The first film adaptation of A Christmas Carol was a 1901 British silent film entitled, Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost. The film’s director, Walter R. Booth, based the film largely on the playwright J.C. Buckstone’s stage adaption of the classic Dickens tale. Intriguingly, in this version, Scrooge is visited only by his deceased financial partner, Jacob Marley; none of the Ghosts of Christmas make an appearance. Instead, Marley does the work of all three, showing Scrooge his childhood, the present miserable conditions of the family of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, and, finally, Scrooge’s demise.
The story would certainly not be complete without the additions of the Ghosts. Some of the most memorable scenes in the book (and on the stage and screen) come from their visits. However, the primary significance of this story arguably revolves around Scrooge’s encounter with Marley’s ghost. In fact, we can see the turning point of Scrooge’s conversion from a man of despair to a man of love almost entirely within his visit with Marley.
Crucially, Scrooge and Marley are—for the story’s purposes—virtually identical. The name of their firm is “Scrooge and Marley,” and seven years after the latter’s death Scrooge has not been inclined to change the name to reflect that fact. In fact, when addressed by others Scrooge literally answers to either “Scrooge” or “Marley;” it makes no difference to him. He even lives and sleeps in the very same chambers his partner had once occupied. Scrooge is, in essence, Marley, and Marley is Scrooge. The two are interchangeable. It would come as no surprise to Scrooge when Marley informs him that Scrooge currently wears the same chains and locks that Marley is burdened with for eternity. Just as in Booth’s film adaptation, Marley is Scrooge’s past, present, and future, all of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come in one terrifyingly intimate creature Scrooge knows all too well. (Along this vein, A Muppet Christmas Carol unknowingly yet presciently gives us two Marleys instead of one).
But perhaps in a more crucial and accurate sense, Scrooge is spending his life trying to become as dead as his former partner. We first meet Scrooge as a man barely recognizable as alive. For all his pathological single-minded focus on making and saving money—which, we might suppose at its most idealistic, enables one to live life more and more abundantly—Scrooge allows himself only the minimal requirements for the barest survival. Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge is constantly measuring and doling out to himself the maximum minimum requirements for food (and less for love), bit by merciless bit. Scrooge had long ago lost the will to live; he has been willing death ever since, and his interactions with others are clear evidence of a man trying to be dead.
In this sense, we might see in Scrooge a kind of Victorian zombie, one of the undead walking amongst the living. Scrooge and Marley are a composite character, and consequently we might say that both are dead in his own way; Scrooge is the living dead while Marley was the dead living. Scrooge spends his energy willing himself into the former existence of his partner, taking on himself the sins of both in a fervent attempt to subsume himself in Marley’s existence (or non-existence, in this case). Indeed, in the story Scrooge sees Marley everywhere.
Scrooge, of course, won’t believe that he’s seeing Marley’s ghost when it first appears. Marley wants to move quickly past paranormal epistemology and get to the matter at hand but Scrooge won’t let him off the hook. Like a good Cartesian, he wants Marley to prove that he’s “real.” Marley doesn’t play this game, however. He simply asks Scrooge to trust his senses, impatient to get on with the purpose of his visit, which Scrooge initially refuses to do. For Scrooge, our senses and intuitions cannot ultimately be trusted; they serve our desires, just like everything else, conveniently underwriting what we wish to be liable or not liable for. Confronted, essentially, with himself sans his comforting self-deceptions, Scrooge appeals to the untrustworthiness of basic senses in other situations he has relied upon entirely, in order to protect his heart from the soul-reaping he knew was upon him. Importantly, however, Marley doesn’t allow Scrooge’s line of inquiry for his own sake. He is only concerned that Scrooge acknowledge his existence to the extent that such acknowledgement enables him to hear his message, not so that Scrooge becomes a believer. Scrooge can remain a metaphysical skeptic as long as there is a genuine chance for his heart to be broken and a real change to occur.
Marley’s condemnation—which began in life and continues in death—is the core of his message. It is “required,” he says, that to become truly human every person must enter into authentic relationships with others. It is incumbent on each of us to seek out others and bond ourselves to them. Marley and Scrooge, of course, had aggressively avoided this. Or, more accurately, they had bonded only with one another, but in bonds of misery, greed, and despair. They had isolated themselves from others, and their purposefully minimal contact with humanity was toxic and fraught.
Now Marley can do nothing but be a constant witness of the love he observes in others but can never contribute. When the Pharisee puts the question to Christ of who should be counted as one’s neighbor, Christ replies with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, describing instead what sort of neighbor one should become. Scrooge and Marley had not so much not loved their Neighbor as they had failed to become Neighbors themselves.
Kierkegaard had a similar insight when he insisted that the work of eternal love is not organic and spontaneous (as in erotic love or the love of friends), but that it is an ethical duty:
It is in fact Christian love which discovers and knows that one’s neighbor exists and that—it is one and the same thing—everyone is one’s neighbor. If it were not a duty to love, then there would be no concept of neighbor at all. But only when one loves his neighbor, only then is the selfishness or preferential love rooted out and the equality of the eternal preserved.
Dickens insists that the natural state of one’s spirit is to be out and among one’s fellow humans. Marley and Scrooge consciously and willfully worked against this inborn impulse to stay away, to die young, continuing to exist only as the undead. Thus, Marley’s ceaseless wandering from place to place is a natural consequence of the bondless soul without a corporeal body upon which to impose a material will, but also without a body that can make those connections the soul naturally desires, like a key whose only purpose is to insert itself into locks, but whose keyholes no longer conform to the contours of its blade. As if to emphasize this point, Marley’s ghostly form is constantly falling apart, and must be bandaged and bound in order to keep its structural integrity. The very chains which bind him to the earth are now also the only thing holding him together. Without the ability to establish bonds of love with others, the eternally ranging Marley is nevertheless utterly imprisoned and bound. That he travels among other lamenting and anguished spirits highlights that he is never more alone than when he is with others who are also alone.
By the time the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives, Scrooge is arguably already penitent. Jacob had done his terrible work of salvation. Scrooge never utters a harsh word or has a negative thing to say to the spirits or about the scenes played out before him. Indeed, his state after Marley’s visit is serious and reflective. The experiences with the Spirits might have ensured his already breaking heart and left important impressions on his mind, but he was already willing to sign his name to a conversion after Marley. Scrooge’s confrontation with Marley was the experience of seeing himself truly for the first time, as one who was struggling to die so that he might not have to experience the truth about himself. Perhaps he thought that if he could fully become Jacob Marley, he would no longer have to experience the crushing darkness of being Ebenezer Scrooge. But Marley’s visit destroyed that fatalistic fantasy, forcing him to reckon with himself for the first time. It prepared him to recognize and embrace love’s progeny in his experiences with the subsequent spirits: compassion, tenderness, empathy, mourning.
There are times when only our confrontations with ourselves—stripping away the self-deceptions, fantasies, and falsities we build around our hearts, convinced, as we are, that we are not worthy to live among our fellows steeped in the mistakes and occasional darkness of being human—can break our hearts sufficiently that love for ourselves can seep into the cracks. As Scrooge discovered, it’s not possible to truly love others if we cannot love ourselves.