What is the meaning of Charles Dickens' preface to his work A Christmas Carol?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Charles Dickens’ preface to his novel A Christmas Carol is very brief and reads as follows in its entirety:

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,

C. D.

The preface helps set the tone of the work and helps establish the persona of its author. By addressing the reader directly, Dickens employs an intimate, personal tone that is also used by the book’s narrator. Dickens speaks to us as if we were his familiars; there is no lofty formality, no sense of self-importance. By calling the work a “Ghostly little book,” Dickens already implies that it will deal with ghosts and thus already intrigues readers, making us curious to read further. The book is a “little” book in the sense that it is not very long and also in the sense that it is unpretentious and modest; it is designed mainly to entertain, not to provoke profoundly serious or tragic thought (unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to which Dickens will soon allude in the first chapter of A Christmas Carol).

Dickens continues in his playful mood and tone when he mentions raising the Ghost of an idea. He is obviously having fun with the notion of writing a book about ghosts. To “raise a ghost” meant to summon a ghost from the grave; Dickens is raising a ghost in the sense that he will be creating ghosts out of his own imagination (thus the emphasis on the word “Idea”).  Yet he no sooner mentions ghosts again than he immediately assures us that his ghosts will not be truly disturbing or frightening; they will not put his readers “out of humour,” either by upsetting them, scaring them, or making them sad. His book, he claims, will not cause his readers to feel any tension with themselves individually, with one another, with the Christmas season, or with Dickens himself. Ironically, his book about ghosts will somehow seem appropriate (he promises) to a time of joy, festivity, and goodwill, and to a holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. He hopes that his book will be well received and that no one will wish to “lay” it as ghosts were “laid” (that is, returned to their graves). In closing, Dickens identifies himself as a friend and servant of his readers – someone who has their best interests at heart but someone who is also dependent on their goodwill and financial support.