“May You Be Happy In the Life That You Have Chosen”: What A Christmas Carol Taught Me About Saying Goodbye
I grew up with the George C. Scott version of “A Christmas Carol” being a seasonal must-see. It came out the year I was born — 1984 — and Scott’s harumphing Scrooge was absolutely iconic in his cold lack of empathy. “Are there no workhouses?” he sneers, and you hear echoes of his bootstrapping mindset in all too many policy makers today. Even as a child I was swept up in this story of caring for those around you, that money isn’t everything that’s important, but giving to those in need can really turn their lives around in significant, important ways.
I could go on and on about what I love about this version of “A Christmas Carol” but there is one scene in particular that has resonated with me this year particularly hard. That is the scene with Belle, Scrooge’s underappreciated fiancee, a minor character who had a major impact on me.
The scene is a short one in most adaptations. I think it takes up a page in the story, at most. But it sees Belle and young Scrooge talking about their relationship on a snowy day, the day that Belle finally makes a decision.
“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”
“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.
“A golden one.”
“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”
“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”
“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”
She shook her head.
“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”
“I was a boy,” he said impatiently.
“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”
“Have I ever sought release?”
“In words. No. Never.”
“In what, then?”
“In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,” said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no!”
He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said with a struggle, “You think not.”
“I would gladly think otherwise if I could,” she answered, “Heaven knows! When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl — you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by Gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.”
He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed.
“You may — the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will — have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!”
She left him, and they parted.
“A Christmas Carol”, Charles Dickens
I always admired Belle for that — for realizing that Ebenezer was just not going to get his emotional shit together, that it wasn’t a priority for him like it was for her. While he believed he was acting with love, he was really serving his own ego and not seeing her at all. And while that was his work to do, he was not capable of being present for Belle, and her needs were valid too.
I appreciate now, as an adult, that I have yet to see an adaptation that makes you feel like Belle was wrong in her decision. No screenwriter appears to fault her for walking away and moving forward to find someone else, to have a family, to find joy. Ebenezer’s self destruction and isolation is of his own making and his choices, and not because she didn’t sacrifice her happiness to “save him”. I appreciate that, in a world that often minimizes women as supporting characters for their partners.
(To be fair, as expected, I did find an article online that makes the argument Belle was frivolous with money and therefore didn’t deserve Ebenezer, but I feel like that article was very likely written by someone (a “wealth manager” much like Scrooge himself) that the original story was a warning for.)
Belle knew she had to walk away, that a small unhappiness short term was not worth long term misery. It’s a powerful moment when she says “May you be happy in the life you have chosen”; depending on the adaptation, it’s been said with heartbreaking sincerity, with some bitterness, with sad acceptance. It’s why it’s so awful that Belle’s song is cut out of the Muppet Christmas Carol, when it’s one of the most formative moments of the story.
Later in the story we see Belle with a family, laughing, boisterous, prosperous in love and in life. Belle found someone who had desires more like her own. She moved on — she thrived. And Scrooge lost himself in his greed and selfishness, only questioning his decisions when he was literally about to die alone and unloved.
This was my year to say, even while my heart was breaking, “may you be happy in the life that you have chosen”. I had a person I loved dearly, who I hoped I could build a future with. But our visions for the future were just too different to be compatible, and I could not be in a situation where the only compromise was mine anymore. He was cruel to me in ways I couldn’t forgive, and while I understood that he was lashing out from his own place of trauma, it didn’t take away from his meanness during my grief. So, I broke it off and haven’t spoken to him since.
In that last conversation, he accused me of trying to control him by walking away, but the fact is, walking away was simply me retaining my own autonomy. I realize now that making me afraid that making choices for myself was me being a control freak was actually way he succeeded in controlling my actions. I have not regretted leaving him, but I don’t wish him suffering, I hope he is genuinely happy in his choices. They would not have made me happy.
Thank you, Belle, for teaching me that sometimes, even when it hurts, you have to walk away if the person you care for just can’t care for you. That you don’t have to resent them for walking a different path than you, but you don’t have to walk beside them, either.