Scrooge and Marley

“A Christmas Carol in Prose” by Charles Dickens has got to be one of the most popular short novels of all time. It’s been adapted hundreds of times; the story is a simple one of personal growth and redemption – and there’s extremely little religion in it.

It also helps that it’s old enough to be in the public domain, so anyone can do whatever they want with it.

Most adaptations neglect to expand on one part of the story. True, it’s not really that important, but let’s take a look at it anyway.

What sort of business is Ebenezer Scrooge in, and can we discover anything new about the character by examining that aspect?

There are two passages in the story that are key:

“Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley.”

“Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house.”

A warehouse needs no explanation, but a “counting house” does. It’s the part of a business that handles the purely financial side: bookkeeping, payroll, and the like. We are not told where the warehouse is, but it is clear from the descriptions of its area that the counting house is a separate office located somewhere in “downtown” London.

Others have focused more on the “counting house” aspect, taking other textual hints that the firm owned a few rental properties to hypothesize that they were a landlord, with a mix of commercial and private rental properties.

However, I think the key is in the warehouse ownership. We are told of Scrooge’s “ritual” of spending time at the “Exchange”. A contemporary reader might see that as the equivalent of the Stock Exchange, where financial deals are made. But to a reader in the mid 1800s, that would have been a place where actual goods were traded, instead of stock certificates. Given that, it’s pretty clear that Scrooge and Marley were wholesalers, buying goods from manufacturers and selling them to retail firms. Perhaps they also dabbled in transshipment, leasing space in the warehouse to others who needed storage space for their own goods.

There’s an old saying that “Britain is a nation of shopkeepers”. Seems in popular media – from the Victorian Era all the way up to Are You Being Served? – the Brits have been running general retail concerns of all sizes. Scrooge and Marley would be the firm – well, one of the firms – where those shopkeepers purchased the goods they sold.

Running such a company would require a keen sense of business trends. You’d have to have your eyes and ears open constantly looking for an opportunity. You’d also have to be able to drive a hard bargain, never cutting anyone a break. While one doesn’t really have to be cutthroat, one cannot afford to be nice, either. Especially for a small firm. One bit of bad luck could ruin you. Perhaps they had the few rental properties as a source of regular income.

And we know that Scrooge and Marley is a small firm – they only have one regular employee. It’s reasonably safe to assume that people are hired to work in the warehouse on a per diem basis as needed (Why keep general labor – people who move boxes and load wagons – on the payroll when there’s no work for them?). Bob Cratchit is the only employee with a desk in the main office.

What else can we surmise about the business?

Scrooge hasn’t changed the signage in the seven years since Marley’s death. That’s normally interpreted as a sign of his stinginess. But why should he change it? The people he deals with in the office don’t even know – or care – whether they are talking to Scrooge or Marley. It’s not important. And there is such a thing as “brand identity”.

Scrooge is clearly an introvert who doesn’t like dealing with people. Unfortunately, when one is in a business where you have to deal with suppliers and retailers, that’s a major disadvantage. Perhaps it was Marley who was better at shmoozing and making the deals, while Scrooge was better at the financial aspects – making contracts, setting prices, etc.

With Marley gone, it seems likely Scrooge hasn’ t been able to keep the business thriving. Perhaps he’s been forced to keep an even tighter eye on the firm’s finances, being less forgiving with his tenants on their rent and pinching pennies on things like office supplies in an attempt to stay afloat. This, alas, is a self-reinforcing cycle. Being a hard ass isn’t going to find you new clients, or make you any business allies. The firm of Scrooge and Marley is probably in a long, slow decline. With his life so tied up in the business, Scrooge is equally slowly falling into depression as his world fades around him.

No wonder he sees Christmas and the attendant celebrations as a “humbug”. He’s got nothing to celebrate.

It took four ghosts to knock some sense into him. If you’ve got nothing to be happy about personally, make others happy, and you can share in their joy.

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