What Happens in A Christmas Carol?

Dickens’s classic Christmas tale A Christmas Carol was published over 170 years ago, in 1843. Since then, there have been countless stage, screen, and radio adaptations of the classic story. The first film adaptation was a short silent movie version in 1901, titled Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost. There have been opera and ballet versions, an all-black musical called Comin’ Uptown (1979), and even a 1973 mime adaptation for the BBC starring Marcel Marceau. The Muppets, Mickey Mouse, and Mr Magoo have all featured in adaptations of the book.

What happens in A Christmas Carol, briefly, is this.

On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scooge, a mean and miserly man, is counting his money. He is mean to his clerk, Bob Cratchit, whom he works hard for just fifteen shillings a week. Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, invites him round for Christmas dinner, but Scrooge rejects such festive celebrations with the famous exclamation ‘humbug!’ Two men show up seeking charitable donations for the poor, but Scrooge angrily dismisses them. Scrooge very grudgingly allows Cratchit the whole day off work on Christmas Day. As he returns home that evening, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his business partner who died seven years ago. Marley’s appearance (first, he appears as a ghostly face in the door-knocker!) is designed to act as a warning to Scrooge: like his partner, Marley was miserable and mean and, as punishment, he is destined to roam around the world as a ghost, bound in chains which he forged during his lifetime of grasping meanness towards his fellow man. Marley tells Scrooge that over the next three nights, three spirits will visit him. Marley vanishes, and Scrooge falls asleep.

Cue the Ghost of Christmas Past, a vision resembling a childlike angel bathed in light. Led by the spirit, Scrooge revisits his childhood and youth including his closeness to his sister, Fan, and his apprenticeship to the jovial Mr Fezziwig (who, as the young Scrooge’s boss, his everything that old Scrooge the boss is not). He also revisits his engagement to a young woman who breaks off her engagement to Scrooge because he loves money above her (indeed, above everyone).

Next comes the Ghost of Christmas Present, a giant green-robed spirit, who shows Scrooge Christmas in London as it is currently happening. Scrooge witnesses his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his family getting ready for their modest Christmas dinner (modest because Scrooge doesn’t pay poor Cratchit enough). Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit’s disabled son, is shown to be kind and brave in the face of his adversity, and this affects Scrooge deeply. As the day wears on, the Ghost of Christmas Present becomes weaker and older, until, near the day’s end, he shows Scrooge two starved children (personifying Ignorance and Want).

The third of the final three visitations is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows Scrooge a series of visions. These all relate to an old man’s recent death, but the man is not identified by name. The name is revealed when the Ghost shows Scrooge the man’s gravestone, and lo and behold, Scrooge finds himself confronted with his own name carved in the stone. He longs to expunge the name from the stone, and asks if the spirit can change the passage of the future. He promises that he will change his ways and be a kinder person who will worship and celebrate Christmas. Suddenly, he is back in his own bed.

Waking the next morning, Scrooge immediately sets about reforming his ways: he sends a giant Christmas turkey round to the Cratchits (the biggest in the shop). He becomes a kind of godfather or uncle figure to Tiny Tim, and continues to honour Christmas with all his heart. The novella ends with Tiny Tim’s exclamation of joy, ‘God bless us, every one!’

This short plot summary can only go some way towards conveying the emotive power of Dickens’s story, of course.

It wasn’t the first Christmas story Dickens wrote. It wasn’t even the first Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote. He’d already written ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, featuring miserly Gabriel Grub, an inset tale in Dickens’s first ever published novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). The tale shares many of the narrative features which would turn up a few years later in A Christmas Carol: the misanthropic villain, the Christmas Eve setting, the presence of the supernatural (goblins/ghosts), the use of visions which the main character is forced to witness, the focus on poverty and family, and, most importantly, the reforming of the villain into a better person at the close of the story.

The family in A Christmas Carol whose plight helps to bring about Scrooge’s change of heart is the Cratchits, the father of whom works for Scrooge. Tiny Tim was not the original name for the little boy in Dickens’s novella: originally he was going to be called ‘Little Fred’, possibly after one of Dickens’s brothers, two of whom were called Frederick and Alfred. Dickens altered the name just before the book went to press.

Christmas CarolDickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks during October and November 1843, and it appeared just in time for Christmas, on 17 December. The book’s effect was immediate. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian (whom Dickens greatly admired), went straight out and bought himself a turkey after reading A Christmas Carol. The book has been credited with popularising the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, a greeting which, prior to Dickens’s story, was not widely used. The term ‘Scrooge’ has entered the language – and the Oxford English Dictionary – as shorthand for a tight-fisted and miserable person (although whenever we refer to a Christmas-hater as ‘a Scrooge’ we overlook the fact that Dickens’s character comes to embrace the holiday as a time of goodwill and good cheer at the end of the narrative). ‘Bah! Humbug!’ has become a universally recognised catchphrase, although Scrooge only uses it twice in the book. A species of snail, Ba humbugi, has even been named in honour of the character.

Dickens’s rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, called the book ‘a national benefit’, while fellow novelist Margaret Oliphant said that although it was ‘the apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding’, it ‘moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel’. The book was more or less single-handedly responsible for the tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story, which remains with us to this day.

Dickens began his series of exhausting public readings from his work – the readings which would eventually contribute to his early death at just 58 – with performances of A Christmas Carol in the early 1850s. On days when he gave public readings, Dickens’s diet was eccentric, to say the least: he had two tablespoons of rum flavoured with fresh cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before the start of his performance, would drink a raw egg beaten into a tumbler of sherry (which, if unappetising, is at least rather Christmassy).

Of course, the success of the novel didn’t single-handedly create, or popularise, the modern idea of Christmas. Dickens himself acknowledged the influence of Washington Irving on his Christmas work, as we’ve discussed in a previous post on this fascinating writer. But Dickens’s book was part of a wider culture which helped to form the modern conception of the Christmas holiday. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert played their part, with Albert in particular importing numerous elements from Germany. The first Christmas cards were also sent in the same year as Dickens’s story was published (indeed, robins feature so often on Christmas cards in a nod to the red uniforms worn by postal workers, who at the time were nicknamed ‘robins’). But A Christmas Carol has a special place in the literary history of Christmas, and is worth celebrating whether as a ‘gospel’, a ‘carol’, or simply a very good tale – and, of course, is always worth rereading.

If this blog post has whetted your appetite for more festive Dickens, we recommend this 1835 ‘sketch’ – published when Dickens was in his early twenties – describing the perfect Christmas dinner. And, a very merry Christmas to all our readers for the festive season. Ho, ho, ho, and (to quote the last words of Dickens’s story) ‘God bless us, every one!’

Image: A Christmas Carol: Mr Fezziwig’s Ball © 1843 John Leech, public domain.

63 thoughts on “What Happens in A Christmas Carol?

  1. I look forward to your blogs, always fascinating. Keep up the good work. Will try and vote for you, I tried yesterday but the Blog Awards website was having a hissy fit. Probably overloaded by folk trying to vote. What is the etiquette for reblogging? I would love to reblog this post to my followers?

  2. Dickens was pretty smart to alter his name, probably never would´ve heard of him if he hadn´t done it. Now in 6 weeks he finished the book? That´s something and then it comes out right the day of Christmas and the best of all is that we have to credit him for the sentence Merry Christmas. Also how come all the great writers die at an early age. I´m starting to thingk about becoming a full time writer. Always a fun and interesting read.

  3. Dear Dr. Tearle,
    I re-read this tale every Christmas season. I enjoy the fantastical elements – which as a child I found scary. As I got older, I enjoyed the moralistic thought of redemption or man’s ability to ” turn a new leaf”. Of course, the book and the many film adaptations have shaped our Christmas traditions for generations – which warms me to my bones.

    Thanks for blogging about it this season of joy!

  4. Reblogged this on Ninteenth Centuryist and commented:
    I always find it interesting that of all of Dickens’s Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol is the one that has lasted. This great article gives an overview of some of the things we’ve gained from the story and a bit of its history.

  5. Wonderful post as always. I just recently saw A Christmas Carol also cited as one of the earliest examples of time-travel in literature because of the way Scrooge goes back to view his past. Dickens was always ahead of the game!

    • That’s an interesting point – especially when you consider how Twain, Morris, Wells, and others would use time travel as a device in fiction later in the century. I hadn’t thought of A Christmas Carol in that respect – thanks!

  6. My appetite is indeed whetted, for a Dickens classic, not the sherry/raw egg concoction! I had no idea his diet was so unusual. I have never read Little Dorrit so I’ll be seeking that one out this festive season.

  7. Reblogged by ghsenglishdepartment.wordpress.com – thank you for your seasonal and erudite insight into this novel! Much appreciated! Thanks for following our blog- we’re just getting started!

  8. It’s amazing to me that he wrote it in six weeks and published it right away. These days, it takes years. I love Dickens and his sense of humor though so that’s ok. Merry Christmas!

  9. Love Dickens, but A Christmas Carol has always veered too close the ‘Xmas card’ sentimentality for me. The account of Mr Pickwick’s festivities is far sharper. Alas the ‘poor relatives’ who ate too much lunch, didn’t go for a bracing walk afterwards, and were tortured by indigestion all evening. ‘Welly sad’, as Tomm Veller would say.

    • Know what you mean about A Christmas Carol, though I suppose it’s lasted better than a lot of Victorian sentimentality from that era (the rest of Dickens’s oeuvre included). Pickwick’s a good one, especially the frost fair and skating on the Thames!

  10. Thank you for this background information on my favorite story of all time–written in six weeks for pounds sterling or not.. I am lucky enough to live about 2 hours from the only manuscript version, with all of Dickens’ original text and his emendations, which is housed at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. I haven’t visited yet, but plan to soon. You can view the handwritten MS online: http://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/dickens/ChristmasCarol/1. Here in the US, we are treated to annual screenings of various film versions, but only one actor captured the quintessence of Scrooge–Alastair Sim in the 1951 film version also called “Scrooge.” Watched it for the hundredth time last night. Hope you buys in the UK appreciate this treasure as much as I do over here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrooge_(1951_film).

  11. A fascinating blog post, I never realised quite what an influence A Christmas Carol had on Christmas. I wonder how many people could do a reading after a pint and a half of champagne.

  12. Pingback: The First Film Adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1901) | Interesting Literature

  13. Reblogged this on Jelly-Side Up and commented:
    Good evening, dear readers. I hope your weekend was lovely, and, if you’re lucky (like my sister, for instance), your break may continue through the holidays. Mine will not, but Marianjoy has been doing so full of festive celebrations the last couple of weeks, that work has been extra fun. :)

    I wanted to share this wonderful history a fellow blogger (“Interesting Literature”) posted about the history of “A Christmas Carol,” which just celebrated its 170th birthday a few days ago. Not only is it timely, but it’s especially relevant to my family. This is a tale we have enjoyed ever since I was little, and it’s become as integral to our thoughts of Christmas as it has to worldwide culture. In fact, my dad has watched different versions of the movie three times in the last three days–I kid you not. I watched it with him today, while we drank holiday-blend coffee. :)

    Please enjoy this fascinating account of the timeless tale and the history that surrounds it.

  14. H
    A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of my favourite stories and I watch at least one film adaption of it every Christmas :-) Your blog was really interesting to read.
    Merry Christmas also


  15. This is fascinating information about Dickens. I have always loved “A Christmas Carol” and try to watch it every year. It’s message that anyone can change no matter how old he is, or set in his ways, is so inspiring. And it’s amazing how many expressions and customs he has added to our culturel. To think that he wrote this in 6 weeks? What a talent. Thank you so much for following my blog. So much great information here, I will follow yours with great interest.

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