"What's Scrooge's Problem?!"

Dec 21, 2011

Whether interpreted by actors Alistair Sims or George C-Scott or Patrick Stewart, fans of “A Christmas Carol” must wonder ‘what was Scrooge’s problem?”  Most explanations of his behavior are superficial.  Fortunately, Charles Dickens provides a list of symptoms and a nearly complete case history.   It allowed a couple psychologists at the University of Kentucky to speculate on Mister Scrooge’s mental health. 

There is no doubt that Scrooge was unhappy. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.   Citing research done by the Ghost of Christmas Past, psychologist Susan Matthews concludes Ebenezer Scrooge was in pain.  

“The longer that I work with people and the more I encounter people who have had life struggles or who are currently in pain, the more I realize that people tend to do the things they do for a reason.  I find that life experiences absolutely shape our actions, whatever they may be,” said Matthews.

His case history shows, at an early age, Scrooge suffered neglect and possibly mental abuse.   His father banished Scrooge….first enrolling him in a boarding school and then indenturing his son in an apprenticeship.    Such rejection by a parent, according to Matthews, enhances insecurity.  Insecure people, Matthews says, often try the control their environment through possessions….

“That’s the first thing that I think about is a sense of holding onto to gain a sense of security, having some sort of something to give him a stable base, if he doesn’t feel like he has it in his relationships with his family, which clearly he didn’t,” said Matthews.”

There is also grief.  Scrooge lost his mother and then his sister, Fan, with whom he shared a loving relationship.  Such loss, when unaddressed, can make other close relationships daunting.  Thus, his rejection of marriage.

“If there is insufficient support in helping someone move through grief, then it creates, the easiest way to think about it is just ‘stuck-ness,’ it creates emotional stuck-ness at whatever point in someone’s life that occurs.  So, absolutely, I think one response to that may be ‘this was painful enough. I don’t want to open myself up to anything else,” said Matthews.

Anxiety may also explain Scrooge’s anti-social behaviors.  The University of Kentucky psychologist explains people uncomfortable in social situations sometimes lash out.

Scrooge’s problem may have a different explanation.  Too often, social psychologist Nathan DeWall says, Scrooge is misdiagnosed.  He’s dismissed as “a complete jerk.”  No mortal being understands something deeper is doing damage here.

“For me, the big thing that pops out at me in the story is how he is a really lonely guy.  And, we know, that just as humans want to be happy and things like that, one basic and fundamental motivation that we have is to have positive and lasting relationships with other people,” said DeWall.

DeWall says Scrooge is a lonely man and as a result perceives hostility where none exists.  In being lonely, the University of Kentucky psychologist says, Scrooge is not alone.

“I think a lot times people trivialize the power of this stuff.  But, the effects of loneliness on your health are just as strong as the effect of smoking on your health or obesity on your health.  I mean, it’s a killer,” added DeWall.

It’s not that people didn’t reach out to Scrooge.  His nephew made an effort, as did his clerk, but Scrooge remained out of reach.    Therapy, when it came, was more objective and more mercurial. Scrooge’s ghostly guides to good mental health operated outside the conventions of Victorian society and the laws of physics…

“So we’ve got a very, very crabby, selfish guy, who basically has no social ties….very, very socially disconnected.  And, it’s not surprising that the hook that gets him back into humanity, so to speak, is having him take the perspective of other people, realizing that he is sort of all alone, and also that he’s inflicting harm on other people, and then you see the turn around, right,” said DeWall.

In ways, their therapy was unconventional, but, Doctor Susan Matthews sees parallels between modern methods and the techniques applied by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  Today,  Matthews says, it’s called an intervention…

“When I was thinking about what sort of therapeutic approaches or interventions they best represent, I would say it’s exposure therapy.  By exposing him to his past actions and memories and as well as looking forward and giving him a sense of this is the path that you’re on, I think that, yeah, that’s what occurred to me the most,” said Matthews.

Sometimes an intervention doesn’t work…but, it did with Ebenezer Scrooge.  We know from his case notes, Scrooge was a good as his word. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.  And for the rest of his life, so the story goes, he enjoyed good mental health.