‘A Christmas Carol’ covers a period of 24 hours from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. It is a simple morality tale of the radical change in the character Ebenezer Scrooge from being bitter, ironfisted and miserable to becoming a new, openhearted and charitable man. The book was first published in 1843, a time when many of the wealthy people neglected the old Christmas spirit of charity. In addition, the Industrial Revolution had further done away with the simple pleasures of the season. Dickens’ intentions in writing ‘A Christmas Carol’ were not only linked to his childhood and sympathy for the poor, but he was also acting as a philanthropist by making an appeal to the rich people of society to mend their selfish ways.
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Dickens is able to show the change in Scrooge’s character by establishing what Scrooge is like at the very beginning of the story with the first two words he says: ‘“Bah! Humbug!”’ It is clear from the dismissive tone and the two exclamation marks that Scrooge has no patience with the idea of Christmas as a special time.
At the start of the novel, Dickens is using Scrooge, someone who associates happiness with nothing but money, as an example of a classic wealthy person in the 19th Century.
He does this with Scrooge enquiring of his nephew ‘“What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”’ Scrooge’s manor in saying this makes me, as the reader rather upset and disappointed that someone can be so shallow and uncaring. In Scrooge saying this, it demonstrates to the reader that Scrooge does not think one could be joyous if they were not well off, and proves that he does not understand the concept of Christmas spirit. Dickens continues to make Scrooge’s character clear through the shocking juxtaposition of the traditionally festive holly and the medieval custom of burying murderers with a stake through their heart: ‘“…every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with a stake of holly through his heart.”
The reader is very surprised to have the idea of Christmas decorations associated with death and Dickens is successful in making us see how bitter Scrooge is about the festive season. We may also feel a little sorry for Scrooge as he rejects the spirit of Christmas, which we so enjoy: he is clearly miserable and we would prefer people to be happy, especially at Christmas. By showing Scrooge’s strength of feeling here, Dickens is able to show what an extreme change overtakes him as he meets three ghosts, the agents of his transformation.
Dickens uses the visit of two men collecting money for charity to show us Scrooge’s attitude to the poor. He says the poor had better die, ‘“and decrease the surplus population.’” Scrooge talks about those less fortunate than himself as if they are statistics: ‘surplus population’ makes them sound like things rather than people. I felt angry when reading this, as Scrooge, who is wealthy, is dehumanizing poor people, when he could be helping them. Dickens is using Scrooge to represent and criticize the rich people of the time, who he thought lacked generosity.
Dickens introduces the Ghost of Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner. ‘The chain he drew was clasped about his middle.’ The fact that Marley is bound in chains signifies that he, in death, is unable to change his fate and cannot make amends for the way in which he lead a sinful and greedy life. As we know that Scrooge and Marley had once been business partners, we assume that they are similar to one another, and this helps the reader to gather an initial feeling of Scrooge’s personality and what he is like on the inside. To add to the character of Marley, Dickens includes that ‘Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.’ With pointing out that Marley had no bowels, Dickens is referring to how certain parts of the body were often thought to be linked to people’s affection and personalities, and the bowels were thought to be the ‘centre of compassion’. The description of him having no bowels, and therefore no compassion further enforced my disliking of Scrooge, and my understanding of what a cold-hearted man he is.
Dickens uses the supernatural as a method of holding a mirror up to Scrooge who is forced to confront the error of his ways. Dickens shows us that if Scrooge fails to do this it will result in him having a similar fate to Marley. Dickens uses the ghost to emphasize that there is a chance of redemption for Scrooge “that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate”. Dickens’ use of the supernatural continues throughout the story as a means of arousing nostalgia, thought, fear and action by Scrooge. All of these emotions, which Dickens shows us Scrooge is feeling, demonstrate the gradual change in Scrooge throughout the book, and as these changes take place, our thoughts and feelings towards the relationship we have with Scrooge also changes; we begin to understand him and see under his hard outer shell. Through the visitations of the three spirits, Dickens reveals feelings in Scrooge that have been repressed, which facilitates Scrooge’s change. The ghost of Marley warns Scrooge “You will be haunted by Three Spirits” The spirits are used by Dickens to take Scrooge through a journey of self-discovery and ultimately transformation.
The journey to his childhood results in visible signs of emotion in Scrooge, which we do not associate with him to start with, as this one of the first ways that Dickens presents the change in Scrooge. ‘“Your lip is trembling”’. ‘“And what is that upon your cheek?”’ The Ghost of Christmas Past is used by Dickens to transfer Scrooge to events dating back to Scrooge’s childhood and reminds him of past events. Anxiously, Scrooge says ‘“I am a mortal, and liable to fall”’. ‘“Good Heaven!”’ exclaimed Scrooge ‘“I was a boy here!”’ In reading this dialogue, I feel rather touched by Scrooge’s emotion and moderate excitement for his past, it made me begin to consider how Scrooge is perhaps not as covetous as I had thought, and Dickens had foreshadowed. Dickens paints a picture of Scrooge as a solitary boy; “a lonely boy was reading”. Here Dickens is using his own early experiences as an isolated and sickly child who was often unable to participate in games with his friends and in activities that required a better state of health. The first time Dickens presents Scrooge as having a flicker of sympathy, and therefore the start of his journey to change, is when he says, ‘“I should like to have given him something, that’s all.”’
He says this as he looks back at himself, and this makes him show remorse of that fact that he too has made a young boy feel this way. In seeing Scrooge’s notion of guilt, it showed me that Scrooge was open to change and this impressed and pleased me. Dickens also begins to let Scrooge’s emotional side shine through when he is reminded of his beloved sister, Fran. She is first introduced to us when she comes for Scrooge with the message that he should return home for Christmas. Here, Dickens portrays himself in the character of Scrooge, as he too was sent to a boarding school where he spent Christmases, and was forced to do so by a cruel and unloving father. When Fran declares, ‘“Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven!”’ Dickens is emphasizing on how great of an effect kindness can have on people. Dickens explains how an extreme passion for gain eventually becomes all-consuming, and that it can even alter the way the ones closest to us view us. Dickens shows the reader how an obsession with gain had ruined many things in Scrooge’s life, but most importantly how Scrooge had lost his one true love, Belle, due to his overpowering sense of greed.
The Ghost takes Scrooge back to the point where Belle releases Scrooge from their contract of marriage and a life together, she gently explains; ‘“I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you.”’ When Scrooge realises this, it again enforces his realisation of what he has become, and his awareness that he must change. Belle’s words here further impose Scrooge’s transformation. When I read this part of ‘A Christmas Carol’, it caused me to envisage the fact that Scrooge was once a good man, and that he has subconsciously been swept over and destroyed by his love for money and material things. The Ghost of Christmas past then presents Scrooge with Belle and a loving husband and family. He realises what he has lost as a result of his avaricious life, when he sees the daughter of his sweetheart, and regrets that he is not a father. Once more, this compels Scrooge to change his churlish and tight-fisted ways. When Scrooge accompanies the Ghost of Christmas present, he is taken to the house of his loyal worker, Bob Cratchitt. Here, he discovers how large of a family Cratchitt has, and notices a disability in one of the children. Dickens shows a drastic change in Scrooge and the reader is somewhat taken aback as Scrooge says, ‘“Spirit, tell me Tiny Tim will live.”’
With this the Ghost replies, ‘“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”’ With this phrase, Dickens is giving the reader hope that Tiny Tim will live. This spurs Scrooge on to change, as the ghost is almost putting Tiny Tim’s life in Scrooge’s hands, and we notice his change as he shows the interest in Tiny Tim’s welfare. The Ghost of Christmas present uses two disfigured children under his cloak. These children are revealed to scrooge. Their appearance is shocking since they are demon like and monstrous looking, the children act as metaphors for ‘want’ and ‘ignorance’. With ease, Dickens transitions from the Ghost of Christmas present, to the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, and does so with this unnerving metaphor. By the use of these children as metaphors for want and ignorance, dickens portrays the fate of misery and poverty, which would befall if the present society does not look after and shelter these children. He also speaks out for all the children who had a hard life full of labour in the factories and mines. Again, Dickens uses these children to warn the public of the consequences of their indifferences. On seeing the miserable children, Scrooge demands why there is no refuge for them.
The ghost of Christmas present recounts to Scrooge with his own words: ‘“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”’ The repetition and sarcasm in these words, and the fact that I had heard them earlier on in the book coming out of Scrooge’s mouth, made me more aware of how Scrooge had gradually changed, and Dickens intentions in writing this part in, I think, was also to teach his readers that sometimes we may say things that, in reality, is extremely unfair or ridiculous, but many of us are too arrogant to realise. Dickens not only conveys a message to Scrooge, but a message to society’s rich, that the making of poverty and it’s persistence is their fault and that they are responsible for putting things right. Scrooge admits ‘“I fear you more than any Spectre I have seen”’ to the Ghost of Christmas yet to come. Since none of us can foresee the future Dickens reminds us all that none of us know the fate that will befall us. This provokes a certain sense of curiosity in my own future and makes me want to see into my future and understand how I might be able to influence the best outcome for myself. Scrooge’s transformation continues when Scrooge is brought face to face with his own mortality.
Scrooge is made to see into the future and to observe the reactions of others and the circumstances surrounding his own death. Despite all of Scrooge’s wealth, at the time of his greatest need when he is nearly dying, Scrooge is shown by the Ghost of Christmas yet to come that there is no one at all to be by his side to help or comfort him. Scrooge is made to listen to the words spoken by Mrs Dilber ‘“…he’d have somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself.”’ Scrooge is brought to the realisation that pursuing money and wealth without consideration for others will only result in an unhappy ending where no body is prepared to show compassion at the time that Scrooge most needs it. Dickens use of the Ghost of Christmas yet to come is very powerful in making us all reflect on what might happen to us on our day of reckoning should we lead our lives by the same set of values as Scrooge.
Many critics cite a Christmas Carol as Dickens’ finest example of his story telling capabilities. The use of supernatural visitations by Dickens has received unfavourable comments by many critics as being unimaginative. This technique, however, has been used throughout the ages including classical writers from Shakespeare’s time to convey complex messages to the reader. The technique that Dickens uses is not unlike that of the structure of some classical tragedies. Unlike in classical tragedies, Scrooge does not die but similar to a tragedy, he can be likened to the hero who discovers a deeper meaning and truth and is transformed by the experiences. This transformation results in Scrooge’s redemption. Dickens therefore gives us a happy ending in a gripping page-turner.
The story of Scrooge and his transformation is a metaphorical attack on society. ‘A Christmas Carol’ was written at a time of significant changes in society. Following the industrial revolution, Britain became a world leader, giving rise to the British Empire. With this, evolved a society with many social injustices, for example, the sixty to seventy hour working week for the poor. During this period, a number of writers, including Dickens, wrote about the need for social justice and a fairer society. Nowhere is this message made clearer than in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Dickens’ interest in the welfare and education of the poor where there is no exploitation of the working class was at the root of why Dickens wrote this novel. The concept of exploitation is well documented in ‘A Christmas Carol’, for example, in the relationship between Scrooge and Cratchitt, exploiter and exploited respectively.
In ‘A Christmas Carol’, Dickens intelligently conveys a deeper moral message via a simple story. By using emotional engagement, the reader is encouraged to alter his actions in the real world, rather than being preached to about what is the right thing to do. After reading this book I have questioned my own generosity, and I believe this was Dickens’ main intention. He wanted his readers to consider how charitable they were, and Dickens was somewhat telling the wealthy Victorians to be proper Christians, rather than hypocrites in the sense that they went to church regularly, but did not possess Christian morals and values. For me, the deeper meaning of the book is far from being a sentimental children’s Christmas story, it is a profound piece of literature.