By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks during October and November 1843, and the novella (technically, it is not counted among his novels) appeared just in time for Christmas, on 19 December. The book’s effect was immediate.
The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle went straight out and bought himself a turkey after reading A Christmas Carol, and the novelist Margaret Oliphant said that it ‘moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel’. Even Dickens’s rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, called the book ‘a national benefit’.
Both ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Bah! Humbug’ are known to people who have never read Dickens’s book, or even seen one of the countless film, TV, and theatre adaptations. But what is A Christmas Carol really about, and is there more to this tale of charity and goodwill than meets the eye? Before we offer an analysis of A Christmas Carol, it might be worth briefly summarising the plot of the novella.
A Christmas Carol: plot summary
The novella is divided into five chapters or ‘staves’. In the first stave, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge rejects his nephew Fred’s invitation to dine with him and his family for Christmas. He reluctantly allows his clerk, Bob Cratchit, to have Christmas Day off work. On Christmas night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.
Marley, bound in chains, warns Scrooge that a similar fate awaits him when he dies unless he mends his ways; he also tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits.
The second, third, and fourth staves of A Christmas Carol are devoted to each of the three spirits of Christmas. First, the Ghost of Christmas Past visits Scrooge and reminds him of his lonely childhood at boarding school, and the kindness shown to the young Scrooge by his first employer, Mr Fezziwig (whom we see at a Christmas ball).
Scrooge is also shown a vision recalling his relationship with Belle, a young woman who broke off their engagement because of the young Scrooge’s love of money. The Ghost of Christmas Past then shows Scrooge that Belle subsequently married another man and raised a family with him.
The third stave details the visit from the second spirit: the Ghost of Christmas Present. This spirit shows Scrooge his nephew Fred’s Christmas party as well as Christmas Day at the Cratchits. Bob Cratchit’s youngest son, Tiny Tim, is severely ill, and the Ghost tells Scrooge that the boy will die if things don’t change. He then shows Scrooge two poor, starving children, named Ignorance and Want.
The fourth stave features the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows Scrooge his own funeral taking place in the future. It is sparsely attended by a few of Scrooge’s fellow businessmen only. The only two people who express any emotion over Scrooge’s passing are a young couple who owed him money, and who are happy that he’s dead.
Scrooge is then shown a very different scene: Bob Cratchit and his family mourning Tiny Tim’s death. Scrooge is shown his own neglected gravestone, and vows to mend his ways.
The fifth and final stave sees Scrooge waking on Christmas morning a changed man. He sends Bob Cratchit a large turkey for Christmas dinner, and goes to his nephew’s house that afternoon to spend Christmas with Fred’s family. The next day he gives Bob Cratchit a pay rise, and generally treats everyone with kindness and generosity.
A Christmas Carol: analysis
A Christmas Carol wasn’t the first Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote. He’d already written ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, featuring the miserly Gabriel Grub. This was featured as 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.
But the fact that Dickens had already developed the loose ‘formula’ for the story that would become, in many ways, his best-known work does nothing to detract from its power as a piece of storytelling.
Like a handful of other books of the nineteenth century – Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde spring to mind – A Christmas Carol has attained the force of a modern myth, an archetypal tale about the value of helping those in need, in the name of Christian charity and general human altruism. Oliphant’s description of the novella as like a new gospel neatly captures both its Christian flavour (though its message is far broader in its applications than this) and its mythic qualities.
But there is also something of the fairy tale – another form that was attaining new-found popularity in 1840s Britain thanks to the vogue for pantomimes based upon old French tales and the appearance of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales in English – in the story’s patterning of three (three spirits visiting Scrooges), its supernatural elements, and the (spiritual or moral) transformation of its central character.
Indeed, it has almost become something of an origin-myth for many Christmas traditions and associations, and was published at a time when many things now considered typically Christmassy were coming into vogue: Prince Albert’s championing of Christmas trees at the royal court, for instance, and even the practice of sending Christmas cards (the first one was sent in 1843, the same year that A Christmas Carol was published). No wonder many people, when they hear talk of ‘the spirit of Christmas’, tend to think of goodwill to all men, charity, and benevolence.
Dickens invented none of these associations, but his novella helped to cement them in the popular consciousness for good. Even the association of Christmas with snowy weather may have partly been down to Dickens: there are a dozen references to snow in A Christmas Carol, and it’s been argued that Dickens associated snow with Christmas time because of a series of white Christmases in the 1810s, when he was a small child: memories which stayed with him into adulthood.
As with his previous novels, especially Oliver Twist, one of Dickens’s chief aims in A Christmas Carol, along with entertaining his readers, is to highlight to his predominantly middle-class readers the state of poverty and ‘want’ that afflicted millions of their fellow Britons. One of the most telling details in the novella is the revelation, following Scrooge’s conversion, that he will take on the role of father figure to Tiny Tim.
Since Tiny Tim already has a father, the point is perhaps not as clear to modern readers as it would have been to Dickens’s contemporaries: namely that the children of the poor were the responsibility of all of Britain, and if their own parents could not provide for them, then charity and generosity from the well-off was required.
Scrooge ensures this not only by improving Bob Cratchit’s financial situation (giving him a pay rise) but by becoming a friend to the family: money is needed to help fix the problem, Dickens argues, but it’s more valuable if accompanied by genuine companionship and communion between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, and if society works together to help each other.
On a stylistic note, the remarkable thing about A Christmas Carol is that it is entirely representative of Dickens’s work, even while it lacks many of the qualities that make him so popular.
In reflecting Dickens’s strong social conscience and his exposure of the plight of the poor and the callousness of those who refuse to play their part in making things better, it is emblematic of Dickens’s work as a champion of the poor. Its focus on money – and the dangers to those who place too much faith in money and not enough in their fellow human beings – it is also a wholly representative work.
But there are none of the wonderfully drawn comic characters at which he excelled and which, arguably, make his work so distinctively ‘Dickensian’. As a rule, the shorter the Dickens book, the less Dickensian it is, at least in this sense: Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and the five Christmas books all lack those supporting comic characters which make his large, sprawling novels, whatever their shortcomings in plot structure, his most successful books.
But what it lacks in Fat Boys, Sam Wellers, Major Bagstocks, or Mr Micawbers, it more than makes up for in its concentrated plot structure and heart-warming portrayal of a man who learns to use his wealth, but also his sense of social duty, to help those who need it most.