By Rick Palsgrove
Scrooge isn’t all bad.
I know my saying this is enough to make people question my senses. Sure, the character Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ classic book, “A Christmas Carol,” is stingy, mean, bitter, resentful, and crabby, but anyone who can crack a great joke in the face of supernatural menace like he did is alright by me.
The joke is well known by anyone who has read the book or watched the numerous versions of the story as depicted on stage and screen.
Scrooge is alone in his dark, cold house eating his miserable gruel, when the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, makes a spooky and frighteningly grand appearance before him.
There’s a give and take conversation between the two as the scared, yet doubting, Scrooge tries to figure out the apparition before him and why it is there.
Marley’s Ghost loses patience with this and in his ghostly annoyed way asks Scrooge, “Why do you doubt your senses?”
Scrooge falls back on intellectual reasoning telling Marley’s Ghost, “Because a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”
Scrooge has set the groundwork for skewering Marley’s Ghost. Then it comes. The joke. In spite of being terrified, Scrooge summons up enough meanness, courage, and wit to say to Marley’s Ghost, “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you.”
Though Dickens makes a point in the text that Scrooge was not in the habit of cracking jokes, the fact is the old miser did have it in him after all.
Not only is Scrooge’s joke funny, but the timing is impeccable as the joke comes at a tense moment when the audience or reader is least expecting humor. The joke is also unleashed just as the ghost is riding high on its initial shock value of appearing in the room. Scrooge uses humor as an equalizer.
It’s a good joke, too. It has the fun word play of “gravy” and “grave,” plus it is insulting to Marley’s Ghost. Insult humor when used against what appears to be a more powerful entity is a wonderfully subversive thing. Scrooge’s joke seeks to put Marley’s Ghost in his cosmic place and it does so splendidly.
The joke infuriates Marley’s Ghost because, even though he’s other worldly, there’s still enough human essence in him to dislike being the butt of a joke. The apparition bellows in response, “Man of the worldly mind do you believe in me or not?’
It’s a fearsome outburst that reasserts ghostly control of the situation and cows Scrooge, but I believe, deep down, the old miser was pleased with himself for coming up with such a great, stinging joke in a stressful situation.
So, here’s to Mr. Scrooge, though miserly and miserable, he could tell a good joke.
Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.