Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks during October and November 1843, and the novella (technically not included in his novels) was published just in time for Christmas, December 19th. The impact of the book was amazing. Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle instantly bought a turkey after reading A Christmas Carol, and novelist Margaret Oliphant said that the story "touched her in those days as if it were a new gospel". Even Dickens' rival William Makepeace Thackeray called his book "a national treasure".
And "Scrooge" and "Bach! Humbug" are even known to those who have never read Dickens' book or even seen one of the countless film or theater adaptations. But what precisely is A Christmas Carol about and is there something more to this story than it seems at first glimpse? Before we dive into an analysis of the story it might be worthwhile to briefly look at the summary of the novella to better understand the analysis.
A Christmas Carol is not the first Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote. He has already written The Tale of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, in which the mean Gabriel Grub is the main character. This novella is offered as an inserted story in Dickens' first published novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). The novella conveys many narrative elements that will later be used in A Christmas Carol also, from the misanthropic character, Christmas Eve setting, presence of the supernatural (goblins/ghosts), use of visions to force the main character to understand what really is important, focus on family and poverty, and, most importantly, a transformation of the villain into a better person.
But the fact that Dickens has already created a story that will later become his most famous work doesn't reduce his power of storytelling. Similar to other 19th-century books, for example, Frankenstein and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - A Christmas Carol earned the power of modern myth, an archetypal story of the importance of helping those in need, in the name of general human altruism and Christian charity.
But Dickens also used elements from fairy tales, another literature form that was vastly popular in Britain during the 1840s thanks to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales published in English: the number three (three ghosts visit Scrooge), supernatural elements, and (moral or spiritual) change of his main character.
Certainly, it also contains a myth about the origins of many Christmas traditions and was published at a time when some things were considered ordinary for Christmas that are popular today; for example, Prince Albert's advocacy of Christmas trees and even, and the tradition of sending Christmas cards. So, it was no wonder that many people, when hearing the words "Christmas spirit" think of charity towards all people, goodwill, and humanitarianism.
Dickens did not invent any of these associations, but his novella A Christmas Carol surely helped in solidifying them. Even the link between snowy weather and Christmas may have been somewhat reduced in Dickens' book - there are several references to snow in the story, and Dickens once said that he has connected snow to Christmas as it reminded him of his adulthood.
As in his previous novellas and novels, especially in Oliver Twist, one of Dickens' main goals, besides entertaining the readers, was to point out the problem of poverty. One of the most notable points in the story is the disclosure, after Scrooge's transformation, that he will take on the role of Tim's father. Since Tiny Tim already has a father, this may not be as clear to modern readers as it would be to readers from Dickens' time. And it means that the poor children were the responsibility of the government and state if their own parents could not provide for them.
Scrooge provides it by giving a raise to Bob Cratchit and improving his financial situation, but also by becoming his family friend. Dickens argues that money is needed to solve most problems, but is more valuable when used to help a friend.
In terms of style, the great thing about A Christmas Carol is that it is a complete representation of Dickens's writing style. Even though some popular forms are missing, Dickens' powerful social conscience is a symbol of his work as a representative of the poor. He focuses on money and relationships, which is characteristic of his work.
But no doubt this writing style is distinctly "Dickensian". As a rule of the style, the characters need to be more of a comic book. For example, A Tale of Two Cities lacks those comic book characters that make up his big, extensive novels, even though with structural flaws it is his most successful book. But what he lacks in The Tale of Two Cities, he makes up with a portrayal of a man who's learning how to use his wealth and his full plot structure, but also his understanding of sociability and duty to help those in need.
The very beginning of the story sets the tone, mood, defines the atmosphere, and introduces the main characters. It also shows the allegorical structure of the novella, a type of narrative in which characters represent certain themes or ideas that heavily rely on symbolism. In the case of this story, Scrooge represents greed, coldness, and everything opposite of the Christmas and Christmas spirit. Bob symbolizes those who suffer under the "Scrooges" of the world, the poor people. Fred serves to remind readers about the happiness and the joy of the Christmas holidays.
The introductory part also highlights the narrative style of the book - a quirky and extremely Dickensian mix of wild comedy and horror (a crowd of spirits and ghosts hover through the fog).
The allegorical character of the story guides linear action and somewhat simplified symbolism. The latter is split into five Stubs and each Stub contains a separate episode of the main character's spiritual education. The first one focuses on a visit from Marley's ghost, the three middle ones portray stories of three Christmas ghosts, and the last one completes the story, revealing how Scrooge has changed from a ruthless bully to a friendly and cheerful contributor.
In the spirit of the narrative and comparison with the many noticeable themes of moral redemption lies a wise political rant. Dickens aimed at the laws for the lower class of Victorian England. He speaks about the flaws of an unjust government system that determines the lower class to live in a workhouse or prison. Dickens' father was serving a prison sentence thus telling us that he belonged to the lower class. Dickens' compassionate description of Bob Cratchit and his family gives more of a human face to the lower class. Via Scrooge's implicit defense of the law, i.e. his argument that prisons and workhouses are the only "charity" he supports, Dickens refuses the justifications of the indifferent upper class as an untrustworthy, cruel, and selfish defense.
In the allegory, The Ghost of Christmas Past symbolizes a memory. The child figure serves as a force that unites different stages of human life. His bright head indicates the illuminating power of the mind. This ghost activates Scrooge's change from an anti-Christmas grin to a happy boy from a Christmas poster.
Each episode portrays a younger Scrooge who still has the ability to love. As the pictures pass before him, Scrooge observes how he grows more heartless and greedy until the last scenes. His all-encompassing passion for money overpowers his love for Belle and concludes his return to modestly toxic isolation. An expedition of his memories pushes Scrooge to recall all emotional scenes of his past. This sequence of hallucinatory movies that look like dreams to him brings a cold man to tears. This reconnection with his emotions and breakdown triggers the process of melting Scrooge's heart.
An essential part of the Christmas carol is its modern view of a holiday. By avoiding the holy ideals of austerity and asceticism, the story highlights the more modern values, joint spirit, and thriving festivity. It is not bad to have a fortune or organize a grand Christmas party or want a big Christmas dinner, just because these things have the potential to spread happiness and joy - which is the meaning of the Christmas holidays. A man breaks the Christmas spirit when his lust for material pleasures, such as money prevents him from sharing with others less fortunate.
Dickens illustrates this idea of moral standards with Fezziwig's Christmas party, which has no connection with the Christian tradition. The religious underpinnings are always current in the background of the story, for example, a church clock that tracks time. But, generally, Dickens uses them to reflect and refine his modern vision of the holiday and his commentary on the difficulty of the poor, lower class.
The Ghost of Christmas Present acts as a central symbol that represents the Christmas ideal - charity, kindness, and festivity. Emerging on a throne made of food, the ghost evokes ideas of well-being, joy, and satiety. Likewise, the moral view of a Christmas song has nothing to do with the seriousness of a religious holiday. In Dickens' mind, Christmas should be about emotional withdrawal, self-denial, and rejection. Christmas is a time of sharing - emotions, spirit, gifts, etc. - with the community.
A Christmas dinner is a great thing, but solely if there are loved ones you can share with. In this manner, the Ghost of Christmas Present also symbolizes compassion that allows Scrooge to not only see the Cratchit family but to feel the despair and problems of their daily life. In the spirit of that, the celebratory elements of Christmas that Dickens heightens are based on this sympathetic generosity. Christmas should inspire people to care for the needs and wishes of others.
The setting in Bob Cratchit's humble small home is key to the plot of the novel. Dickens brings the opportunity to show a strong critique of cruel members of the upper class and to demonstrate a distinctly sentimental picture of the lower class. This image is designed to undermine the prejudices Victorian class had and revive Dickens readers to the brutal reality of poverty.
In 1843, when the novella was written, England had quite rigid laws controlling the payment of debts. These draconian laws forced so many poor people to end up in prisons, or temporary workers' homes. At the same time, many well-known theorists and politicians tried to explain these laws with statements developed to delegitimize the rights of the lower class, a movement that additionally hindered the ability of the poor to control their own society.
Dickens was extremely repulsed by the writings of Thomas Robert Malthus, a rich man who argued in his work that population growth would exceed food supplies resulting in catastrophic and unavoidable poverty and starvation. Poor people could not support their lives, much less participate in the growth of society. Dickens referred to Malthus in the part where Scrooge repeats his opinions on overpopulation to the gentleman. The Cratchit family is Dickens' defense against this economic, nearly barbaric way of thinking - a reminder that the lower class in England are all people, living beings who have families and whose lives can't be summarized to some mathematical equation.
Within the allegory, the silent reaper's character of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come symbolizes the fear of death. It breaks Scrooge's lessons on memory, generosity, and compassion, confirming his return to a human able to love.
In the story, the fear of death symbolizes the anticipation of a moral showdown and the unavoidable dispensation of reward and punishment - directly a split between heaven and hell. This way, the ghost shortly inserts a somewhat darker perspective of Christianity into the secularized tale which has the role to remind the protagonist of the fate of Jacob Marley, the consequences of his selfishness and greed - a fate that also awaits Scrooge unless he changes his character.
The short finale provides an optimistic ending to the story, showing the new, changed Ebenezer Scrooge how he starts his new life with a humorous depiction of happiness and Christmas joy. The ending also rounds out the balanced structure of the novella, as, in the end, Scrooge meets the same people he treated badly in the beginning. But only this time, the new Scrooge rejects his bad mood and replaces it with warm holiday greetings. He gives Bob a raise and sends a turkey to the Cratchit family, redeeming himself for his earlier actions.
Scrooge also tells Bob to buy more heating coal while in the beginning, he forced Bob to sit in the cold room. This can be interpreted as some sort of an apology, same as we see it with the big gentleman he saw later on the street to whom he promises a big donation to his charity. In the end, Scrooge is happy to go to Fred's party, while in the beginning, he told Fred that he would rather be in hell than come to his party.
The last line is of great importance, as Scrooge literally escaped from hell by going to the aforementioned party. He is now a saved man and the story of his redemption ends with a note of intense optimism. The famous last line and words of the novel - "God bless us, Every one!" - describes the feeling of joy and harmony.
Setting: Victorian London, England one day before Christmas
Point of view and Narrator: the story has been narrated from the limited omniscient view, as well as third-person narration
Tone and Mood: the tone is changing through the story and is never subtle, but establishes a mocking, snappy, and sentimental mood.
Style: celebratory, ironical, a quirky and extremely Dickensian mix of wild comedy and horror
Protagonist and Antagonist: the central protagonist is Ebenezer Scrooge, while the main antagonist is his nature
Major conflict: the conflict of the story is the protagonist's coming to terms with his life; he needs to understand his sins
Climax: the climax of the story is when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears and Scrooge reaches his most desperate point when
Ending: Scrooge learns a lesson and brings a little of the Christmas joy into everyday
Symbols and Metaphors
Marley's Chains - the chains Scrooge's deceased partner wore are important because of their material. While normal chains are forged from metal, Marleys are built from what he valued in life - a version of material wealth. Dickens uses this image to suggest that actions in life can have inevitable consequences even in death.
Ghost of Christmas Past - symbolizes the experiences and memories that turned him into the heartless person he is today. The shining head of the ghost suggests the place of memories that Scrooge holds.
Ghost of Christmas Present - the second ghost brings visions of feasts and transformed rooms in Scrooge's house, which contrasts Scrooge's cold home with an abundance of other families. Although others have no material wealth, they are rich in happiness and family warmth. The ghost also carries a scabbard, but not a sword, symbolizing lasting peace.
Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come - the last ghost, quiet and dressed in black, symbolizes uncertainty and fear of the future. The presence is mysterious and without recognizable features, which shows that the future is not yet set.
Scrooge's tombstone - shown to him by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, it symbolizes Scrooge's potential destiny if he doesn't change: a lonely death, insignificant to those who know him.
Ignorance and Desire - two children, who adhere to the Ghost of Christmas Present, represent the struggle of the rich and the poor. As Desire burdens the poor, it is clear that Ignorance is more dangerous than the two of them - and that Ignorance is Scrooge's vice, as he has not bothered to learn more about the conditions of his employees.
Turkey - symbolizes a changed man, Scrooge buys a big turkey to give to the Cratchits. When Scrooge purchases the turkey it symbolizes his transformation from greedy to generous, illustrating his renewed commitment to Christmas values.
Fire - Dickens uses images of fire to symbolize greed and generosity in the story. Coal was an expensive commodity for many at the time the novella was written, so the amount burned, reflected by the size of the fire, reflected the character's generosity. The image of the small fire at the beginning of the story reflects the evil character of Ebenezer Scrooge, who keeps a very small fire at his workplace, and to his servant Bob Cratchit was even viler because his fire resembled a lump of coals despite a bitterly cold Christmas Eve. Scrooge keeps coal in his own room, scaring Cratchit to put on extra clothes and trying to warm himself by candlelight. When he returned home, Scrooge would rather save money and live in discomfort, keeping a very quiet fire to himself, described as nothing in such a bitter night he was forced to lean on just to extract the slightest feeling of warmth from such a handful of fuel.
In contrast, scenes of happiness and generosity are represented by big fires, like the party in a scene from the past held by Fezziwig, where the fire was so big that the generous host had a positive light bouncing off his leg that shone like the moon. At present, Scrooge is witnessing Christmas fire scenes that bring good luck, and many are associated with the theme of eating food this holiday season, such as the glow of fires in kitchens, salons, and all kinds of rooms.
He sees scenes related to the gathering of families at this time of year, like that of a miner and his family who are merry company gathered around a blazing fire. Through Scrooge's transformation in this allegorical story, we also see how his attitude towards coal use is changing. After coming out of the night when he is visited by the ghosts of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and three ghosts, Scrooge asks to light a fire and even tells Cratchit to buy another coal pot.
Food - food is used to highlight individual characteristics and complement some of the themes that run through the story, such as Christmas and the importance of family. At the beginning of the novella, images of food are used to show the characteristics of the main character Ebenezer Scrooge as a closed, self-isolated character when he is described as lonely like an oyster. On Christmas morning, Scrooge is shown the city streets full of delicious food prepared for the holiday season. Dickens pays close attention to describing some of the food and often adds humor to the depictions, almost giving them their own personalities such as large, round, belly-shaped chestnut baskets, shaped like vests of cheerful old gentlemen, and rosy, brown faces, wide Spanish bows, which they shine in the thickness of their growth like Spanish friars.
We read about the Cratchit family sitting down to a small dinner with a roast goose on Christmas. Goose was cheaper meat than Turkey, reflecting family poverty. The meat is enriched with applesauce and mashed potatoes, which reflects Cratchit's handling of cheap side dishes. Poor households did not have their own ovens, so goose is cooked in the ovens of local bakeries, and a laundry pot is used to cook a small pudding for a large family, which makes the fabric smell like washing! Bob Cratchit makes a festive punch-type drink from a hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemon, and gin is a cheap alcoholic ingredient to add.
Despite the meager meal, dinner at Cratchit's showcases the Christmas tradition of family reunions and the emotional warmth within the household. After being visited by the ghosts of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and three ghosts, we see Scrooge, a changed man, buying a big turkey for the Cratchits, symbolizing his transformation from a miser to a generous character.
Weather - the weather is used as a motif in A Christmas Carol to represent Scrooge's character and how he changes. As we get to know Scrooge, the weather is cold, gloomy, biting with a heavy fog permeating through every crevice and keyhole. This gloomy time reflects the coldness of Scrooge's character, while the fog symbolizes masking what he cannot see, that is, that he is not instructed in the troubles of those less fortunate around him. After Scrooge sharply fired the two charity collectors, the fog and darkness thickened and the cold became intense. Even the spirit of the times appears when we learn the fog and frost hovered around the black old doors of the house, that it seemed as if the geniuses of the time were sitting in mournful meditation on the doorstep.
Towards the end of the story, when Scrooge decided to be a changed man, he looked outside and, although it remained a cold winter day, the weather also changed, no fog, only clear, bright, cheerful, and golden sunlight with sweet fresh air.