Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Business Lessons from A Christmas Carol

with 2 comments

Every year since 1996, I have read Charles Dickens’ 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. Sometimes I read it with specific themes in mind to learn Dickens’ thoughts on them. This year, I wondered about his perspective on business. He writes much about business throughout the book, and his core message warns readers about the potential charms and dangers of business. More precisely, he warns not about business itself, but about focusing life solely on business concerns.

Reflecting on popular culture’s allusions to A Christmas Carol, it seems that Dickens would have issues with business. He does, but the book contains a nuanced view of business. Dickens notes that business enables certain good things to exist.  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 Cratchits would have more resources for the rest of the family.

Moreover, good things can come from the results of a healthy business: profits. After Scrooge’s conversion, his business success allows his donation to the cause of the poor, which he had earlier gruffly rebuffed. His success also enables the proper care of Tiny Tim, who lives only because of Scrooge’s intervention.

However, Dickens does not have unqualified praise for business or life in business. All of the negative figures in the book have some connection to business. Joe and Mrs. Dilber cagily divide Scrooge’s belongings in the future shown by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; a nasty, unpleasant business for certain, described by Dickens in surly, ugly language. The same Ghost shows Scrooge two businessmen for whom Scrooge had deep respect. The terseness of their exchange, and their almost inhumane dialogue, suggest to the reader that Dickens does not regard them highly.

Dickens describes the central characters – Scrooge and Marley — as good men of business. Belle, Scrooge’s old fiancée, dissolves the engagement because of Scrooge’s pursuit of ‘Gain.’ Note: she does not say ‘Ambition’ or ‘Power.’ She explicitly links his decay to financial and business obsession.

Here, Belle speaks for Dickens in pinpointing the issue: a sole focus on business. Marley’s Ghost laments his solitary focus on business during his life. Marley never engaged with his fellows except for business reasons, which had two results: he led a physically confined life, traveling only from his house to work and back each day; and he did not see people. Dickens means this literally: people were invisible to him, except a rare few business associates. This sightlessness prevents Marley from intervening in others’ lives. Dickens uses this particular word on a couple of occasions: intervening.

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 men 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 suffered from their withdrawal from society, that realization might stimulate their reformations, and they might not grasp the Ghosts’ true lessons. Dickens makes a different and more profound point: their business is not at risk; their souls are.

Fred and Bob Cratchit supply the counter to Scrooge’s and Marley’s singular focus on business. They both, apparently, work in business and have some success. (Cratchit seems like at least an average or above-average performer in his job.) 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 Bob Cratchit and Fred on the other, encapsulates Dickens’ 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 concentrate too much of his life’s energy on it, and thereby lose all but business.


Written by Russell S.

November 29, 2010 at 6:48 pm

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] A Christmas Carol – Charles […]

  2. […] A Christmas Carol — Charles Dickens […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: