Study Guide

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” opens with the protagonist, miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, working late on Christmas Eve in his London office when his nephew Fred drops by to invite him to Christmas dinner. Fred’s Christmas greetings—repeated annually and annually declined—send Scrooge into a rant against the holiday and those who celebrate it. When Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, quietly applauds Fred’s inspirational defense of Christmas, Scrooge threatens to fire him. As Fred leaves, a pair of gentlemen collecting money for the poor call on Scrooge, but he quickly dismisses them with the reminder that he already supports prisons and workhouses for the poor.

At closing time, Scrooge grudgingly gives Cratchit the next day (Christmas Day) off before heading home to a gloomy structure that once belonged to his business partner Jacob Marley, who died on Christmas Eve seven years before. As Scrooge enters, he sees Marley’s face on the door knocker. He rushes inside and goes upstairs to his bedroom, seeing a hearse traveling up the stairs in front of him. In the bedroom, he locks the doors and sits down to eat. Suddenly, bells begin to ring, the bedroom door flies open, and in walks Marley’s ghost, bound in a chain made of cash boxes, padlocks, and ledgers. Marley tells Scrooge that the spirits of men must walk among their fellow men, if not in life then in death. His chain, he informs Scrooge, was forged, link by link, over a lifetime of ignoring his responsibilities to others, and he warns that Scrooge has forged a chain much more ponderous than the one he, Marley, is carrying. He offers Scrooge one chance to avoid his fate: to be visited by three spirits that night. Marley shows Scrooge one last vision, a sky full of phantoms, but Scrooge concludes that the evening has been a figment of his imagination, perhaps caused by indigestion, and goes to bed.

At one o’clock in the morning, a childlike spirit with a white tunic appears and introduces itself as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The spirit takes Scrooge to an institution where he grew up, where they witness Scrooge’s boyhood friends going home to celebrate Christmas, leaving the young Scrooge behind with only imaginary friends from books he has read. The spirit then takes Scrooge to a happier Christmas, when his sister Fan, Fred’s mother, came to the institution to bring Scrooge home. They visit yet a third Christmas, a party at the warehouse where Scrooge was apprenticed as a young man. Scrooge reminisces about his kindly boss, Fezziwig, and how meaningful Fezziwig’s generosity had been. The spirit then transports Scrooge to the Christmas when his fiancé, Belle, left him because of his preoccupation with wealth and business. Scrooge begs the spirit to take him home, but the spirit shows him one final Christmas seven years before, when Belle’s husband tells her he saw Scrooge that day, all alone and still working, even with Marley at the point of death. At that, Scrooge returns to his sleep.

When the clock strikes again, Scrooge awakens to find his room decorated in holly and ivy with a roaring fire in the fireplace. A gigantic spirit wearing a green robe trimmed in white fur, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge on a tour of dingy, soot-covered neighborhoods where, in spite of their poverty, residents are celebrating Christmas. Scrooge and the spirit soon arrive at the Cratchit house, where the family delights in a Christmas meal far nicer than their usual fare but still quite meager for the large family. Scrooge is especially moved by the youngest child, Tiny Tim, who is crippled and will soon die, the spirit tells Scrooge, if nothing changes. Scrooge hears Bob Cratchit offer a toast in Scrooge’s name and discovers the disdain in which the family holds him. The spirit then takes Scrooge on brief visits to a miner’s home, a lighthouse, and a ship; in each of these lonely settings people are celebrating Christmas. Finally, they arrive at Fred’s home, where the party guests are discussing Scrooge’s absence. Fred explains that Scrooge’s demeanor brings its own consequences and expresses his hope that his Christmas invitations may one day soften Scrooge’s bitterness. Scrooge, invisible to the partygoers, becomes absorbed in their party games and has a wonderful time, even though he is only a spiritual presence and in one of the games a joke is made at his expense. As they leave, the spirit shows Scrooge a boy and a girl—Ignorance and Want—sheltered beneath his robe and warns Scrooge of the doom they foretell for humanity.

The clock strikes twelve and Scrooge finds himself in the presence of a phantom shrouded in black, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. They watch people discussing a man’s death to which they are completely indifferent, then travel to a seedy neighborhood where men and women are selling goods stolen from the dead man’s house. Scrooge, alarmed at the cavalier and heartless response to the unknown man’s death, asks to see someone who feels some emotion over the deceased one, so the spirit takes him to overhear a family hopeful that the man’s death will bring a kinder creditor. Eventually, they go to the Cratchit home and see the family grieving the death of Tiny Tim. Scrooge inquires about the identity of the dead man, so the spirit takes Scrooge to a cemetery. There Scrooge sees his own gravestone. With that, the spirit vanishes.

Scrooge awakens a changed man and begins making amends for his past. He has a huge turkey sent to the Cratchit house, makes a large donation to the men who visited him the day before, and calls on Fred to accept his invitation to dinner. The next day, he raises Bob Cratchit’s salary. Eventually, he becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim, and he is remembered ever after as one who knew how to celebrate Christmas.

A Christmas Carol Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser. Owner of a successful countinghouse, he will have in his bleak office only the smallest fire in the most bitter weather. For his clerk, Bob Cratchit, he allows an even smaller fire. The weather seldom matters to Scrooge, who is always cold within, never warm—even on Christmas Eve. As the time approaches for closing the office on Christmas Eve, Scrooge’s nephew stops in to wish him a merry Christmas. Scrooge only sneers, for he abhors sentiment and thinks only of one thing—money. To him, Christmas is a time when people spend more money than they should and find themselves a year older and no richer.

Grudgingly, Scrooge allows Cratchit to have Christmas Day off; that is the one concession to the holiday that he makes, but he warns Cratchit to be at work earlier the day after Christmas. Scrooge leaves his office and goes home to his rooms in a building in which he is the only tenant. They were the rooms of Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, dead for seven years. As he approaches his door, he sees Marley’s face in the knocker. It is a horrible sight. Marley is looking at Scrooge with his eyes motionless, his ghostly spectacles on his ghostly forehead. As Scrooge watches, the knocker resumes its usual form. Shaken by this vision, Scrooge enters the hall and lights a candle; then he looks behind the door, half expecting to see Marley’s pigtail sticking out into the hall. Satisfied, he double-locks the door. He prepares for bed and sits for a time before the dying fire. Suddenly an unused bell hanging in the room begins to ring, as does every bell in the house.

Then from below comes the sound of heavy chains clanking. The cellar door flies open, and someone mounts the stairs. Marley’s ghost walks through Scrooge’s door—Marley, dressed as always, but with a heavy chain of cash boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses around his middle.

Marley’s ghost sits down to talk to the frightened and bewildered Scrooge. Forcing Scrooge to admit that he believes what he sees is real, Marley explains that in life he never did any good for humankind and so in death he is condemned to constant traveling with no rest and no relief from the torture of remorse. The ghost says that Scrooge still has a chance to save himself from Marley’s fate. Scrooge will be visited by three spirits who will show him the way to change. The first spirit will appear the next day at the stroke of one. The next will arrive on the second night and the last on the third. Dragging his chain, the ghost disappears.

After Marley’s ghost vanishes, Scrooge goes to bed, and in spite of his nervousness, he falls asleep instantly. When he awakens, it is still dark. The clock strikes twelve. He waits for the stroke of one. As the sound of the bell dies away, his bed curtains are pulled apart, and there stands a figure with a childlike face, but with long, white hair and a strong, well-formed body. The ghost introduces itself as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge’s past. When the ghost invites Scrooge to go on a journey with him, Scrooge is unable to refuse.

They travel like the wind and stop first at Scrooge’s birthplace. There Scrooge sees himself as a boy, neglected by his friends and left alone to find adventure in books. Next, he sees himself at school, where his sister comes to take him home for Christmas. Scrooge recalls his love for his sister, who died young. The ghost reminds him that she bore a son whom Scrooge neglects. Their next stop is the scene of Scrooge’s apprenticeship, where everyone makes merry on Christmas Eve. Traveling on, they see a young girl weeping as she tells young Scrooge that she realizes he loves money more than he loves her. The ghost shows him the same girl, grown older but happy with her husband and children. Then the ghost returns Scrooge to his room, where he promptly falls asleep again.

When the Ghost of Christmas Present appears, he leads Scrooge through the city streets on Christmas morning. Their first stop is at the Cratchit home, where Bob appears with frail, crippled Tiny Tim on his shoulder. In the Cratchit home, a skimpy meal is a banquet. After dinner, Bob proposes a toast to Mr. Scrooge, even though it puts a temporary damper on the holiday gaiety. Then the ghost and Scrooge cross swiftly through the city where everyone pauses to wish one another a merry Christmas. As they look in on the home of Scrooge’s nephew, gaiety prevails, and Scrooge is tempted to join in the games. There, too, a toast is proposed to Scrooge’s health. As the clock begins to strike midnight, the ghost of Christmas Present fades away.

With the last stroke of twelve, Scrooge sees a black-shrouded phantom approaching him, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The phantom extends his hand and forces Scrooge to follow him until they come to a group of scavengers selling the belongings of the dead. One woman enters a dead man’s room; she takes his bed curtains, bedding, and even the shirt in which he is to be buried. Scrooge sees a dead man with his face covered, but he refuses to lift the covering. Revisiting the Cratchits, he learns that Tiny Tim died.

After seeing his old countinghouse and his own neglected grave, Scrooge realizes that it was he who lay on the bed in the cold, stripped room with no one to mourn his death. Scrooge begs the spirit that it should not be so, vowing that he will change, that he will forever honor Christmas in his heart. He makes a desperate grasp for the phantom’s hand and realizes that the ghost has shriveled away and dwindled into a bedpost. Scrooge bounds out of bed and thanks Jacob Marley’s ghost for his chance to make amends. Dashing into the street, he realizes that it is Christmas Day. His first act is to order the largest turkey available to be sent anonymously to the Cratchits. The day before, Scrooge ordered a man from his countinghouse for asking a contribution; now Scrooge gives him a large sum of money for the poor. Then he astounds his nephew by arriving at his house for Christmas dinner and by making himself the life of the party.

Scrooge never reverts to his old ways. He raises Bob’s salary, improves conditions in his office, contributes generously to all charities, and becomes a second father to Tiny Tim. It is said of him thereafter that he truly knows how to keep Christmas well.

A Christmas Carol Overview

A Christmas Carol makes a serious plea for generosity. For Dickens, Christmas is essentially a secular holiday—but one that, behind...

(The entire section is 118 words.)

A Christmas Carol Summary

Stave I: Marley's Ghost
As A Christmas Carol opens, readers are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge, the...

(The entire section is 1574 words.)