Dickens's lesson: summoning some hosts of Christmas Present

There is no doubt whatever about it: Old Scrooge was a first-class, five-star, industrial-strength miser. The hero of Charles Dickens's classic tale ``A Christmas Carol'' drove parsimony to new heights. ``A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,'' says Dickens about him, ``hard and sharp as flint.'' Ah, the Scrooge we all know and despise, brought to life with all the pathos and sentiment Dickens could muster. But as I was re-reading this long short story the other day (and it is long: Dickens was paid by the word), I came upon a different side of Scrooge's character. Not that you can overlook the meanness and the avarice. Scrooge, after all, stands for everything Christmas is not: a piker in the season of benevolence, a Midas in the manger, a cheeseparer among the charities.

But there's more to him than that. What is it about Scrooge, after all, that allows him to be redeemed in the end? For he is redeemed. He laughs. He bestows his wealth freely. He raises Cratchit's salary. He goes to church, pats children on the head, asks after the welfare of beggars, and finds that ``everything could yield him pleasure.''

Is this just unrealistic characterization on Dickens's part? Is this an impossible transformation? Or is there something about Scrooge's character that prepares us for the change?

I think there is. I think, after careful reading, that the miserliness is not in itself the cause of Scrooge's condition. It's only a symptom. Beneath it lies a deeper cause, to which the author points in brief but unmistakable references. Scrooge, quite simply, is lonely.

Look, for instance, at the way Dickens characterizes him early in the tale. Scrooge is described as ``secret, self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.'' We're told that ``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?' '' His desire is ``to edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.'' He drives away all tenderness -- even, in a scene shown by the Ghost of Chr istmas Past, the girl who once loved him.

Fittingly, then, his redemption occurs in a social context. What overcomes his miserliness, in fact, is his reintegration into society -- his return to the warmth and comfort of the human family, the shedding of his isolation and loneliness. He celebrates his redemption by going to Christmas dinner at his nephew's house -- a nephew who has remained steadily kind even in the face of Scrooge's most outrageous insults. And in the end, Dickens assures us, Scrooge becomes ``as good a friend . .M DNM . as the good old city knew.'' A friend. The word is not ill-chosen.

Well, so what? What does a book published in 1843 have to do with Christmas 1985?

A few days ago a report crossed my desk that helped make the connection. It was from the US Census Bureau, and it suggested that the problem Scrooge faced -- not the superficial miserliness, but the deep-seated loneliness -- has by no means disappeared. It reported that in the United States today some 20.6 million people live alone -- an astonishing increase, almost double the number from a mere 15 years ago.

Part of the increase comes from the rising age at which young adults first marry -- and, therefore, the longer time they spend living alone. But the bulk of the increase comes from the rise in the number of widows.

Now, my point is certainly not that people who live alone automatically turn into misers. I don't even mean to imply that living alone necessarily means being lonely. My point is simply that we urgently need to address ourselves to this phenomenon of growing social isolation. And Christmastime -- when many individuals struggle with a sense of a past that seems happier than the present -- is a fine time to begin doing so.

Those who live in families may well have something of peculiar value to share with those who live alone. There is, in many familes, a quiet warmth, an easygoing sense of comfort, a simple human affection that can't be found anywhere else. And if 20 million people living alone sounds like a lot, bear in mind that this Christmas there are 62.5 million family households in the nation.

What if just 1 in 3 of those households were to extend an invitation to a person living alone to come over and share in the festivities? Loneliness, this Christmas, wouldn't really have much of a chance.

And that's just how Scrooge -- the redeemed Scrooge; the improved, redesigned, new-formula Scrooge at the end of Dickens's tale -- would want it. A Monday column

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