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No. 3285:
Epiphanies: Real and Fictional

by Frank Dello Stritto

Today, one of literature's famous epiphanies. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

An epiphany is a moment of revelation, a breakthrough in belief or understanding. Everyone has experienced an "Aha! Moment." Everyone has witnessed them. All aspects of history and culture are filled with them. No doubt some are not as simple as traditional narratives portray.

Military leaders, from Constantine to Crazy Horse, have had visions on the eve of battles that led to victory.

Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics came in a moment of revelation after countless mis-starts.

Some of the most famous epiphanies come in science. Isaac Newton saw an apple drop from a tree, and-so goes the legend-realized that the same laws governed the motion of objects on Earth as in the heavens.

Archimedes entered his bath, realized that submerged bodies displaced their own volume, and went racing-naked, so goes the legend-to tell the king.

Albert Einstein described the final breakthrough in developing his theory of relativity as "a storm broke loose in my mind."

Fictional characters also have epiphanies. Every holiday season we are reminded of one of the most famous: Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation in A Christmas Carol. Or was it really an epiphany?

A Christmas Carol 1st Edition
A Christmas Carol 1st Edition.
  Photo Credit: Chapman & Hall

On Christmas Eve, 1843, Scrooge went to bed a miserable miser. Charles Dickens describes him as "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, secret, self-contained, solitary." Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning an utterly changed man. "As good a friend," Dickens proclaims, "as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew."

What caused the change, the epiphany? Scrooge himself never said. Dickens' story tells of visitations by four spirits. On first seeing Jacob Marley's ghost, Scrooge blames his stomach. "An undigested bit of beef," he insists to his late partner, "a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are."

Scrooge & Marley 1943 Illustration by John Leech
Scrooge & Marley 1943 Illustration by John Leech.  

Scrooge no doubt feels differently on Christmas morning. Within the plot of Dickens novel, no physical proof exists that he actually meets the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. We have no evidence that his change of personality, of world outlook, of relation to his fellow man, was due to the ghosts and did not occur entirely in his own mind.

Dickens' novel provides one clue. The Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge to his old boarding school. Everyone has left for the holidays except young, unhappy Ebenezer, who is not wanted at home. Suddenly, his sister bursts in with good news. "Home for good and all," she gushes. "Home for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like heaven. He sent me in a coach to bring you!"

Marley & Scrooge 1938 Film
Marley & Scrooge 1938 Film.
  Photo Credit: MGM

So, just like his son, Scrooge's father had a complete change of self, at the same time of year. An epiphany? Is there something in the Scrooges that makes them bitter misers when they can earn their fortunes, and then beneficent patrons when old?

Charles Dickens may not have intended that the source of Scrooge's redemption be in question. But it is. If we could put our finger on what this epiphany entails, we would finally get to the heart of the mystery that is Scrooge.

Perhaps inside Scrooge, there always was a better man trying to get out.

I'm Frank Dello Stritto, for the University of Houston, and interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Dello Stritto, Frank J. 2013. I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It - Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns & Old Movies. Cult Movies Press, Houston, Texas.

Dickens, Charles. 1843. A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Chapman & Hall, London. (republished many times; text online at A_Christmas_Carol_(Dickens,_1843)).

Wikipedia. Wikipedia


This episode was first aired on December 20, 2022