Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"Scrooge Nouveau": Margaret Atwood Resites a Christmas Carol

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"Scrooge Nouveau": Margaret Atwood Resites a Christmas Carol

Article excerpt

The Three Scrooges

Over 150 years after the publication of A Christmas Carol, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood takes up the "little book" in which Charles Dickens, according to his preface, ventured "to raise the Ghost of an Idea." Dickens's expressed hope was that this Ghost would haunt the houses of his readers "pleasantly" and "no one wish to lay it" long after December 1843 (Preface). In a certain sense, Atwood fulfills these expectations when she returns to the story of Ebenezer Scrooge's sins and salvation in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. (1) The subtitle of her nonfiction book, published in 2008, already suggests its affinities with Dickens's story. "Scrooge Original," as Atwood calls the famous miserly character ("following the lead of certain soft-drink and potato-chip companies"), is the very embodiment of the Shadow Side of Wealth (Payback 173). (2)

Like the division of A Christmas Carol into five "staves"--an allusion to the stanzas of a song or carol--Atwood's book is composed of five chapters. In fact, Payback originated as a recited rather than a written text: a series of radio-broadcast lectures sponsored by Massey College at the University of Toronto and CBC/Radio-Canada. The Massey Lectures, according to the front matter of Payback, are intended to provide a forum for "major contemporary thinkers" to raise "important issues of our time." Adhering to these directives in her own inventive way, Atwood repeatedly invokes the exemplum of Ebenezer Scrooge while deliberating on the topic of debt and how it has shaped human thought and behavior for millennia until, in her fifth and final "stave," she proceeds to embellish the tale of the two traditional Scrooges.

The first one, as readers will recall, was "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner"; the second, "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good as man" as any in the world (Christmas Carol 8, 76). To the unforgettable tight-fisted first ("Scrooge Original") and the open-handed second ("Scrooge Lite"--"lighter both in purse and in spirit"), Atwood adds a third, upscale character named "Scrooge Nouveau" because, as she clarifies, "when you're introducing a high-end quality product it's just as well to make it sound a little French" (Payback 173-74). Another offshoot of Ebenezer Scrooge's fecund afterlife, (3) this particular "product" represents the shadowy and shark-like side of megacorporative voracity: "his very white and expertly restored teeth gleam eerily in the dark" (174).

In introducing Scrooge Nouveau into her narrative, Atwood not only departs from the down-to-earth, publicist, nonfiction genre of her preceding four chapters into the other-worldly realms of fantasy fiction. She also transports Dickens's story out of its Victorian-era urban setting into present-day global contexts. (4) Nonetheless, even while reciting a Christmas Carol for our times and resiting old Scrooge in the early twenty-first century, Atwood closely draws on Dickens's cautionary tale and remains expressly indebted to it. Hers is not an adversarial relationship to the text she adapts but, on the contrary, an admiring (albeit free-wheeling) one. As my discussion proposes to show, she pays tribute to, as well as plays with and against, a venerable Original.

Paying Dues

Indeed, it seems only fitting that in a lecture series devoted to the motif of economic, moral, and other types of debt, Margaret Atwood should pay back, which is also to say, acknowledge the debt due to a writer in whose works she had thoroughly immersed herself as a graduate student of Victorian literature at Radcliffe in the 1960s. I use the word "immersed" here in its literal and figurative senses, for when Atwood was invited to give a public lecture upon receiving the Radcliffe Alumnae Award in the spring of 1980, she shared this waterlogged recollection with her audience:

Walking around Cambridge today [in the rain], trying to find out what I was supposed to be doing--a continuation of a lifelong endeavor--I was reminded of the many happy afternoons spent in the bathtub on the third floor of 6 Appian Way . …

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