A Christmas Carol Essay - A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Introduction

A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens

The following entry presents criticism on Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol (1843). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Little Dorrit Criticism, Our Mutual Friend Criticism, and Hard Times Criticism.

A Christmas Carol (1843) is one of the most recognizable stories in English literature. With its numerous literary, stage, television, radio, and cinematic adaptations, the tale has become a holiday classic, and the character Ebenezer Scrooge has become a cultural icon. First published in 1843, the novella garnered immediate critical and commercial attention and is credited with reviving interest in charitable endeavors, the possible perils of economic success, and festive traditions of the Christmas season. It is the first work in Dickens's series of Christmas stories known collectively as the Christmas Books, as well as the most popular and enduring.

Plot and Major Characters

Set in the 1840s on Christmas Eve, A Christmas Carol chronicles the personal transformation of the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, the proprietor of a London counting house. A wealthy, elderly man, Scrooge is considered miserly and misanthropic: he has no wife or children; he throws out two men collecting for charity; he bullies and underpays his loyal clerk, Bob Cratchit; and he dismisses the Christmas dinner invitation of his kind nephew, Fred. Moreover, Scrooge is a strong supporter of the Poor Law of 1834, which allowed the poor to be interned in workhouses. As he prepares for bed on Christmas Eve in his solitary, dark chambers, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. In life Marley was very similar in attitude and temperament to Scrooge: remote, cruel, and parsimonious. In death he has learned the value of compassion and warns Scrooge to reform his ways before it is too late. Marley announces that Scrooge will be visited by three more specters: the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his unhappy childhood, revealing that the young boy's experiences with poverty and abandonment inspired a desire to succeed and gain material advantage. Unfortunately, Scrooge's burgeoning ambition and greed destroyed his relationship with his fiancée and his friends. The Ghost of Christmas Present is represented by a hearty, genial man who reminds Scrooge of the joy of human companionship, which he has rejected in favor of his misanthropic existence. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears in a dark robe and shrouded in mystery. Silently, the ghost reveals the ambivalent reaction to news of Scrooge's own death. Scrooge realizes that he will die alone and without love, and that he has the power and money to help those around him—especially Bob Cratchit's ailing son, Tiny Tim. Scrooge begs the ghost for another chance and wakes in his bed on Christmas morning, resolved to changing his life by being generous and loving to his family, employees, and the poor.

Major Themes

A Christmas Carol has been deemed a biting piece of social commentary by some. Critics have underscored the scathing criticism of 1840s London, an economically and socially stratified city that Dickens believed imprisoned its poor and oppressed its lower classes. The prevailing socio-economic theory of that time held that anyone who was in debt should be put in a poorhouse. In his story, Dickens contended that the reformation of such a materialistic, shallow society can be achieved gradually through the spiritual transformation of each individual. The story is well regarded for its expression of a fundamental faith in humanity and its unflagging censure of social injustice, which was inspired by Dickens's troubled background and his visit to the Cornish tin mines where he observed young children laboring under appalling conditions. As Scrooge transforms from a cruel, embittered miser to a kindly philanthropist, Dickens advocates a more forgiving, generous society that values spiritual growth, not material wealth. Other major thematic concerns in A Christmas Carol include the role of memory, the importance of family, and the soul-deadening effect of greed on the human spirit.

Critical Reception

Upon its initial publication, A Christmas Carol was greeted with mixed reviews. Some commentators derided the tale as too sentimental and laden with exaggeration; other critics maintained that A Christmas Carol lacked the complexity of Dickens's later work. Yet the novella remains a Christmas favorite. Commentators praise Dickens's evocative portrayal of 1840s London and his passionate exploration of social and political issues. Dickens's fervent belief in social justice as depicted through A Christmas Carol is credited with inspiring an outpouring of charitable endeavors during his time and a revival of Christmas spirit and traditional celebrations. Critics have also explored the fairy-tale and gothic elements in A Christmas Carol, and many praise Dickens's use of wry humor in the story. The relevance and power of Scrooge's transformation from forlorn old niggard to benignant philanthropist is regarded as the key to the novella's unflagging popular appeal. Several scholars have debated the nature of Scrooge's conversion, which is known as “the Scrooge problem.” Some critics, including Edmund Wilson, conclude that the transformation is a temporary one; others have maintained that it is total and irrevocable. Scrooge's metanoia has also been placed within its historical and literary context, and critics have related it to the religious revival then fervent in nineteenth-century England. A few full-length studies of the novella have traced the impact of the story on English and American culture and have discussed the copious imitations, adaptations, and modernized versions of the tale.

Principal Works

Sketches by Boz [as Boz] 1836

*A Christmas Carol 1843

*The Chimes 1844

*The Cricket on the Hearth 1845

*The Battle of Life 1846

*The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain 1848

Reprinted Pieces 1858

The Uncommercial Traveller 1861

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (novel) 1837

Oliver Twist (novel) 1838

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby (novel) 1839

Barnaby Rudge (novel) 1841

The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841

American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844

Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son (novel) 1848

The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Bleak House (novel) 1853

Hard Times for These Times (novel) 1854

Little Dorrit (novel) 1857

A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859

Great Expectations (novel) 1861

Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865

No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (drama) 1867

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870

*These works were collected in and published as Christmas Books in 1852.

Criticism

W. M. Thackeray (review date 1844)

SOURCE: “Thackeray on Dickens,” in Famous Reviews: Selected and Edited with Introductory Notes, by R. Brimley Johnson, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1914, pp. 469–73.

[In the following review, originally published in 1844, Thackeray applauds the popular appeal of A Christmas Carol.]

MR. TITMARSH, IN SWITZERLAND, TO MR. YORKE

… This introduction, then, will have prepared you for an exceedingly humane and laudatory notice of the packet of works which you were good enough to send me, and which, though they doubtless contain a great deal that the critic would not write (from the extreme delicacy of his taste and the vast range of his...

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Edgar Johnson (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: “A Christmas Carol Criticizes England's Economic System,” in Reading on Charles Dickens, edited by Clarice Swisher, The Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 86–93.

[In the following excerpt from a 1952 article published in the American Scholar, Johnson deems Dickens's novella as a biting critique of nineteenth-century England's economic system.]

Everyone knows Dickens's Christmas Carol for its colorful painting of a rosy fireside good cheer and warmth of feeling, made all the more vivid by the contrasting chill wintry darkness in which its radiant scenes are framed. Most readers realize too how characteristic of all Dickens's sentiments about...

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Robert L. Patten (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Dickens Time and Again,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 2, 1971, pp. 163–96.

[In the following essay, Patten examines the sudden conversion of Scrooge, contending that it is related to the surge in popularity of religious tracts during the 1840s.]

My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land. I have the happiness of believing that I did not wholly miss it.

—Charles Dickens, Preface to the Cheap Edition, Christmas Books1

Justly...

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Elliot L. Gilbert (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “The Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol,” in PMLA, Vol. 90, No. 1, 1975, pp. 22–31.

[In the following essay, Gilbert considers the “Scrooge problem,” or the issue of the credibility of Scrooge's conversion during the course of A Christmas Carol.]

As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty …

Hamlet i.iv

I

It is impossible to get into a serious discussion of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol without sooner or later having to confront “the Scrooge problem.” Edmund Wilson stated that problem succinctly...

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Michael Patrick Hearn (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Annotated Christmas Carol, Clarkson N. Potter, 1976, pp. 1–51.

[In the following introductory essay, Hearn places Dickens's novella within a literary, political, and historical context and recounts the circumstances surrounding the publication of the story as well as the critical reaction to it.]

A Christmas Carol remains the most popular work of England's most popular novelist, and it has had something of a life of its own beyond its author's reputation. Should all of Charles Dickens' marvelous creations, from Mr. Pickwick to Edwin Drood, be suddenly threatened with extinction, the story of Mr. Scrooge would certainly survive....

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George Anastaplo (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Notes from Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol,” in Interpretation, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1978, pp. 52–73.

[In the following essay, Anastaplo examines the timing of and the reasons for Scrooge's conversion.]

MACBETH:
One cried “God bless us!” and “Amen!” the other,
As they had seen me with these hangman's hands,
List'ning their fear. I could not say “Amen!”
When they did say “God bless us!”
LADY Macbeth:
Consider it not so deeply.
MACBETH:
But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.

...

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Harry Stone (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Fairy-Tale Form in A Christmas Carol,” in Readings on Charles Dickens, edited by Clarice Swisher, The Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 74–81.

[In the following excerpt from Stone's 1979 study Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making, Stone asserts that Dickens uses fairy-tale elements in A Christmas Carol.]

Dickens wrote five Christmas books: A Christmas Carol (1843), The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848). … The Christmas books draw their innermost energies from fairy tales: they exploit fairy-tale themes,...

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Stephen Prickett (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Christmas at Scrooge's,” in Victorian Fantasy, Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 38–74.

[In the following essay, Prickett delineates the defining characteristics of Victorian literature and regards A Christmas Carol as a prime example of the Christmas book genre.]

The ‘internalization’ of fantasy in the early nineteenth century meant, in effect, the evolution of a new language. The worlds of dreams and nightmares, madmen and children were areas of human experience which had hitherto been all too often ignored or even denied. Their recognition helped to open up a new view of the human mind in which conventional distinctions between aesthetics...

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Martin H. Sable (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Day of Atonement in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol,” in Tradition, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 66–76.

[In the following essay, Sable debates Dickens's familiarity with Judaism and finds parallels in Scrooge's conversion to the three main aspects of the Jewish Day of Atonement: repentance, prayer, and charity.]

A Christmas Carol is a permanent fixture in Western literature and popular culture, if only because it is retold at Christmas-time annually. As a morality tale it is a favorite of all age groups, not only because of its sincerity but due also to its emotional appeal.

Dickens completed the work in...

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Paul Davis (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Retelling A Christmas Carol: Text and Culture-Text,” in American Scholar, Vol. 59, Winter, 1990, pp. 109–15.

[In the following essay, Davis explores how the innumerable retellings of Dickens's novella have changed the essential story and have kept the tale relevant in modern times.]

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

—W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”

So far from the Christmas Ghost Story being a colourable imitation of [Dickens's] book, numerous incongruities in the Carol, involving the unhinging of the whole plot, have been tastefully...

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Ronald R. Thomas (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Dreams of Authority and the Authority of Dreams,” in Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 17–69.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas provides a Freudian interpretation of A Christmas Carol.]

A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke.

—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The fundamental claim Freud would make about the origin of dreams is that they are expressions by the dreamer of a wish. The wish may be...

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Paul Davis (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Greening of Scrooge,” in The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge, Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 173–212.

[In the following essay from his full-length study of Dickens's novella, Davis contrasts the British and American versions, adaptations, and modernizations of A Christmas Carol.]

Consciousness III sees not merely a set of political and public wrongs, such as a liberal New Dealer might have seen, but also the deeper ills that Kafka or the German expressionists or Dickens would have seen.

—Charles Reich, 1970

When one observes that we devote a...

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Donald R. Burleson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Dickens's A Christmas Carol,” in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 211–12.

[In the following essay, Burleson compares the characters of Scrooge and his nephew, Fred.]

It would seem that there could be no clearer or more unambiguously delineated an opposition than that which occurs in Dickens's A Christmas Carol when Scrooge's nephew comes to invite his uncle to Christmas dinner. The nephew delivers his oft-quoted encomium of Christmas as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time,” and Scrooge makes his own distaste for the Yuletide season abundantly plain. The opposition is one universally familiar: the...

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Natalie Shainess (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Charles Dickens: The First (Interpersonal) Psychoanalyst or—A Christmas Carol: A Literary Psychoanalysis,” in American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 52, No. 4, December, 1992, pp. 351–62.

[In the following essay, Shainess maintains that A Christmas Carol “is more than a story or satire—it is a literary psychoanalysis, largely of the interpersonal variety though with a hint of the Freudian as well.”]

Charles Dickens appeared on the British scene in 1812, approximately 300 years after Shakespeare. It may seem to some an exaggeration to connect him with the preeminent writer of all time, William Shakespeare, but I think not. Dickens was...

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R. D. Butterworth (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “A Christmas Carol and the Masque,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1993, pp. 63–9.

[In the following essay, Butterworth probes Dickens's familiarity with the masque form and determines its influence on A Christmas Carol.]

In his Preface to the First Cheap Edition of A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote of his intention in writing his Christmas books of awakening some “loving and forbearing thoughts” by means of “a whimsical kind of masque” (xiv).1 Commentators have not made much of this comment, perhaps on the assumption that Dickens's familiarity with masques could not but be slight. This, however, is an...

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J. Hillis Miller (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Genres of A Christmas Carol,” in Dickensian, Vol. 89, No. 3, Winter, 1993, pp. 193–203.

[In the following essay, Miller offers a stylistic analysis of A Christmas Carol.]

I had meant to ask some solemn questions about the genre or genres of A Christmas Carol. Re-reading it has put all that out of my mind. As is always the case for me when I read anything by Dickens, the inordinate linguistic exuberance of A Christmas Carol makes all formal questions seem beside the point. I shall return to the question of genre by way of its relation to this exuberance. First, however, what can be said about Dickens's linguistic virtuosity beyond...

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Geoffrey Rowell (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Dickens and the Construction of Christmas,” in History Today, Vol. 43, December, 1993, pp. 17–24.

[In the following essay, Rowell underscores the powerful religious and social overtones of A Christmas Carol, particularly the revival of Christmas traditions.]

One hundred and fifty years ago, in October 1843, Charles Dickens began the writing of one of his most popular and best-loved books, A Christmas Carol. It was written in six weeks and finished by the end of November, being fitted in in the intervals of writing the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, a work which was causing him some financial anxiety because the public did not...

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Audrey Jaffe (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Spectacular Sympathy: Visuality and Ideology in Dickens's A Christmas Carol,” in PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 2, March, 1994, pp. 254–65.

[In the following essay, Jaffe maintains that A Christmas Carol is “arguably Dickens's most visually evocative text” and explores the circular relationship between spectatorship and ideologies of identity in nineteenth-century England.]

In a well-known essay, Sergei Eisenstein describes literature in general and Dickens in particular as cinema's predecessors because of their evocation of visual effects. Literature, Eisenstein writes, provides cinema with “parents and [a] pedigree, … a past”; it is “the...

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Arthur P. Patterson (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Sponging the Stone: Transformation in A Christmas Carol,” in Dickens Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 172–76.

[In the following essay, Patterson contends that to “understand the significance of the Carol is to integrate the psychological and its spiritual message.”]

I don't remember reading the book until my adult years, yet Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol seems always to have been with me. The Carol entered my life when I lay on the living room floor with a belly full of Christmas turkey avoiding adult conversation at my grandmother's dinner. My first recollection of the story is in the form of the 1951...

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James R. Simmons, Jr. (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Scrooge, Falstaff, and the Rhetoric of Indigence,” in English Language Notes, Vol. 32, No. 3, March, 1995, pp. 43–6.

[In the following essay, Simmons detects the influence of William Shakespeare's character Falstaff on the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.]

During his lifetime, Charles Dickens read a vast array of literature, and none influenced him more than the plays of William Shakespeare. Dickens so revered Shakespeare's work that his friend John Forster noted that they celebrated Shakespeare's birthday “always as a festival,”1 and in fact Dickens's prize possession was a pocket edition of Shakespeare's plays that he carried with him...

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Caroline McCracken-Flesher (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Incorporation of A Christmas Carol: A Tale of Seasonal Screening,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 24, 1996, pp. 93–118.

[In the following essay, McCracken-Flesher judges the impact of A Christmas Carol on the economic success of Christmas.]

In February 1844, just a few months after A Christmas Carol's publication, Thackeray called the book “a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness” (Collins 149). Dickens' tale certainly has proved a national benefit, but not, perhaps, as he would have hoped or as Thackeray meant. In Britian, and particularly in America, it has benefited not so much...

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Lee Erickson (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “The Primitive Keynesianism of Dickens's A Christmas Carol,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 51–66.

[In the following essay, Erickson provides a Keynesian economic interpretation of Dickens's novella.]

In the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge's character and in the very appearance and production of A Christmas Carol as a Christmas gift book, we can see Dickens's understanding of the psychological basis of economic activity and his intuitive solutions both to the financial depression that gripped England in 1843 and also to the specter of bankruptcy that loomed over him when his readers could no...

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Fred Guida (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: A Critical Examination of Dickens's Story and Its Productions on Screen and Television, McFarland & Company, 2000, 11–36, 87–115.

[In the following excerpts, Guida considers the literary, political, and economic roots of Dickens's novella and traces the various cinematic adaptations of the story in the twentieth century.]

A true feast actually has nothing to do with what you eat … but with what you remember.

Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet

“Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”1 This remark, reportedly overheard by...

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