A Christmas Carol is one of Charles Dickens’s best-known and most popular books. A century after it was written, it was still required reading at Christmas for many families. It has been made into films, plays, and parodies. As a result of this wide popularity, the book has come to be considered as a simplistic morality play, and its original intent is often forgotten.
As literature, A Christmas Carol is not easy to categorize. At one level, it is a ghost story, complete with clanking chains and foggy nights. It can also be viewed as a moral lesson about the true meaning of Christmas and the proper manner of treating fellow human beings. There is also a sociological element: Dickens had much to say about poverty, and the pitiful condition of the Cratchit family and especially the crippled Tiny Tim are set up as an indictment against an uncaring society. Another interesting aspect of the book is its psychological dimension.
Ebenezer Scrooge begins the story as a man obsessed by money, with apparently no feelings of humanity or interest in human society. He detests Christmas not because of any lack of Christian faith, but because Christmas is an interruption of business. Christmas is a time for emotions, which Scrooge has abjured. Christmas is used as a device for depicting Scrooge’s attitudes toward people. The religious meaning of the holiday is relatively unimportant to the story, except in an indirect sense about Christian charity and love of one’s neighbor.
It is important in this regard to consider that Dickens uses the terms “ghost” and “spirit” interchangeably in A Christmas Carol. The word “spirit” had several meanings in Dickens’s time. The spirits that visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve are spirits in the supernatural, religious, and emotional senses.
Marley’s ghost is the first visitor of the night and, interestingly, the only one that Scrooge is able to banish by his own willpower. Marley represents Scrooge’s present state of mind, acting as a sort of mirror. He is also the only one of the four spirits that represents a human being. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is still capable of ignoring human beings and can thus handle Marley’s ghost with relative ease.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is a different case entirely. This spirit represents Scrooge’s youth, and readers see scenes of a lonely boy, spending Christmas alone. Christmas Past represents memory, especially suppressed memory. As the second spirit departs, Scrooge has begun to understand that he has shut out the human race because he himself was excluded as a child.
The Ghost of Christmas Present represents the outside world, the world of joy and love that Scrooge has denied himself. Readers see the lives of other people at Christmas, including the Cratchits, who despite their poverty have hope and joy. Bob Cratchit has been treated as merely a faceless employee by Scrooge. At this stage of Scrooge’s night, Bob becomes a symbol of a world that Scrooge can enter if he will allow himself to do so.
The final spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is clearly Death, silent and hooded. It represents, however, a probable future, not a necessary one. When Scrooge awakens, he is immediately aware of the fact that he is capable of changing that future, of increasing happiness for other people, and thereby increasing his own happiness.
Scrooge ends the story by treating the Cratchits to a prize turkey, by joining his nephew’s family in their Christmas celebration, and by joining children in their games out in the street. The last act is particularly important. By accepting the possibility of happiness, Scrooge has managed to redeem his own lost childhood and thereby becomes an adult.
There is some question as to how much Scrooge has really changed. He is still primarily interested in money. It is interesting that he decides to spread Christmas joy by sharing his wealth, as wealth is still central to his character. Even after his apparent changes, Scrooge is still basically a businessman, primarily interested in money; he is simply more willing to share that money.
Tiny Tim, a boy living in poverty and condemned to physical misery as well, is a very important device for showing the reader how callous Scrooge has become. The fact that Scrooge can ignore the existence of this pitiful little boy is central to his divorce from the human race. When he befriends the child, this is a clear sign that he has changed his ways.
A Christmas Carol is, above all, a story of the journey through life of a lonely man. Until the very end of the novel, the other characters exist only in Scrooge’s visions and are no more real than the ghosts who show him those images. When the old miser begins to notice people, those people finally become real. The book is often dismissed as overly sentimental. Much better ghost stories have been written, and social commentary about Victorian England is sometimes difficult for contemporary readers to understand. Read as a psychological journey, however, A Christmas Carol is unique. It shows readers the innermost thoughts of an unhappy man, through the device of having him see himself in a series of supernatural mirrors.