Thursday, December 24, 2020

Charles Dickens, Marley's Chain and Theophylact of Ochrid

By John Sanidopoulos
When Jacob Marley makes his ghostly visit to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens describes him as a transparent spirit bound by a chain. He describes the chain specifically as follows: "The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." When during their conversation Scrooge asks trembling why he was fettered, Marley replied: "I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?” Then Marley reveals to Scrooge that the chain he bears is much more ponderous: "Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!"

In the course of the conversation, Marley goes on to describe how he travels the world on the wings of the wind, to which Scrooge added that he must have covered a lot of ground over the course of seven years. But this response brought out a loud moan from Marley, and clanking his chain in the silence of the night he said: "Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed, not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

Then Scrooge praised Marley as a having once been a "good man of business", which brought out this sharp rebuke by Marley: "Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” And having said this, Charles Dickens writes of Marley: "It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again." And then he has Marley say: "At this time of the rolling year, I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

At the end of their conversation, Marley then tells Scrooge to look out his window, and what he heard and saw is described as follows: "...he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night. Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever."

What we observe from these frightful passages of A Christmas Carol are ghosts in chains longing to do good works on an earth they no longer are able to operate in, having misused their time on earth instead to make themselves wealthy while not helping the more destitute. In so doing, they were forging their chain with which they were invisibly bound in this life, but very tragically sensed by their soul in the next.

The image of ghosts of the greedy bound by chains is one of the most powerful images in the history of literature, and many have tried to interpret what exactly Charles Dickens had in mind by using such imagery. The common interpretation is that the chains are manifestations of guilt. I think there is some truth to this, but I also think there is something more and something biblical about it. When one reads this chapter, or stave, of A Christmas Carol, there is a lot of biblical imagery, some more apparent than others. It wasn't until I read the biblical commentaries of St. Theophylact of Ochrid that I came to realize what Charles Dickens was perhaps trying to say about the frightful imagery of the chains. Did Charles Dickens read Theophylact? I don't know, probably not, but he certainly did read the New Testament passages Theophylact comments on, and the commentaries of Theophylact were known and studied in England at the time.

Commenting on the parable of the guest who is cast out from the feast because he lacks a wedding garment (Matt 22:11-13), Theophylact writes in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew:

The Lord then says to His servants, the angels of punishment, “bind his hands and feet” (Matt 22:13), that is, the soul’s powers of action. For in this present age is the time to act and to do, but in the age to come all of the soul’s powers of action are bound, and a man cannot then do any good thing to outweigh his sins. Gnashing of teeth is the meaningless repentance that will then take place.

This explanation expounds upon the patristic maxim that there is no repentance after death, and the image of being bound hand and foot is an image given in the parable that shows that a negligent human being that has failed to do good works in this life will not be able to do so in the next life, for in the next life a soul's power of action on the earth is bound from doing good works.

This emerges more clearly in a similar passage in Theophylact's Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Discussing the parable of the master of the house who says to those who knock at his door, “I know not whence you are” (Luke 13:24-30), he explains:

Indeed it is while we are still in this life that we must make spiritual preparation for the feast, before “the Master of the house is risen up”, that is, risen up and come forth to  judge, “and hath shut the door” (Luke 13:25), which means, closed the pathway of virtue. For further progress on that path cannot be made after we leave this life. It is only while we are in this life that we can walk the way of virtue. After their death, those who lived negligently in this life at last begin to knock at the door, only now, because of their useless repentance, seeking to find the path of virtue, calling out for it with mere words like so much pounding and banging, but devoid of any deeds.

Only in this life is it possible to “walk the way of virtue”. In the afterlife, good intentions are “devoid of any deeds” and so are merely a useless “pounding and banging” at the door. Could the apparition of Jacob's face on Scrooge's knocker be inspired by this imagery?

Though Charles Dickens may not have been familiar with the commentaries of St. Theophylact of Ochrid, he certainly was familiar with the Gospels, and it seems to me that passages like these parables are behind the inspiration for the frightful chains of Jacob Marley, whose soul longed to do good works and repent of his former negligence, but being dead and bound, was no longer able to do so.