Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
In A Christmas Carol, three spirits take Ebenezer Scrooge on tours of his past to show him where he went wrong, of the present to introduce him to the joy of the holiday season, and of the future to warn him of what may happen unless he changes. Scrooge learns his lesson well and is transformed into a man with a conscience.
On Christmas Eve, Scrooge terrorizes his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and reluctantly grants the poor man a day off. Impatient with those who waste their time on any pursuit other than making money, Scrooge angrily dismisses two gentlemen collecting for the poor and repulses his nephew, Fred, who invites him to Christmas dinner. At home that evening, Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him against purely materialistic pursuits and tells him that he will be visited in the night by three spirits.
The first spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Past, gives Scrooge a series of visions of his childhood and early manhood. Scrooge sees himself as a neglected child at school, then as an apprentice of Mr. Fezziwig, enjoying warm festivities on Christmas Eve, and finally as a prospering entrepreneur whose fiancée breaks their engagement because Scrooge loves money more than he loves her. He must suffer the agony of the vision of her with another husband and their children.
The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge out onto the streets on Christmas morning to...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*London. Scrooge’s first nocturnal journey is guided by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who whisks him from his bed on a nighttime journey to observe London’s joyful holiday season. They oversee Christmas delight in the Cratchit home, located in a poor section of London (where author Charles Dickens himself had once lived). Before this ghost withers away on the streets of London, he escorts Scrooge to holiday scenes among northern miners and coastal lighthouse keepers; he even whisks him out to sea to watch Christmas’s softening effect on rough sailors. Scrooge next visits scenes from the past and future.
Scrooge’s bedroom. Room to which Scrooge retreats after Marley warns him about night-time visitors and the place at which his nocturnal adventures begin. The old miser is then spirited from his bed and escorted through the air to his childhood home, west of London in Rochester—which was also Dickens’s childhood home. Here they drop down in three locations, designed to soften Scrooge: a sad and lonely schoolroom, a warehouse magically transformed for Christmas fun by the generous Fezziwig, and a park bench where a youthful Scrooge coldly breaks off his engagement.
Churchyard. Cemetery where Scrooge sees his own grave during his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The callous and bleak atmosphere of a shop where Scrooge sees...
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At the time when Dickens was writing, the Christmas tradition was not nearly as important as it is today. Celebrating Christmas started in the fourth century, incorporating many of the symbols, such as holly and wreaths, of pagan holidays, such as the Roman Saturnalia and the Saxon Yule holiday. The date of December 25th was borrowed from pagan cultures—it was the date of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.
For centuries Christmas grew in importance slowly, but treating it as a celebration was looked upon suspiciously because of its pagan origins and because it made a festive celebration out of one of the most solemn days on the Christian calendar, the birth of Jesus. During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century that sought to turn the church away from worldly and materialistic concerns, celebrating Christmas was actually outlawed for a short time. Yet it wasn't long before the symbolic, festive aspects of the holiday started showing up again as people carried on the traditions they had been taught.
During the reign of Queen Victoria in England, the Christmas tradition gained popularity. One reason for this was that the monarchy supported it: Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, brought the German tradition of decorating the Christmas tree when he came to England. Another reason was economic, as the
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A Christmas Carol takes place in London during the early 1840s. The story begins at 3 p.m., December 24, in the counting house of Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley. Marley died seven years ago, but Scrooge has not removed his name from the business sign. It is bitterly cold outside, and in the counting house as well because Scrooge does not want to spend money for heat. His only nephew comes in to wish him a Merry Christmas and to invite him to a Christmas party, but Scrooge refuses the invitation and gets rid of his nephew as quickly as possible. He cannot stand so much cheerfulness. Two gentlemen soliciting funds for the poor are sent packing next. At closing time, Scrooge reluctantly gives his clerk, Bob Cratchit, Christmas Day off, then dines in his usual drab restaurant. When he returns to his lodgings, Marley's ghost appears to him. Bound with a heavy chain weighted down with cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses, he warns that Scrooge is doomed to an even more miserable afterlife unless he accepts visits from three spirits who will show him the true way of life.
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Point of View
Mainly, this novel is narrated in the third person; that is, the story is usually told as "he said" or "she said" or "Scrooge watched them," etc. In the beginning, though, there is a little touch of a first-person narrator, as someone talking directly to the reader, referring to himself as "I." This narrator is the type of personality who will use a phrase and then mull over its appropriateness ("I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail the deadest piece of ironmongery … ") and to make humorous satirical remarks.
This first-person voice fades away once the characters in the book start interacting with one another, leaving the characters and the action of the novel to keep the readers' attention. The last time this first-person narrator is heard from is when it remarks on how strange it is that Scrooge, who had not thought of Marley since hours earlier, would see his face on the door knocker ("let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that … ").
London is the setting of this novel, as it is for many of Dickens' works. The character of the city does not come into play much except in the gloomy darkness on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, caused by London's legendary fog. It is also present during the scene on Christmas morning presented by the Ghost of Christmas Present, with the city coming alive. Dickens gives long lists of the objects...
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A Christmas Carol is one of Dickens's better organized short works. The surviving manuscripts of the story plainly show that he lavished a great deal of effort on the story. The focus on Ebenezer Scrooge and the process of his redemption unifies the narrative. Dickens has written a secular morality drama for the early Victorian era, tracing a soul's progress from a life of isolated greed to one of meaningful relationships with fellow human beings.
The story begins in a cold and foggy London. It has not been light all day. The cold, fog, and darkness symbolize Scrooge's condition. No sun can penetrate the coldness within him, and he prefers darkness. His conviction that business and industry are the most important things in the world has obscured his vision for years. After his change of heart, Scrooge goes out into a world bright with sunshine on Christmas Day.
In terms of Christian symbolism, Dickens uses Christmas as a day that holds the possibility of rebirth and redemption. The narrator begins by speaking of Marley's death and points out that Scrooge never bothers to correct people who mistake him for his dead partner. Symbolically, Scrooge himself is not totally alive. His surroundings resemble a tomb; he has buried himself in his business. The three spirits who visit Scrooge enable him to see himself from a different perspective. They show him the boy who once thrilled to the tales of The Arabian Nights and Robinson...
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Like most of his works, A Christmas Carol reflects Dickens's indignation at the treatment of the poor in Victorian England. His satiric portrait of the greedy Scrooge reflects his disgust with utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the most important institution in modern society was business and that everything should be subordinated to commerce. Rather than advocating a specific political vehicle for social change, Dickens uses Scrooge's conversion and newfound generosity toward the Cratchit family to illustrate how the individual can make a difference in alleviating the suffering of the poor. Just as he does not espouse a particular political philosophy, Dickens does not espouse specific religious beliefs. A Christmas Carol incorporates some of the Christian symbolism inherent in the Christmas holiday, but its themes remain secular. Scrooge's conversion is not religious but humanitarian.
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Compare and Contrast
- 1843: The world's first Christmas cards are sent out by Henry Cole, a director of a London museum.
Today: Millions of Christmas cards are sent out each year by families and business, but many people are replacing paper cards with animated Internet cards.
- 1843: The squalid courts and cheap food shops of a London area dubbed "Porridge Island" are cleared away for a development area called Trafalgar Square, in honor of Lord Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Today: Trafalgar Square is one of London's main tourist attractions; unfortunately, it is also famous for its enormous pigeon population. 1843: Samuel B. Morse begins construction of a telegraph wire between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore using money appropriated by Congress.
- 1843: Samuel B. Morse begins construction of a telegraph wire between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, using money appropriated by Congress.
Today: Telephone communication is instantaneous, but millions of miles of wires are being replaced with fiber-optic cables for even quicker Internet transmission.
- 1843: Documents are copied by hand. The first prototype of a typewriter is invented, but is not very practical.
Today: Computers can accurately turn...
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Topics for Discussion
1. To what extent is Scrooge a comic character? What makes him funny?
2. Is Tiny Tim an effective character in this story? Would he be believable outside of the world Dickens has placed him in?
3. Some critics say that the story of Scrooge is too sentimental. Do you agree? Do you think people in Dickens's time viewed the tale differently than people today do?
4. Which of the Christmas ghosts has the greatest effect on Scrooge? Why?
5. The story begins with the narrator assuring us that Scrooge's old partner Marley is dead. Its climax, Scrooge's change of heart, takes place in a graveyard. Why does a story famous for celebrating the joys of Christmas place so much emphasis on death?
6. Characterize Scrooge's speech patterns before and after he decides that he will keep Christmas. How have they changed?
7. The Ghost of Christmas Present, associated with all the bountiful things that make Christmas joyous when we first see him, has a surprise for Scrooge at the end of his visit that seems quite out of character. What is it?
8. Dickens believes Scrooge's solitude is a form of hell. How does Scrooge condemn himself to such a fate before his change of heart?
9. Some readers have found Scrooge's change of heart difficult to accept. Has Dickens prepared us for this change? Do you find it believable?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. All three of Dickens's first Christmas books (A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth) have characters whose faith in humanity is restored through the intervention of spirits. A Christmas Carol is usually considered the best of the three. Compare it to one of these other stories.
2. Dickens says that as he wrote A Christmas Carol he was so elated that in his excitement he would go out into the streets of nighttime London and walk for hours. How does the story reflect his enthusiasm? Does it have a positive effect on the story, which is a combination of satire and morality tale, or would a more detached attitude have been better?
3. The allegorical figures that the Ghost of Christmas Present shows to Scrooge, Ignorance and Want, have the forms of children. Their impact on Scrooge, who still has Tiny Tim very much on his mind, is enormous. Analyze the part children play in Dickens's concern about nineteenth-century England. What in his own experience kept children uppermost in his mind?
4. Describe the narrator's role in this story. What kind of relationship with the reader does this storyteller attempt? Is he successful?
5. Discuss the themes of redemption and resurrection as they appear in A Christmas Carol.
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Topics for Further Study
- Write a synopsis for an updated version of A Christmas Carol, using people who are in the news or who are famous in your community.
- Try to find out about music that would have been popular at the time of the novel. In particular, try to get a copy of "Sir Roger de Coverley," which Fezziwig dances to. Pick a popular song that you think is like the old music, and explain the relationship between the two songs.
- Research the significance of Christmas to charitable organizations, explaining how much their income from donations increases during December and what they do to prepare for it.
- Write a short story about Tiny Tim as a grownup, explaining how the crippling disease he had as a child was cured because of his father's rich benevolent employer.
- Examine the traditional use of ghosts in Victorian writing, and write a paper explaining how their use here is common or uncommon.
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Following the success of A Christmas Carol Dickens planned a Christmas book almost every year until 1868. Many of these stories have been collected in Oxford University Press's Christmas Books (1966). Most deal with the supernatural, and many climax with a change of heart similar to Scrooge's. The Chimes (1844) features Trotty Veck, a good-hearted porter, who is convinced that poor people such as himself are evil until a spirit proves to him that most men are basically good. Dickens uses the pattern of conversion again in the Christmas book of 1845, The Cricket on the Hearth. This time the convert is a sour toy maker, Mr. Tackleton, whose indirect contact with a spirit teaches him to change his ways. These stories are enjoyable but lack the spontaneity of A Christmas Carol. Many consider Dickens's 1866 Christmas story, The Signalman, to be his best ghost story, as effective as any of Edgar Allan Poe's tales of the supernatural.
"A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year!"
A Christmas Carol has been dramatized frequently. In the late 1930s and early 1940s radio listeners looked forward to Lionel Barrymore's annual portrayal of Scrooge. This radio program, available on tape, remains faithful to the original story but presents only the highlights in its half-hour span.
Two film versions of A Christmas Carol were released in the 1930s: Scrooge...
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- One of the most highly regarded versions of A Christmas Carol stars Alastair Sim as Scrooge, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Released in 1951, it is available from VCI Home Video.
- Another praiseworthy version of the novel is the 1984 made-for-television movie with George C. Scott, David Warner, and Edward Woodward. It was released on video by Twentieth Century Fox in 1999.
- In December of 1999, TNT and Hallmark Entertainment premiered a new movie version with Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, and Joel Grey starring. It was directed by David Jones.
- Michael Caine plays Scrooge, Kermit the Frog plays Bob Cratchit, and the Great Gonzo plays Charles Dickens in The Muppet Christmas Carol, released on video in 1997 from Jim Henson Video Co.
- Scrooged (1988) is a humorous adaptation of Dickens' novel, with Bill Murray as a television executive. The movie was directed by Richard Donner and is available from Paramount Home Video.
- This story has been adapted to the stage, screen, and television so many times that there is an entire book on the subject. A Christmas Carol and its Adaptations, written by Fred Guida, includes scenes from old kinescope films and foreign productions. It was published by McFarlane and Co. in 1999.
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What Do I Read Next?
- One of the most poignant Christmas stories ever written is Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" (1966), which is often included in fiction anthologies and included in his collection A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor (1996), available from Modern Library.
- Charles Dickens was the author of several commercially and critically popular novels. One of his best is The Tale of Two Cities, originally published in 1859. Set against the background of the French Revolution the story follows the adventures of Sydney Carton, and his eventual self-sacrifice for the sake of his friends. It is also available on CD-ROM from Quiet Vision in 1999.
- Published in 1999, Patricia Davis' novel A Midnight Carol chronicles the story of how Dickens' novel came to be: thirty-year-old Charles Dickens his debts piling up and a fifth child on the way, somehow writes his most popular work.
- Daniel Poole's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew (1993) describes the trials and tribulations of daily life in nineteenth-century England in an informative and amusing way.
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For Further Reference
Clark, William Ross. "The Hungry Mr. Dickens," in Discussions of Charles Dickens, edited by William Ross Clark. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1961. Dickens's lean early years gave him an obsession with food. Clark cites A Christmas Carol as an example to make his point.
Fielding, K. J. Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction. Riverside Studies in Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Fielding surveys Dickens's career as an author.
Goldberg, Michael. Carlyle and Dickens. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972. Goldberg traces some of Scrooge's remarks in A Christmas Carol to Thomas Carlyle's "Chartism."
Hardy, Barbara. "The Change of Heart in Dickens's Novels," in Dickens: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Conversions are frequent in Dickens's novels. This essay explains their function in his work.
Johnson, Edgar. "A Christmas Carol, Biography of a Classic," in Saturday Review of Literature, December 30, 1967. Johnson traces the origin of Dickens's most famous short story.
———. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. The best biography of Dickens is also a perceptive critical study of his works.
Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and the Short Story. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. Dealing exclusively with Dickens's shorter...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Cecil, David. "Charles Dickens," in Early Victorian Novelists: Essays in Revaluation. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1935, pp. 37-74.
Chesterton, G. K. "'Great Expectations,'" in Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. E. P. Dutton and Co., 1911, pp. 197-206.
———. Charles Dickens: the Last of the Great Men. The Press of the Readers Club, 1942, p. 79.
Pool, Daniel. Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters: The Rows and Romances of England's Great Victorian Novelists. HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, p. 178.
Potter, Dale H. The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. University of Akron Press, 1998.
Symons, Julian. Charles Dickens. Arthur Barker Ltd., London, 1951.
Hardy, Barbara. "The Change of Heart in Dickens' Novels," in Victorian Studies, Vol. V, 1961-62, pp. 49-67. Examines the recurring theme of change in Dickens' works.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. Among the many biographies of the author available, this is clearly one of the most insightful and readable.
Page, Norman O. A Dickens Companion. Schocken Books, 1984. Page, a specialist in Victorian literature, offers a cornucopia for students of...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Donovan, Frank. Dickens and Youth. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968. A discussion of Dickens’ extensive use of children in his novels. A Christmas Carol is considered in detail, in two ways. Scrooge’s unhappy childhood is considered as the major cause for his present loneliness and misanthropy. The children of Bob Cratchit, especially Tiny Tim, are examined as examples of innocents who are happy even when their circumstances are difficult.
Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Dickens: Being a Good-Natured Guide to the Art and Adventures of the Man Who Invented Scrooge. New York: Penguin, 2001. A lighthearted and enthusiastic biography of Dickens that includes critical summaries of sixteen of his novels, with illustrations and references to popular culture that elucidate Dickens’s work and demonstrate his influence.
Gissing, George. Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. 1898. Boston: Adamant Media, 2001. A biography and critical analysis written only thirty years after Dickens’s death by a prolific Victorian novelist who shared Dickens’s concern for exposing social problems.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988. A comprehensive biography of the author, with more than 500 pages of text and more than 100 illustrations. The...
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