A psychoanalysis of 'A Christmas Carol'
'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens very much contains themes of trauma, therapy, and the transformation of healing that can bring about changes.
The story almost takes the same process of self-discovery that takes places in the therapeutic process, and it has a person-centred approach to it with the client being Ebenezer Scrooge. One could say that it is based on the person-centred belief that people are inherently good and creative. They become destructive only when a poor self-concept or external constraints override the valuing process.
Carl Rogers (founder of person-centred approach) also believed that humans have one basic motive; that is the tendency to self-actualise, i.e. fulfil one’s potential and achieve the highest level of 'human-beingness' we can. This could be said to be true if we take the transformation of a mean, greedy, unempathetic man who changes to be altruistic, generous, regretful, merry, and charitable for the rest of his life, and by doing so fulfilling his purpose in life and his potential as a human being.
Although the Christmas spirit is temporary, the change within Scrooge goes beyond Christmas and is maintained throughout his remaining life. It’s the hope that change and transformation are possible but that it has to come from within. Nothing or nobody was able to change Scrooge but himself; his choice. It is often when the fear of things staying or being the same is greater than any fear that change will come about. Scrooge started to fear the life and consequences should he remain the same, and this propelled him to make a permanent change.
It can be said that, just like a therapist, the role of the ghosts was to be the torch shining the light on the dark parts to enable self-awareness, rediscovery, and resolution. Therapy is about making changes, learning painful things, looking deep within ourselves, and to be true about aspects of ourselves we may not like or that are not serving us well. It's about having the courage to make the changes for healthier behaviours and to learn to become our authentic selves.
In psychology, Carl Jung stated that our shadow is an unknown part of our personality (negative or positive). In this case, the ghosts are reflecting back to Scrooge the darker aspects of his personality, so that the damage he is causing to self and others through it is consciously brought to the surface where he must confront it. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.
We could say this is the case if we analyse how Scrooge hates the poor, with him stating "Are there no prisons or work-houses for the poor and homeless?". When the man who asked him for a donation says "Many can't go there; and many would rather die", Scrooge comments back "If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population".
The past ghost works with memory and takes what seems like a psychodynamic approach that looks at our childhood stages of life; our unconscious wounds that may have been created and carried on in later adulthood as a result. We all know that childhood adversity can have a great impact on our psyche, especially if no support or secure attachment was to be found in difficult or traumatic events we may have experienced in childhood.
This brings us to the attachment theory which explains how the parent-child relationship emerges and influences subsequent development. John Bowlby (psychoanalyst), who is known for the attachment theory, suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others because this will help them to survive.
When the ghost of the past brought Scrooge back to his childhood days, we learn that Scrooge had a lonely childhood with themes of abandonment and rejection felt. He was left at a boarding school, and it could be speculated that some form of abuse could have occurred, as many incur negative experiences such as bullying or severe punishments in boarding schools. Generally, they are not known for many happy times by those who have experienced them. The only secure attachment Scrooge seems to have is with his sister who he later loses in death. Scrooge has suppressed this additional trauma, as he says to the ghost "sometimes I forget Fred (nephew) is her son".
We can see the unresolved pain that still lingers for Scrooge, as he is unable to look at his past for long. He states "Leave me! Take me back! Haunt me no longer!". Also, the book quotes "In the struggle… Scrooge observed that his light was burning high and bright; and dimply connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head".
Scrooge could be said to be struggling with what he sees, just like clients can feel overwhelmed by the sudden rush of emotions that find them when it comes to feeling and seeing through emotional eyes; painful events that have long taken place that they may have repressed for a reason and which is still a raw wound when awakened.
The person-centred approach can also be seen by the seven stages of Rogerian functioning. It could perhaps be said that like a client may move towards these (seven) stages, during the process with every ghost Scrooge too was taking this journey. We could suggest that with the ghost of the Christmas past, he was at stages one, two, and three.
- Stage one - The client is very defensive and extremely resistant to change.
- Stage two - The client becomes slightly less rigid and will talk about external events or other people.
- Stage three - The client talks about themselves but as an object, and avoids discussion of present events.
It is clear that at this stage, Scrooge is by no means looking for, aspiring to, or thinking about change or the possibility and concept of it. However, he connects to his younger self. He has just relived the events of his boyhood when he was left alone at school over Christmas because his father turned against him when his mother died and wanted nothing more to do with his son.
He experiences the sad and lonely feelings he has long repressed, and we can speculate that this hurtful and traumatic event was the reason he may have later developed an antagonistic view of Christmas. He may have not yet come to peace with the event that must have felt like his enemy, bringing him further pain. This could have commenced the pivotal moment when Christmas ceased to represent anything to do with warmth, family, joy, or meeting needs, for his own childhood needs were not met and this could, as we have stated, affected the sentimental aspect of Christmas. Just as with trauma, we make associations to it. It was the Christmas day when all his peers returned home for reunions, gifts, and celebrations that Scrooge was abandoned for as if he was unimportant and had no value.
It can be argued that Scrooge’s unresolved wounds led him to become a cruel, indifferent man. Pain can indeed change us. Throughout this point in his life, we see a younger Scrooge who still possesses the ability to love; a person who is still in touch with his fellow human beings. He wasn’t always the person he became, and he doesn’t have to continue to be the person he is now. It is clear that his hurt turned into bitterness, and his trauma created a fear that turned into an aspiration for money to avoid poverty.
So great was the fear of poverty and the need for money that he neglected his fiancée, who left him for this very reason. One of Scrooge’s moments of connection is when he hears Belle (his former fiancée) describe the man he has become. We see Scrooge affected by this, and he asks the ghost to remove him from the house. Also, at this point, the narrator describes Scrooge’s regret as he sees the daughter of Belle, making him realise that he has missed out on having his own family.
Generosity is a reminder for Scrooge when the ghost (past) takes him to a Christmas party held by his former and first boss - Mr Fezziwig. The event reminds Scrooge how much he loved working for Fezziwig. He describes what made Mr Fezziwig an excellent boss, and insists that money wasn’t the source of his employees' fulfilment. Mr Fezziwig showed generosity of manner in exercising his authority over his employees with kindness.
The present ghost represents clarity and empathy. This is the stage when, in therapy, things are becoming clearer, due to greater self-awareness for the client, and self-compassion is developing and starting to be found.
We can argue that perhaps it was the fear of poverty that negatively led Scrooge to take on the destructive qualities of greed and selfishness very much encouraged by the world around him. The childhood trauma that created this fear is almost symbolic in the representation of the two emancipated children (under the robe of the ghost), named ignorance and want (entitlement), which lead to the destruction of humanity and the world. The lesson here is that society should and must take care of the problems of ignorance and want, for the good of everyone.
Scrooge connects to his humanity when the ghost tells him that Tiny Tim will die unless the course of events changes. The counselling skill of reflection is also used here by the ghost, who reflects back to Scrooge his own words regarding Tiny Tim - he "better do it (die) and decrease the surplus population". This powerful tool of reflection makes Scrooge see how heartless, inaccurate, ignorant, and abusive that statement was.
Scrooge is now progressing to stages four and five.
- Stage four - The client begins to talk about deep feelings and develops a relationship with the therapist.
- Stage five - The client can express present emotions, is beginning to rely more on their decision-making abilities, and increasingly accepts more responsibility for their actions.
Scrooge is in the process of slowly coming to an understanding that his actions will need to change, and is seeing the consequences of this not happening. He is more willing to talk to the ghost of Christmas present than he was with the ghost of Christmas past.
The future ghost represents fears; the fears that are keeping us stuck but also the fear that leads to change, which is the fear of the death of self (emotionally and psychologically) or our death (physically) if we continue on the same path.
It’s when the fear of this happening is greater than the fear of anything else that change can be prompted. It’s also the death of parts of us we held on too, such as surviving mechanisms that served us but no longer do. It’s a rebirth and transformation, just like the phoenix.
This fear can be seen when Scrooge sees everyone rejoicing and showing no emotion for his death. He sobs at this point, pleading for change. He has come to fear the prospect of being the very person he became, the fact that he became the very person he hated. We could say that it speaks of the courage to acknowledge parts of ourselves that are painful to acknowledge; the part of us that we may be ashamed off or that is not pretty; the courage to change, as this can be scary, and the courage to make better choices and break generational trauma patterns.
By the end of the process, we see stages six and seven starting to take place.
- Stage six - The client shows rapid growth toward congruence and begins to develop unconditional positive regard for others. This stage signals the end for the need for formal therapy (Scrooge is no longer in need of the ghosts).
- Stage seven - The client is a fully functioning, self-actualised individual who is empathic and shows unconditional positive regard for others. This individual can relate their previous therapy to present day real-life situations (Scrooge has self-actualised, reaching his full potential as a person and putting into place all that he has learned about himself and all that he has become aware off).
To summarise, during the process, Scrooge was able to reconnect to not only his feelings that had been suppressed and repressed for many years but also to connect with an authentic self and others. Trauma causes disconnection, and it is through the healing process that we learn to reconnect.
By resolving old wounds Scrooge has freed himself from his chains. This is symbolic of how we can become our own worst enemies and how those chains (inability to change) can hold us down. Jacob Marley’s ghost (Scrooge’s mean employer) warns Scrooge that this will be his fate if change doesn’t occur. It is also a lesson that we can learn from other mistakes to reach our full potential.
Scrooge’s relationship with his father is one that reflects the author Charles Dickins' conflicting feelings towards his father in real life. The theme of the father is also carried out with the fact that Scrooge becomes a second father to Tiny Tim, and this is also almost symbolising the parenting to his inner child. Furthermore, Mr Fezziwig (Scrooge’s first employer) treated him as a father.
The key element in the story is empathy; people are often ignorant of actual suffering, not trauma-informed, and are unable to comprehend the suffering of others unless they walk in their shoes or see life as the other person. To have empathy for others, we must also come to have empathy for our pain, as Scrooge did before he was able to give it to others. At the end of the story, Scrooge was fulfilled by changing his attitude and becoming a kind person. Also, he learned that making others happy is a reward in itself, beginning with the anonymous gesture of purchasing the largest turkey for the Cratchit family.
To conclude, the story also highlights how Christmas can be a difficult and challenging time for those financially struggling, lonely, or suffering due to their pain, and calls out for us to consider this and make sure that we do not forget those less fortunate.
In our world today, this is still very relevant. Let us remember the homeless, the elderly who are forgotten about without family, the orphaned children, those who have fled domestic violence, the ones who are in unloving and abusive homes with no way out, the ones fighting depression, the terminally ill celebrating what could be their last Christmas with loved ones, the soldiers unable to return back home, the immigrant trying to survive war and make it alive when crossing over borders, those that have lost loved ones, a pet or a child…
The message for the need to help those who are in need is as strong as it was then. The message that we are still living in a traumatised world, with traumatised people, and that greed and ignorance are still some of the things leading to this.