A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (commonly known as A Christmas Carol) is a novella by Charles Dickens first published on December 19, 1843 with illustrations by John Leech. The first of the author's five "Christmas books", the story was an instant success, selling over six thousand copies in one week, and the tale has become one of the most popular and enduring Christmas stories of all time.
Contemporaries noted that the story's popularity played a critical role in redefining the importance of Christmas and the major sentiments associated with the holiday. A Christmas Carol was written during a time of decline in the old Christmas traditions. "If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease", said English poet Thomas Hood.
A Christmas Carol is a Victorian morality tale of an old and bitter miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who undergoes a profound experience of redemption over the course of one night. Mr. Scrooge is a financier/money-changer who has devoted his life to the accumulation of wealth. He holds anything other than money in contempt, including friendship, love and the Christmas season.
Stave I: Marley's Ghost
On a snowy Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after the death of his business partner Jacob Marley
, Ebenezer Scrooge and his downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit
are at work in Scrooge’s counting-house. Scrooge's nephew, Fred, arrives with seasonal greetings and an invitation to Christmas dinner, but Scrooge dismisses him with "Bah! Humbug!", declaring that Christmas is a fraud. Two gentlemen collecting charitable donations for the poor are likewise rebuffed by Scrooge, he insists that the poor laws
and workhouses are sufficient to care for the poor, and that "If they would rather die [than go there], they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population". As he and his clerk prepare to leave, he grudgingly permits Cratchit one day's paid holiday the following day,but the morning after Christmas he must be there on time, otherwise he deduct from wage his money.
After dinner, Scrooge returns home to his cheerless rooms in an otherwise deserted building, and a series of supernatural experiences begins. His door knocker appears to transform into Marley's face; a "locomotive hearse" seems to mount the dark stairs ahead of him; the pictures on the tiles in his fireplace transform into images of Marley's face. Finally all the bells in the house ring loudly, there is a clanking of chains in the cellar and on the stairs, and the ghost of Marley passes through the closed door into the room.
The ghost warns Scrooge that if he does not change his ways, he will suffer Marley's fate, but Scrooge's fate would be even worse. He will walk the earth eternally after death, invisible among his fellow men, burdened with chains, seeing the misery and suffering he could have alleviated in his life but now powerless to intervene. Marley has arranged Scrooge's only chance of redemption: three spirits will visit him on successive nights, and they may help change him and save him from his fate. As Marley leaves, Scrooge gets a nightmare glimpse of the tormented spectres who drift unseen among the living, and, shattered, he falls into bed and sleeps.
Stave II: The First of the Three Spirits
The Ghost of Christmas Past
, a strange mixture of young and old, male and female, with a light shining from the crown of its head, appears at the stroke of one. It leads Scrooge on a journey to some of his past Christmases, where key events shaped his life and character. He sees his late sister Fan, who intervened to rescue him from lonely exile at boarding school, and, recalling his recent treatment of Fan's son Fred, Scrooge feels the first stirrings of regret. They revisit a merry Christmas party given by Fezziwig, Scrooge's kindly apprentice-master, and Scrooge thinks guiltily of his own behaviour toward Bob Cratchit. Finally, he is reminded how his love of money lost him the love of his life, Belle, and the happiness this cost him. Furious, Scrooge turns on the spirit, snuffs it like a candle with its cap, and finds himself crumpling his bed sheets and wakes up and feels remorseful.
Stave III: The Second of the Three Spirits
Scrooge wakes at the stroke of one, confused to find it is still night. After a time he rises and finds the second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present
, in an adjoining room, on a throne made of Christmas food and drink. This spirit, a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur, takes him through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace. They observe the meagre but happy Christmas celebrations of the Cratchit family and the sweet nature of their lame son Tiny Tim, and when the Spirit foretells an early death for the child if things remain unchanged, Scrooge is distraught. He is shown what others think of him: the Cratchits toast him, but reluctantly, and "a shadow was cast over the party for a full five minutes". Scrooge's nephew and his friends gently mock his miserly behaviour at their Christmas party, but Fred maintains his uncle's potential for change, and Scrooge demonstrates a childlike enjoyment of the celebrations.
They travel far and wide, and see how even the most wretched of people mark Christmas in some way, whatever their circumstances. The Ghost, however, grows visibly older, and explains he must die that night. The Ghost tortures Scrooge. He shows Scrooge two pitiful children huddled under his robes who personify the major causes of suffering in the world, "Ignorance" and "Want", with a grim warning that the former is especially harmful. At the end of the visitation, the bell strikes twelve. The Ghost of Christmas Present vanishes and the third spirit appears to Scrooge.
Stave IV: The Last of the Three Spirits
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
takes the form of a grim spectre, robed in black, who does not speak and whose body is entirely hidden except for one pointing hand. This spirit frightens Scrooge more than the others, and harrows him with a vision of a future Christmas with the Cratchit family bereft of Tiny Tim. A rich miser, whose death saddens nobody and whose home and corpse have been robbed by ghoulish attendants, is revealed to be Scrooge himself: this is the fate that awaits him. Without it explicitly being said, Scrooge learns that he can avoid the future he has been shown and alter the fate of Tiny Tim, but only if he changes. Weeping, he swears to do so, and awakes to find that all three spirits have visited in just one night, and that it is Christmas morning.
Stave V: The End of It
Scrooge changes his life and reverts to the generous, kind-hearted soul he was in his youth. He anonymously sends the Cratchits the biggest turkey in the butcher shop, meets the charity workers to pledge an unspecified but impressive amount of money, and spends Christmas Day with Fred and his wife.
The next day Scrooge catches his clerk arriving late and pretends to be his old miserly self, before revealing his new persona to an astonished Cratchit. He assists Bob and his family, becomes an adopted uncle to Tiny Tim, who does not die, and gains a reputation as a kind and generous man who embodies the spirit of Christmas in his life.
Explanation of the book's title
Originally a medieval round dance and then a word for a particular type of ballad, by Dickens' time the word carol
had come closer to its modern meaning, being a joyful hymn
specific to Christmas. Dickens takes this musical analogy further, dividing the novella into five "staves
", instead of chapters.
The story deals extensively with two of Dickens' recurrent themes, social injustice
, the relationship between the two, and their causes and effects. It was written to be abrupt and forceful with its message, with a working title of "The Sledgehammer." The first edition of A Christmas Carol
was illustrated by John Leech, a politically radical artist who in the cartoon "Substance and Shadow" printed earlier in 1843 had explicitly criticised artists who failed to address social issues. 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
, as Scrooge points out. Dickens asks, in effect, for people to recognise 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 judgement on the poor rather than to assist them.
Scrooge “embodies all the selfishness and indifference of the prosperous classes who parrot phrases about the ‘surplus population’ and think their social responsibilities fully discharged when they have paid their taxes.”
Allusions to history, geography and science
Scrooge offends the Ghost of Christmas Present by suggesting that the Spirit's name is linked to a recent attempt to close bakers' shops on Sundays and Christmas Day. (Poor people like the Cratchits, who had no oven
at home, took their Sunday and Christmas meals to the bakers' to be roasted just as Dickens describes in the book, because the law forbade bread to be baked on that day. Closing the shops would deprive them of what might be their only hot meat meal of the week.) The Spirit angrily retorts:
“There are some upon this earth of yours...who lay claim to know us, and who do their deed of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and to all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us." (The Ghost of Christmas Present, A Christmas Carol, Stave Three)
This is a reference to the repeated attempts during the 1830s of Sir Andrew Agnew, MP for Wigtownshire, to introduce a Sunday Observance Bill in Parliament which would have closed the bakeries and restricted many other Sunday pleasures of the poorer classes. Dickens was vociferously opposed to Agnew's plans and had attacked them in a pamphlet published under a pseudonym.
A Christmas Carol
was the subject of Dickens' first ever public reading, given in Birmingham Town Hall to the Industrial and Literary Institute on 27 December 1852. This was repeated three days later to an audience of 'working people', and was a great success by his own account and that of newspapers of the time. Over the years Dickens edited the piece down and adapted it for a listening, rather than reading, audience. Excerpts from A Christmas Carol
remained part of Dickens' public readings until his death.
Adaptations and sequels
The work has been adapted for theatre
, and television
- Two portly gentlemen collecting donations for "some slight provision for the poor and destitute" at Christmas
- Mrs. Cratchit
- Peter Cratchit
- Martha Cratchit
- Belinda Cratchit
- Two unnamed "smaller Cratchits", a boy and a girl
- A young boy and girl, Ignorance and Want, respectively
- Dick Wilkins
- A trio of thieves who plunder Scrooge's house after his death:
- Scrooge's unnamed charwoman, who sells (among other things) his bed curtains and the shirt he was originally meant to be buried in (she took it off his dead body)
- Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's laundress
- An unnamed undertaker's assistant
- Old Joe, a fence who buys the dead Scrooge's belongings from the trio of thieves