The Lazarus Experiment: Charles Dickens and the Rich Man’s Return

Posted by Holly Hirst on March 30, 2016 in Blog, Holly Hirst tagged with , , , , , , , ,

In my last post, I posited the importance of biblical literacy to reading the gothic, particularly 18th and 19th century works. Focusing on the two biblical figures of Lazarus, I explored the appropriation of the Lazarus of Bethany (the Lazarus resurrected by Jesus) by popular culture and its removal from its original context and framework of meaning. References to this Lazarus in gothic discourse is not an engagement with a biblical text but a context-less, and fairly arbitrary, association of this particular biblical resurrection with the vastly different gothic trope of resurrection.  It is, in effect, a gothic misappropriation of a biblical figure. The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, in contrast, offers an example of a biblical text regularly and informedly engaged with by gothic texts. The first instalment in this series offers a summary of the parable and its implications.  This instalment looks at how gothic texts engage with the parable. This engagement can often be implicit and depend on the biblical literacy of the readers to uncover the reference.  Dicken’s Christmas Carol offers an example of this sort of implicit reference and it is this text that this blog seeks to explore.

[1]A number of religious commentators (both Christian and atheist) have noted the parallels between A Christmas Carol and theSCrooge parable of Lazarus[2] but literary commentators have been less keen to explore this resemblance. At first sight, it might appear (as Adam Lee and Shane Morris suggest) that A Christmas Carol offers an alternative ending to the parable or a refutation of the biblical moral that a man will not be convinced of the divine or the need for change by the dead returning to life. A ghost (not Lazarus but the Rich Man himself) visits Scrooge.  One of the dead, his old partner Marley, comes to him with ‘a hope and a chance of [his] procuring’[3]. Marley tells Scrooge, ‘I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.’[4] He is the undead messenger that the parable’s Rich Man pleads for Abraham to send to earth, telling the truth of afterlife suffering so that Scrooge ‘would not also come to this place of torment’[5]. Both Marley and Scrooge have acted the part of ‘the Rich Man’: focused on money (although not luxury) and hard-heartedly impenetrable to the pleas and troubles of others. At the end of the story, however, Scrooge is changed.  As the story says, ‘He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew.’[6] In seeming contrast to the parable, someone comes back from the dead and Scrooge is convinced. However, we must question how causal this relationship is.

A Christmas Carol does not ultimately provide us with a refutation of the biblical principle embodied in the parable.  The parable teaches that a man who can and will doubt God’s revelation of himself in scripture and history (‘Moses and the Prophets’) will never be free from doubt, will never be convinced … even if the dead come back to life. Scrooge is, and remains, just such a man. From the very beginning of his encounters with the supernatural, he demonstrates his scepticism and doubt. On first seeing the ghost, he is reluctant to admit its reality and blaming his ‘vision’ on gastric distress. Later on he appears convinced, crying out ‘Mercy…Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?’[7] The parable’s moral, at this point, falters on the brink of literary refutation.  However, Dickens’ story is, of course, not so simple, nor is Scrooge so easily changed. After being visited by Marley, Scrooge falls into bed and when he awakes, doubt is gaining ascendancy once again.  Scrooge questions himself saying, ‘was it a dream or not?’[8] The next paragraph speaks of him deciding to lay awake ‘until the hour was passed’[9]: a tacit intimation that though it fears the spirit’s visitation, he does not expect it to happen. The story is thus brought back in line with the parable.  Though a man came back from the dead, sat opposite Scrooge and spoke to him directly, he is not convinced.

[10]We are left, however, with the fact that he finishes the text ‘convinced’. It is not the dead Marley, however, who facilitates this conviction. He needs the spirits and their message or revelation to effect change. I read the spirits as representations of the trinity three ghosts and the past, present and future of its/their relationship to humanity. Christmas Past represents the Old Testament God as Father of Israel and that relationship between God and his people. This relationship, and the ‘truth’ of Israel’s special status before God, was both reaffirmed and continued by the constant retelling of history, and specifically God’s intervention in Israel’s history, and the subsequent preservation of national memory. Scrooge’s interaction with the Spirit of Christmas Past echoes this dynamic  in that we see memory, or a symbolic return to the past, being used to remind Scrooge of his own identity and help to allowing him to reaffirm or reclaim this identity. The Spirit of Christmas Present represents Jesus: the living, breathing man who gave the ultimate gift of himself at ‘Christmas’ and ushered in the new covenant of faith, love, grace and compassion.  The Spirit of Christmas present, similarly, is defined by the example of his giving, compassion and empathy, allowing Scrooge to‘re-see’ the world through a different lens. The Spirit of Christmas Future represents the Holy Spirit: the unknown, mysterious future spirit which Jesus promised to his followers to convict, guide and comfort. The Spirit of Christmas Future acts as just such a mysterious guide, convicting Scrooge of the reality of his current spiritual state and the dire consequences attendant upon it.  There are many other, equally viable, readings of the spirits. Critics have convincingly seen the ghosts, for example, as representations of truths about the imagination[11] or as the Holy Spirit[12]. The spirits may not even exist outside of Scrooge’s mind at all; they have been merely dreams or hallucinations as suggested by the denouement to the series of visitations where the spirit ‘shrank, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.’[13] This being so, the spirits do not necessarily represent an external force but can be interpreted as realising the ‘internal’ transformative power of memory, compassion and fear of death. What is far more important, however, than the interpretation we choose is the fact that whatever these ‘ghosts’ new scroogeor ‘spirits’ are, they are not ghosts.  They are not the returning dead.   They are not a physical miracle that results in conviction from their mere existence.  The ghosts themselves are not transformative truths to believe in.  They represent not the ‘raised [14]dead’ of the parable but the revelation that the parable’s Rich Man has always ignored. What allows Scrooge to change is their ‘message’ (revelation) and the subsequent realisations which his own history, a wider view of the contemporary world, increased self-awareness and fear of a lonely death bring.  Dickens’ tale, just like the parable, denies the ability of the returning dead to convince while offering a hope of redemption.  In the parable, we have Moses and the Prophets.  We have scriptural revelation to save and guide.  Similarly, in A Christmas Carol, revelation (no matter how you read its mechanics) offers salvation.

A Christmas Carol, while not explicitly citing the biblical parable, has obvious links with it and implicitly explores the ideas occurring within it. It offers conclusions which are essentially in line with the parable’s message: the dead raised do not bring redemption or end theological doubt but hope of redemption lies in revelation of truth offered by supernatural means. In the next blog, I will look at both a more explicit and a more pessimistic investigation of the parable in Margaret Oliphant’s A Beleaguered City.


[1] Arthur Rackham, ‘The ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’, picture sourced from Lisa’s History Room, <>

[2] For example, Adam Lee, A Christmas Carol, (Daylight Atheism, 2006)


Shane Morris, ‘A Chance of Hope of Marley’s Procuring, (Breakpoint, 2014)


 A quick google search unearths a multitude of sermons recognising this fact.

[3] Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol’ in Complete Ghost Stories, (Ware: Wordsworth, 2009), p69

[4] Ibid., p69

[5] Luke 16: 27,  p1051

[6]  Dickens, A Christmas Carol, p121

[7] Ibid., p67

[8] Ibid., p72

[9] Ibid., p72

[10] Picture sourced from Pinterest <>

[11]Mark Brian Sabey, ‘Ethical Metafiction in Dickens’s Christmas Hauntings’ (2013), All Theses and Dissertations. Paper 4045.

[12] Jane Vogel, Allegory in Dickens, (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1976)

[13] Ibid., p115

[14] [14] ‘Redeemed Scrooge’, picture source from CED Magic, <>

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