#47 A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
A Christmas Carol is a novella by English author Charles Dickens first published by Chapman & Hall on 17 December 1843. The story tells of sour and stingy Ebenezer Scrooge’s ideological, ethical, and emotional transformation after the supernatural visits of Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The novella met with instant success and critical acclaim.
The book was written and published in early Victorian-era Britain when it was experiencing a nostalgic interest in its forgotten Christmas traditions, and at the time when new customs such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards were being introduced. Dickens’ sources for the tale appear to be many and varied but are principally the humiliating experiences of his childhood, his sympathy for the poor, and various Christmas stories and fairy tales.
The tale has been viewed as an indictment of nineteenth century industrial capitalism and was adapted several times to the stage, and has been credited with restoring the holiday to one of merriment and festivity in Britain and America after a period of sobriety and somberness. Illustrated by John Leech, A Christmas Carol remains popular, has never been out of print, and has been adapted to film, opera, and other media.
In the middle 19th century, a nostalgic interest in pre-Cromwell Christmas traditions swept Victorian England following the publications of Davies Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1822), William B. Sandys’s Selection of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833), and Thomas K. Hervey’s The Book of Christmas (1837). That interest was further stimulated by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born husband. Prince Albert’s introduction of the Christmas tree in 1841, the first Christmas card in 1843, and a revival in carol singing. Hervey’s study on Christmas customs attributed their passing to social change and the urbanization of England.
Dickens’ Carol was one of the greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England, but, while it brings to the reader images of light, joy, warmth and life, it also brings strong and unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, sadness and death. Scrooge himself is the embodiment of winter, and, just as winter is followed by spring and the renewal of life, so too is Scrooge’s cold, pinched heart restored to the innocent goodwill he had known in his childhood and youth.
Dickens was not the first author to celebrate the Christmas season in literature, but it was he who superimposed his secular vision of the holiday upon the public. The forces that impelled Dickens to create a powerful, impressive, and enduring tale were the profoundly humiliating experiences of his childhood, the plight of the poor and their children during the boom decades of the 1830s and 1840s, Washington Irving’s stories of the traditional old English Christmas, fairy tales and nursery stories, as well as satirical essays and religious tracts.
While Dickens’ humiliating childhood experiences are not directly described in A Christmas Carol, his conflicting feelings for his father as a result of those experiences are principally responsible for the dual personality of the tale’s protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge. In 1824, Dickens’ father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea and twelve-year-old Charles was forced to take lodgings nearby, pawn his collection of books, leave school, and accept employment in a blacking factory. The boy had a deep sense of class and intellectual superiority and was entirely uncomfortable in the presence of factory workers who referred to him as “the young gentleman”. He developed nervous fits. When his father was released at the end of a three-month stint, young Dickens was forced to continue working in the factory, which only grieved and humiliated him further. He despaired of ever recovering his former happy life. The devastating impact of the period wounded him psychologically, colored his work, and haunted his entire life with disturbing memories. Dickens both loved and demonized his father, and it was this psychological conflict that was responsible for the two radically different Scrooges in the tale – one Scrooge, a cold, stingy, and greedy semi-recluse, and the other Scrooge, a benevolent, sociable man whose generosity and goodwill toward all men earn for him a near-saintly reputation. It was during this terrible period in Dickens’ childhood that he observed the lives of the men, women, and children in the most impoverished areas of London and witnessed the social injustices they suffered.
Dickens was keenly touched by the lot of poor children in the middle decades of the 19th century. In early 1843, he toured the Cornish tin mines where he saw children working in appalling conditions. The suffering he witnessed there was reinforced by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several London schools set up for the education of the capital’s half-starved, illiterate street children. Inspired by the February 1843 parliamentary report exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon poor children called Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, Dickens planned in May 1843 to publish an inexpensive political pamphlet tentatively titled, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” but changed his mind, deferring the pamphlet’s production until the end of the year. He wrote to Dr. Southwood Smith, one of eighty-four commissioners responsible for the Second Report, about his change in plans: “[Y]ou will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force – twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following out my first idea.” The pamphlet would become A Christmas Carol.
Social Commentary–particularly those statements directed at the Poor Laws governing the lower classes during Dickens’ time–plays an important but not a central role in A Christmas Carol. Dickens often uses Scrooge as a mouthpiece to express the more callous justifications and excuses used to defend the harsh treatment of the poor. Malthus’ theory that anyone who could not support himself did not have a right to live is a good example of these outrageous claims. Asked whether he wishes to support a charity, Scrooge replies that he does support charities–prisons and workhouses, which are all the charity the poor need. Dickens harshly criticizes these attitudes and presents a highly sympathetic view of the poor through his depiction of the Cratchits. On the whole, however, the numerous messages of A Christmas Carol expand far beyond this narrow political critique of Victorian society. Dickens blames the huge class stratification of Victorian England on the selfishness of the rich and, implicitly, on the Poor Laws that keep down the underclass. Scrooge is the obvious symbol of the greedy Victorian rich, while the Cratchits represent the working poor. But Dickens goes beyond sentimental portraits and reveals the underbelly of the city, notably in Stave Four. Even in the scene of the thieving workers divvying up the dead Scrooge’s possessions, the accountability for their actions is put on Scroogehad he not been such a miser, they would not have resorted to stealing from him. When the children of Ignorance and Want crawl out from under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the ghost sends a message to Scrooge, and the same is given to the Victorian reader: to help out those in Want, and beware of Ignorance in oneself and others.
Other likely influences were a visit made by Dickens to the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from March 20-22, 1842; the decade-long fascination on both sides of the Atlantic with spiritualism; fairy tales and nursery stories (which Dickens regarded as stories of conversion and transformation); contemporary religious tracts about conversion; and the works of Douglas Jerrold in general, but especially “The Beauties of the Police” (1843), a satirical and melodramatic essay about a father and his child forcibly separated in a workhouse, and another satirical essay by Jerrold which may have had a direct influence on Dickens’ conception of Scrooge called “How Mr. Chokepear keeps a merry Christmas” (Punch, 1841).
A Christmas Carol is a fairly straightforward allegory built on an episodic narrative structure in which each of the main passages has a fixed, obvious symbolic meaning. The book is divided into five sections (Dickens labels them Staves in reference to the musical notation staff–a Christmas carol, after all, is a song), with each of the middle three Staves revolving around a visitation by one of the three famous spirits. The three spirit-guides, along with each of their tales, carry out a thematic function–the Ghost of Christmas Past, with his glowing head, represents memory; the Ghost of Christmas Present represents charity, empathy, and the Christmas spirit; and the reaper-like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come represents the fear of death. Scrooge, with his Bah! Humbug! attitude, embodies all that dampens Christmas spirit–greed, selfishness, indifference, and a lack of consideration for one’s fellow man.
With A Christmas Carol, Dickens hopes to illustrate how self-serving, insensitive people can be converted into charitable, caring, and socially conscious members of society through the intercession of moralizing quasi-religious lessons. Warmth, generosity, and overall goodwill, overcome Scrooge’s bitter apathy as he encounters and learns from his memory, the ability to empathize, and his fear of death. Memory serves to remind Scrooge of a time when he still felt emotionally connected to other people, before he closed himself off in an austere state of alienation. Empathy enables Scrooge to sympathize with and understand those less fortunate than himself, people like Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit. The fear of death hints at imminent moral reckoning–the promise of punishment and reward.
With each Ghost’s tale functioning as a parable, A Christmas Carol advances the Christian moral ideals associated with Christmas–generosity, kindness, and universal love for your community–and of Victorian England in general. But is it fair to limit the view to Christianity, as if Christians are the only ones who can have moral ideas associated with this time of year? I think not. The book also offers a distinctly modern view of Christmas, less concerned with solemn religious ceremony and defined by more joyous traditions–the sharing of gifts, festive celebrations, displays of prosperity. The book also contains a political edge, most evident in Dickens’ development of the bustling, struggling Cratchit family, who are a compelling, if one-dimensional, representation of the plight of the poor. Dickens, with every intention of tugging on your heartstrings, paints the Cratchits as a destitute family that finds a way to express profound gratitude for its emotional riches. Dickens carries this sentiment even further with the tragic figure of the pure-hearted, crippled Cratchit son, Tiny Tim. Scrooge’s emotive connection to Tiny Tim dramatically underscores his revelatory acceptance of the Christmas ideal. Scrooge begins to break through his emotional barricade in Stave Three as he expresses pity for Tiny Tim. The reader, upon hearing the usually uncaring miser inquire into Tim’s fate, begins to believe Scrooge has a chance at salvation. Scrooge’s path to redemption culminates with his figurative “adoption” of Tiny Tim, acting as “a second father” to the little boy.
A Christmas Carol is an allegory in that it features events and characters with a clear, fixed symbolic meaning. In the novella, Scrooge represents all the values that are opposed to the idea of Christmas–greed, selfishness, and a lack of goodwill toward one’s fellow man. The Ghost of Christmas Past, with his glowing head symbolizing the mind, represents memory; the Ghost of Christmas Present represents generosity, empathy, and the Christmas spirit; and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come represents the fear of death and moral reckoning. The Cratchits represent the poor, whom Dickens portrays with warmth and sympathy while seeking to draw attention to their plight.
Time is very important in A Christmas Carol, which is structurally centered around distinct elements of Past, Present, and Future. But, the time scheme of the story itself seems to make little sense. On Christmas Eve, Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts on three successive nights. On Christmas morning, Scrooge awakes, having already been visited by all three ghosts. The three nights seem to be compressed into a single night. The presence of the spirits apparently bends the normal flow of time. A view further supported b y the fact that Scrooge goes to bed at two o’clock in the morning after Marley’s visitation and awakes at midnight the same night–two hours after he fell asleep. Dickens uses the tem poral inconsistencies to emphasize the supernatural powers of the spirits–when they are around, normal earthly standards, including the flow of time, have no effect.
A Christmas Carol is foremost an allegory of redemption (while many texts say it is specifically a “Christian” allegory, I beg to differ) about, as Fred says, the “kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time” of Christmas. Scrooge is a skinflint businessman who represents the greediest impulses of Victorian England’s rich. He subscribes to the guidelines of the Poor Laws, which oppress the underclass, and has no warmth in his spirit for anything but money. Cratchit is the underclass’s representative, a humble, powerless man who has no choice but to kowtow to his employer’s demands. But above all, A Christmas Carol is a celebration of Christmas and the good it inspires. At Christmas time, people forget their petty quotidian disputes, selfish tendencies, and workaholic schedules in favor of friendship, charity, and celebration. Several representatives of these virtues stand out in Dickens’s cast. Fred is a model of good cheer, while Fezziwig adds to this the dimensions of being a tremendous friend and generous employer. Tiny Tim’s courage and selflessness in the face of his ill health are also noteworthy, as is the loving nature of the entire Cratchit family. Scrooge learns the lessons of the Christmas spirit through his visions of Christmases past, present, and future; in each he sees either the ill effects his miserly nature has wrought or the good tidings that others bring about through their love and kindness.
Yet underneath the simple Christian allegory, Dickens investigates the complicated nature of time in a capitalist system. The references to signifiers of time are numerous in the chapter; the bells ring to herald Marley’s arrival, and even the repetitive discussion of Marley’s death at the beginning emphasizes the present tense in which Scrooge is stuck.
Why the present tense? Capitalism functions in the now. Always aware of the clock, of how much time has passed and how much is left, capitalism is foremost concerned with what can be done at the present to accumulate money. Scrooge believes Christmas time is simply “capitalist time,” to coin a phrase, whereas Fred believes it constitutes a departure from capitalist time.
Scrooge’s temporal problem, then, is his inability to hold a more humane version of the present tense. Moreover, he is unable to combine the three tenses past, present, and future into a singular redemptive vision of humanity. Scrooge foreshadows the concept of the epiphany when he asks for all three ghosts at once; perhaps the epiphany somehow depends on time in such a universal way. At the beginning of the novella, Scrooge seems aware of only the present tense, the tense of capitalism. The now is the time to make or lose money, and the past and future exist only to serve the present. Dickens’s attention to clocks and bells reinforces Scrooge’s mania with time.
However, Scrooge is redeemed when he learns to integrate the past, present, and future into his worldview. He steps out of the capitalist obsession with the present tense and into a timeless framework in which qualities like generosity and love cannot be quantified. His appreciation of the three tenses also comes in one fell swoop, overnight, and suggests that the epiphany, the sudden revelation of a profound meaning in life, encapsulates all three tenses.
Dickens also structures A Christmas Carol with the musical notation of five “staves.” Dickens’s choice to call his story a song emphasizes the communal theme carolers rarely sing alone, after all and perhaps to underscore the temporal theme at play, since songs are temporal forms that rely on repetition of the chorus.
While we are meant to believe that the visitation of the ghosts is actually happening, it is perhaps more important to think of them and the scenes they reveal of Scrooge’s life as products of Scrooge’s imagination. Provoked by the sudden thought in his old age that his life has possibly been for naught, he reconsiders what Christmas means to him.
This type of instantaneous, life-changing thought can be called an epiphany, and Dickens suggests that epiphanies require the mind to integrate all three major tenses the past, present, and future into a coherent, unified tense. For all intents and purposes, it does not matter that the Ghost of Christmas Past has visited Scrooge; Scrooge may simply be reliving his life through his memory, and the Ghost is merely a convenient symbol for memory. (Indeed, the Ghost looks like both an old man and a child, underscoring the elderly Scrooge’s flashback to his childhood.)
The Ghost provokes Scrooge’s redemption from miser to a good, charitable Christian. He has two strategies: he reminds Scrooge of his own loneliness, and gives Scrooge models of intimacy to which he should aspire. Scrooge gains empathy for the neglected (and, implicitly, the poor, who are otherwise neglected by the rich) when the Ghost reminds Scrooge of his own neglected childhood, inspiring him to want to give to the caroling boy he neglected.
On the other hand, Fezziwig is the paragon of friendship, and his scene makes Scrooge reflect on his own callous treatment of his employees. Finally, the Ghost shows Scrooge how money has interfered with his potential romance and the joys of family life. All of these scenes expose how money has driven a wedge between Scrooge and others, and his loneliness, which he seems to have repressed for years, is returning in profound new ways.
We have seen little attention paid to the religious ceremony of Christmas. Instead, Dickens focuses on the celebratory nature of Christmas while the Christian ideals of love and sacrifice are underscored. Lavish descriptions of large dinners and raucous accounts of games dominate this stave, since eating and playing imply pleasure for both the individual and the community. Dickens wants to show that giving does not deplete the giver, but rather enriches him.
The set piece of the stave is the Cratchit family dinner. Love trumps poverty in Dickens’s sentimental portrait of the Cratchits, but he adds a dark note at the end when he reveals Tiny Tim will die unless the future is changed. Another foreshadowed element is the “Doom” written across the Ignorant boy’s brow. In both cases, the Ghost suggests that Scrooge has a stake in changing the future.
A Christmas Carol, then, celebrates the potentiality for redemption in everyone, promotes the idea that it is never too late to learn to love, and elevates the importance of free will. By doing so, Dickens provides hope for English Victorian society to close the chasm between the Haves and Have-Nots and overturn the unjust Poor Laws that keep the underclass enchained.
The Ghost’s brief life span of one day also reminds Scrooge, and the reader, that we must act quickly if we are to change the present. Unlike before, when Scrooge was concerned with the present only insofar as it was related to the transaction of money, he is starting to see it in “seize the day” terms as an opportunity to change the lives of the less fortunate, right now.
Dickens continues his development of the theme of free will over determinism. Scrooge understands that the future he is shown is alterable and that he can change his fate. Again, this idea celebrates the potential for redemption in anyone and urges people to change their ill ways right now as opposed to later.
Dickens also focuses on the ways a person has influence beyond his or her lifetime. What cheers up Bob after Tiny Tim’s death is that his son’s memory will live on and remind them of the good in the world. Conversely, the only joy Scrooge’s life will provide for others after it is over is through their acquisition of his material goods or release from debt, not through his memory.
Scrooge finally has the redemptive epiphany he has been gradually learning throughout his travels in the past, present, and future. However, an epiphany, by definition, is a sudden revelation. How can we call Scrooge’s adventure, which supposedly stretches over three days, an epiphany? As we will see in Stave Five, all of the ghostly visits took place over just one night. Just as Scrooge learns to assimilate the past, present, and future into his life, the three different temporal ghosts have come to Scrooge in one time frame, perhaps even all at once. For Dickens, then, the epiphany is a sudden revelation that encompasses all time.
The two other definitions of epiphany have associations with A Christmas Carol. Epiphany, on January 6, is the festival commemorating the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Epiphany also means an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being, and the ghosts certainly fit into this category.
In addition, the silent Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come looks much like the Grim Reaper and has similarly divine powers in his final judgment of human lives. Those who lead good lives like Tiny Tim will go to heaven and be commemorated on earth, while those who lead bad lives like Scrooge will go to hell and be scorned on earth.
A great deal of symmetry ties up A Christmas Carol after Scrooge’s conversion. Scrooge does right by everyone he previously wronged in Stave One; the portly gentleman, the Cratchits (note how he even asks Cratchit to put more coal on the fire after he previously made him shiver in the cold), and Fred, not to mention everyone else in the city. The greatest pleasure in A Christmas Carol is watching Scrooge’s transformation from money-pinching grouch to generous gentleman. His redemption, a major motif in Christian art, is made possible through free will. While Scrooge is shown visions of the future, he states (and his statement is borne out in Stave Five) that they are only visions of things that “May” be, not what “Will” be. He has the power to change the future with his present actions, and Dickens tries to impart this sense of free will to the reader; if Scrooge can change, then so can anyone.
As discussed in the analysis of Stave Four, all the ghosts have visited Scrooge in one night, not three. This pleasant surprise allows Scrooge to start his giving ways on Christmas Day, and promotes the idea that he has had an overnight epiphany. After suffering through a hellish nightmare, he wakes up a happy, charitable, and redeemed man. Anyone can change his behavior for the better, Dickens implies, as can any society.
Dickens began to write A Christmas Carol in October 1843, and completed the book in six weeks with the final pages written in the beginning of December. As the result of a feud with his publisher over the meager earnings on his previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens declined a lump-sum payment for the tale, chose a percentage of the profits in hopes of making more money thereby, and published the work at his own expense. High production costs however brought him a mere £230 (equal to £19,128 today) rather than the £1,000 (equal to £83,164 today) he expected and needed, as his wife was once again pregnant.
Bound in red cloth with gilt-edged pages, the book was published in London by Chapman and Hall, and released on 17 December 1843. Four expensive, hand-coloured etchings and four black and white wood engravings by John Leech accompanied the text. Production was not without problems. The drab olive endpapers were replaced for the second printing with yellow endpapers, but, once replaced, clashed with the title page which was then redone.
Modestly priced at five shillings (equal to £20.79 today), the first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve and the book continued to sell well into the New Year. By May 1844, a seventh edition had sold out. In all, twenty-four editions ran in its original form. In spite of the disappointing profits for the author, the book was a huge artistic success with most critics responding positively.
Dickens wrote in the wake of British government changes to the welfare system known as the Poor Laws, changes which required among other things, welfare applicants to work on treadmills. Dickens asks, in effect, for people to recognize the plight of those whom the Industrial Revolution has displaced and driven into poverty, and the obligation of society to provide for them humanely. Failure to do so, the writer implies through the personification of Ignorance and Want as ghastly children, will result in an unnamed “Doom” for those who, like Scrooge, believe their wealth and status qualifies them to sit in judgment of the poor rather than to assist them.
Some critics like Restad have suggested that Scrooge’s redemption underscores what they see as the conservative, individualistic, and patriarchal aspects of Dickens’s ‘Carol philosophy’, which propounded the idea of a more fortunate individual willingly looking after a less fortunate one. Personal moral conscience and individual action led in effect to a form of ‘noblesse oblige’ which was expected of those individuals of means.