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  • Writer's pictureDale V Wayman, PhD

An Adlerian Christmas Carol

Alfred Adler was one of the three great founding fathers of psychoanalysis (psychotherapy) and his own Individual Psychology. Adler’s unique contribution to psychology was his focus on contextual issues, especially family, community, our wider society, and not the person in isolation. He postulated that success and happiness are largely related to our feelings of social connectedness. When we feel we belong and have a sense of value, we all feel better able to have and act with courage when confronted with life’s difficulties.

If we take a closer look at Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, it could be seen as a wonderful example of what Adler believed and described in his theories about human behavior many decades later. In fact, the story about Scrooge might have been taken from a case study of how lack of empathy and interest in our fellow human beings can eventually lead to a meaningless life, full of dread, and inner isolation.

Ebenezer Scrooge

In ‘A Christmas Carol’ and through Dickens’ central character Ebenezer Scrooge, he explores the consequences of a life of hubris, miserliness, and isolation. We understand how this affects the character himself, and how it has affected those around him. “Scrooge!”, we read, “A squeezing wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire: secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Scrooge’s Bah Humbug attitude to Christmas, his lack of interest and scorn for his fellow men, are well delineated by Dickens, especially when we read of his treatment of Bob Cratchett, his near impoverished clerk. His dear nephew, Fred and family are not spared and also suffer his brutal rejection.

The story is satisfying in its ability to firstly present Scrooge as he is, why he became what he is and how he becomes transformed through the insights he gains from the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. This is a perfect description of what happens in Adlerian therapy, though the process and time frame is obviously very different and longer.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Even when the ghost of Jacob Marley (his business partner who had been dead for seven years) appears before his eyes, Scrooge’s hard headed attitude and cynicism initially denies the visitation. Marley warns him of the consequences of his way of life. Marley, we are told wanders the world in a state of ghostly purgatory, finding no peace. He cries out: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow human beings, with my eyes turned down, and never raised them to that blessed star which led the wise men to a poor abode!” He tells Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits that night and warns him if he fails to learn what they have to reveal, his fate will be to endure eternal anguish.

We might, at this point, interpret the apparition as a call to Scrooge’s conscience following the compassionate visit from his dear nephew Fred earlier that day. It may have indicated his heart’s longing for connection and the gradual breakdown of his defense mechanisms as he got older. Whatever the reasons, terrified, Scrooge awaits the visitations and very soon the first spirit appears and announces he is “The Ghost of Christmas Past” or in Adlerian terms, he explores his Early Recollections.

An Isolated, Unhappy Childhood

Scrooge is transported to his childhood boarding school and he glimpses his youthful self, pitifully alone, and isolated on Christmas Day. We learn of the rejection of his father who blamed him for the death of his wife while giving birth to Ebenezer. Added to that, we learn of his father’s disappointment in his love of literature. His father hoped that his cold and punitive abandonment of Ebenezer would eventually “rip the fluff” from his makeup, and encourage the hard driving businessman he wanted as a son.

We learn that his sharpest pain was re-lived when he witnesses the death of his beloved sister Fanny, his only source of comfort. She died while giving birth to Fred, his nephew. We are told that Scrooge, upon reliving these wretched and painful early memories, begins to grieve deeply for his former innocent self and starts to understand what has happened.

Following a childhood so full of abandonment, harshness and neglect, in Adlerian terms, he develops a Style of Life to please his father by becoming a hard-nosed business man, valuing money over people. His fear of rejection is compensated by developing an aggressive unfeeling attitude towards people thus protecting him from any form of caring connection. We see how he compulsively and unknowingly repeats his painful past i.e. rejecting his nephew Fred in the same way he was rejected by his father.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

The second Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, reveals the bustling Christmas market place and then home of Bob Cratchett his hard working clerk. Scrooge witnesses that despite the struggling lifestyle of these people, warmth and love toward one another can still exist. Probably for the first time in years, Scrooge -- now having grieved his past wounds -- can look outside himself and his narrow world view and see those around him from a different perspective. His belief that making money was all that mattered is shattered.

The Ghost of Christmas Future

It is the final Ghost however that frightens Scrooge the most -- the Ghost of Christmas Future. Without a word spoken this spirit shows him the harvest of his deeds over the years; hatred of his fellow man and a grave unattended and cluttered by weeds. Scrooge falls to his knees with anguish when he realizes that he is seeing his own grave, and witnesses the contempt people have toward him. He begs for mercy and another chance.

When he awakes he realizes he has been granted a second chance, he is alive and is totally transformed. The old Scrooge has died and the embittered materialistic old man finally becomes the man he was meant to be. He skips, shouts and dances with joy and goes on to become a benign, generous member of the community.

A Happy Ending

We all love a happy ending and the profound life-enhancing transformation of Scrooge never fails to bring joy to so many every Christmas. Alfred Adler was an enthusiastic reader and supporter of Dickens ideas of social justice. Their ideas and theories are just as relevant in today’s society as they were in 19th century.

Merry Christmas!!

Taken from A Christmas Carol Alfred Adler’s Psychology and Its Similarities to Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Geraldine Purcell Williams

Geraldine Purcell Williams is an MBACP Accredited Counselor-Psychotherapist and is registered with the United Kingdom Register of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (UKRCP), November 2011. Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) Excerpts by Carroll R. Thomas, Ph.D., December 24, 2021.

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