It could be suggested that there are multiple themes to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dickens’s story, of course, is about a miserly old businessman living a solitary life whose every interaction with other citizens in town invariably turns negative. Ebenezer Scrooge has lost the only person with whom he regularly associated and with whom there was a compatibility involving the zero-sum game of business in which they worked closely as partners. Scrooge, as readers of Dickens’s story and viewers of any of the innumerable adaptations of this story for the big and small screen know, resents those who occupy his small universe, not least of which is his loyal and kindly assistant, Bob Cratchit. Scrooge’s negative attitude towards the world around him includes his disdain for Christmas, a season the town’s residents associate with merriment and expressions of goodwill. For Scrooge, the holiday represents nothing more than a paid day of leave for Cratchit and a noticeable decline in productivity.
As A Christmas Carol develops through a series of chapters, or “staves,” as Dickens labeled them, Scrooge is exposed to the complexities of his own past while also being shown the effects of his demeanor and attitudes on those to whom he is, or should be, closest. He is visited during the night by a series of ghosts, the first of which is that of his late partner Jacob Marley. Marley and Scrooge had been like-minded businessmen, but the former’s death provides an opportunity for Scrooge to be shown the deleterious ramifications of his way of life on not just those around him, but on himself as well. It is the ghost of Marley who initiates Scrooge’s descent into a form of hell and who precipitates the latter’s eventual transformation into the kindly, generous figure who awakens the next morning. But first, the warning. Observing the chains the ghost of his former partner drags around, Scrooge inquires about this strange feature, prompting Marley’s ghost's reply:
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Marley is there to warn Scrooge of the fate that will assuredly befall the miserly old man unless he awakens to the pernicious, destructive effects on himself that can be expected from a continued lifetime of cruelty and isolation. In the following three staves, Scrooge is visited by a series of ghosts representing the past, present, and future, the last of which enlightens Scrooge as to the loneliness that awaits him as he rots away in a solitary grave.
The main theme of A Christmas Carol, then, can be said to be redemption. As Scrooge is systematically exposed to the realities he left behind and the bleakness that awaits him even after death, he awakens to the joys that can be his for the taking if only he opens his heart to those around him, especially his nephew and his loyal assistant, Cratchit, whose physically disabled, sickly son Tim provides the story’s greatest hope for redemption. That Scrooge awakens a new person, shorn of the bitterness and anger that defined him and gleefully seeking ways to make amends with those he has harmed, he does indeed find a measure of personal redemption. He will no longer be alone. He will embrace the family that has sought nothing more than his affection, and he will expand his notion of family to now include the Cratchits, going so far as to see to Tim’s medical needs.
The theme of isolation has been suggested, and it warrants consideration. Scrooge has lived, as noted, a very isolated existence, returning each evening to his home and enjoying none of the camaraderie he observes among the rest of the town’s people. His disdain for the holiday season is a manifestation of his self-imposed exile; he wants nothing of the joyfulness that defines Christmas. As he observes his nephew and the Cratchits while in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Present, however, and having viewed his own experiences through the intervention of the Ghost of Christmas Past, he begins to see for the first time the depth of his own despair and sudden need to be among those to whom he should be closest. The commitment to isolation gives way to the need to be a gregarious member of a community, even if his newfound demeanor results in slightly insulting observations from some of his neighbors.
For this educator, the most compelling theme of Dickens’s story remains that of redemption. A long life that began with promise but that swayed into obsession with business, the nature of which was occasionally vindictive, and the vision of an afterlife haunted by heavy chains representing the flaws in that life compel a transformation in the character of Scrooge that ends in a redemptive state.