illustration of Ebenezer Scrooge in silhouette walking toward a Christmas tree and followed by the three ghosts

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens

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Explain the theme of supernatural elements in the story A Christmas Carol.

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Using the supernatural Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present allows Dickens to show us Scrooge's youth and his present day without descending into simple exposition or having to use the first person.  Because the Ghost of Christmas Past can physically transport Scrooge into his childhood and young adulthood, readers get to see firsthand what he was like then and how he changed into the person he is at present.  We get the unvarnished truth of Scrooge's childhood—being abandoned at a boarding school, left alone for much of the time—without the character himself vying for our sympathy.  Similarly, we see the end of his relationship with Belle, a crucial element in his development: something that could only be told to us without the ghost.  With the ghost, however, we get to see for ourselves. 

It is the same with the Ghost of Christmas Present: without him, Scrooge would not know what is going on in all the different locales in the country (where everyone is celebrating joyously except for him), including his nephew's house.  If there were no ghost to show him (and us), the narrator would have to simply tell us, and telling is much less compelling than showing.

On a different note, Marley's ghost helps to present one of the most important themes of the book: our duty as human beings is to help one another as best we can.  When Marley's ghost leaves Scrooge at the end of stave 1, Scrooge follows him to the window and sees the following:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. . . . [One] old ghost. . . cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep.  The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

In other words, what tortures these restless spirits is the knowledge that they are helpless to assist living persons in need of aid, like the poor woman and her baby.  The ghosts desperately want to help and they cannot.  We can see, then, the importance of generosity and compassion; failing to exhibit these characteristics will torture us in death.  Without some inclusion of the supernatural in the book, it would be more difficult to impress upon readers this important and (still) relevant theme.

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The supernatural is one of the strongest and most prevalent themes in A Christmas Carol. In fact, in his preface to the book, Dickens calls the story "this Ghostly little book" to empathize the theme's importance. 

Beginning with some examples, we find evidence of the supernatural from the very first stave. Scrooge's door knocker, for example, comes hideously to life in the form of his dead associate: "...with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless." 

Scrooge's ghostly visitors possess many supernatural qualities, too. Take the Ghost of Christmas Past in stave two, for example: "He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it."

These supernatural elements have many important purposes in the book. They help Dickens to create strong, often grotesque, characters, and an even stronger sense of atmosphere. They also serve to drive the plot: we know, for example, that every time the clock chimes, Scrooge will receive another ghostly visitor. These elements also engineer Scrooge's transformation. Without seeing the visions of the past, present and future, Scrooge would never have the impetus to change and reform his character. 

The supernatural elements also illustrate Dickens' interests, outside of writing. He was intrigued by ghosts and this "other" world. He practiced spiritualism, performed magic tricks for his family and friends and wrote many articles on the supernatural for his journal, Household Worlds. A Christmas Carol, thus, enabled him to explore these interests in another way and its success would inspire him to continue this trend in many of his later works. 

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