very being is lent to him from the reader, then it would seem the reader cannot feel as if he or she is encountering the other in encountering Scrooge. To the contrary, she might feel as if she is more nearly only meeting herself. Despite this, I believe that Dickens does lead the reader into an encounter with unknowable alterity in much the same way the spirits help Scrooge to embrace radical alterity. While it is true that everything we know about Scrooge derives from our own subjectivities, the encounter with alterity, as Scrooge learns to embrace it, does not consist of encountering the known but of encountering the unknown and unknowable. To simulate an encounter with an other within the confines of a text, Dickens needs to lead his readers to intimate a greater reality to Scrooge as a person. They must come to sense depths to Scrooge's mind, which underlie the particular aspects of his subjectivity which are made known through the operation of their own subjectivity. Auerbach's concept of "background" reminds us that this process of evoking a psychological reality beyond what is stated is a foundational characteristic of the novel form, and the extent to which Dickens succeeds in leaving plenty of Scrooge beneath the surface might be indicated in the ways that readers have often been confused by the seeming suddenness of Scrooge's moral transformation.7 What is really going on in Scrooge's head at the end of the novel? We cannot entirely know, and that is the point. We might sense this limit to our knowledge especially when, after chuckling delightedly at a turkey, and a cab, and a boy, and himself, Scrooge sits down and "chuckle[s] till he crie[s]" (102: Stave 5). In such a complex maelstrom of emotion, it seems unlikely that even Scrooge himself could really know exactly what is happening within him. And, in the absence of explicit narratorial guidance, the reader certainly could not know either. In this way, Dickens uses the background of Scrooge to lead the readers to embrace the mystery of the other even as they observe Scrooge learning that very same lesson. Everything that the readers do know about Scrooge they know through knowledge of the aspects of their own subjectivity that they share with Scrooge, and beyond that they sense the impossibility of knowing the wealth of Scrooge's being that remains "background" to that presentation. [End Page 36]

In this way, the reader's relation to knowledge in the novel undergoes a sort of arc that parallels Scrooge's own epistemological development. As Scrooge regains the ability to know himself and to know others through himself by revisiting his past, the reader gains the ability to know Scrooge by discovering in his past resonances with their own experiences. As Scrooge moves beyond knowledge-based sympathy for the other and into an embracing of the other as mystery, the reader is reminded of all that they do not and cannot know about Scrooge. How did this leap from sympathy for the known to love of the unknown occur? What exactly is it that Scrooge has learned? Valuable partial answers can and have been proposed to these questions, but some mystery within Scrooge himself will always remain and that mystery is part of the answer. Some critics have reacted vitriolically to this lingering mystery; Edmund Wilson, for instance, a scholar the import of whose work could aptly be summarized as "Bah! Humbug," states: "Shall we ask what Scrooge would actually be like if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably, he would relapse, when the merriment was over—if not while it was still going on—into moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion. He would, that is to say, reveal himself as the victim of a manic depressive cycle, and a very uncomfortable person" (53). Wilson does not embrace the gaps in our knowledge of Scrooge graciously, accepting the possibility of a transformative power beyond the scope of his own knowledge. Instead, he resists Dickens's subtle guidance and reduces Scrooge to an exemplum of a mental malady. In short, he confines Scrooge to the limitations of his own knowledge. Scrooge, however, has left behind such epistemological shortsightedness. He has learned to know others through imaginatively knowing himself, and he has at least begun to learn that grace can lead him even further than knowledge into love of the other. Dickens's gift to the reader and to the critic is the opportunity to learn the same.

Joseph Clayton McReynolds
Baylor University
Joseph Clayton McReynolds

joseph clayton mcreynolds earned his bachelor's in literature from Patrick Henry College and is presently a PhD student in English and a Teacher of Record at Baylor University. His interests include the rise of the novel, theory and criticism of the novel form, and phenomenological theories of reading.


. I am indebted for the formation and refinement of ideas in this article to Drs. Kristen Pond and Natalie Carnes and to my colleagues in their excellent seminar "The Stranger in Victorian Prose."

1. Although I will occasionally use the terms "epistemology" and "epistemological" throughout my argument, I do not intend to refer to Scrooge's conscious philosophical convictions about the nature of knowledge and belief. Rather, I use the term in its broader sense to refer to the mostly unconscious psychological mechanisms through which Scrooge derives knowledge of himself and others. Scrooge's "epistemology" = the way he knows and learns.

2. For another epistemology-related reading of this passage see Kilgore, "Father Christmas and Thomas Malthus." Kilgore does not attend to Scrooge's more explicitly epistemological claim in the sentence following his callous declaration, but argues instead that Dickens is expanding the reader's idea of knowledge beyond the narrowly rationalistic epistemology that underlies Malthusianism.

3. For a few particularly notable starting points for understanding the role of sympathy in the eighteenth century and Victorian novel see: Amit Rae; Rae Greiner; and John Mullan. For an incisive study of sympathy in Dickens' work specifically see Harvey Sucksmith.

4. For a helpful reading of how Smith's doctrine of sympathy influenced Dickens, if not through the Theory of Moral Sentiments itself, through the eighteenth-century literature that drew heavily on Smith's ideas, see Fred Kaplan, pp. 20–41.

5. The third chapter of Rae Greiner's Sympathetic Realism expands on this idea by considering the ways in which language and suppressed communication function as sites of sympathy in Dickens's fiction.

6. Sabey's thesis is mostly concerned with the ways in which Dickens suggests that reading can train us to imaginatively encounter reality, and I will draw on his central thesis more fully in the final section of this essay.

7. For a helpful attempt to explain the suddenness of Scrooge's transformation, which also offers an overview of this popular and critical confusion, see Elliot L. Gilbert.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Edited by Michael Slater. Penguin, 2012.
Gilbert, Elliot L. "The Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol." PMLA, vol. 90, no. 1, 1975, pp. 22–31. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/461345.
Greiner, Rae. Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Johns Hopkins UP P, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Kaplan, Fred. Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature. Princeton UP, 1987.
Kilgore, Jessica. "Father Christmas and Thomas Malthus: Charity, Epistemology, and Political Economy in A Christmas Carol." Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction, vol. 42, 2011, p. 143.
Lévinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other [and Additional Essays]. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne UP, 1997.
Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford/Clarendon, 1988.
Rai, Amit S. Rule of Sympathy: Sentiment, Race and Power, 1750–1850. Palgrave, 2002. Baylor OneSearch, Summon 2.0,
Sabey, Brian. "Ethical Metafiction in Dickens' Christmas Hauntings." Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction, vol. 46, Jan. 2015, p. 123.
Saint-Amour, Paul K. "'Christmas Yet To Come': Hospitality, Futurity, the Carol, and 'The Dead.'" Representations, vol. 98, no. 1, 2007, pp. 93–117. JSTOR, doi:10.1525/rep.2007.98.1.93.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. What Is Literature? Philosophical Library, 1949.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Dover Publications, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Sucksmith, Harvey Peter. The Narrative Art of Charles Dickens: The Rhetoric of Sympathy and Irony in His Novels. Oxford UP, 1970.
Wilson, Edmund. The Wound & the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Rev. ed., W.H. Allen, 1952.

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