“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”1
So opens A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, first published in 1843. In this work, Dickens introduces us to the villain Ebenezer Scrooge, builds and develops interwoven crises, and resolves the conflicts through a surprising hero: the redeemed villain, Ebenezer Scrooge himself. For the original audience, A Christmas Carol depicted contemporary Christmas traditions. In our own era, reading—or more commonly, watching—the unfolding drama surrounding Scrooge has become one of our traditions. Dickens depicts the best and worst of human traditions, uses Christmastime to bring them into sharp relief, and invites the reader and/or viewer to examine their inner self to determine if their traditions are antisocial and stingy like Scrooge at the beginning, generous and joyous like redeemed Scrooge at the end, or some complicated mix of the two. In the beginning, Scrooge is wealthy, miserly, and miserable; at the end Scrooge is still wealthy, but has become generous, sociable, and joyous. By opening himself and giving to others, Ebenezer Scrooge is living a more robust life himself.
From the insistence that Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s late business associate, was dead, A Christmas Carol leads into a depiction of Scrooge’s current life.
Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! …. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.2
Scrooge’s very appearance and manner while out and about was fearsome enough that no one ever engaged him in any way. “But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”3 He’s a self-isolating curmudgeon, and pleased to be so.Charles Dickens shows the reasonable trajectory of a self-centered, individualistic life. At the beginning of the novel, Scrooge is the ultimate in individualism, and it’s not a pretty picture.
“Once upon a time” within the early pages of the novel marks a segue from Scrooge’s life in general to a Christmas Eve afternoon in particular. The weather is as cold and bitter as Scrooge’s heart. The readers see Scrooge be miserly in his tiny office fires, rude to his amiable nephew, tightfisted with gentlemen taking up a collection for the poor and destitute, violent toward a young caroler who attempts to sing at Scrooge’s keyhole, and begrudging in granting his clerk the whole day off on Christmas. As the novel progresses, Scrooge has reason to recall these scenes, especially the words he spoke to the gentlemen collecting money for the poor:
“I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the [workhouses and prisons] I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die”, said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”4
Marley’s ghost appears wrapped in chains of his own making; he warns that Scrooge’s chains are even longer and more burdensome. Marley states, “I am here to-night to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.”5 Marley and company are here to stage an intervention.
The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge scenes from his own past Christmases where books and people were beneficial to him. These scenes—as a child left at boarding school during Christmas holidays, his sister coming another year to take him home for Christmas, and a Christmas when he was a clerk in the employ of Fezziwig—recall to Scrooge’s mind his behavior toward the young caroler, toward his amiable nephew inviting him to Christmas dinner, and toward his long-suffering clerk. Scrooge compares himself to others in his past, and regrets his current behavior. When the Ghost of Christmas Past makes light of the expense of Fezziwig’s generosity, Scrooge takes umbrage.
“It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.
“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge.
“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.
“I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now. That’s all.”6
Scrooge contrasts the behavior of his employer, Fezziwig, to his own behavior toward his employee and finds himself lacking. His selfishness is waning while his love for others is waxing.
The Ghost of Christmas Present comes to pay a call upon Scrooge. The reader sees evidence of change within Scrooge.
Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Scrooge he had been; and, though the Spirit’s eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them. …. “Spirit,” said Scrooge submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”7
This chapter is a treasure trove of Christmas traditions popular in Dickens’s day. Dickens knows, and displays through his writing, that a person’s behavior is a product of what is in their heart. Scrooge begins the novel as an individualistic misanthrope, refusing to “make merry” at Christmas. The same cannot be said for his fellow Britains and Dickens’s descriptions are a delight to read. However, even here, Dickens has a lesson for us. Bakeries were closed on Sundays and on Christmas Day. Their ovens were available to those who had either no hearth or a small hearth incapable of cooking large meals, thus giving the poor an opportunity for a larger meal than most days. Some in positions of power were attempting to put a stop to this practice as being sacrilegious on the Lord’s Day. Through this novel, Dickens berates such attempts. Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present why he is attempting to shut the bakeries from allowing the poor to cook a Sunday meal.
“You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day,” said Scrooge. “And it comes to the same thing.”
“I seek!” exclaimed the Spirit.
“Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family,” said Scrooge.
“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us, and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”8
Theology that denies the poor basic sustenance is a theology that should be severely scrutinized.
Soon the Spirit of Christmas Present leads Scrooge to the home of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and a poor home it is. In spite of their poverty, the Cratchits are joyful in their celebrations. Scrooge expresses his concern for the welfare of ailing Tiny Tim and asks whether or not he will live. Unless circumstances are altered, the Ghost of Christmas Present responds, then Tiny Tim won’t live to see another Christmas. Scrooge pleads with the Spirit that it may not be so and has his own words played back to him. The Ghost of Christmas Present responds:
“What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.9
The Ghost of Christmas Present berates him further. More berating comes from Mrs. Cratchit when Mr. Cratchit offers a toast of good health to Mr. Scrooge, the founder of the feast. “‘The Founder of the Feast, indeed!’ cried Mrs. Cratchit, reddening. ‘I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.’”10 The mention of Scrooge is the dark spot on the Cratchits’ otherwise joyous Christmas celebrations. The Cratchits are part of the working poor because Scrooge refuses to pay a decent salary.
In another home, Scrooge’s nephew Fred refuses to think ill of his uncle. Rather, his response is one of pity: “‘His offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.’”11 Fred recognizes that Scrooge’s selfishness has led to poverty of heart. While Scrooge’s misanthropic ways have a direct impact on others, the brunt of the impact is on Scrooge himself. In both the poverty of the Cratchits’ home and the economy of Scrooge’s nephew’s home, there is much joy in their Christmas celebrations. Scrooge may have money, but he has little else, which is why the Spirits are conducting this intervention.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come never says a word, and yet communicates to Scrooge the direness of the trajectory his life has been on. People Scrooge knows are speaking briefly and lightly of the death of someone they knew. It is obvious this death has little impact on them. In another scene, a cleaning woman, a laundress, and an undertaker’s man are pawning goods stolen from a dead man’s home and even directly off the dead man’s body. In the Cratchits’ home, Tiny Tim is indeed no longer there to celebrate Christmas; Bob Cratchit is late arriving home from the cemetery because his steps are slower than they had been. And what of Scrooge? Where is Scrooge in this Christmas in the future?
Scrooge has been wondering where he is in the future. He also asks to know who the dead man was in earlier scenes. The Ghost of Christmas Future leads Scrooge past his office in the City and out to a cemetery and to one stone in particular. Scrooge begs to know whether what he is seeing can be altered by a changed life.
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
Scrooge is desperate to know whether or not he may change the course of his life and thus change the scenes he is currently seeing. Scrooge discovers that the unmourned dead man and himself are one and the same. The name on the tombstone is his own.
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”12
Because of the intercourse—the communication and intervention—of the Spirits, Scrooge is determined to be a changed man. He fears it is too late. Scrooge grabs hold of the Ghost of Christmas Future in his desperation only to find himself holding a bedpost. He discovers himself to be back in his bedroom where his otherworldly intercessions had begun not knowing what day it is. Much to his delight, he discovers it is Christmas morning and he hasn’t missed anything.
In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens shows the reasonable trajectory of a self-centered, individualistic life. At the beginning of the novel, Scrooge is the ultimate in individualism, and it’s not a pretty picture. Marley’s visit shows Scrooge’s afterlife if he does not change his ways. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future show Scrooge his current mortal trajectory. In their mercy, they have woken Scrooge to the dire situation he is in and that his life of selfish, rampant individualism contributes directly to the misery of others. However! The Ghost of Christmas Future has morphed until Scrooge finds himself holding a bedpost.
Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!13
For A Christmas Carol is a novel of second chances, a novel of redemption, a novel of inspecting the arc of one’s life, and it provides the impetus to change that which is unsavory. At the beginning of the book,
Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge.14
But now, after the realizations made with the help of the Spirits, Scrooge is a changed man.
He looked so irresistibly pleasant, in a word, that three or four good-humoured fellows said, “Good morning, sir! A merry Christmas to you!” And Scrooge said often afterwards that, of all the blithe sounds he had ever heard, those were the blithest in his ears.15
Scrooge uses his money to the benefit of others. He engages in conversation with a boy to run to the poulterers to buy a turkey for the Cratchits. One is reminded of the young caroler from the night before that Scrooge threw a ruler at for daring to sing to him. Now he commends a boy for being “intelligent,” “remarkable,” “delightful,” and “It’s a pleasure to talk to him!”16 Walking outside, Scrooge finds one of the men who asked for a charitable donation the night before. He asks the man’s pardon and whispers in his ear the amount of donation he would like to make, which takes the man’s breath away. He goes to church, walks the streets and finds pleasure in everything he sees. After screwing his courage to the sticking place, he finally dares to knock on his nephew’s door, whereupon a touching scene of reconciliation takes place.
The following morning, the formerly mirthless Scrooge plans and plays a joke on his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Scrooge pretends to be angry with him for being late, then proceeds to raise his salary and promises to do all he can to help his family.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew. …. It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!17
Changed behavior is the direct result of a changed heart. Dickens invites each reader to aspire to attain the beneficial life Scrooge’s transformed life displays. “May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Scrooge has become generous, as depicted in his interactions with the boy, the poulterer, and the man seeking charitable donations. Scrooge’s nephew was already jolly and now Scrooge has made his joy complete and knows the joy of restored family relationships. Tiny Tim was sure to die. Scrooge employs his resources to, one assumes, provide the best medical care available. Others are blessed by Scrooge, and he is blessed in return. Far from being diminished by caring for and giving to others, Scrooge’s life is enlarged and improved. Caring for others is essential to our own wellbeing. May our tradition of enjoying A Christmas Carol always include a tradition of self-inspection and renewed generosity, sociability, and joy. For when individuals are community minded, individuals lead more robust lives.
1. Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol (Unabridged and Fully Illustrated) (p. 13). Feedbooks. Kindle Edition.
2. Ibid., p. 14
4. Ibid., p. 19
5. Ibid., p. 28
6. Ibid, p. 42
7. Ibid., p. 50
8. Ibid., pp. 53–54
9. Ibid., p. 58
10. Ibid., p. 58
11. Ibid., p. 63
12. Ibid., p. 83
13. Ibid., p. 85
14. Ibid., p. 14
15. Ibid., p. 88
16. Ibid., p. 86
17. Ibid., p. 90–91