Published in England in 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol had both an immediate and lasting impact on the Christmas holiday. It is credited with reviving interest in Christmas at a time when its traditions were falling out of fashion. The novella’s lessons of charity, family, and a shared humanity spoke directly to a Victorian society that, in Dickens’s view, oppressed the poor and the working class in the name of industry. The work’s impact has endured far beyond the nineteenth century, and its message has reached audiences far beyond Great Britain. Each holiday season we continue to read, watch, and listen to adaptations of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish man whose life is changed after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. The novella’s main character became the archetype for grumpy and greedy, and the word “Scrooge” has entered our lexicon as a synonym for miser. Ebenezer Scrooge has inspired numerous takeoffs and tributes, including Disney’s cartoon character, Scrooge McDuck; the movie Scrooged, with Bill Murray playing a cynical television executive; and even Dr. Seuss’s Grinch.
Though the novella is set during a Christian holiday, its message is one to which every person, everywhere can relate: Relentless pursuit of wealth comes at a great price. The descent into greed, Dickens shows, is a slippery slope; the more we worship the “golden idol,” the easier it is to forget the genuine value of having money—the ability to improve the quality of life for others and, in doing so, to enrich our own lives in truly meaningful ways. Beyond its exploration of greed, A Christmas Carol emphasizes the impossibility of isolation in a shared world. We walk through life as “fellow passengers to the grave,” as Scrooge’s nephew Fred points out. When fellow passengers are left ignorant and needy, they are not the only ones who suffer; society itself suffers.
Charles Dickens was already a successful novelist at the time he wrote A Christmas Carol. His work often served as societal critique, returning again and again to the plight of the poor and oppressed. It was territory with which Dickens was uncomfortably familiar. Dickens’s father and much of his family lived in a debtor’s prison when Dickens was a boy. Only twelve years old, he was sent to work in a blacking warehouse, a soul-killing experience he never forgot. In Stave One, Scrooge refers to the Poor Law, which allowed debtors to be imprisoned until they were financially solvent. A Christmas Carol is a criticism of this law, which Dickens felt unfairly penalized the already disadvantaged.
It is impossible to read A Christmas Carol without heeding the rich, visual language and the multitude of literary devices Dickens employs throughout (personification, mood, and characterization, to name just a few). In a Dickensian world, onions become flirtatious Spanish friars, Ebenezer Scrooge appears as frosty as the weather, and characters with whimsical names like Fezziwig and Topper dance on and off the pages. Dickens was a very visual writer, often working closely with his illustrators so that they grasped precisely what his characters looked like. He seemed to anticipate that his books would be performed theatrically. Indeed they were, and they continue to be enormously popular with audiences. As an artist and a populist, Dickens would have been thrilled to see how many adaptations of A Christmas Carol have graced our culture and how its messages of charity and family have endured.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain Scrooge’s path from innocent schoolboy to crotchety miser.
2. Describe the criticisms Dickens makes of his Victorian society and the moral landscape he champions.
3. Identify the literary devices Dickens employs and how they enrich the story.
4. Compare and contrast the three ghosts and the effects they have on Scrooge.
5. Understand the crucial role children and family play in the novella.
6. Identify the major turning points on Scrooge’s path to redemption.