This essay first appeared in the 1987 Dickens Quarterly 4:1 (1987): 15-20.
mong "those devices of language and rhetoric that produce the characteristic ring of Dickens' style" (Stoehr, vii) one of the most obvious, even in his earliest writings, is the naming of names. Already in The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist we find that the name of a given character may work on us as readers at both literal and connotative levels — "Sowerberry" and "Bumble" in Oliver Twist being excellent examples of the sorts of names that conjure up an immediate image or, at a stroke, capture a characteristic action, or, at every repetition (consider "The Honourable Samuel Slumkey, of Slumkey Hall" in The Pickwick Papers), deliver a personal or social criticism, or simply sound progressively sillier! [15/16]
Perhaps nowhere in Dickens is the aptness of names more marked than in the first of the Christmas Books, A Christmas Carol (1843), whose homiletic nature is enhanced by the names of the principal characters: Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, and Bob Cratchit. Upon a first reading of the story, as John Butt points out, one probably is struck by the generally-accepted connotation of the protagonist's surname: “Scrooge is not only cross-grained; he is, as his name suggests, a "screw," a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching. covetous old sinner." Although there is no humbug in him — indeed, he constantly suspects it in others — he belongs with the rapacious, self-seeking characters of Martin Chuzzlewit” (17). Butt's definition of the term "scrooge" is supported by the OED: "Scroodge, var. forms of Scrouge, v." or "Scroudge. sb. colloq. or vulgar. Also scrowge [f. Scrouge v]." Wright in The English Dialect Dictionary (1904) notes exceptions to the usual spelling of "scroodge" with a "d" in several counties, including Kent, where Dickens spent his formative years.
So far, then, there is nothing in the protagonist's last name that is inconsistent with his proclaims to the audience in C. Z. Barnett's 1844 dramatic adaptation: "Folks say I'm tight-fisted — that I'm a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching miser. What of that? It saves me from being annoyed by needy men and beggars" (Act One, Scene One). However, apart from the fact that it too 'sounds right' for him, no one has remarked on the significance of the protagonist's first name, which most recognize as some sort of allusion to the Bible, and possibly to the Old Testament. In fact, its connotation is as telling as its denotation.
As indicated by the OED, the name is an allusion to the memorial stone which the prophet Samuel set up to commemorate the Israelites' victory at Mizpeh (I Samuel, vii, 12). Prior to the age of Dickens, the term, which had literally meant "the stone of help" in Hebrew, was "Used appellatively in religious literature in fig. phrases, alluding to the sentiment' Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.' associated with the origin of the name" (OED), as in Robinson's 1758 hymn, "Come Thou Fount": "Here I raise my Ebenezer, Hither by Thy help I'm come." The OED supplies a secondary, more colloquial use of the word that was current in Dickens's own time:
1. Occasionally (like Bethel, Zoar, Zion, etc.) adopted by Methodists, Baptists, Independents, etc. as the name of a particular chapel or meeting-house. Hence used contemptuously as a synonym for 'dissenting chapel.' 1856 Sat. Rev. II. 318 Such low resorts as public-houses and Ebenezers.
To these denotative meanings we must add the connotation of "Eben," which, in the eighteenth century, was a variant spelling of "Ebon," defined by Samuel Johnson as "A hard, heavy, black, valuable wood, which admits a fine gloss." From the outset, Ebenezer Scrooge is a man of good business who, like Shakespeare's Shylock, stands for judgment and the law. He, too, demands his pound of flesh from all who fall into his power. He sees himself as he remembers his partner: "a good man of business" rather than, simply, a good man, for the latter he patently is not. "Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names: it was all the same to him" (p. 46). [16/17]
His conception of himself is clearly bound up with his conception of Jacob Marley as he was. Perhaps his refusal to blot out Marley's name is not so much laziness or parsimony as an outward and visible sign of his reluctance to accept not only Marley's death, but his own inevitable demise. That Scrooge should so closely identify himself with Marley even seven years after his partner's death becomes appropriate later on, for the physically-dead but spiritually-awakened partner will become Scrooge's vehicle to salvation in this life through the good works both have thus far neglected. Scrooge and Marley are twins of business who stand in marked contrast to those more kindly twins of business who preceded those of A Christmas Carol, the Cheerybles of Nicholas Nickleby.
To compensate for the sufferings of his childhood and youth, Scrooge has hardened his heart into the Hebraic stone of the law and put a limit to his humanity and fellow-feeling, as his name in Hebrew, suggests. Like the Hebrews of the Old Testament and the English Puritans who revived the spirit of its law, Scrooge lives under the old dispensation, without hope for salvation. But Scrooge's law is not even that of the Mosaic Code, but that of the Reverend Malthus. He advocates the principles behind Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1798,1803) by staunchly defending prisons, treadmills, union workhouses, and the Poor Law as necessary checks on the inevitable increase of population. Scrooge's dispassionate view of the problems of the lower orders is precisely that of Malthus: "'lf they would rather die,' said Scrooge, 'they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population"'(p. 51). This for Scrooge and for Malthus is an inexorable law of Nature, the deity or idol Scrooge's fiancée accuses him as worshipping. The "golden" idol that has "displaced" her suggests the golden calf which the Israelites erected after their escape from Egypt; Belle identifies Scrooge's "one guiding principle" as "Gain," that is, the fertility and plenty which the golden calf represented to the wayward followers of Moses.
Scrooge thinks of himself as a man singularly lacking in what he terms "humbug" (fraud, sham, deceit, and delusion) but what we readers see as sensitivity and compassion. He contributes to those useful and necessary agencies of society, the prison and the workhouse, so why (he reasons) need he contribute to charities which would merely prolong the sufferings of a class who perform no useful function in the social mechanism? Seeing society as a well-oiled machine and the poor as merely a pool of surplus labor prevents Scrooge from identifying his humanity with theirs and reckoning himself and those so far below him in material prosperity as "fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys" (p. 48). Unlike his nephew, at the outset the protagonist possesses not a shred of that Samaritan spirit that permeates the New Testament. An advocate of the letter of the law, Scrooge is dead to the spirit of the law, namely that . . . Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."
A Christmas Carol is far more, then, than a jolly, fireside tale extolling all the good things of the festive season. It is the story of one man's epiphany, an inward change-of-heart that is reflected in his becoming "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." A Christmas Carol, [17/18] then, is the nineteenth-century equivalent of Milton's Nativity Ode, a prose tract which celebrates the birth of the Christian message and the death of pagan materialism in the heart of a man of business who comes to learn that mankind is his business.
Scrooge's deceased partner plays an important part in this spiritual rejuvenation. Indeed, the elements of childhood and death are curiously intertwined in this tale, which involves the death of the old self and the restoration of a naive, childlike wonder and goodness. These twin elements of the tale meet, of course. in Tiny Tim, the crippled boy who is destined to die. But it is the arrival of Jacob Marley's ghost in the figure of the door-knocker that ushers in the miser's contemplation of death.
Most readers recognize in Marley's business name an association with the earth and soil, although we usually fail to make the connection between the grave and the man. But aside from this primary association there are several secondary connotations that may work on us at a subconscious level. As used by Romantic-era novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott in Nigel (1822), a "marl" was "A marvel, wonder" (Wright, 40). The name may also refer to the Yorkshire expression for "sleet;" also, the English Dialect Dictionary establishes that in Scotland, Cheshire, and Warwickshire, "Marley" meant "a marble." One does not have to strain credulity to accept "headstone" or "tombstone" for the term. Thus, the name "Marley" is wholly appropriate to a long-dead character who reappears on a cold and bitter night to excite fear and wonder in his hard-hearted partner. He has, apparently, fertilized Scrooge's little-used imagination and long-dormant conscience as his body has fertilized the earth those seven years. The supernatural visitations begin with the face of Marley and end at the verge of Scrooge's grave; the progress of the story depends upon Scrooge's contemplation of the death of his commercial twin leading him to the fearful consideration of his own death.
As for Marley's first name, Jacob, most of us dismiss it as just another vague allusion to the Old Testament — after all, unlike Ebenezer, Jacob seems a common enough name in the nineteenth century English-speaking world. We may dismiss, I think, the word's archaic association of "Jacobus,"a gold coin of the Restoration period, and concentrate on the patriarch Jacob of Genesis. The biblical Jacob was a sharp trader, a keen bargainer, and — as Scrooge would say — a good man of business. Moreover, his name reinforces that Old Testament connection spoken of in the consideration earlier of Scrooge's first name.
What then does the name of Scrooge's clerk contribute to the thematic texture of A Christmas Carol? First of all, why is he "Bob" rather than "Robert"? Our usual response is to welcome this familiar form. "Bob" the OED defines as "A pet form of the name Robert," and he is not merely his wife's 'pet' but everyone's; witness his sliding on the ice of Cornhill with the boys of the City as soon as he is liberated from the tedium of Scrooge and Marley's. He is an irrepressibly good fellow who, despite his large family and low weekly wages, has a keen, childlike enjoyment of life, in marked contrast to his employer's withdrawal from the sanguine pursuits of hearth and home. However, several other meanings of "Bob" contribute something to his character. An obsolete meaning of the word is derived from the Spanish [18/19] "bobo" [fool]: "Bob" the OED defines as a verb "to befool, cheat, make sport of . . . mock, deceive"; a meaning consistent with Scrooge's deriding his clerk for a fool who can make merry at Christmas "with fifteen shillings a-week, and a wife and family, " those hostages to fortune whom Scrooge has eschewed as conducive to "Bedlam."
Most commonly, however, we think of Bob not as a fool, or one cozened, but as a pun on the colloquialism for a shilling. Scrooge's clerk is then the cherished, childlike, inferior, and underpaid subordinate that his name suggests. And what of his surname? The usual association must be with "crotchet" and "crotchety," the former being defined by the OED as
9. A whimsical fancy; a perverse conceit; a peculiar notion on some point (usually considered unimportant) held by an individual in opposition to common opinion. b. A fanciful device, mechanical, artistic, or literary. 1831 Carlyle Sart. Res. II. Ix. Nothing but innuendoes, figurative crotchets.
All of this admirably fits the humble but merry clerk whom his employer scorns for a fool who has rejected the utilitarian values Scrooge himself personifies.
Setting aside the early seventeenth-century meaning of "Crotch" as a dilemma, we might stretch Bob's surname to the dialectal substantive "stomach" since he and his family are hearty eaters and mighty enjoyers of goose and plum, pudding. As a verb in Cheshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, and Herefordshire, "Cratch" is used as a verb "To eat heartily; to eat as a horse . . . . Hence (1) Cratch, sb. Keep, feed; (2) Cratcher, sb. A hearty eater" (English Dialect Dictionary, I, 778). It is no accident that the scenes in which the Cratchits appear collectively are dominated by eating and drinking and general good-cheer.
The names of the clerk and his employers, however, are not precisely in the vein of Ben Jonson's Comedy of Humours, with its immediate correlation between the characters' names and their behaviour. As we have seen, this direct connection does not fully describe Dickens's practice in A Christmas Carol. In his first Christmas book, the names work on us at a subconscious or associative level as well as a literal or conscious level, giving the transformation of its protagonist particular seasonal significance. Scrooge's being recalled to the life and good will of his fellow men and women makes his night with the spirits analogous to St. Paul's experience on the road to Damascus — a divine moment, an epiphany effected by the Holy Spirit for the reclamation of his soul.
- The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens, 1843-1848
- Dickens "the man who invented Christmas"
- Vocabulary Notes forA Christmas Carol
- Recent editions particularly useful for students and scholars
Allingham, Philip V. “>The Naming of Names in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol” Dickens Quarterly 4:1 (1987): 15-20.
Barnett, Charles Zachary. A Christmas Carol; or, The Miser's Warning. Dicks' Standard Plays, No. 722. London: John Dicks, [1844?].
Butt, John. "A Christmas Carol: Its Origin and Design." Dickensian 51 (1954): 17.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. (1843). The Christmas Books. Ed. Michael Slater. Il. John Leech. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
Stoehr, Taylor. Dickens: The Dreamer's Stance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. P., 1966.
Wright, Joseph, ed. The English Dialect Dictionary. London: Frowde and Corner, 1904. Vol. 4 (R-S): 40.
Last Modified 3 June 2014