In Life, My Spirit Never Walked Beyond Our Counting-House
Lessons on business and partnership from “A Christmas Carol”
“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”
For 27 years, I have read Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. No matter how good or bad the year, or how busy I find myself, I make time to re-read the book. It’s always a joy and a welcome year-end pause for reflection.
Sometimes I read it with specific themes in mind to learn Dickens's – or his era’s – thoughts on them. As in some previous years, this year I wondered about his perspective on business. He writes much about this topic throughout the book, and his core message warns readers about the potential charms and dangers involved. More precisely, he warns not about business itself, but about focusing your life solely on business concerns.
Scrooge and Marley
Dickens begins the book describing the relationship between Ebenezer Scrooge and his partner Jacob Marley. They keep a strange sort of company. Dickens does not use the word “friends” to describe it. Instead, they interact at only one touchpoint – business. They still seem alone, as if they hardly know each other. Dickens uses “sole” five times in sketching out this oddness:
“Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain.”
Dickens reinforces this notion of onlyness in his early description of Scrooge:
“Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
Note the words denoting aloneness: “secret,” “self-contained” and “solitary.” Scrooge keeps alone as much as possible. His clerk works in a different room, for instance. Dickens repeats the theme of onlyness often.
This aloneness has consequences. Marley’s Ghost laments his solitary focus on business during his life. Marley never engaged with his fellows except for business reasons. He led a physically confined life:
“My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole”
Marley also did not see people. Dickens means this literally: people were invisible to him, except the rare few business associates. This sightlessness prevents Marley from intervening in others’ lives. Dickens uses this particular word on a couple of occasions: intervening. In one of the most moving and disturbing passages in the book,
“He [Scrooge] became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accustaory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
“Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.
“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Markey’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a momstruous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-stop. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”
Dickens, no less than Dante, perceptively doles out punishment in the afterlife for sins in the earthly life. Marley’s sins result in his compulsory, constant travel in the afterlife. Worse, he travels as a ghost. Just as he could not see others in life, others cannot see him in death. In his life, he did not see the needs of others, and therefore he did nothing for them. In death, he “sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.” The crime has become the punishment.
Importantly, in this condemnation, Dickens explicitly links too much attention to business with a lonely life, devoid of society. Note the irony. Business life, by definition, must have a focus on the community, in order to attract customers, spread word of the firm’s services and work with suppliers. And yet people who become too entranced with business withdraw themselves from family and society.
This enthrallment does not make Scrooge or Marley worse businessmen. Indeed, for the story to have the proper effect, their business dealings must not suffer from their solitary focus. Why? If business people suffered financially from their withdrawal from society, that might prompt changes, and they might not grasp the Spirits’s true lessons. Dickens makes a different and more profound point. Their business is not at risk; their souls are.
How has Scrooge come to this dire point? This year, three moments stood out as never before.
In the first, the party at Fezziwig’s, where Scrooge served as a young apprentice, takes place on Christmas Eve long ago. The party, paid for by Fezziwig, displays energy, festiveness, music, dancing, and plenty of food and drink. Everyone employed by the business attends, as do neighbors. And Fezziwig clearly enjoys a beautiful relationship with his wife and his three daughters. He, clearly, is not alone in life. Scrooge, in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Past, delights in the scene.
Questioned by the Ghost as the party breaks up, Scrooge firmly defends Fezziwig and the party:
“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up; what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
With Fezziwig as his boss and mentor in business, I kept thinking, how far Scrooge fell away from Fezziwig’s example.
After the party, the Ghost takes Scrooge to the moment his fiancée, Belle, breaks up with him. By then,
“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.”
Belle releases Scrooge from their engagement, explicitly because he has become obsessed with a Golden Idol, “Gain,” to the exclusion of all other goods in life, including her. Note: she does not say ‘Ambition’ or ‘Power.’ She explicitly links his decay to financial and business obsession.
The third moment, or really moments, are missing. The Ghost does not show Scrooge any of the times that led his moral descent from the party at Fezziwig’s to the breakup moment with Belle, when his destiny had been all but sealed. As I pondered these absent moments, I initially felt puzzled. Shouldn’t we, and Scrooge, relive his terrible declination? Should we see when Marley enters Scrooge’s life? We never do know, but I suspect it happened sometime among these hidden moments.
The more I wondered, the more it seems appropriate for Dickens to leave out these moments. After all, what good can they do Scrooge in his reclamation? He surely remembers those moments all too well. He has likely relived them continually since the appearance of Marley’s Ghost.
Such is the charm of this beautiful book that, even after 27 years, it still holds mysteries to surprise and awe me.
Good Men of Business
The book does not condemn Scrooge and Marley because they are “good men of business.” Business is not the root problem – their approach to business is. Dickens shows that other approaches can lead to business success and to a well-lived life.
Fezziwig provides the first example. He must have some success in business, or he wouldn’t have been able to afford the Christmas Eve party. Fezziwig returns us to wondering about “partners.” We have already discussed the limited way in which Scrooge and Marley could be termed partners – so limited that the term hardly applies. In contrast, Fezziwig does have a partner – Mrs. Fezziwig. Dickens makes this importance explicit:
“As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell me higher, and I’ll use it.”
We see this sense of partnership in Scrooge’s nephew Fred too. The party at Fred’s and his wife’s house reveals the beauty in their relationship. Their banter, their mutual wit and laughter, their joy – they are clearly well matched.
I think we also see a beautiful partnership in the marriage of Bob and Mrs. Cratchit. They are not wealthy or “handsome” yet they clearly love and rely on each other to sail the tumultuous seas of life. With the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be, Scrooge and the Ghost witness Bob relating a conversation he had with Fred:
“Bob told them of the extraordinary kindness of Mr. Scrooge’s nephew, whom he had scarcely seen but once, and who, meeting him in the street that day, and seeing that he looked a little—“just a little down, you know,” said Bob, inquired what had happened to distress him. “On which,” said Bob, “for he is the pleasantest-spoken gentleman you ever heard, I told him. ‘I am heartily sorry for it, Mr. Cratchit,’ he said, ‘and heartily sorry for your good wife.’
“By-the-bye, how he ever knew that I don’t know.”
“Knew what, my dear?”
“Why, that you were a good wife,” replied Bob.
“Everybody knows that!” said Peter.
“Very well observed, my boy!” cried Bob. “I hope they do.”
Looking back from these partnerships, Belle’s breakup of the engagement with Scrooge seems especially ominous – the final act, the final moment past which Scrooge could not tread a path of business success and wisdom in life. Scrooge needed a true partnership in life, not the shadow one he got with Marley.
The Good of Business
The book relates clear moments when business can and does bring forth goodness. For example, Bob Cratchit’s son, Peter, obtaining a ‘better position’ would make a real difference to the family: Peter could support himself and the family would have more resources.
The two portly gentlemen who ask Scrooge for a donation for the poor want Scrooge to be successful in business – that’s how he could make a donation to the poor. Profits are necessary and yes, can be a good, when approached properly.
This point is most beautifully shown with Tiny Tim:
“He sat very close to his father’s side, upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here.”
After his reformation, Tiny Tim “did NOT die.” I think we can attribute this to Scrooge’s new-found goodness, but also to his financial success, which he could use for Tiny Tim’s benefit, among others.
Again, business is not the evil of the book. A solitary focus on business is.
Fezziwig, Fred and Bob Cratchit supply the counter to Scrooge’s and Marley’s singular focus on business. Business plays a role in their lives, but a limited one. Family means a great deal to both of them. The Cratchits provide the best, most descriptive and poignant passages in the book. Faith, religion and God provide a grounding for each one, too. In short, they appear to lead more balanced lives than Scrooge or Marley.
This juxtaposition between Scrooge and Marley on the one hand, and Fezziwig, Bob Cratchit and Fred on the other, encapsulates Dickens's argument about business. It cannot supply all of life’s goods, even if it can supply many of them. That, in fact, is the trouble. Business can charm, and lead men into lives of worth, goodness and humanity. But the seduction can go too far; a man’s choices in business life can rot his soul. He must beware lest he concentrates too much of his life’s energy on it, and thereby lose all but business.
Perhaps even more, Scrooge had lost the chance for so much joy in life. Through the intervention of Jacob Marley’s Ghost, and the Three Spirits, his reformation changed his approach to business — and unlocked untold joy for the rest of his days.
Originally published December 21, 2009 on Capitolism. Revised December 2022.
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