Let’s talk about Ebenezer Scrooge, being that it’s December and all. I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve read A Christmas Carol (or watched the 1992 Muppet movie version of it, which by the way is fantastic), but Scrooge is actually a pretty complex guy. He experiences fear and regret and loneliness, just like anyone. He has memories of love—and of heartbreak. And most importantly, he courageously allows himself to undergo a deep and genuine transformation in a very short period of time, becoming a much kinder, more generous, and more caring person.
However, when we refer to someone as “a Scrooge”, do we mean that they’ve recently gone through a positive, life-altering transformation? Uh, no. We mean that they hoard their money and refuse to give any of it away to help others—in other words, that they’re selfish. We remember Scrooge as someone who forces his employees to come in on holidays, keeps the heat turned down so low that those same employees are constantly shivering, and refuses to give a single penny to charity. Scrooge’s complex humanity falls away, and only a two-dimensional symbol of selfishness remains.
Stories that contain strong themes of right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, are deeply embedded in our culture. It’s true that the tellers and writers of these stories often take care to portray the “villains” as three-dimensional human beings with journeys of their own. However, I for one still find that I end up with two overarching categories, or lists, in my mind. The first one looks something like this:
The Wicked Witch of the West
Cruella de Vil
And the second one looks something like this:
Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim
the Whos of Whoville
adorable Dalmatian puppies
Even though we know that most of the people on List One have pretty complex narratives (Scrooge and the Grinch change their minds, and we know a great deal about the backstories of Voldemort and Darth Vader), I’d argue that we still pretty much categorize them as bad guys. Pretty much everyone on List Two, however, is remembered for trying to banish evil from the world/galaxy, or for simply being kind to others (or, in the case of the puppies, just hanging out being cute).
But here’s something else that’s interesting. The people on List One aren’t just mean. They’re mean and rich (or at least trying really hard to get rich). A corresponding theme, also interesting, is that nobody on List Two is actively trying to get rich (Harry Potter is already rich, but he has other problems).
These are pretty common tropes. Think of the number of books and movies out there in which “rich” is lumped together with “bad”, while “poor” is lumped together with “good”. Here are just a few more that I can think of off the top of my head:
- “The Gift of the Magi”: A short story about a poor couple who give each other gifts that turn out to be useless. The moral of the story is that although they are poor, they are wise and loving.
- Moulin Rouge!: a “penniless writer” and a prostitute risk everything for love. The rich guy is the bad guy.
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Charlie, a sweet and angelic boy, shares a tiny house with his parents and four grandparents, who are too poor to afford a chocolate bar. (Ok, there’s no real villain in this one, but you get the picture. Plus the other children, all from somewhat richer families, are portrayed as being greedy and selfish.)
It’s easy to divide the world up into dichotomies. We are great at this, especially when it comes to moral characteristics like selfish vs. generous, or financial categories like rich vs. poor. But the real world is more complicated than that. If you’re poor, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a kind or generous person. And if you’re rich, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not those things.
On the other hand, I think it would also be an oversimplification to say there is never a relationship between money and morals. A certain subset of rich people in the real world make their money by taking advantage of others, and a certain subset of poor people in the real world are poor because they choose to make helping others their number one priority. And let’s also note that at least some professions that have a strong focus on trying to make the world a better place (I’m thinking teachers, and employees of non-profits) involve lower salaries than a lot of other types of jobs.
To complicate things even further, it is probably generally useless to attach definitive labels to people, since everyone always has the capacity to choose to be kind or generous (or not) in any given moment. Wealth, too, is a continuum: we can’t categorize people as just “rich” and “poor”. And there’s a big difference between trying to take care of yourself and your family financially (think Bob Cratchit) and aiming to trample other people in a quest for extreme riches.
Stories with heroes and villains are here to stay. And that’s a good thing, because stories are awesome. But there are a couple of things I’m still curious about:
First, what impact does the rich/bad vs. poor/good dichotomy that we so often see in stories have on how we think about ourselves and others? Do archetypes of selfishness like Scrooge function as cautionary tales, encouraging people to be kinder and more generous? Are they helpful in teaching children (and adults) the difference between right and wrong? Or do they encourage us to reduce ourselves and others to two-dimensional stereotypes?
Second, what exactly is the difference between the type of wealth-building that involves taking care of ourselves and the type of wealth-building that directly or indirectly has a negative impact on others? I think that in a lot of situations these two types may be pretty easy to distinguish, but I also think there are situations (and perhaps professions) where this issue can get a bit murky. How can one distinguish between the two?
I don’t have any answers on either of these points, but I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.
And truly, I just want to put in one more plug for the Muppet Christmas Carol. I would venture to say that even if you don’t celebrate Christmas at all, you might still love this film. It’s funny, joyous, uplifting, and has great music (and, FYI, there is no mention of religion).
What do you think about any of this? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.