the wrong word?

 

 

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”

 

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas

 

 

 

I have always have felt that “sinner” is the wrong word here and have mentioned this now and then to some English professors. No one ever responded. They didn’t care, apparently. Perhaps because they don’t teach Victorian lit, or don’t like A Christmas Carol. (Maybe they find it not worth deconstructing.) Who knows?

I queried family members about this over the past few days. We had the following exchange.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Hi, everyone.

Regarding the above Dickens passage, I always have felt that “sinner” is the wrong word here. Any thoughts?

 

 

*****************************************************

 

My brother wrote back: “With what would you replace it?”

 

 

*****************************************************

 

I responded to my brother as follows:

 

 

Thanks for the email. To answer you as best I can:

 

Dickens wrote:

 

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change [by which slang term Dickens meant what we would nowadays call the Stock Exchange], for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. …

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? 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 solemnised it with an undoubted bargain. …

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the ware-house door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you. When will you come to see me.” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! ”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Scrooge.

 

A Christmas Carol, Stave I, “Marley’s Ghost”

 

What I think:

 

There is nothing in this passage to indicate that Scrooge was immoral, which is how “sinner” is commonly understood. The passage instead conveys, unmistakably, with no other inferences, that Scrooge was a cold fish devoid of human feeling.

We learn throughout the story that Scrooge is uncaring to persons such as his clark, Bob Cratchit; hard edged as a businessman; and feared by his creditors. He lacks the virtue of Christian charity or “fellow feeling,” but he does not appear to have vices normally associated with sinners.

 

I think better would be:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old ____”

 

miser?

skinflint?

misanthrope?

 

I think “misanthrope” would actually be the best choice.

 

 

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A conclusion (as I view it)

 

The following are my thoughts subsequent to the email exchange:

Michael Slater, Charles Dickens’s biographer, describes A Christmas Carol as being “written at white heat.” It was completed in six weeks.

Dickens often wrote hastily, and was always pressured by deadlines (as are most writers).

It has been said that James Joyce (as related by Samuel Beckett, and told in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce) spent a whole day writing and endlessly rewriting a single sentence of Ulysses (not Molly Bloom’s soliloquy).

Dickens, in contrast to perfectionists like Joyce and Flaubert, wrote hastily, without obsessing over niceties of style. He is a great stylist in his own way, I would be inclined to say, but his genius is broader in scope. Another writer who resembles him on a certain level is Balzac, who churned out novel after novel with characters such as Père Goriot invented out of whole cloth who were idiosyncratic and memorable for that reason — yet entirely human (not abstractions or papier-mâché characters), but you can never forget them or put his books down. (They are eminently readable). Yet, Balzac was a careless writer and seemed not to care about style.

What about Dickens? He outranks Balzac in genius and stature. But, he could occasionally be careless.

Which is a comforting thought for other writers, no?

I think I’m right. “Sinner’ was the wrong word here, and it rings false.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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