Blog: C is for Cratchit

Color lithograph by Harold Copping 1924

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim,  Norman Rockwell, 1934, oil on canvas

Yes, I know, Scrooge has all the best lines. But, it is really Bob Cratchit at the heart of Dicken’s story and A Christmas Carol is built on the foundation of Bob’s merry spirit and tattered coat.

 Jessie Willcox Smith, 1863-1935. Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, from Scribner’s Monthly Magazine December 1910.

When he rounds on the gentlemen asking for holiday donations for the needy, Scrooge utters one of the best snippets in English literature. The lines are broken up in the original text.

Page from the only extant manuscript of  A Christmas Carol   held by The Morgan Library and Museum

In the movies, however, Scrooge gives a Malthusian snarl: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?…. If the poor want to die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”  And there you have it in a trice–the cold and selfish proclivity that lies in all our hearts as we turn away from the suffering of others.

Like Marley, we all carry the chains we forge in life.  Indeed, we do.

Marley appears to Scrooge, Robert  Ingpen, 2008 illustration

The chain he drew was clasped about his middle.  It was long, and wound about him like a tail;and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent, so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling.  “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Oh yes, Marley has some good lines too.

And Cratchit? He says “Yes, sir,” and “If it’s quite convenient, sir.”  No wit here. When it comes to Cratchit we are given images.  Along with the Ghost of Christmas Present, we see Bob with his family, determinedly cheerful, determinedly grateful for their small hen and meager plum pudding (for which the flour seemed to have gone off). The real effects of poverty and despair are encapsulated in these parents’ faltering hope for the health of their beloved child, the effervescent Tiny Tim.

Engraving by Sol Eytinge scanned image by Philip V. Allingham 

The plot of A Christmas Carol uses Scrooge’s past, present and future to flesh out a story of redemption that never loses its force, but it is the specific plight of Bob’s little family that brings the suffering of others home to the reader and generates compassion in Scrooge himself. Perhaps, whenever you add four demanding ghosts to a story, it raises the stakes (as they say in Hollywood) enough to draw in almost any audience. The story has been told and retold, filmed and re-filmed. The 1962 version starring the cartoon character Mr. Magoo was the first animated holiday special ever aired on television.

Mr. Magoo as Scrooge, Classic Media

For me the definitive version stars George C. Scott, fresh from his Academy Award winning stint in Patton.

George C. Scott as Scrooge

From sock-knitting Victorian spinsters to 21st century hormone-addled adolescents, he-man actors, and even the Muppets, we are all captured by the spectacle of one mean-spirited man, unafraid to face those rising Christmas obligations with a fierce, “Bah, humbug!”, as he is redeemed and tenderized by traumatic psychic experiences.

Marvel Comics illustration by Michael Kaluta

It is no accident that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as a ghost story. Ghost stories are a Christmas Eve tradition that extends back as far as the Saxon halls of very old England, according to William Francis Dawson’s Christmas: Its Origins and Associations (1902). In looking at Christmas traditions, modern secular merrymakers tend to forget that Christmas Day was not only a religious celebration, but a feast day, in a time when feasts and fasts were very important in ordinary lives. Like All Hallows Eve, the fast day on the evening before the feast came with its own traditions and requirements. In my family, despite protests from the younger generation, we still eat fish on Christmas Eve, a relic of the fasting requirements of Norwegian Lutheran tradition.

The Christmas Feast was considered to be a time when malign forces were banned from the earthly realms, thus the telling of ghostly tales of haunts, goblins, and witches was a logical pastime for that night before the miracle. European Christians considered Christmas Eve to be a shimmering turning point, when evil throws itself against the bastion of human hope represented by the coming of the Christ Child. Pre-Christian celebrations of the Solstice and the return of lengthening days make associations of light and darkness, shadow and candle even more poignant.

Nazgul attack from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings online game

If we remember that Christmas is deeply rooted in a festival of dark and light, we can see that Cratchit embodies light in Dicken’s story of redemption. He is characterized by his chilblains (we don’t see these much any more–burning sores caused by poor circulation in dry, cold skin), his persistent cough, his loving family,  his long chilly days patiently laboring at a job he hates, his tenderness towards his bright-eyed but sickly son, and his stubborn hope and cheerfulness. He persists in keeping Christmas despite poverty, sickness, and oppression. Cratchit is the brightness in the story, the counterpoint to which Scrooge, in his self-perpetuated darkness can be compared. We might think of him in Jungian terms as Scrooge’s Shadow.

Although we often think of the “Shadow” as evil or negative, Jung’s idea was not defined in such terms. He proposed that as we mature we put away certain parts of ourselves that we perceive to be NOT us. Some of us put away our feminine or masculine qualities, some discard violent or dark tendencies, some put away carnal passions or selfish thoughts that seem inappropriate to the public persona we are trying to create. Scrooge, on the other hand (and he’s not alone), eschews his kinder, warmer, hopeful, and loving parts. He has buried the need to give or receive love because of the sorrow and failure he experienced in the past. These happier bits became too painful and too expensive for Ebenezer to keep up, as the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him. Thus, in the story, Good Bob Cratchit represents the Shadow side, the repressed and dangerous parts of Scrooge’s miserly soul. Certainly, upon being transformed on Christmas morning, Scrooge’s first thought is for the relief  of Bob, Tiny Tim, and the hard-pressed Cratchit family.

This year many in the world are having meager Christmases and it is good to remember the lessons that ground A Christmas Carol. Sometimes it is hard to find a little Bob Cratchit in the day — to be thankful for what we have, to make a turkey out of a scrawny pullet, to find blessings in trials, to make a pudding with flour that has gone bad, to allow hope and love into our lives, and to beam with joy at those we love even though we feel a little tattered around the edges.

Arthur Rackham  illustration for A Christmas Carol

As a child I thought Scrooge WAS Mr. Magoo. Then I thought Scrooge was Patton. Now I know that Scrooge is me. And I am grateful to know that Bob Cratchit is me as well.

Stacy Ericson is an editor, poet, and photographer addicted to imagery both in word and in art.  Her work often reflects her roots in the western states and an abiding interest in other cultures, ancient languages and religions, and other visceral passions. She lives and works in Boise, Idaho. Her poetry, fiction, essays, and photos can be found at the old bouquet , while fine art and portrait work can be seen on her professional website Stacy Ericson Photography.

One response to “Blog: C is for Cratchit”

  1. Wonderfully written and illustrated, a seasonal, thought-provoking short piece by EIL writer @Ithili

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