A Christmas Carol by Dickens was first published on December 19, 1843. Since its publication, this book, arguably one of his most famous works, has made its mark on American culture and literature. It is difficult to underestimate the significance of A Christmas Carol, which was made into numerous TV and stage versions. Some would even argue that this Dickens’s work invented or rather reinvented Christmas, while others underline the importance of his work for the development of the new forms of literature. This essay aims to discuss the theme and the characters of the book. It starts with a summary of the plot, then examines the main characters and the themes and concludes with the personal opinion on the novella.
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Dickens offers a story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a greedy and selfish older man living alone in his London house, whose only concern is money. Scrooge hates Christmas and is indifferent to other people’s suffering, including his workers. However, on Christmas Eve, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner and by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future. The first ghost takes him on a journey through his past Christmases: one of a miserable and lonely little boy and others of a young man, more interested in gold than in his fiancé. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge his clerk’s family Christmas, a Christmas evening of a poor, but loving family, and his nephew’s celebrations, where guests mock him for his unfriendliness and greediness. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him his own death, which would bring more joy to people who knew him than grief. The terror of this night magically transforms Ebenezer Scrooge into a generous and good-hearted man, kind to his neighbors and eager to help those in need.
The main hero of the book, Ebenezer Scrooge, is characterized mainly by his greediness and by the fear that he creates among people who know him. Charles Dickens describes (1843, 4) him as such: “No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man […] inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge”. Even his clerk is terrified of him and barely dares to speak in his presence. According to Thompson (2017, 269), the descriptions of Scrooge’s personality allude to the Old Testament figure of King Belshazzar, the ruler who loves wealth and who is punished by God for his greed and pride. However, unlike Belshazzar, Scrooge takes advantage of the warning delivered by the Christmas ghosts and changes, fearing the dreadful end that is awaiting him. He accepts to change and declares: “I will not shut out the lessons that they [the Spirits of the Past, the Present and the Future] teach” (Dickens 1843, 57). Thus, he is a sinner, but the night that he goes through makes hem find the strength to change. This magical and radical overnight transformation becomes central to the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Other central figures are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. The Ghost of Christmas Past is the first ghost to visit Scrooge; he is quite and rather compassionate towards Scrooge, to whom he shows the pictures of his childhood. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a joyful and vibrant character, wearing a green robe and symbolizing joy and happiness. The third Ghost is the most fearsome one; he wears a black cloak and remains silent during their journey. Although the ghosts have distinct personalities, their common characteristic is their role as the messengers. Their figures also reflect Dickens’ interest in “the narrative possibilities of the communication between the living and the dead” (Wood 2018, 412). Dickens’s interest in the supernatural urges him to experiment with the forms of expression and create the figures of these Spirits to deliver the message to Scrooge.
Another prominent figure is Tiny Tim, who is the most significant figure of childhood in the book. He is a son of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk. He has a disability, but is full of cheer and love and brings a lot of joy to his family. His words – “God bless us every one!” – mark the end of the novella (Dickens 1843, 92). The figure of Tiny Tim reflects the conception of childhood as the stage of innocence, although it is not the only way children are represented in the novella (Robinson 2016, 8). For instance, the readers observe frightening figures of children clinging to the clothes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Contrary to this image of “figures which are a product of a fallen world (Robinson 2016, 2), Tim is a constant reminder to everyone of the courage in the face of difficulties.
The characters of A Christmas Carol serve to express Dickens’s Christian humanistic views and attitudes. According to Newey (2016, 12), A Christmas Carol is one of the most important works of Charles Dickens in a sense that it “brings into focus many of Dickens’s core concerns and attitudes of mind.” Dickens demonstrates the transformation of a greedy lender with no sympathy to others, which symbolizes capitalist and rationalist values, into the embodiment of Christianity and humanism. The contrast between Dickens’s characters furthers strengthens the differences between two ideologies, the humanistic and the capitalist one. The family of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk, is a model of a loving family, poor in money but rich in heart, while Scrooge himself reflects utilitarian, purely rationalist values. The values of family loyalty, humanism, kindness, are confronted with the rationalism and greediness of the protagonist.
Another theme of the novella is the relationship between the supernatural and the living. As stated above, Dickens’s works have significantly contributed to the development of the Victorian ghost story. His fascination with the supernatural makes him create the powerful figures of the Ghost of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future, who communicate with the protagonist and act as the messengers of the divine. This communication between the living and the supernatural is central to the plot. This theme reoccurs in Dickens’s works, for instance, in “The Signalman,” although in total, it is present in about 18 Dickens’s stories. The critical result of the supernatural intervention is that it leads to change and transforms the protagonist.
Although often presented as a children’s story, Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol tells a reader a lot about Dickens’s attitudes and views about the world. This novella promotes the humanistic ideology based on Christian values: love, empathy, and generosity. Moreover, the author experiments with literary forms and contributes to the development of the ghost story. The supernatural plays a central role in the transformation of the main hero. However, the idea that the protagonist needs supernatural intervention in order to change might be problematic for the humanistic perspective that is centered on the agency of human beings. The humanistic perspective stresses the inherently good qualities of human nature, which is contradictory to the idea that supernatural intervention is necessary in order to bring change.
Newey, Vincent. 2016. The Scriptures of Charles Dickens: Novels of Ideology, Novels of the Self. New York: Routledge.
Robinson, David E. 2016. “Redemption and the Imagination of Childhood: Dickens’s Representation of Children in A Christmas Carol.” Literator 37 (1): 1-8. doi:10.4102/lit. v37i1.1307
Thompson, Terry W. 2017. “The Belshazzar Allusion in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.” The Explicator 75 (4): 268-270. doi:10.1080/00144940.2017.1389683
Wood, Claire. 2018. “Playful Spirits: Charles Dickens and the Ghost Story.” In The Routledge Handbook to the Ghost Story, edited by Scott Brewster and Luke Thurston, 87-96. New York: Routledge.