Scrooge’s near-miraculous change from misanthropic miser to charitable uncle is triggered by a process of redemption, beginning with the ghostly manifestation of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, whose mean-spirited actions in life have condemned his soul to wander the earth without rest. In the wake of this stark warning, Scrooge is confronted by three Yuletide visitants, who in turn present him with episodes from his life, taken from his past, present and future. In observing, from a third-person perspective, the awful nature of his actions across time, Scrooge vows to mend his ways and become a paragon of goodwill – ironically enough, a quality he has witnessed in full measure in his impoverished employee, Bob Cratchit.

What are we to make of this moral volte face? Has Scrooge genuinely learnt the error of his ways by realising how his deeds (eg neglecting the welfare of Bob Cratchit and his family) cause pain and suffering to others? Or is his philanthropic conversion ultimately brought about by the terrible prospect of joining Marley’s ghost in perpetual torment?

It is this last factor which nags at my mind. Yes, of Scrooge’s redemption there is little doubt, but it is arguably purchased by way of a rather questionable device. Indeed, if it really were the case that the plight of Marley’s ghost is the key reason behind Scrooge’s change, it would be difficult to deny that Scrooge acts to save himself as much as to save others. Is this the picture of humanity that Dickens meant to unveil: the crafty, self-serving moralist who turns over a new leaf to save his own skin?

Graver still, could it be that we have unearthed the answer – however hollow it may happen to be – to the question of why we ought to be moral? If so, does it not raise something of a philosophical oxymoron, in that we would find our goodwill driven by a sort of selfish morality?

I sincerely hope not. Yet, however much Scrooge’s journey is, at bottom, a heart-warming affair, the shape of what propels him to direct his life along a better course remains to be fully seen.

Dickens’ fictive telling is given contrast by those examples of extreme events leading to an extreme change of heart which very few of us would consider ethically barren. On the contrary, such instances are most often cause for celebration. The world religions, for example, are replete with such accounts, although the process of change – and its catalyst – may be somewhat different.

Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism and Islam are each built upon the actions of individuals who experienced a redemptive event. Siddartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, gave up a life of riches and luxuries to seek out enlightenment when he was at last confronted with the reality of an existence dictated by the infirmaries of old age, the misery of disease and the prospect of death.

In the Sikh religion, Nanak Dev’s encounter with the tensions between the Hindu and Muslim faiths was vital to his transformation into Guru Nanak, the first of the Sikh Gurus. In Judaism, Moses was moved to give up his isolation in the desert and to release the Israelites from bondage when he was faced with a direct command from God. And in Islam, the prophet Muhammad, who had often sought refuge from the increasingly questionable virtues of his home city of Mecca, was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and charged with presenting Allah’s final message.

All of these figures, according to their respective religions, underwent an existential shock of one kind or another, which gave way to a new purpose in life. The largest of the major world faiths, Christianity, is no different. One of its most important examples of redemption is surely the New Testament account of the Jewish Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, whose blinding on the road to Damascus brought about a radical conversion to the Christian faith, and provided the foundling religion with perhaps its most important evangelist, St Paul.