We’ve all met people who are greedy and who never seem to have enough, even when they have plenty. Some of us may be haunted by a desire to have more: more money, more time, more affection, more fame, and so on.
It is sometimes difficult to remember that we come into this world with nothing, and we leave with nothing. Maybe “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and an illustration by Arthur Rackham can remind us of the importance of overcoming our greed.
Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’
In Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge is known for his mean-spirited and miserly ways. Even on Christmas Eve, he refuses to share not only his wealth with a charity but also the Christmas spirit with his nephew. Instead, he keeps his heart colder than the Christmas winter.
On the night of Christmas Eve, however, as Scrooge sits alone in his cold apartment, he is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. In the afterlife, Marley is now punished for his greed and must wander the earth weighed down by heavy chains. He wishes to help Scrooge avoid this same fate and tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is the first to visit Scrooge. The ghost reminds him of his humble beginnings and shows him his past as a schoolboy and an apprentice. The ghost also shows the end of his engagement with the love of his life, Belle, because of his overwhelming greed for money. Scrooge is left ashamed of himself.
Next, the Ghost of Christmas Present arrives and takes Scrooge through London so he can see how everyone else experiences Christmas. Scrooge gets to see the poor circumstances of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. The Cratchit family eats a sparse meal for Christmas, and the youngest son, Tiny Tim, suffers from extreme illness. The ghost also takes Scrooge to his nephew’s home to see his family celebrating Christmas without him, and Scrooge is overwhelmed by emotion.
Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge a mysterious man’s death. Scrooge overhears people complaining about the dead man’s greed and anger. Two businessmen discuss the dead miser, and one says, “Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?” “Old Scratch” is a pseudonym for the Devil. Scrooge is taken to a graveyard where he sees that he is the one who has died.
Overwhelmed, Scrooge begs for forgiveness. He doesn’t want to die, nor does he want to be remembered as a greedy and coldhearted old businessman. He vows to change his ways, to give amply, and to treat people with kindness.
He suddenly awakes on Christmas Day. Filled with the joyful abundance of the Christmas spirit, he provides the Cratchit family with food and visits his nephew’s house. For the rest of his life, he joyfully celebrates the kindness and charity of Christmas throughout London.
‘Old Scratch Has Got His Own at Last, Hey?’
Arthur Rackham was a 19th-century English painter who illustrated Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” In one of his illustrations, called “Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?” Rackham interprets and depicts a scene from the vision revealed to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
The composition is overwhelmed by two large figures: Scrooge and the Devil. The figure to the left is Scrooge. He looks frightfully at the Devil in front of him. His whole suit, layered in wrinkles, seems to shiver and quake in the presence of the Devil. He also tightly clenches two money bags, one in each hand.
The Devil slightly leans in toward Scrooge and makes a come-hither motion with his hand. In his other hand, he holds a hook-like tool that he uses to capture his victims. He is depicted as half animal, and his tail slithers up and wraps around his wrist as if even he himself is held captive by his evil desires.
Below Scrooge and the Devil are the two businessmen who talk at Scrooge’s mock funeral. They are dressed in long coats and top hats. They communicate and shake each other’s hand. We can presume, based on the title of the illustration, that one is telling the other, “Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?”
Dickens’s story and Rackham’s illustration may give us insight into the nature of the Devil and of greed. As previously mentioned, “Old Scratch” refers to the Devil and “his own” refers to Scrooge. So, Rackham’s illustration depicts the Devil taking Scrooge as his property.
However, the businessman’s phrase and the title of the painting suggest that the Devil cannot take just anyone, but only his own. That is, the Devil can take only those who are like him. And what makes Scrooge like the Devil? Surely, it must be greed.
Greed and fear often correlate with one another, for the greedy person is often afraid of losing or not having enough of something. Their fear drives them to obtain and hoard more; otherwise, they most likely would not be greedy. At first glance, it looks like Scrooge is afraid of the Devil, and he might indeed be so. But, upon closer examination, you might think he is afraid of giving up the money bags he holds so tightly in his hands.
Even in the face of death and the threat of the Devil’s tortures, Scrooge can’t let go of his money. His body quivers as he turns the money bags away while the Devil approaches. This overwhelming and all-consuming greed is what makes Scrooge like the Devil.
And the Devil is greedy as well. In the Christian tradition, the Devil was greedy for power, which caused him to be cast out of heaven. In hell, the Devil is greedy for souls and uses his hook-like tool to imprison those who share in his greed. Even the Devil’s tail, as if it has a mind of its own, wraps around his wrist like a prisoner’s shackle. It is as if the tail, the lowest most animal part of a being consummate with greed, recognizes greed and seeks to imprison it.
Is it the case, then, that it is not simply the Devil that accosts and imprisons those like him, but it is instead greed itself that imprisons those who practice it, including the Devil himself?
This Christmas, it is unlikely that we will have ghosts visit us to help us deal with and overcome our greed. So how might we escape its shackles? Scrooge’s experiences reminded him to be kind, generous, and considerate of those around him. Maybe, this Christmas and beyond, we can remember Scrooge and try to do the same.
Have you ever seen a work of art that you thought was beautiful but had no idea what it meant? In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret the classical visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We try to approach each work of art to see how our historical creations might inspire within us our own innate goodness.