Ebenezer Scrooge gets his day in court

For 160 years, we've had the poor old man all wrong

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History hasn't been miserly with Ebenezer Scrooge. Charles Dickens sold more than 6,000 copies of "A Christmas Carol" in the first few days after it was published in 1843. There have been countless editions, starting almost immediately with pirated versions in England and America, which robbed Dickens of any profit from his famous story. More than 200 films have appeared, from a 1901 production, which was silent, to Bill Murray's version, which should have been.

In most American cities this week, you can't swing a mistletoe without hitting a theatrical production of the old classic. God bless them, every one.

But yes, Virginia, there really is another version of "A Christmas Carol." This time it's told by a political economist from the Hoover Institute. (If Mister Magoo can do it - 1962 - why not?) Bruce Bueno de Mesquita follows the world's most famous miser into purgatory in "The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge."

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The novella opens 13 years after those three ghosts ruined Scrooge's evening to save his soul. Once again, he's winding his way through narrow London streets bustling with Christmas cheer, but this time, "his eyes sparkled with the innocence of youth, as if living a life reborn." When a poor woman and her baby plead for a penny, he offers his scarf, a decent meal, and even a recommendation for employment.

Surely, as Dickens wrote with his characteristic subtlety at the end of "A Christmas Carol," this is "as good a man as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world."

Objection, your honor.

The way Beuno de Mesquita sees it, the case is far more complicated. "Scrooge died," he tells us, "as he had lived - an outcast, misunderstood by most who shared his time and place."

"Even Mr. Charles Dickens," he continues, failed to understand the man's true nature and the Faustian bargain he cut with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

After wandering the earth as a spirit for 120 years, he "walks through the weighty gates of the Court of Heavenly Justice.... Here Scrooge's life will be judged."

The trial, attended by other spirits and demons, and presided over by the Judge of All, runs for several days. Scrooge is represented by the small, frail soul of Tiny Tim, now a crafty defense lawyer who bargains with Mephistopheles and visits whores after adjournment. "He would prove," we're told, "once and for all that Ebenezer Scrooge was not a miser but rather an altruist, himself deeply impoverished but generous to a fault."

With 160 years of history on his side, the prosecutor, Professor Blight, accuses Scrooge of being "a taskmaster; a friendless, fiendish, insufferable beast; a meanspirited wretch who would deprive a child of a penny simply for the pleasure of seeing the deprivation."

"Yes," he admits with a nod to the famous conclusion of "A Christmas Carol," "it is true that even Scrooge, near the end of his life, performed an occasional act of charity - but only out of concern for his own eternal burden and rarely with a thought for those truly in need."

What follows is alternatively gripping and tedious, much like a real trial. Tiny Tim and Professor Blight call characters from "A Christmas Carol" to the stand and comb through the original text to vilify or exonerate Mr. Scrooge. Both know that if the quote don't fit, you must acquit.

Cross-examination of poor old Jacob Marley demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that Scrooge was not friendless. Under careful questioning, Bob Cratchit confesses that he was, contrary to rumor, leniently treated by his employer and shamefully negligent of his crippled son. Even Charles Darney, from "The Tale of Two Cities," makes an appearance to discredit his author.

In fact, one of the most dramatic witnesses is Charles Dickens himself. "He was a sight to inspire poets," we're told, "a man of theatrical presence, a whirlwind of self-contained energy." Hearing him denounce his character in court is a wonderful bit of post-structuralist camp. But it also raises one of many thorny ethical issues in this story. Even the Judge of All seems uncomfortable as Mr. Dickens tries to explain how he could be the creator of this sinner but somehow not responsible for the sins.

The author's academic training shows in his careful consideration of contemporary economic data. Newspaper ads, for instance, indicate that clerks were willing to work for far less than what Scrooge paid. Also, in comparison with his fellow businessmen, Scrooge does not appear very wealthy or successful. But the Christmas feast at the Cratchits' house, complete with a bowl of exotic oranges, would have cost a month's wages - money that could have been spent curing Tiny Tim's nutritional ailment. Finally, faint echoes of anti-Semitism may help account for Scrooge's bad rap.

Deconstructing "A Christmas Carol" is, of course, a nasty thing to do. Even though he mimics Dickens with remarkable fidelity, Bueno de Mesquita is up to something far more insidious than just defending old Scrooge. In the end, he wants to demonstrate the obfuscation of sentimentality and the conflicted nature of people's motives. But lovers of the original are likely to grumble, "Bah, humbug!"

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, charlesr@csps.com.

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