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

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens

Start Free Trial

W. M. Thackeray (review date 1844)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Thackeray on Dickens,” in Famous Reviews: Selected and Edited with Introductory Notes, by R. Brimley Johnson, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1914, pp. 469–73.

[In the following review, originally published in 1844, Thackeray applauds the popular appeal of A Christmas Carol.]


… This introduction, then, will have prepared you for an exceedingly humane and laudatory notice of the packet of works which you were good enough to send me, and which, though they doubtless contain a great deal that the critic would not write (from the extreme delicacy of his taste and the vast range of his learning) also contain, between ourselves, a great deal that the critic could not write if he would ever so; and this is a truth which critics are sometimes apt to forget in their judgments of works of fiction. As a rustical boy, hired at twopence a week, may fling stones at the blackbirds and drive them off and possibly hit one or two, yet if he get into the hedge and begin to sing, he will make a wretched business of the music, and Labin and Colin and the dullest swains of the village will laugh egregiously at his folly; so the critic employed to assault the poet … But the rest of the simile is obvious, and will be apprehended at once by a person of your experience.

The fact is, that the blackbirds of letters—the harmless, kind singing creatures who line the hedge-sides and chirp and twitter as nature bade them (they can no more help singing, these poets, than a flower can help smelling sweet), have been treated much too ruthlessly by the watch-boys of the press, who have a love for flinging stones at the little innocents, and pretend that it is their duty, and that every wren or sparrow is likely to destroy a whole field of wheat, or to turn out a monstrous bird of prey. Leave we these vain sports and savage pastimes of youth, and turn we to the benevolent philosophy of maturer age.


And now there is but one book left in the box, the smallest one, but oh! how much the best of all. It is the work of the master of all the English humourists now alive; the young man who came and took his place calmly at the head of the whole tribe, and who has kept it. Think of all we owe Mr. Dickens since these half-dozen years, the store of happy hours that he has made us pass, the kindly and pleasant companions whom he has introduced to us, the harmless laughter, the generous wit, the frank, manly, human love which he has taught us to feel! Every month of these years has brought us some kind token from this delightful genius. His books may have lost in art, perhaps, but could we afford to wait? Since the days when the Spectator was produced by a man of kindred mind and temper, what books have appeared that have taken so affectionate a hold of the English public as these? They have made millions of rich and poor happy; they might have been locked up for nine years, doubtless, and pruned here and there, and improved (which I doubt) but where would have been the reader's benefit all this time, while the author was elaborating his performance? Would the communication between the writer and the public have been what it is now—something continual, confidential, something like personal affection? I do not know whether these stories are written for future...

(This entire section contains 1716 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

ages; many sage critics doubt on this head. There are always such conjurors to tell literary fortunes; and, to my certain knowledge, Boz, according to them, has been sinking regularly these six years. I doubt about that mysterious writing for futurity which certain big wigs prescribe. Snarl has a chance, certainly. His works, which have not been read in this age,may be read in future; but the receipt for that sort of writing has never as yet been clearly ascertained. Shakespeare did not write for futurity, he wrote his plays for the same purpose which inspires the pen of Alfred Bunn, Esquire, viz., to fill his Theatre Royal. And yet we read Shakespeare now. Le Sage and Fielding wrote for their public; and through the great Dr. Johnson put his peevish protest against the fame of the latter, and voted him “a dull dog, sir,—a low fellow,” yet somehow Harry Fielding has survived in spite of the critic, and Parson Adams is at this minute as real a character, as much loved by us as the old doctor himself. What a noble, divine power of genius this is, which, passing from the poet into his reader's soul, mingles with it, and there engenders, as it were, real creatures; which is as strong as history, which creates beings that take their place besides nature's own. All that we know of Don Quixote or Louis XIV we got to know in the same way—out of a book. I declare I love Sir Roger de Coverley quite as much as Izaak Walton, and have just as clear a consciousness of the looks, voice, habit, and manner of being of the one as of the other.

And so with regard to this question of futurity; if any benevolent being of the present age is imbued with a desire to know what his great-great-grandchild will think of this or that author—of Mr. Dickens especially, whose claims to fame have raised the question—the only way to settle it is by the ordinary historic method. Did not your great-great-grandfather love and delight in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Have they lost their vitality by their age? Don't they move laughter and awaken affection now as three hundred years ago? And so with Don Pickwick and Sancho Weller, if their gentle humours and kindly wit, and hearty benevolent natures, touch us and convince us, as it were, now, why should they not exist for our children as well as for us, and make the twenty-fifth century happy, as they have the nineteenth? Let Snarl console himself, then, as to the future.

As for the Christmas Carol, or any other book of a like nature which the public takes upon itself to criticise, the individual critic had quite best hold his peace. One remembers what Buonaparte replied to some Austrian critics, of much correctness and acumen, who doubted about acknowledging the French republic. I do not mean that the Christmas Carol is quite as brilliant or self-evident as the sun at noonday; but it is so spread over England by this time, that no sceptic, no Fraser's Magazine,—no, not even the godlike and ancient Quarterly itself (venerable, Saturnian, big-wigged dynasty!) could review it down. “Unhappy people! deluded race!” One hears the cauliflowered god exclaim, mournfully shaking the powder out of his ambrosial curls, “What strange new folly is this? What new deity do you worship? Know ye what ye do? Know ye that your new idol hath little Latin and less Greek? Know ye that he has never tasted the birch at Eton, nor trodden the flags of Carfax, nor paced the academic flats of Trumpington? Know ye that in mathematics, or logic, this wretched ignoramus is not fit to hold a candle to a wooden spoon? See ye not how, from describing law humours, he now, forsooth, will attempt the sublime? Discern ye not his faults of taste, his deplorable propensity to write blank verse? Come back to your ancient, venerable, and natural instructors. Leave this new, low and intoxicating draught at which ye rush, and let us lead you back to the old wells of classic lore. Come and repose with us there. We are your gods; we are the ancient oracles, and no mistake. Come listen to us once more, and we will sing to you the mystic numbers of as in presenti under the arches of the Pons asinorum.” But the children of the present generation hear not; for they reply, “Rush to the Strand, and purchase five thousand more copies of the Christmas Carol.

In fact, one might as well detail the plot of the Merry Wives of Windsor or Robinson Crusoe, as recapitulate here the adventures of Scrooge the miser, and his Christmas conversion. I am not sure that the allegory is a very complete one, and protest, with the classics, against the use of blank verse in prose; but here all objections stop. Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness. The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, “God bless him!” A Scotch philosopher, who nationally does not keep Christmas, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dine—this is a fact! Many men were known to sit down after perusing it, and write off letters to their friends, not about business, but out of their fulness of heart, and to wish old acquaintances a happy Christmas. Had the book appeared a fortnight earlier, all the prize cattle would have been gobbled up in pure love and friendship, Epping denuded of sausages, and not a turkey left in Norfolk. His royal highness's fat stock would have fetched unheard of prices, and Alderman Bannister would have been tired of slaying. But there is a Christmas for 1844 too; the book will be as early then as now, and so let speculators look out.

As for Tiny Tim, there is a certain passage in the book regarding that young gentleman, about which a man should hardly venture to speak in print or in public, any more than he would of any other affections of his private heart. There is not a reader in England but that little creature will be a bond of union between the author and him; and he will say of Charles Dickens, as the woman just now, “God bless him!” What a feeling is this for a writer to be able to inspire, and what a reward to reap.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens

The following entry presents criticism on Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol (1843). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Little Dorrit Criticism, Our Mutual Friend Criticism, and Hard Times Criticism.

A Christmas Carol (1843) is one of the most recognizable stories in English literature. With its numerous literary, stage, television, radio, and cinematic adaptations, the tale has become a holiday classic, and the character Ebenezer Scrooge has become a cultural icon. First published in 1843, the novella garnered immediate critical and commercial attention and is credited with reviving interest in charitable endeavors, the possible perils of economic success, and festive traditions of the Christmas season. It is the first work in Dickens's series of Christmas stories known collectively as the Christmas Books, as well as the most popular and enduring.

Plot and Major Characters

Set in the 1840s on Christmas Eve, A Christmas Carol chronicles the personal transformation of the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, the proprietor of a London counting house. A wealthy, elderly man, Scrooge is considered miserly and misanthropic: he has no wife or children; he throws out two men collecting for charity; he bullies and underpays his loyal clerk, Bob Cratchit; and he dismisses the Christmas dinner invitation of his kind nephew, Fred. Moreover, Scrooge is a strong supporter of the Poor Law of 1834, which allowed the poor to be interned in workhouses. As he prepares for bed on Christmas Eve in his solitary, dark chambers, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. In life Marley was very similar in attitude and temperament to Scrooge: remote, cruel, and parsimonious. In death he has learned the value of compassion and warns Scrooge to reform his ways before it is too late. Marley announces that Scrooge will be visited by three more specters: the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his unhappy childhood, revealing that the young boy's experiences with poverty and abandonment inspired a desire to succeed and gain material advantage. Unfortunately, Scrooge's burgeoning ambition and greed destroyed his relationship with his fiancée and his friends. The Ghost of Christmas Present is represented by a hearty, genial man who reminds Scrooge of the joy of human companionship, which he has rejected in favor of his misanthropic existence. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears in a dark robe and shrouded in mystery. Silently, the ghost reveals the ambivalent reaction to news of Scrooge's own death. Scrooge realizes that he will die alone and without love, and that he has the power and money to help those around him—especially Bob Cratchit's ailing son, Tiny Tim. Scrooge begs the ghost for another chance and wakes in his bed on Christmas morning, resolved to changing his life by being generous and loving to his family, employees, and the poor.

Major Themes

A Christmas Carol has been deemed a biting piece of social commentary by some. Critics have underscored the scathing criticism of 1840s London, an economically and socially stratified city that Dickens believed imprisoned its poor and oppressed its lower classes. The prevailing socio-economic theory of that time held that anyone who was in debt should be put in a poorhouse. In his story, Dickens contended that the reformation of such a materialistic, shallow society can be achieved gradually through the spiritual transformation of each individual. The story is well regarded for its expression of a fundamental faith in humanity and its unflagging censure of social injustice, which was inspired by Dickens's troubled background and his visit to the Cornish tin mines where he observed young children laboring under appalling conditions. As Scrooge transforms from a cruel, embittered miser to a kindly philanthropist, Dickens advocates a more forgiving, generous society that values spiritual growth, not material wealth. Other major thematic concerns in A Christmas Carol include the role of memory, the importance of family, and the soul-deadening effect of greed on the human spirit.

Critical Reception

Upon its initial publication, A Christmas Carol was greeted with mixed reviews. Some commentators derided the tale as too sentimental and laden with exaggeration; other critics maintained that A Christmas Carol lacked the complexity of Dickens's later work. Yet the novella remains a Christmas favorite. Commentators praise Dickens's evocative portrayal of 1840s London and his passionate exploration of social and political issues. Dickens's fervent belief in social justice as depicted through A Christmas Carol is credited with inspiring an outpouring of charitable endeavors during his time and a revival of Christmas spirit and traditional celebrations. Critics have also explored the fairy-tale and gothic elements in A Christmas Carol, and many praise Dickens's use of wry humor in the story. The relevance and power of Scrooge's transformation from forlorn old niggard to benignant philanthropist is regarded as the key to the novella's unflagging popular appeal. Several scholars have debated the nature of Scrooge's conversion, which is known as “the Scrooge problem.” Some critics, including Edmund Wilson, conclude that the transformation is a temporary one; others have maintained that it is total and irrevocable. Scrooge's metanoia has also been placed within its historical and literary context, and critics have related it to the religious revival then fervent in nineteenth-century England. A few full-length studies of the novella have traced the impact of the story on English and American culture and have discussed the copious imitations, adaptations, and modernized versions of the tale.

Edgar Johnson (essay date 1952)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A Christmas Carol Criticizes England's Economic System,” in Reading on Charles Dickens, edited by Clarice Swisher, The Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 86–93.

[In the following excerpt from a 1952 article published in the American Scholar, Johnson deems Dickens's novella as a biting critique of nineteenth-century England's economic system.]

Everyone knows Dickens's Christmas Carol for its colorful painting of a rosy fireside good cheer and warmth of feeling, made all the more vivid by the contrasting chill wintry darkness in which its radiant scenes are framed. Most readers realize too how characteristic of all Dickens's sentiments about the Christmas season are the laughter and tenderness and jollity he poured into the Carol. What is not so widely understood is that it was also consistently and deliberately created as a critical blast against the very rationale of industrialism and its assumptions about the organizing principles of society. It is an attack upon both the economic behavior of the nineteenth-century businessman and the supporting theory of doctrinaire utilitarianism.1 As such it is a good deal more significant than the mere outburst of warm-hearted sentimentality it is often taken to be.

Its sharper intent is, indeed, ingeniously disguised. Not even the festivities at Dingley Dell, in Pickwick Papers, seem to have a more genial innocence than the scenes of the Christmas Carol. It is full of the tang of snow and cold air and crisp green holly-leaves, and warm with the glow of crimson holly-berries, blazing hearths, and human hearts. Deeper than this, however, Dickens makes of the Christmas spirit a symbolic criticism of the relations that throughout almost all the rest of the year subsist among men. It is a touchstone, revealing and drawing forth the gold of generosity ordinarily crusted over with selfish habit, an earnest of the truth that our natures are not entirely or even essentially devoted to competitive struggle.

Dickens is certain that the enjoyment most men are able to feel in the happiness of others can play a larger part than it does in the tenor of their lives. The sense of brotherhood, he feels, can be broadened to a deeper and more active concern for the welfare of all mankind. It is in this light that Dickens sees the Spirit of Christmas. So understood, as the distinguished scholar Professor Louis Cazamian rightly points out, his “philosophie de Noël” becomes the very core of his social thinking.

Not that Christmas has for Dickens more than the very smallest connection with Christian dogma or theology. It involves no conception of the virgin birth or transubstantiation2 or sacrificial atonement or redemption by faith. For Dickens Christmas is primarily a human, not a supernatural, feast, with glowing emphasis on goose and gravy, plum-pudding and punch, mistletoe, and kissing-games, dancing and frolic, as well as open-handedness, sympathy, and warmth of heart. Dickens does not believe that love of others demands utter abnegation or mortification of the flesh; it is not sadness but joyful fellowship. The triumphal meaning of Christmas peals in the angel voices ringing through the sky: “On earth peace, good will to men.” It is a sign that men do not live by bread alone, that they do not live for barter and sale alone. No way of life is either true or rewarding that leaves out men's need of loving and of being loved.

The theme of the Christmas Carol is thus closely linked with the theme of Martin Chuzzlewit, which was being written and published as a serial during the very time in which the shorter story appeared. The selfishness so variously manifested in the one is limited in the other to the selfishness of financial gain. For in an acquisitive society the form that selfishness predominantly takes is monetary greed. The purpose of such a society is the protection of property rights. Its rules are created by those who have money and power, and are designed, to the extent that they are consistent, for the perpetuation of money and power. With the growing importance of commerce in the eighteenth century, and of industry in the nineteenth, political economists—the “philosophers” Dickens detested—rationalized the spirit of ruthless greed into a system claiming authority throughout society.

Services as well as goods, they said, were subject only to the laws of profitable trade. There was no just price. One bought in the cheapest market and sold in the dearest. There was no just wage. The mill owner paid the mill hand what competition decreed under the determination of the “iron law of wage.” If the poor, the insufficiently aggressive, and the mediocre in ability were unable to live on what they could get, they must starve—or put up with the treadmill and the workhouse—and even these institutions represented concessions to mere humanity that must be made as forbidding as possible. Ideally, no sentimental conceptions must be allowed to obstruct the workings of the law of supply and demand. “Cash-nexus” was the sole bond between man and man. The supreme embodiment of this social theory was the notion of the “economic man,” that curiously fragmentary picture of human nature, who never performed any action except at the dictates of monetary gain. And Scrooge, in the Christmas Carol, is nothing other than a personification of economic man.

Scrooge's entire life is limited to cash-boxes, ledgers, and bills of sale. He underpays and bullies and terrifies his clerk, and grudges him even enough coal in his office fire to keep warm. All sentiment, kindness, generosity, tenderness, he dismisses as humbug. All imagination he regards as a species of mental indigestion. He feels that he has discharged his full duty to society in contributing his share of the taxes that pay for the prison, the workhouse, the operation of the treadmill and the poor law, and he bitterly resents having his pocket picked to keep even them going. The out-of-work and the indigent sick are to him merely idle and useless; they had better die and decrease the surplus population. So entirely does Scrooge exemplify the economic man that, like that abstraction, his grasping rapacity has ceased to have any purpose beyond itself: when he closes up his office for the night he takes his pinched heart off to a solitary dinner at a tavern and then to his bleak chambers where he sits alone over his gruel.


Now from one angle, of course, A Christmas Carol indicts the economic philosophy represented by Scrooge for its unhappy influence on society. England's prosperity was not so uncertain—if, indeed, any nation's ever is—that she needed to be parsimonious and cruel to her waifs and strays, or even to the incompetents and casualties of life. To neglect the poor, to deny them education, to give them no protection from covetous employers, to let them be thrown out of work and fall ill and die in filthy surroundings that then engender spreading pestilence, to allow them to be harried by misery into crime—all these turn out in the long run to be the most disastrous shortsightedness.

That is what the Ghost of Christmas Present means in showing Scrooge the two ragged and wolfish children glaring from beneath its robes. “They are Man's,” says the Spirit. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” And when Scrooge asks if they have no refuge, the Spirit ironically echoes his own words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

Scrooge's relation with his clerk Bob Cratchit is another illustration of the same point. To say, as some commentators have done, that Scrooge is paying Cratchit all he is worth on the open market (or he would get another job) is to assume the very conditions Dickens is attacking. It is not only that timid, uncompetitive people like Bob Cratchit may lack the courage to bargain for their rights. But, as Dickens knows well, there are many things other than the usefulness of a man's work that determine his wage—the existence, for example, of a large body of other men able to do the same job. And if Cratchit is getting the established remuneration for his work, that makes the situation worse, not better; for instead of an isolated one, his is a general case. What Dickens has at heart is not any economic conception like Marx's labor theory of value, but a feeling of the human value of human beings. Unless a man is a noxious danger to society, Dickens feels, a beast of prey to be segregated or destroyed, if he is able and willing to work, whatever the work may be—he is entitled at least to enough for him to live on, by the mere virtue of his humanity alone.

But the actual organization that Dickens saw in society callously disregarded all such humane principles. The hardened criminal was maintained in jail with more care than the helpless debtor who had broken no law. The pauper who owed nobody, but whom age, illness, or industrial change might have thrown out of work, was treated more severely than many a debtor and jailbird. And the poor clerk or laborer, rendered powerless by his need or the number of others like him, could be held to a pittance barely sufficient to keep him and his family from starvation.

Against such inequities Dickens maintains that any work worth doing should be paid enough to maintain a man and his family without grinding worry. How are the Bob Cratchits and their helpless children to live? Or are we to let the crippled Tiny Tims die and decrease the surplus population? “Man,” says the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is and Where it is. … It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Coldhearted arrogance and injustice storing up a dangerous heritage of poverty and ignorance—such is Dickens's judgment of the economic system that Scrooge exemplifies. But its consequences do not end with the cruelties it inflicts upon the masses of the people or the evils it works in society. It injures Scrooge as well. All the more generous impulses of humanity he has stifled and mutilated in himself. All natural affection he has crushed. The lonely boy he used to be, weeping in school, the tender brother, the eager youth, the young man who once fell disinterestedly in love with a dowerless girl—what has he done to them in making himself into a money-making machine, as hard and sharp as flint, and frozen with the internal ice that clutches his shriveled heart? That dismal cell, his office, and his gloomy rooms, are only a prison within which he dwells self-confined, barred and close-locked as he drags a chain of his own cash-boxes and dusty ledgers. Acting on a distortedly inadequate conception of self-interest, Scrooge has deformed and crippled himself to bitter sterility.

And Scrooge's fallacy is the fallacy of organized society. Like his house, which Dickens fancifully imagines playing hide-and-seek with other houses when it was a young house, and losing its way in a blind alley it has forgotten how to get out of, Scrooge has lost his way between youth and maturity. Society too in the course of its development has gone astray and then hardened itself in obdurate error with a heartless economic theory. Scrooge's conversion is more than the transformation of a single human being. It is a plea for society itself to undergo a change of heart.

Dickens does not, it should be noticed, take the uncompromising position that the self-regarding emotions are to be eradicated altogether. He is not one of those austere theorists who hold that the individual must be subordinated to the state or immolate himself to the service of an abstract humanity. Concern for one's self and one's own welfare is necessary and right, but true self-love cannot be severed from love of others without growing barren and diseased. Only in the communion of brotherhood is it healthy and fruitful. When Scrooge has truly changed, and has dispatched the anonymous gift of the turkey to Bob Cratchit as an earnest of repentance, his next move is to go to his nephew's house and ask wistfully, “Will you let me in, Fred?” With love reanimated in his heart, he may hope for love.

There have been readers who objected to Scrooge's conversion as too sudden and radical to be psychologically convincing. But this is to mistake a semi-serious fantasy for a piece of prosaic realism. Even so, the emotions in Scrooge to which the Ghosts appeal are no unsound means to the intended end: the awakened memories of a past when he had known warmer and gentler ties than in any of his later years, the realization of his exclusion from all kindness and affection in others now, the fears of a future when he may be lonelier and more unloved still. And William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience provides scores of case-histories that parallel both the suddenness of Scrooge's conversion and the sense of radiant joy he feels in the world around him after it has taken place. It may be that what really gives the skeptics pause is that Scrooge is converted to a gospel of good cheer. They could probably believe easily enough if he espoused some gloomy doctrine of intolerance.

But it is doubtful whether such questions ever arise when one is actually reading the Christmas Carol. From the very beginning Dickens strikes a tone of playful exaggeration that warns us this is no exercise in naturalism. Scrooge carries “his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days.” Blind men's dogs, when they see him coming, tug their masters into doorways to avoid him. The entire world of the story is an animistic one: houses play hide-and-seek, door-knockers come to life as human heads, the tuning of a fiddle is “like fifty stomach aches,” old Fezziwig's legs wink as he dances, potatoes bubbling in a saucepan knock loudly at the lid “to be let out and peeled.” Scrooge's own language has a jocose hyperbole, even when he is supposed to be most ferocious or most terrified, that makes his very utterance seem half a masquerade. “If I could work my will,” he snarls, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” Is that the accent of a genuine curmudgeon or of a man trying to sound more violent than he feels? And to Marley's Ghost, despite his disquiet, he remarks, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”


All these things make it clear that Dickens—as always when he is most deeply moved and most profound—is speaking in terms of unavowed allegory. … Dickens, however, leaves his surface action so entirely clear and the behavior of his characters so plain that they do not puzzle us into groping for gnomic meanings. Scrooge is a miser, his nephew a warmhearted fellow, Bob Cratchit a poor clerk—what could be simpler? If there is a touch of oddity in the details, that is merely Dickens's well-known comic grotesquerie; if Scrooge's change of heart is sharp and antithetical, that is only Dickens's melodramatic sentimentality. Surely all the world knows that Dickens is never profound?

But the truth is that Dickens has so fused his abstract thought and its imaginative forming that one melts almost entirely into the other. Though our emotional perception of Dickens's meaning is immediate and spontaneous, nothing in his handling thrusts upon us an intellectual statement of that meaning. But more than a warmhearted outpouring of holiday sentiment, the Christmas Carol is in essence a seriocomic parable of social redemption. Marley's Ghost is the symbol of divine grace, and the three Christmas Spirits are the working of that grace through the agencies of memory, example and fear. And Scrooge, although of course he is himself too, is not himself alone: he is the embodiment of all that concentration upon material power and callous indifference to the welfare of human beings that the economists had erected into a system, businessmen and industrialists pursued relentlessly, and society taken for granted as inevitable and proper. The conversion of Scrooge is an image of the conversion for which Dickens hopes among mankind.


  1. the belief that the value of a thing or action is determined by its usefulness or utility

  2. the doctrine that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, though their appearance remains the same

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sketches by Boz [as Boz] 1836

*A Christmas Carol 1843

*The Chimes 1844

*The Cricket on the Hearth 1845

*The Battle of Life 1846

*The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain 1848

Reprinted Pieces 1858

The Uncommercial Traveller 1861

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (novel) 1837

Oliver Twist (novel) 1838

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby (novel) 1839

Barnaby Rudge (novel) 1841

The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841

American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844

Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son (novel) 1848

The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Bleak House (novel) 1853

Hard Times for These Times (novel) 1854

Little Dorrit (novel) 1857

A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859

Great Expectations (novel) 1861

Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865

No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (drama) 1867

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870

*These works were collected in and published as Christmas Books in 1852.

Robert L. Patten (essay date 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Dickens Time and Again,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 2, 1971, pp. 163–96.

[In the following essay, Patten examines the sudden conversion of Scrooge, contending that it is related to the surge in popularity of religious tracts during the 1840s.]

My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land. I have the happiness of believing that I did not wholly miss it.

—Charles Dickens, Preface to the Cheap Edition, Christmas Books1

Justly admired though his essay on “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” is, Edmund Wilson surely does not reflect the response of most readers of A Christmas Carol when he posits that Scrooge's conversion is temporary. For Wilson, the melodramatic dual world of early Dickens included only two types of characters, good and bad. Scrooge embodies both types, and his transformation is the sheerest flummery.

We have come to take Scrooge so much for granted that he seems practically a piece of Christmas folklore; we no more inquire seriously into the mechanics of his transformation than we do into the transformation of the Beast in the fairy tale into the young prince that marries Beauty. Yet Scrooge represents a principle fundamental to the dynamics of Dickens' world and derived from his own emotional constitution. It was not merely that his passion for the theatre had given him a taste for melodramatic contrasts; it was rather that the lack of balance between the opposite impulses of his nature had stimulated an appetite for melodrama.2

Having arrived at this psychological cause for Dickens' simultaneous interest in virtue and vice, Wilson then reads Dickens' psyche back into the Carol:

Shall we ask what Scrooge would actually be like if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably he would relapse when the merriment was over—if not while it was still going on—into moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion. He would, that is to say, reveal himself as the victim of a manic-depressive cycle, and a very uncomfortable person.3

To believe this is to deny the emotional impact of the fifth stave, and to respond with very diminished sensibility to the preceding joys and terrors. For surely the intensity, the excesses of the book are justified—if justified at all—by the immensity of the transformation that does take place, the tremendous change of heart experienced by that cold, hard, “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,”4 Scrooge. Edgar Johnson strikes nearer the mark in calling the Carol “a serio-comic parable of social redemption,”5 but his emphasis on the social dimension of the story, and on Scrooge as the personification of “economic man,” reads the book in the light of The Chimes, which Michael Slater has identified as “Dickens's Tract for the Times,”6 and obscures its more fundamental, religious character. Moreover, Johnson denies “that Christmas has for Dickens more than the very smallest connection with Christian dogma or theology,” and later assures us that “ironically Dickens is never profound.”7

On the contrary, A Christmas Carol enacts a spiritual transformation, conversion, rebirth, performed through the assistance of supernatural powers. It shares this interest with many other works of the 1840s, which, as Mrs. Tillotson has observed, was a decade that witnessed a strong revival of fiction dealing with religious issues.8 The notion of sudden conversion was familiar to many in Dickens' audience through Evangelical tracts; and conversion as a literary topic pervades nineteenth-century literature, both English and American. Moreover, it shares with Dickens' other writings of that decade—The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit,The Chimes,Dombey and Son,The Haunted Man,David Copperfield—a concern with the dynamics of conversion. Starting with Dick Swiveller, and developing in complexity and subtlety as the decade passes, Dickens presents a series of imperfect characters who are shocked by various circumstances into a new awareness of themselves and a new attitude toward others. The almost obsessive repetition of this pattern confirms that the process of reformation was vitally important to Dickens, and not merely a melodramatic interlude between two opposing selves. Studies of the regeneration of sinners are the very staple of his fiction during the forties, are treated with increasing seriousness and prominence, and resurface in subsequent decades in the lives of Gradgrind, Pip, and Bella Wilfer. For all their joyousness and buoyancy, the earlier novels did not place conversion at their centers: the permanence of Jingle and Job's transformation is questioned by the worldly Perker, whose opinion of Pickwick's faith in them is nonetheless undiluted. But Ralph Nickleby cannot be redeemed, and Fagin, living under the old law, cannot accept the child Oliver's offer of mercy and forgiveness, though Charley Bates, after reflecting on the cautionary example before him, reforms to become “the merriest young grazier in all Northamptonshire.”9

Though concerned with spiritual issues, the Carol does not engage in doctrinal debate, as do other novels of the decade. That Dickens eschewed doctrinal controversy has often been adduced as evidence of his weakness of intellect, yet far more cerebral Victorians, for example John Stuart Mill, Robert Browning, and George Eliot, found, after agonized personal investigations, reliance on the “wisdom of the heart” to be, in this age of transition, the best, though not inevitably correct, guide. For Dickens, especially in the early period, a well-disposed heart was the only prerequisite to successfully benevolent action, and from dealing at first with those already so disposed, Pickwick and Oliver and Nicholas, he came in time to consider how it could be achieved.

Such a concern is patently religious. The “seasonal relevance” of the Carol, like most of his Christmas numbers from Pickwick through the annual tributes in Household Words and All the Year Round, lies not in the retelling of the life of Christ, a task difficult enough in a century that saw the higher criticism flourish, though Dickens did write a Life of Our Lord for his children. Rather, Dickens provides a myth, or parable, expressing what he believed was the central truth of Christianity: the sense of communal identity and corporate responsibility, the ideal of a society bound together in mutual affection and good-feeling, composed of open-hearted and -handed individuals existing in love and charity with their neighbors. Caritas was still for Dickens a potent ideal. Of Christianity as a lonely, rigorous inward way he seems to have known and cared little, but he conceived it his duty to promulgate Christianity as a social gospel wherever possible. And theologians as disparate as John Wesley, F. D. Maurice, and Émile Durkheim agree that imitating the social ideals expounded in Dickens' favorite text, the Sermon on the Mount, is a profoundly religious activity.10

Moreover, for Dickens, as for nineteenth-century writers from Hazlitt and Shelley to Carlyle, George Eliot, and Nietzsche, art made it possible to enact, as well as present, that ideal. The sense of benevolent good feeling is as much the object of Dickens' prose as it is its subject. To compel the Carol's readers to believe in the possibility of Scrooge's transformation, in his becoming “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world,” as Dickens, strangely mastered by the tale himself, believed in it, “wept over it, and laughed, and wept again,” is, finally, the whole design of the story.11 Dickens' style, organized to move his audience to an emotional pitch that would result in benevolent action, is not cathartic, but hortatory, a feature not lost on contemporary reviewers: “A tale to make the reader laugh and cry,” said the Athenaeum of the Carol, and “to open his hands, and open his heart to charity even towards the uncharitable.”


In the work of neither Dickens nor Trollope … is there any of what we might call “metaphysical” concern with time. Both authors, of course, were signally unintellectual and uninterested in such matters.

—John Henry Raleigh, “The English Novel and the Three Kinds of Time”

We may call books fictive models of the temporal world.

—Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending

Contributing to the emotional power of the Carol is its brevity. Dickens later apologized for the “narrow space within which it was necessary to confine these Christmas Stories when they were originally published,” alleging that it “rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty, and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery.”12 By narrow space, he refers to the format which, after the Carol, became standard for his, and many other authors' Christmas Books, tales short enough to be sold for a modest price, five shillings. But space and time are intimately connected for Dickens as professional writer: the major novels are not only longer, occupying more pages or space, but also were composed and read over a longer period of time. The difficulties he experienced in trying to compress a conversion into the shorter compass of Hard Times and Great Expectations are well known; in the longer works, he was able to take a more leisurely, and realistic, course.

The reference to “realistic” leads us to a second observation. The Carol was written in little over six weeks, beginning around the thirteenth of October; its effect was thus compressed for Dickens, as he compressed it for his readers by inventing “what is peculiar in their machinery,” namely, the Ghosts. Ghost stories are a feature of English Christmases, as we can see in Pickwick and The Turn of the Screw. But the Ghosts are seasonally relevant in more complex and profound ways, because three of them are not the spirits of dead persons, but of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come.

Framed within the twenty-four hours in Scrooge's fictional life the Carol recreates at least five past times, a fictive present from Christmas morning through Twelfth Night, and a potential future encompassing the deaths of Tiny Tim and Scrooge himself. The multiplicity of the story's temporal dimensions points up its central concern, a concern that is adumbrated by its peculiar machinery, for the Carol is about Time: Scrooge's conversion is effected, in multiple ways, by the agency of Time itself.13 And the whole story is an exposition of the meaning of Christmas Time—a book published at Christmas (17 December), about a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to be read, as it has been for over a century, as a kind of Christmas ritual. Its time is as close to that of its audience as the Ghosts are to Scrooge or the narrator to his readers, and he is “standing in the spirit at your elbow” (24).

The variety of kinds of time present in the opening staves establishes its complex, and multiple, values. The simplest concept of time is that demarcated by calendars, Scrooge's own reliable repeater, and apparently—though not actually—by the chimes of the neighboring church. Regular and unremitting, this time can be counted on to persevere in its accustomed rhythm, day after day, night after night, until, unaccountably, on Christmas morning, having gone to bed after two in the morning Scrooge hears the heavy church bell toll midnight. Unsettled, he first assumes that the clock is wrong: “An icicle must have got into the works” (23). His repeater confirms the preposterous hour. “It isn't possible that anything has happened to the sun,” he speculates, “and this is twelve at noon!” Running to the window, he looks out to see if indeed “night had beaten off bright day, and taken possession of the world.” Happily, it appears to be midnight in fact, night has not swallowed up day, and time seems still the regular medium in which Scrooge has conducted his business, “a great relief, because ‘three days after sight of this First of Exchange pay to Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge or his order,’ and so forth, would have become a mere United States' security if there were no days to count by.”

Scrooge counts by this time, a concrete fact, hard, impersonal, unyielding, shaped in his own image to badger others in the service of his own prosperity. It is the time of notes and bills, equated with money: so many hours for so much pay, and so many days at so much interest per day. Time, for Scrooge, is money; Bob Cratchit's day off with pay is a double deprivation. “It's not convenient,” he complains, “and it's not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you'd think yourself ill-used, I'll be bound. … And yet … you don't think me ill-used, when I pay a day's wages for no work” (14). Christmas is merely a “poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” Such abstractly quantitative time has no qualities, no seasonal associations: “Out upon merry Christmas! What's Christmas time to you,” he expostulates in reply to his nephew's friendly greeting, “but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?” (10). Unless one makes money, time is “dead against you.”

Against this calendrical and quantitative chronology Dickens sets Scrooge's nephew. For him, time has qualities, as well as quantity:

“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

This time is not linear, abstract, discrete, and regularly sequential, not measured by calendars and reliable repeaters and the customary alteration of days and nights, but circular (“when it has come round” contrasts with the linear and computational senses of “a round dozen of months”), recurrent (instead of repetitive), ceremonial, emotional, and, by virtue of the similarity of response called up in all men and women each time, oddly stationary. That is, every Christmas “men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely,” and thus every Christmas is to that extent and in that way like every other Christmas. Scrooge's time makes one older, and, he plans, richer; his nephew's makes time almost stand still. The ramifications of this distinction will occupy us shortly.

Both speakers refer to a third kind of time, the span of one human life, from birth to death. Scrooge deplores getting older without getting richer; his nephew thinks that Christmas time compensates for the “long calendar of the year,” and speaks of the span of human life as a journey “to the grave.” We confront finite human time at the beginning of the novel, which is an end: “Marley was dead, to begin with.” His passing has been confirmed, in a sense determined, by the signatures in the burial register of the officiating “clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change for anything he chose to put his hand to” (7). Scrooge knows Marley is dead. And Dickens insists vehemently—if ultimately ironically—upon this fact. “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Paradoxically, Marley has not altogether ceased to exist on the face of the earth. Scrooge has gradually turned into Marley, assumed his worldly goods as sole assign and sole residuary legatee, and moved into the “chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner,” and which looked as if they had run to their gloomy location as a playful young house, and “forgotten the way out again,” growing old as their inhabitant (14). His identity is interchangeable with that once belonging to Marley; though he is willing to sign his own name to a burial register, he cannot bring himself to efface his partner's name from the door.

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.


Moreover, like Marley, Scrooge grows corpselike and metallic. Marley is “as dead as a door-nail.”14 Or a coffin-nail, which the narrator is “inclined … to regard … as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade” (7). Scrooge too is slowly reifying:

Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.


Cold and solitary, he is unaffected by external heat and cold, as unresponsive to the weather as a corpse. He is likewise unaffected by his “fellow-passengers to the grave,” having, in a sense, got there already: no one ever stops him in the street to inquire after his health, or solicit funds, “no children asked him what it was o'clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place.” He takes delight in warding off all human commerce: “To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call ‘nuts’ to Scrooge.”

If Scrooge is nearly a piece of dead ironmongery, however, Marley is more alive than he, or we, suspect, and first presents himself to his former partner in the guise of a doorknocker, suddenly, “without its undergoing any intermediate process of change,” transformed into his face (15). A fourth kind of time present in the opening stave of the Carol is the time after death, the time, adumbrated in Dickens' favorite Scriptural texts, the Gospels and especially the Sermon on the Mount, when the characteristics of this life are reversed. Since Marley was cold and impervious, like Scrooge, and accustomed to such chilly surroundings as Scrooge provides for Bob Cratchit, now his “hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air,” and his “hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven” (15, 18). Since he remained shut up in his counting house during life, and like Scrooge took no notice or thought of his fellow passengers, he must make his journey now. “It is required of every man,” he instructs Scrooge, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world” (19). Since Marley, again like Scrooge, made the passing hours pay, he is now shackled by the chain he forged in life, a chain clasped about his vacant bowels, made “of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel” (17). The constipation of his life has taken a dreadful, if appropriate, revenge.15

A fifth kind of time present in the opening stave of the Carol is the historical time of the story. It occurs, apparently, in the present of its first readers' lives. There are sufficient references to familiar and topical affairs and locations—to ‘Change, Sabbatarianism, prisons, Union workhouses, Lord Mayor and Mansion House, Joe Miller's jest book, cockney street boys who employ contemporary London slang (“Walk-ER”)—to anchor the world to London, circa 1843, for us a clearly defined actual historical past. Indeed, John Butt has traced the topics on Dickens' mind in the months preceding the Carol's composition, and shown how many of these subjects appear in his Christmas book.16 But Dickens calls his tale “a whimsical kind of masque,” and immediately after the principal character and situation have been introduced, the story makes a new beginning with the conventional formula for romance or fable or myth: “Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house.” The Carol seems to participate in not just a fictionally historical, but also a fictive, time. This feeling is reinforced by the presence of Ghosts, who, Dickens insists, cannot be dismissed as products of Scrooge's fancy: “Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including—which is a bold word—the corporation, aldermen, and livery” (14). Nor can they all be ascribed to “a slight disorder of the stomach” that makes Scrooge's senses cheat, no matter how much, to distract his own attention, and keep down his terror, he tries to be waggish and renounce Marley by such feeble verbal fencing: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” (18).

Considering the historicity of the temporal setting, if we reject Scrooge's attempt to discredit and disavow their reality, the status of the Ghosts is by no means clear. For one thing, we must distinguish between Marley, literally a geist, a spirit, and the three Christmas Phantoms, which are not the immortal remains of individual human lives. For another, we do know only through our senses, as Marley reminds Scrooge. In insisting on the analogy between the narrator's voice and the Christmas Ghosts, Dickens provides one way of taking their eruption into the fictional world: our senses respond to his voice as Scrooge does to the Ghosts, and we respond to the story he tells as Scrooge does to the times which the Ghosts present. The Carol becomes the analogue to Scrooge's experiences, a relationship familiar to anyone who has read the Christmas number of Pickwick attentively.17 But the Ghosts are more than this, as we shall see.


It is the irruption of the sacred into the world, an irruption narrated in the myths, that establishes the world as a reality.

—Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

The path of the soul, which is traversing the series of its own forms of embodiment, like stages appointed for it by its own nature.

—G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind

We are prepared for something supernatural to occur by the very extremity of the contrasting conditions depicted in the first stave: the deadness of Marley, the covetousness of Scrooge, the heightened merrymaking of the season, the coldness and bleakness of the weather, the seclusion, vacancy, and decrepitude of Scrooge's chambers, the general darkness, so pervasive that “candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air” (9). Entropic, it is a world slowly choking on its own congealing effluvia. “Piercing, searching, biting cold” (13) freezes all external objects in terms that relate them to Scrooge's coldness and hardness: “The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.” Human beings are left with two options: Scrooge's, to reify and thus become impervious to the weather, or his fellow passengers', the charity solicitors and the poulterers and grocers, whose “trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do.” The Lord Mayor keeps Christmas as a Lord Mayor should, with fifty cooks and butlers to pass out the cheer, and the gas-men light “a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture.” Inner coldness or communal warmth appear to be the alternative responses to such hungry weather, which gnaws and mumbles at noses “as bones are gnawed by dogs.” It is the “time, of all others,” the charity gentlemen tell Scrooge, “when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices” (12).

The central and most intense focus of all these contrary intensities lies near Scrooge. In his icy countinghouse Bob Cratchit sits in the Tank before the absolute minimum of coal fire, surrounded by the dingy cloud of fog that came “drooping down, obscuring everything,” until “one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale” (9). Returning home with a cold in his head, Scrooge passes through the gateway of his house, around which the fog and frost hang so heavily “that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold” (14). We move, in the opening stave, from the commercial world of London into Scrooge's countinghouse, and thence into his chambers, coming ever nearer the heart of the cold and fog, the source of that obscuring blackness, fecal and icy, that has turned day into night at three o'clock in the afternoon. And as we move from reality to its underlying sources, from ‘Change to the private center of Scrooge's miserly self-identity, we approach a kind of omphalos, or center, where physical and spiritual worlds interact, a sacred space, to use Mircea Eliade's term.18 Scrooge's doorknocker becomes Marley's face; his solitude is interrupted by a ghostly visitor; outside his window the air fills with “incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory,” as the phantoms condemned to wandering rush “hither and thither in restless haste, … moaning as they went” (22).19

All this, as we have stressed in other contexts, takes place on Christmas Eve. Marley died seven years before on Christmas Eve, the number seven being itself further reinforcement of our expectation that something supernatural may occur in this heightened environment. Before, Scrooge had not allowed Marley's death to interrupt his accustomed rhythm of business, for the very day of the funeral was solemnized “with an undoubted bargain” (7). Now, his thoughts preoccupied by the sudden apparition of his partner's head, he pauses at the door, looks behind it for Marley's pigtail, then slowly and deliberately mounts the stairs to his chamber, thinking, as he traverses the wide staircase, that he sees a “locomotive hearse going on before him in the gloom” (16). After searching his chambers, and finding nothing more irregular than his dressing-gown “hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall,” Scrooge double-locks himself in, “which was not his custom,” to be “secured against surprise.” Brooding by his small fire, his thoughts “disjointed fragments” atomized by his recent experience, Scrooge contemplates the Dutch tiles “designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Pharaoh's daughters, Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts,” the narrator concludes, hundreds of instances of the “Invisible World” and the human one interacting, of the two worlds in contact. For Scrooge, the literalist of time, “that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet's rod, and swallowed up the whole.” No more than any other human being can he successfully insulate himself against the surprise that is to come at this Christmas time when the spiritual world became incarnate, and time stood still.

Marley is announced by the ringing of every bell in the house. Typical Gothic ghostly machinery, but elaborated here into another indication of the interaction of these two worlds. Scrooge has always measured time by the bells of the neighboring churches. But now that measurement loses its expected regularity; Scrooge thinks the length of the house bells' ringing, “half a minute, or a minute,” more like “an hour” (17). Bells which have hitherto seemed to measure out quantitative time now begin to function differently, in ways that will eventually redeem all time for Scrooge.

Marley's visit has two purposes: to teach Scrooge what his proper business is, and to inform him of the coming of the three Ghosts. Man's business, as Marley, having neglected it, though a “good man of business,” has come to know in after life, is mankind. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business” (20). As the bells suggest, his lesson is a Christian one (cf. Luke 2:49: “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?”), and his neglect of it is all the more piercing “at this time of the rolling year” (21). “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” Rich in life, but poor in the things of the spirit, he has procured for Scrooge, equally impoverished, a “chance and hope.” The Christmas star has now conducted him to a poor home: Scrooge's, which is as barren physically and spiritually as any human habitation upon earth. The Ghosts will take Scrooge through many abodes of the poor: his own past, the Cratchits', his nephew's, miners' huts, old Joe's rag and bone shop, educating him to that better treasure which moths and rust do not consume, and thieves do not break through and steal.20

Such treasure works for the common good, and is the product of free will. Marley's chain he forged in life, “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” (19). Being time and money bound, as Scrooge has been, is a voluntary choice, whose voluntary determinism is inversely mirrored in that other life where one is condemned to wander, unable to rectify one's earthly mistakes. One gentleman whom Scrooge observes outside his window, and whose waistcoat and situation recall the gentleman in the white waistcoat in Oliver Twist, “with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, … cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever” (22).

Why, then, can Marley interfere with Scrooge? For two related reasons: because Scrooge's nature is not yet wholly unredeemable, having the traces, in the past, of a better soul, and because he has absorbed Marley's identity, become his alter ego. The interference is thus susceptible to both theological and psychological interpretations. Scrooge's spirit still has the possibility of choosing a different course, of “working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be,” and of finding “its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness” (20). Man is free to make the choice, whose consequences are reflected in the next life: as Guiseppe Caponsacchi learns God has a use for him, so Scrooge is allowed, through Marley, to discover that “ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed,” that each man has an infinite potential for good actions which will ramify down through the ages, if he makes proper use of his time on earth.

But Marley's time with Scrooge is short, and he turns over to others the agency by which this conversion is to be effected. Scrooge is to be haunted by Three Spirits, the first coming “to-morrow, when the bell tolls One,” “the second on the next night at the same hour,” and the “third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate” (21). His intercessory power is limited to an exposition of Scrooge's actual condition and business; he can provide the precept, but the examples come from Scrooge's own life and times, from a review of the series of his own soul's forms of embodiment.


In order to enter eternal life, it is necessary, as Simone Weil said one day, “to press time on our heart until it crushes it.”

—Jean Mouroux, The Mystery of Time

Our past, always separated from our present, is often reached through memory via contemplation and reflection. The first night after Marley's visit, Scrooge awakens a whole hour before the promised time of the first Spirit. At first, he imagines that he has slept through twenty-two hours, the temporal dislocation is so great. But his observation confirms, though his reason and habit want to deny, that it is midnight. He then spends the hour thinking: he “went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and the more he endeavoured not to think, the more he thought” (23). His mind keeps returning, “like a strong spring released” from a woundup watch, to the same question, the ontic status of Marley: “Was it a dream or not?” (24). Slowly becoming human again through the shock of Marley's appearance—Edgar Johnson identifies Marley as a manifestation of grace21—Scrooge once again experiences time qualitatively: between the three quarters chime and the hour time stretches out “so long, that he was more than once convinced he must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock.” At length (Dickens' word), “it broke upon his listening ear,” a whole hour suddenly speeded up into a moment:

“Ding, dong!”

“A quarter past,” said Scrooge, counting.

“Ding, dong!”

“Half-past!” said Scrooge.

“Ding, dong!”

“A quarter to it,” said Scrooge.

“Ding, dong!”

“The hour itself,” said Scrooge, triumphantly, “and nothing else!”

He spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy ONE.

Frank Kermode has written about the human compulsion to organize time into humanly significant moments, “tick-tock,” and about the necessity we, “in the middest,” feel to create fictions that make our beginnings and our ends concordant.22 Scrooge has not yet learned to experience time in the interstices between moments, “to live,” as Durrell puts it in Clea, “between the ticks of the clock, so to speak,”23 but he is attending to time's variability and quality in a way he never has before. Marley's Ghost has seen to that.

In depicting the three Spirits, Dickens faced, and overcame, his greatest artistic problem in the Carol, a problem, as we have seen, partly arising from the condensation of space and time necessary for his story. He had to emblemize Christian time, Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, which Edgar Johnson identifies in their didactic aspects as memory, example, and fear.24 The iconographical tradition, if any, is obscure; whereas Phiz and Cruikshank could count on their audience's recognizing familiar iconographical motifs like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, Dickens and Leech themselves had to create the emblems of these ideas. And as the emblems participate at the same time in a Christian and spiritual, and earthly and psychological, experience, the blending had to be accomplished with tact and imagination.

In its secular aspects, the Ghost of Christmas Past emblemizes human memory. Looking back into our pasts through a reverse perspective, we perceive events sequentially last as “closest” to us. The Ghost is like an old man seen through the wrong end of a telescope: “like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child's proportions” (24). Though old and hoary, the past is eternally youthful and fresh; the Ghost has long white hair, “yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin.” The past has a tenacious hold on us; the Ghost's arms “were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength.” Our memory of the past is evanescent, distinct yet ever-changing, as we recall different incidents at different moments, and juxtapose clear recollections in varying relationships, which fade off into the obscurity of forgetfulness. The strangest thing about the Ghost is that its “figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again, distinct and clear as ever” (25). So fluctuating is this Spirit of the Past that it cannot ever be frozen into a single image: Leech's illustration depicts only its cap and light, which is permanent.

The Spirit is specifically the Ghost of Scrooge's Past; in its face “in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces” it shows Scrooge (37). It is therefore sexless, having a grasp as “gentle as a woman's hand” and a voice “soft and gentle” (26,25). But its persistent, if fitful, illumination is more lasting than mere human memory could achieve; this Past is more than Maupassant's, described by Georges Poulet as a “profound feeling of attrition,” a “‘scattering of vanished events.’” For many Romantics, “duration no longer seems the genesis of life, but the genesis of death: incompleted and successive deaths which the brief blaze of affective memory interrupts from time to time, rekindling an ephemeral animation in an existence which is burning out.”25 This Ghost is self-illumined by the sheen of its lustrous belt, and by the “bright clear jet of light” that rays from “the crown of its head” like a Mosaic cornu. In its hand it holds a “branch of fresh green holly,” appropriate wintry emblem celebrated in carols of the ivy and the holly, but also associated through color with the living church, hope, growth, memory (“Lord, keep my memory green”), Dickens' monthly number wrappers, and the specially-tinted endpapers of the Carol. Since the past incorporates all times, and since Christian time, paradoxically a combination of duration and oneness, promises rebirth, its dress is “trimmed with summer flowers.” There may even be a reference to Christmas in its dress, a tunic of the purest white, which reveals delicately formed bare legs and feet.

Representative of Christian and memorial time, the Ghost of Scrooge's Christmases Past proposes a tropological journey, the first stage in the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner['s]” pilgrimage. Recalcitrant and unrepentant, Scrooge attempts to bonnet the Spirit with the cap fashioned by his worldly passions. The Ghost's purpose is Scrooge's welfare, or, as he reformulates it when Scrooge pleads for the efficacy of a sound night's sleep instead, his “reclamation.” On being solicited to fly out the window, Scrooge sensibly complains, “I am a mortal … and liable to fall”; to which the Spirit replies, “‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,” … laying it upon [Scrooge's] heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!’” (26).

Upheld, Scrooge revisits five past times, past stages in his psychosexual and psychosocial development in which many of the conflicts Erik Erikson describes are recognizable.26 Past time also removes us to a past space, the world of the country, of gate, post, tree, market town, bridge, church, winding river, shaggy ponies, broad fields, joyous boys, and crisp air. As we move forward in time into the more recent past, we move closer to the center of London, and away from country joys and old-fashioned country relationships, such as obtain in Dingley Dell, the Cheerybles' shop, and Fezziwig's warehouse, situated though it is amidst “all the strife and tumult of a real city” (30).

From each of these stages of his past life—youth, adolescence, apprenticeship, young manhood, and prematurely aged adulthood—Scrooge learns. In contrast to his own attitude toward people in the “cross-roads and bye-ways” of life, he observes the country villagers, the “jocund travellers,” giving each other Merry Christmas, and shouting to each other in high spirits (27). Only in the large house of broken fortunes, full of spacious but empty offices like the chambers Scrooge now inhabits, is there a solitary and neglected person: the boy Scrooge, whose appearance makes the old man weep like a child “to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.” The only recourse of this forgotten child, abandoned by his family, is a kind of playing, imaginative literature.27 On this Christmas Eve he is visited by all his “wonderfully real and distinct” companions: Ali Baba, Valentine and Orson, the Sultan's Groom and the Genii, the Parrot, Robinson Crusoe, and Friday (28). These are friends never to be outgrown, as Dickens, recalling them again, illustrates in his New Year's Piece for 1853, “Where We Stopped Growing.”28

If we can only preserve ourselves from growing up, we shall never grow old, and the young may love us to the last. Not to be too wise, not to be too stately, not to be too rough with innocent fancies, or to treat them with too much lightness—which is as bad—are points to be remembered that may do us all good in our years to come. And the good they may do us, may even stretch forth into the vast expanse beyond those years; for, this is the spirit inculcated by One on whose knees children sat confidingly, and from whom all our years dated.


The boy has been forgotten by his family and friends, just as Scrooge has forgotten his own boyhood and loneliness. Otherwise, he would have given something to the boy “singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night.” But neither in life nor death can one make amends for past opportunities missed to do some good to the world. Imaginative literature may put one back in touch with that world of childhood, with its hopes and fears and loneliness and magical power to overcome its deprivations, and thus awaken in the breasts of the old, through memory, the desire to “preserve ourselves from growing up.” The Christmas Tree has the same power, for it is decorated with the toys of childhood, and topped by the bright star of Bethlehem. As he muses upon the tree Dickens recalls the words “This, in commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion. This, in remembrance of Me!”29

In the second episode from Scrooge's past, a few years later his sister Fan comes to take him home: “Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like Heaven!” (29). Dickens does not present the confrontation of Scrooge with his father; presumably, from later episodes, his was not a permanent reformation, and his son was sent out into the world again to make his own way. Such parents as there are in Scrooge's life are surrogates, either frightening and cold, like Scrooge's schoolmaster and Scrooge himself, or genial and warm, like Fezziwig, Bob Cratchit, and his nephew. But though Dickens does not dwell at length on Scrooge's impoverished childhood, preferring to emphasize the freedom of choice, rather than the determination of circumstance, enough is indicated to refute the recent criticism of the President of Screen Gems, who, in announcing that Christopher Isherwood had been hired to rewrite the Carol for filming, charged that “Dickens was a terrible writer. In the original, Scrooge was mean and stingy, but you never know why. We're giving him a mother and father, an unhappy childhood, a whole background which will motivate him.”30

The second scene is terminated by a little ceremonial communion in “the veriest old well of a shivering best-parlour that ever was seen, where the maps upon the wall, and the celestial and terrestrial globes on the windows, were waxy with cold.” In this room of worldwide cold the schoolmaster produces “a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake, and administered instalments of those dainties to the young people,” without, it is apparent, any Christian fellowship resulting. When he looks into the future of this past, Scrooge is reminded that Fan, delicate though with “a large heart,” left behind her at her death one child, the nephew who continues to invite him to his home every Christmas without success.

In contrast to the preceding episode's lack of community, the third scene, beginning at the magical hour of seven o'clock, opens with old Fezziwig, the model employer, calling out to Ebenezer and Dick Wilkins from behind his high desk to transform the city warehouse into “as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter's night” (31). As the first scene brought to Scrooge's mind the small Carol singer he had ignored, and the second brought to mind his nephew, so this one, so analogous to his own situation, brings to mind Bob Cratchit, to whom he “should like to be able to say a word or two … just now” (33). Each of Scrooge's unregenerate responses on the present Christmas Eve of the opening stave is contrasted to a corrective example in the Past.

Fezziwig's celebrations are characterized by the creation of “affectionate grouping” of strangers, of rejuvenation, of feasting, and of light, conveyed through the “winking” of his legs:

A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig's calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn't have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next. And when old Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig had gone all through the dance … Fezziwig “cut”—cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.


This light recalls the Ghost's belt, which “sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another”; it is also, through “winking,” the figure of the dance, and the gallant ritual courtship, associated with sexual sensuality, which Dickens celebrates in the Carol, through veiledly and coyly. Replete with food and gratitude, the guests depart, Fezziwig having “spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” the Ghost inquires (33). To which Scrooge, thawing, “heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self,” replies:

“It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Scrooge has divorced monetary value from true worth; counting is no longer the measure of power.

Such an attitude contrasts sharply to the fourth scene, in which Scrooge's fiancée, Belle, breaks off their engagement because a golden idol has replaced her in his mind. If, under Fezziwig's tutelage, the young Scrooge learned the value of industry as a means of compensating for inferiority, to use Erikson's schema of psychosocial crises, he has not coped so well with the next stage of development, establishing his identity. Belle wishes him happiness in his “changed nature” and “altered spirit,” for he is “another man” from the time when their engagement was made, “when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry” (34). She is ambivalent about whether she hopes he will recall the parting with pain, because he remembers their former lives, or “dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke” (35). Since in becoming worldly Scrooge confined this past to a dream, it is appropriate that it should be recaptured in a dreamlike state that becomes far more real and permanent than mortal life. Once again, it is insisted that Scrooge exercised free will in his choice: “May you be happy in the life you have chosen!” Belle concludes.

The last scene is one of several Dickens writes which show the wealth, vitality, and warmth of a family, in this instance Belle's. Such communities, like Mr. Wardle's or Fezziwig's, almost redeem the time themselves, revitalizing old age like Mrs. Wardle's, with the children serving as “a spring-time in the haggard winter of … life” (37). Their perpetuation depends upon procreation and generativity; there are, consequently, many references to the sensual knowledge of man, from which the innocent child of pre-Freudian myth is exempt.

I should have dearly liked, I own, [says the narrator] to have touched [Belle's daughter's] lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.


Against this community stands Scrooge, alone in his office, illuminated by a solitary candle on a Christmas Eve seven years before the opening stave, while his partner Jacob unsuccessfully wrestles with the Angel of Death. Though his path away from the countryside and human community into the city has been voluntarily chosen, these shadows of the past cannot be changed: they have been determined by men's deeds, and are not the fault of the Spirit. Nonetheless, unable to bear it any longer, Scrooge wrestles with the Ghost, and, seizing the “extinguisher cap” with his “worldly hands,” unavailingly tries to hide the light, “which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground” (37).

At this midpoint in Scrooge's journey, let me recapitulate by applying some categories derived from an earlier, and more doctrinally Christian, “path of the soul.” It is Francis Fergusson's belief that the levels of interpretation advanced by Dante in his letter to Can Grande apply to subsequent literature: he has pressed them even so far as The Great Gatsby.31 With little distortion, and some gain in clarification and compression, we can see time in the Carol functioning in terms of these four levels, and each of the spirits as embodying one term. The literal time of the first stave, and Marley, bear resemblance to Dante's literal level. The second stave, in which Scrooge encounters the shadows of his former selves, similarly bears resemblance to the tropological. The third stave takes Scrooge on a survey of the entire world, London shops, the hearths of Cratchit and his nephew, the Miners' “bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants” (49), the lighthouse, a ship, sickbeds, on foreign lands, and close at home, rich and poor, in almshouse, hospital, and jail, wherever misery lives. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a sibling of the eighteen-hundred-odd Ghosts who have inhabited the world since the birth of Christ, and thus, though it is the presiding Spirit for this year, from Christmas Morning to Twelfth Night, it is the latest in a long series of Christmas Spirits. This survey of the world, which extends spatially and temporally, marks the allegorical level. And finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, shadowing forth a future not yet determined, adumbrates the anagogical.

Though we are divided from our past selves by the gap between present experience and memory, the past is separated from the present only by an instant. Exhausted by his effort to deny, Scrooge falls into an appropriate “heavy sleep,” awakening “in the right nick of time” as the bell strikes One. To guard against being surprised once again, he is prepared for anything from “a baby [to a] rhinoceros. … Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling” (38). Though his bed lies “the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour,” no Spirit visits him. Christmas Present cannot come to Scrooge, for he does not keep the season, as his nephew has pointed out; he must come to it—a far journey spiritually, though physically it lies in the very next room.

The chamber in which Scrooge mumbled his supper of gruel has been transformed into “a perfect grove” (39). If progress toward the present has entailed a journey from the country, then to keep Christmas in the present requires transforming the present and urban into the past and rural, as Fezziwig did. The aged chambers have been converted from a temple of parsimony into a temple of feasting; the twinkling belt and bough of holly from Christmas Past, the “living green,” expand to fill the entire room: “The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there.” The hearth blazes, and on the floor, heaped so as to form a kind of throne, lie every imaginable kind of Christmas comestible, in an Abundance that is not only appropriate, as the charity solicitors pointed out, but talismanic and emblematic of, and an offering to, the spiritual season. From the Spirit's torch, “in shape not unlike Plenty's horn,” streams light, incense to sprinkle over the dinners of poor revellers, and water which restores good humor to all who speak an angry word. Cornu becomes cornucopia: this brother Spirit exemplifies and dispenses the abundant grace of qualitative time.

A giant, the allegorical Spirit of the whole world at this season, the Ghost can yet stand beneath a low roof as gracefully as within a lofty hall. In Georges Poulet's familiar trope, it is both microcosm and macrocosm, center of humility and circumference.32 Sibling to eighteen-hundred-odd brothers all strangers to Scrooge,33 its kingly mantle is of green, “bordered with white fur.” So free and open is its countenance and spirit that “its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice.” On its head it wears “a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles” (40), a wreath which bears some analogy to the poet's bays of laurel. Indeed, this Spirit has much in common with the author of the Carol: the one by water, the other by words, tries to restore good humor. Its antique scabbard is rusty and swordless, the former occupant doubtless beaten into plowshares, whence its abundance derives, and also, one is tempted to say, into pens, whose power for good is greater. Its character is described in adjectives—genial, sparkling, open, cheery, unconstrained, joyful—appropriate for a Spirit that emblemizes qualitative time.

Willingly, now, Scrooge accompanies his new visitor. “I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” Upheld by the touch of the Past in his heart, he is now borne by his own voluntary touch on the Ghost's robe.

The Christmas morning he encounters is still cold, gloomy, misty, and severe, but the cheerful people carving roads through the snow make with their scrapings, instead of Scrooge's “grating voice,” a “rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music.” This world has not let the thoroughfare of human commerce congeal into impassibility, and their cheerfulness, standing in stark contrast to the weather, sends forth “an air … abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain” (41).

Christmas Present conducts its disciple through the world of sensual abundance, symbolized in the contents of the poulterers', fruiterers', and grocers' shops, whose displays, we recall from stave one, become such a “glorious pageant” that it is “next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do” with them. The language likewise swells into a sensual, almost Keatsian richness, redolent in adjectives and active verbs, and climaxes, with the fishes, in a stunningly virtuosic, instance of “negative capability”:

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. [What a mouthful!] There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.

For Professor Steig, the emphasis on “brownness, thickness, ordorousness and a ripeness that seems to approach decay,” implies associations “as much anal as they are the oral ones we should normally expect in lengthy descriptions of food.”34 If excrement is the first rich thing we make as gift, then these associations, however unpleasant, are still radically appropriate. But a Freudian might also note the genital overtones of the scene: the brown-girthed onions winking in wanton slyness at passing girls who glance demurely at hung-up mistletoe, the pears and apples in blooming pyramids, and the bunches of grapes made in the shopkeepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed. In a passage of even more explicit sustained sexual innuendo, the grocers display “almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious; … the figs were moist and pulpy, [and] the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes” (42). Abundance, anal and genital transposed into the more acceptable oral, symbolizes open-hand and -heartedness: “the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.”35

Immediately afterward the steeples call people to worship, and this conjunction brings forth from Scrooge the reflection that the Spirit of Christmas Present seeks to close these very shops on every seventh day, an allusion to the Calvinist and Evangelical Sabbatarianism which Dickens attacked all his life, from Sunday Under Three Heads to Little Dorrit.36 He is properly rebuked by the Spirit, who lays the charge to people of “pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness” (43), among whom Scrooge has until recently been counted one, his name, Ebenezer, being associated in the Preface to Pickwick with the narrow dissenting Ebenezer Chapel which has just enough religion to make people hate, and not enough to make them love, one another.

Having established the respective values of the closed and open societies, the Ghost leads Scrooge to the home of Bob Cratchit, where perhaps the most famous of all Dickens' feasts occurs. In contrast to the shops Scrooge has just passed, the Cratchits' feast is a triumph of spirit over straitened circumstances.37 To begin with, “Bob” Cratchit brings home “but fifteen ‘Bob’ a-week himself; he pocketed on Saturdays but fifteen copies of his Christian name; and yet the Ghost of Christmas Present blessed his four-roomed house!”

Second, their social gentility, expressed in their naïve but touching efforts at Christmas finery, is not viewed as vain and selfish, but childlike and “brave” and “gallant.” They take every possible opportunity to rejoice, for as a family they are constantly overcoming disappointment. Martha, late from work, hides from Bob when he enters the house, the childhood game of hide and seek being one of the first ways the infant learns to accommodate himself to the vicissitudes of fortune. Less comic, but still to be met and coped with in the same spirit, are Tiny Tim's withered arm and leg, the manifestations of his wasting disease. Crippled though he be, he has not ceased to walk among men nor constricted his journey to the confines of his iron frame: Bob is his “blood horse,” and with him has come home “rampant” (45). “As good as gold,” the child shows the way to the congregation, reminding them on Christmas Day of Christ, “who made lame beggars walk, and blind men [like Scrooge, who views it all] see.”

The triumph of spirit over flesh is paradoxically conveyed through the flesh. The children suffer the pangs of excruciating hunger: “two young Cratchits … crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped” (45), and they bask “in luxurious thoughts of sage and onion” (44), their very imaginations, in matters of luxury, unable to go beyond food. For them to eat, the goose must be cooked and carved, the latter event celebrated with communal rejoicing.

[Grace] was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!


Surely we are meant to reflect on the nearness of this goose, its breast slit open and its stuffing gushing forth, on the one hand to the corrupted effluvia of man, and on the other to the body of Our Lord on the Cross, from whose breast wound flowed the blood and water of salvation. But perhaps not; perhaps the goose is just a goose, and the stuffing only stuffing. Dickens, as Augustine says of those who read the Bible, can have it both ways: those who wish to be literal can be literal, and those who descry spiritual significance can elaborate it to their heart's, and soul's, content.

In any event, it was not a large goose, and had to be eked out with applesauce and potatoes, though, to Mrs. Cratchit's delight, one small atom of a bone remained upon the dish. It was a “sufficient” dinner for the whole family, a brilliantly-chosen adjective that, following the excesses of the grocers' shops, indicates the limits of the feast, and also, by contrast to their usual hungry state, measures how satisfying, to the poor, the condition of being “steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows” can be.

The pudding is a replay of all the elements of this stave. Hard and firm, “like a speckled cannon-ball,” it looks uncomfortably like the other end of food. Its presence is first in doubt (“suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it”), then preceded by a “smell like a washing-day,” then heralded by a “smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other,” and it makes its appearance, ceremoniously borne in by Mrs. Cratchit, “blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” Its importance is aside from its adequacy: the parsimonious half of half-a-quartern, the doubts about the quantity of flour, its smallness for such a large family. To have remarked on its physical insufficiency “would have been flat heresy.” In the final detail eloquent of the Cratchit's scrabbling penury—the name itself compounds crutch and scratch it—the “family display of glass” consists of “two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle” (47).

From a utilitarian standpoint, Bob is a man of sexual excess (“rampant”), fathering a line of children, starting with Peter and Martha, who are barely capable of supporting themselves, until his wasted vital substance dribbles out in Tiny Tim. If the shadows are not altered, in the Future Tiny Tim will die, a desirable end from a utilitarian viewpoint, since he will thereby “decrease the surplus population.” At this reminder of Scrooge's retort to the charity solicitors, the Ghost declaims with Carlylean eloquence, while Scrooge, overcome with “penitence and grief” (47), hangs his head in shame:

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

The remainder of the stave reinforces the lessons to be learned from the Cratchit Christmas. It adduces other examples of people “happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time” (49), especially Scrooge's nephew, who presides over childish games that ritualize sexual and spiritual pursuit, like Blind Man's Buff. To the Cratchits, Scrooge is the Ogre of the family; to his nephew, who also toasts him, he gives “plenty of merriment” (55). The second party is not so memorable as the first, being less exaggerated and extreme an instance of spiritual Abundance overcoming material Want; but it softens Scrooge still more, reducing him to the condition of a child who begs its parent for time to play one more game: “One half hour, Spirit, only one!” The game he then witnesses turns on the question of the identity of “an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and lived in London, … and wasn't led by anybody,” and so on, the answer to which is, “Uncle Scro-o-o-o-oge!”

It is, that is, and it isn't. For the ontological status of the Christmas Present scenes is the most perplexing of the lot. This is a Christmas that, in fact, doesn't happen. Scrooge, reformed, sends the Cratchits the prize turkey from the Poulterer's window; so presumably the Cratchits eat turkey, not goose. And he shows up unexpectedly at his nephew's for Christmas dinner, thus rendering it impossible for them to play the games described in stave three. Though Scrooge imagines it to be Boxing Day, the second day after the appearance of Marley late Christmas Eve, the Christmas of 1843 has not yet occurred, and even these shadows are not always of things that have been, but rather “a possible alternative future … experienced as present.”38 Their realization depends on Scrooge's identity, animal or child.

By Twelfth Night, the Spirit's hair has turned grey; the whole of the “Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together”39 (56), and the Ghost's time is running out. Just before midnight, the Spirit reveals beneath his mantle, not the figures sheltered by Mater Misericordia, but “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish” offspring of the times, Ignorance and Want, the only progeny of sexual and oral misers, the false and barren parents from whom they turn to the Ghost in prostrate humility. On Scrooge's asking if they have “no refuge or resource” (57), the Ghost once again turns his own words upon him: “Are there no prisons? … Are there no workhouses?” John Henry Raleigh remarks that Dickens “had two main temporal modes: the public plot—the mole burrowing or the mine exploding; and the subjective experience—the ego remembering.”40 Here in the Present lie the seeds of that potentially apocalyptic confrontation; if the present cannot be changed by mass conversion, the Future will appear as Bleak House.

The present, infinitesimally separated from the past out of which it flows, is contiguous with the future. As the bell strikes twelve, Christmas Present disappears. Scrooge, remembering the prediction of Jacob Marley, lifts up his eyes to behold “a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.” The lineaments of the future are concealed; we know only its general outline and its tendency. This Phantom is “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand” (58). The presence of the future is awesome, serious, eschatological; “the Spirit … seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.” There is, to reverse Scrooge's earlier phrase, more of grave than gravy about it. But though the grave is the end of all human life, the journey to that end is not determined for us “fellow-passengers”: this Phantom does not speak, only points.

The Spirit's “mysterious presence” fills Scrooge with a “solemn dread” not usually (for the early Victorians) associated with the straightforward secular contemplation of the future. Its anagogical import inspires an awe and terror that recall Rudolf Otto's description of the psychological characteristics of all religious experience: “the feeling of terror before the sacred, before the awe-inspiring mystery (mysterium tremendum), the majesty (majestas) that emanates an overwhelming superiority of power; … religious fear before the fascinating mystery (mysterium fascinans) in which perfect fullness of being flowers. … all these experiences … are induced by the revelation of an aspect of divine power.”41

Eagerly now, despite his “vague uncertain horror,” does Scrooge solicit this Spirit's aid. Time is now precious to him, and already he desires to use it as fully as possible. He “hope[s] to live to be another man from what” he was; the discrepancy between the Scrooge who began this fearsome journey and the man he is becoming increases in the passages to follow.

This Ghost leads Scrooge into “the heart” (59) of the city, and plunges deeper into its bowels as the night wanes. This heart is “‘Change, amongst the merchants; who hurried up and down, and chinked the money in their pockets, and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their great gold seals.” Despite the fact that the exchange of words among these men on the occasion of a death is trivial and unimportant, ignorant yet of their portentous application to his dead self, “unwatched, unwept, uncared for” (64), Scrooge nevertheless chooses “to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw” (60). Contemplating a “change of life,” Scrooge is comforted to find no image of himself among “the multitudes that poured in through the Porch.” The dead self to which the men pay scant attention is like the dying self Scrooge is putting off.

Collecting now spiritual treasures, Scrooge is pointed onward, into the wretchedest part of town, the city's colon, where “the ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery” (61). If the speckled cannonball which smells like a washing-day be not converted, through ceremonious spirit, into a blazing pudding bedight with holly, it will degenerate into its primeval ooze, and share in the entropic dissolution of the world. All Scrooge's worldly treasures reduce to the bundles of refuse, of sleeve-buttons and sheets and sugar-tongs and dark bed-curtains which the undertaker's man, the laundress, and the char lay down before the presiding deity of this den of thieves of “infamous resort,” old Joe, in a mock Adoration on a future Twelfth Night Epiphany. Unnatural in life, Scrooge is served unnaturally in death. “If he had been [natural],” exclaims the char, “he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself” (62). The choric Mrs. Dilber, the laundress, responds: “It's the truest word that ever was spoke. … It's a judgment on him.”

The principle of inversion which governs the relationship between this life and the next exemplified by Jacob Marley applies also to the relationship between life and death. Scrooge, that “tight-fisted hand,” that “clutching, covetous, old sinner,” does not die of “anything catching”; and those who plunder his material remains, profiting by his example, act in accord with the principle which the char derives from Scrooge's precept: “I certainly shan't hold my hand, when I can get anything in it by reaching out, for the sake of such a man as he was” (63). Setting the right example, for the Evangelicals and Dickens, is more important than dogma; John Wesley writes in a letter:

I take religion to be, not the bare saying over of so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or in private, not anything superadded now and then to a careless or worldly life; but a constant ruling habit of soul, a renewal of our minds in the image of God, a recovery of the divine likeness, a still-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy Redeemer.42

Scrooge understands the application of this lesson to his own condition, but only in a metaphorical relationship: “The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now” (64). Anagnoresis may be complete, but identity has not yet been determined, nor palingenesis wholly effected. The Phantom immediately confronts him with his dead self, veiled, lying in a curtainless bed, and though he longs to “withdraw the veil” he is powerless. The elements of the scene suggestive of an inverse Eucharist (the altar of a church, covered in Advent with purple or pall, is the bed/tomb of Christ) are indirectly stressed by the narrator, who in a last hortatory intrusion announces the possibility of transforming death into eternal life:

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man's. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!


A number of lines of imagery converge at this point. Scrooge's gradual reification becomes finally associated with death. The contrast between clutching and open-hand and -heartedness is reinforced. And the “Strike, Shadow, strike” passage, referring as it does to the wound Christ suffered after death on the Cross (as Dickens tells it in The Life of Our Lord), gives additional strength to the earlier association with the goose, further points to the Ghost of Christmas Present's bared breast, and may even recall “the prophet's rod” which swallows up the parables on the Dutch tiles, since Moses', or Aaron's rod, striking the rock, brought forth water in an Old Testament prefiguration of the Crucifixion.

In liturgy and literature Dickens could have found precedents for the seasonal relevance of his conversion tale.43 Advent is eschatological in orientation, and though Dickens had left the Church of England around 1843 for Edward Target's Little Portland Street Unitarian Chapel, Unitarianism, according to F. D. Maurice, did not confute the teachings of Anglicanism, but merely did away with doctrinal debate, and the excessive preoccupation with sin found in Evangelical sects.44 The Church of England readings for the first Sunday in Advent stress that the time for conversion is at hand. The Collect, repeated every day until Christmas, solicits “Almighty God” to “give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.” The Epistle, Rom. 13:8–14, expounds the law Dickens believed central to Christianity, the law of love, for “now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed; … put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” That the Spirits visit Scrooge in his sleep thus has religious, as well as psychological, significance. And the Gospel, Matt. 21:1–13, retells the entry into Jerusalem and the explusion of the money changers from the Temple, one of the incidents from Christ's life that Dickens stresses in his Life of Our Lord.

The Carol opens with the ultimately ironic observation that “Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change for anything he chose to put his hand to.” But the men on 'Change seek not His kingdom, and heed not the imminence of death, any more than Scrooge, who solemnized “an undoubted bargain” on the day of Marley's death. The fourth stave carries us into the false temples of 'Change and worldly abundance, from the Porch to Scrooge's deathbed; wealth emerges as the detritus, the excrement of human processes. The Gospel reading speaks to the point in its concluding sentence: “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” These visions help to convert Scrooge; the Carol is about 'Change in both its literal and spiritual senses.

To Christians, the Incarnation and the Passion are atemporal and simultaneous. The coming of Christ into time redeems time; from his wounds flow the water and blood that give eternal life. “‘Redemptive history,’” Oscar Cullmann argues, “is the heart of all New Testament theology.”45 Insofar as each man puts on the Lord Jesus Christ, from his life and death spring the deeds that sow the world with good, as Marley tries to teach Scrooge, the “captive, bound, and double-ironed.” It is not, the narrator reminds us, “that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man's.”

Pervasive in Christian theology and literature, the idea of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and sowing the world with good deeds flowing from the Passion is at the heart of one of the most widely known of late medieval folk songs, adapted as a carol of the mass, at least three versions of which are recorded in the nineteenth century, of which one specifically associates the Passion with Christmas:

Down in yon forest there stands a hall,
          The bells of Paradise I heard them ring,
It's covered all over with purple and pall,
          And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.
In that hall there stands a bed,
It's covered all over with scarlet so red.
At the bed-side there lies a stone,
Which the sweet Virgin Mary knelt upon.
Under that bed there runs a flood,
The one half runs water, the other runs blood.
.....Over that bed the moon shines bright,
Denoting our Saviour was born this night.(46)

The stone on which Mary kneels, identified by commentators as the paten of the Eucharist which symbolizes the stone sealing Christ's sepulcher, was inscribed in the slightly earlier version preserved in Richard Hill's Baillol College commonplace book: “‘Corpus Christi’ wretyn theron.”

Many details in the Carol, and especially in the fourth stave, suggest that Dickens may have been familiar, either with some popular version of this carol, or with the tradition—it is of course a Grail poem—out of which it springs: the bells, the “dark stuff” of the bed-curtains, whose sale is the climax of that scene with the “Ghoules” (Charles Dickens Edition running head), the stone and water imagery, and the association of the Passion with Christmas, the bedridden wounded body with the promise of immortal life. Carols were not prominent in the early nineteenth century: William Hone predicted that they would shortly disappear, and the term came to be applied to prose as well as verse on Christmas subjects, while its original association with dances was virtually ignored.47 Nonetheless, they were variously preserved: by antiquarians like Bishop Percy, Joseph Ritson, Sir Walter Scott, and William Hone, by Thomas Wright and the Early English Text Society, in folk-song adaptations in the West and North of England and Scotland, in mummers' plays, and printed in ballad-mongers' sheets originating from the Seven Dials.48 If Dickens knew it, as he evidently knew “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” the story's title takes on additional connotations, and the import of Scrooge's final entreaty to the Phantom, that he may sponge away his name from his headstone, is clarified. Surely Scrooge is not there exhibiting the emotions of a Michael Henchard; nor is he any more indifferent to his nominative identity, as when he retained Marley's name and assumed his identity. He seeks to replace Ebenezer Scrooge by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, and would have, one supposes, “Corpus Christi” written thereon. Dickens' imagery at this climactic moment makes clear the kind of conversion promised: through the benefits conferred by Christ's sacrifice, Scrooge may sponge away from his reified being, and from its external symbol, the gravestone, his purely mortal identity, and become human, soft, open, and immortal through blood and water. He would be “man … in heart, not adamant.”

Before this conversion is complete, Scrooge must visit three more scenes, the first a family of his debtors who express a “kind of serious delight” (65) in his death, the only emotion caused by it that the Spirit can show him, and the second, an instance of “some tenderness connected with a death” (66), the Cratchits. Finally, he is brought to the “iron gates” that divide life from death, the city from the graveyard at its center. We come at last back to that omphallic center like Scrooge's chambers, another place of passage where human and urban death meet the promise of resurrection and the life, as in the parody of the burial service for Nemo in Bleak House: “walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite” (69).

Scrooge cannot get from the Phantom any assurance that these are “shadows of things that May be, only” (70). Only if he sincerely reforms will the Future alter, but as his emotion rises, the Spirit trembles. His final conversion is marked by his promise to keep all three times, Past, Present, and Future, in his heart always. For Dickens, if time is eternally present, time is redeemable.49 He grasps the “kind hand” of the Phantom, which struggles successfully to free itself from him. Repulsed, unable to make the anagogical Future subservient to his will, Scrooge instead holds “up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed.” This appeal to Heaven works where no attempt to impose his will can succeed. The Phantom “shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.”


A real novel, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

—Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life

The Past is neither trauma to be reexperienced in order to free oneself from it, nor, in Marx's terms, does “consciousness of the past [weigh] like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”50 Scrooge is reborn into redeemed, Christian time, with which we may associate the interpretation given by the Catholic theologian Jean Mouroux:

[Christian] time is the ever-present possibility of renewing our existence and giving it fresh meaning. The past is valuable insofar as it has been integrated into our being and has become a part of us. The future is valuable insofar as it can be integrated into our being and can renew it. The present … is valuable because it can both anticipate and actualize the future and take hold of our past to give it new meaning and transform it into an entirely different future. Scheler points this out beautifully in Repentir et Renaissance. … Remorse, through the bankruptcy of our liberty, remains fixed on a terrible past; but repentance is the liberative activity of the psyche, an “effective intervention” in our past. It gives the past new meaning and value. It literally makes the penitent a new man. We are really the free creators of our spiritual existence because through our present we are masters of the personal significance of our life.51

The emotions aroused at moments that seem to show us how we are prepared to fulfill our intended purpose are described by Vauvenargues, whom Poulet quotes: “There are moments of power, … moments of elevation, of passion and enthusiasm, in which, self-sufficient, disdaining assistance, the soul is drunk with its own grandeur.”52 Scrooge now feels self-sufficient: “the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!” (71). He is elevated, “as light as a feather, … as happy as an angel”; he is inebriated, surprised, now, by joy, “as giddy as a drunken man.” No longer a miser, he knows the world by a joyous sensuous participation, which has nothing to do with worldliness, but rather is the secular analogue of the “rich banquet,” “furnished well with joyful guests,” the Eucharist that combines past, present, and future and that is celebrated in the Episcopal Hymnal in these terms.53 He has moved out of quantitative time into qualitative time, or, to employ Frank Kermode's terms, from the tock-tick of “simple chronicity, of … humanly uninteresting successiveness,” into a tick-tock world of “‘temporal integration’—our way of bundling together perception of the present, memory of the past, and expectation of the future, in a common organization. Within this organization that which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future: what was chronos becomes kairos.54

Thus the Carol is partly about developing a fiction about man's relationship to time that makes fiction possible, that allows us, in the middest, to imagine concordant beginnings and ends. This fiction is the fact of the Incarnation, which Auerbach argues is central to the style and content of Western literature, and which is celebrated in the Eucharist.55 The fictional world of Victorian England and the fictive world of “once upon a time” are not ontically distinct, but congruent. The word of the fiction describes the metaphysical reality; conversely, as Eliade puts it, “the manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world.”56 “There's the saucepan that the gruel was in!” Scrooge cries, “There's the door, by which the Ghost of Jacob Marley entered! There's the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present, sat! There's the window where I saw the wandering Spirits! It's all right, it's all true, it all happened. Ha, ha, ha!”

Having successfully come to terms with the conflict between generativity and self-absorption by moving forward in time to observe the consequence of failure, despair, Scrooge moves to the last phase of ego-development, integrity, and exhibits a concern for “Mankind.”57 Three actions manifest the new Scrooge, each confirming a portion of that new identity which contrasts to the old. All take place on a morning which itself has been reborn, cleansed, purified. The churches ring out “the lustiest peals he had ever heard” (72). And the fog, mist, and entropy of the first stave have left the land: “No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”

First, Scrooge sends off the prize turkey to the Cratchits, anonymously, dispensing largess without the slightest attempt to gain worldly credit.58 Second, he confirms his new identity by walking forth among men, and stopping “the portly gentleman, who had walked into his counting-house the day before, and said, ‘Scrooge and Marley's, I believe?’” (73). This worthy cannot believe his eyes when Scrooge greets him with solicitous inquiries and a Merry Christmas. “Mr. Scrooge?” he stammers, astonished. “Yes,” Scrooge replies, “That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you” (74). He then proceeds to offer a sizeable donation, including a “great many back-payments,” insisting that his only repayment be renewed human intercourse: “Will you come and see me?” Third, he walks forth, after church—not for Dickens by any means the most important enactment of his new being59—knowing his way and delighting in all his observations and companionship. In the afternoon he goes “home,” to his nephew's, for a “Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, wonderful happiness!” (75). Something “wonderful” does come of the story.

Frequently in the last installment of his novels Dickens recapitulates his story through a final action. The Carol provides an instance. The next morning Scrooge arrives at his office early, eager to anticipate Bob Cratchit. And Bob is late. The clock strikes nine, and quarter past; he finally turns up a “full eighteen minutes and a half behind his time.” Leaping into his seat, Bob drives “away with his pen, as if he were trying to overtake nine o'clock.”

“Hallo!” growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?”

“I am very sorry, sir,” said Bob. “I am behind my time.”

“You are?” repeated Scrooge. “Yes. I think you are. Step this way, sir, if you please.”

“It's only once a year, sir,” pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. “It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.”

Bob Cratchit is behind the time. He is still living in the past of the old Scrooge; and though he has kept the season himself, he is unaware of its effect on Scrooge. That effect is manifested in Scrooge's triumphant divorce of time from money, in his joyous paradoxical conclusion from the premise that Bob is late: “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore … I am about to raise your salary!”

Scrooge proves “better than his word” (76). He does redeem the time to come. No longer an unnatural parent of Ignorance and Want, he becomes a second father to “Tiny Tim, who did Not die,” and, living in past, present, and future, does his part to redeem the city from entropy and death: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” Dickens cannot resist punning on the relationship between Ghostly Spirits and earthly ones; he employs the verbal paradox in Stiggins and Gabriel Grub, and once again here: Scrooge “had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards.” Moreover, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” The keeping of Christmas is a spending of self, for others, in direct contradiction of the ideal of capitalist natural economy, saving.60

Conversion, for Dickens in the 1840s, is the solution to the world's present and future ills, to the mist and congealing cold that fogs men's hearts and minds. As miser, Scrooge exemplifies the bourgeois mind, as the Russian idealist philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev, disciple of Dostoevsky, defines it: “a spiritual state, a direction of the soul, a peculiar consciousness of being. It is neither a social nor an economic condition, yet it is something more than a psychological and ethical one—it is spiritual, ontological.”61 An unbeliever, Scrooge believes only in this world and is enslaved by it, a “captive, bound, and double-ironed”: “Bourgeois consciousness of life is in opposition to the tragic consciousness of life” (17). A naive realist, the bourgeois denies that the “visible and transitory world is but the symbol of another invisible reality” (18), the heart of the Carlylean vision Dickens revered. “The bourgeois spirit is nothing but the rejection of Christ” (25). The solution to social ill, to the potential death of Tiny Tim, is not, as our modern consciousness supposes in the new film Scrooge, to find the right doctors; “no material means,” Berdyaev continues,

will avail. It is not a material or economic phenomenon, industrial development as such is not bourgeois. This does not mean that the material structure of society is indifferent and cannot assume a bourgeois character, but that the bourgeois structure of a society is merely the expression of a bourgeois spirit, of a false direction of the will. It is a wrong conception of life, the concupiscence of the temporal, which transforms life into an inferno. In its finite and vivid type the bourgeois is an apocalyptic image, a figure of the coming kingdom of which the sacred scripture has spoken.



[Unitarianism is] the idea of an unity which lies beneath all other unity; of a love which is the ground of all other love, of Humanity as connected with that love, regarded by it, comprehended in it.

—F. D. Maurice, The Kingdom of Christ

Dickens was, in Dostoevsky's familiar words, “that great Christian.” His contemporaries, as Philip Collins shows, admired him for his mimetic powers, his unparalleled capacity to show the features of his age to itself, and to posterity.62 Religion was a preeminent concern for most Victorians. But it is not necessary to suppose that because Dickens could serve so well as special correspondent to posterity, he could be doing nothing else at the same time. It is not necessary, to reclaim him as a great novelist, to assert that he was an incorrigibly “lowbrow ignoramus,” coarse and insensitive to finer feelings, who only exhibits a “limited degree of intellectual development,” that he was a “popular entertainer” showing “little spiritual development,” who somehow unknowingly created symbols that reverberate beyond the “dully literal.”63 The parable concerning the uses of time which underlies the Carol appears again and again in Dickens' work: men of business vie with men whose business is mankind; the wisdom of the head, to use a pervasive Victorian trope, contends against the more potent and lasting wisdom of the heart. The complexity of Dickens' religious views has seldom been acknowledged, though most pay passing tribute to his advocacy of a social Gospel. But, Walter Pater observes in his essay on Coleridge, “The faculty for truth is recognized as a power of distinguishing and fixing delicate and fugitive detail.”64 The extent of Dickens' Christianity emerges only after the ontological and metaphysical implications of his action are minutely examined.

In reviewing the journey we have made, it is worth remarking that we have been forced again and again to employ variations of three linguistic formulae in “distinguishing and fixing delicate and fugitive detail.” First, sentence constructions using forms of the verb “to be.” Much of Dickens' art is concerned with establishing identities. It is the effort which many of his characters make, on psychological and social planes, through the plot; it is also the effort which his novels make, through personification, abstraction, identification. Second, these identities are established in context, confirmed, and elaborated through association and connection. “As … so” constructions abound in this exegesis, the verbal structure for underscoring and understanding Dickens' metaphorical and analogical relationships. Eliade observes that “analogical terminology is due precisely to human inability to express the ganz andere; all that goes beyond man's natural experience, language is reduced to suggesting by terms taken from that experience.”65 Dickens' self-identified “infirmity,” his capacity to perceive relationships obscure to most people, is, as Forster cogently remarks, the source of his humor: it relates persons, places, things, words and ideas (most concisely through pun—grave and gravy), and so discovers

the affinities between the high and the low, the attractive and the repulsive, the rarest things and things of every day, which bring us all upon the level of a common humanity. It is this [power of perceiving relations] which gives humour an immortal touch … the property which in its highest aspects Carlyle so subtly described as a sort of inverse sublimity, exalting into our affections what is below us as the other draws down into our affections what is above us.66

The characteristic Romantic procedure seeks to create unity out of fragments, connection where only division seems to exist, transcendent reality out of appearance, an archetypal way of the soul from disjointed soiled fragments in separate paper bags. Space and time, the two radical media of human experience, are, for Dickens as for Carlyle, interrelated: the past world is a country world, the Ghosts come for a “space of time.” In this conception of the total connectedness of things, much more firmly held in earlier fictions, perhaps, than apocalyptic later ones like Bleak House,67 Dickens is at one with his age: “the exploration of discontinuity,” observes the foremost commentator on “Modernism as a Literary Movement,” Monroe K. Spears, “is as characteristic of the twentieth century as the elaboration of continuity was of the nineteenth.”68

The third formula repeatedly employed in this essay is verbs like “manifest” and “enact.” Dickens' art is so unitary that not only is there often no discrepancy or discontinuity between symbol and thing symbolized, as John Holloway shows in a discussion which E. D. H. Johnson declares “should remove many misconceptions about the function of [symbolism] in his fiction,”69 but also there is no way of distinguishing act from signification. What happens is what the story means: for John Butt, the Carol, a turning point in Dickens' career, was the first work in which Dickens discovered “a plot sufficient to carry his message, and a plot coterminous with his message.”70 The Carol is about time, depicts time, relates Past, Present, and Future, literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical, into an everpresent, incarnated Christian human unity, and takes place in a time that is contiguous to the reader's own.71

Something else wonderful can come of the story Dickens relates, if we the readers believe in it, if we really believe that Marley was dead. Something more wonderful, Dickens assures us, than if we believe Marley, or Hamlet's father, was merely “rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot … to astonish … [a] weak mind” (7). The Carol is in many ways a slight piece, operating like the water from Christmas Present's torch “to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land,” and to make its readers happy. To explicate so elaborately, and to employ such portentous terminology, may appear to register sheer insensibility to the tone and comedy of Dickens' Christmas book. Were it not for the wide conviction that there is nothing profound about Dickens' religious views, a more delicate treatment of these themes might be persuasive. But Dickens' humor is always serious, at bottom; because he takes the world with such passionate seriousness, he can laugh, and make us laugh too. Chesterton, more than any other critic after Forster, recognizes this; and probably more than any other critic of Dickens Chesterton was profoundly, and passionately, Christian. But his caution is well worth remembering: “The moment our souls become serious, our words become a little wild.” Despite the slightness and playfulness of the Carol, the conversion it enacts is serious and permanent. To suppose Dickens had anything less at heart, to suppose that Scrooge will relapse when the merriment is over, return to moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion; that he will reveal himself as a very uncomfortable person, and the victim of a manic-depressive cycle, not only mocks Dickens' entire strategy, but also denies the words of the story, and what lies behind them, the Word. The most wonderful thing that could happen, in a century in which art replaces religion, is that the Carol would convert its readers into keeping Christmas too, all the year round: “May that be truly said of us, and all of us.”


  1. Charles Dickens, Author's Preface to the Cheap Edition of the Christmas Books, dated September 1852. A shorter version of this paper was read at Literary Forum II, “Charles Dickens Now,” MLA Annual Convention, 29 December 1970. I am especially grateful to Professors Wesley Morris and John Parish, who made several helpful suggestions which strengthened my argument.

  2. Edmund Wilson, “Dickens: The Two Scrooges,” Eight Essays (1939; rpt. New York, 1954), p. 59.

  3. Ibid., p. 60.

  4. For convenience, I quote from the Oxford Illustrated Edition of the Christmas Books, p. 8. All quotations from the Carol following any cited one are taken from the same page.

  5. Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 2 vols. (New York, 1952), I, 489. Hereafter cited as Johnson.

  6. Michael Slater, “Dickens's Tract for the Times,” Dickens 1970, ed. Slater (London, 1970), pp. 99–123.

  7. Johnson, I, 484, 489.

  8. Kathleen Tillotson, Introductory, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (1954; rpt. Oxford, 1961), esp. pp. 125–37.

  9. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ed. Kathleen Tillotson (Oxford, 1966), p. 367. Cf. my article, “Capitalism and Compassion in Oliver Twist,SNNTS, 1 (1969), 207–21.

  10. For Wesley and Maurice, see Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England: From Watts and Wesley to Maurice, 1690–1850 (Princeton, 1961); for Émile Durkheim, see The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. J. W. Swain (London, 1915).

  11. Carol, p. 76; John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. J. W. T. Ley (New York, 1928), IV, i, 299.

  12. Preface to Christmas Books, Cheap Edition.

  13. Kathleen Tillotson, in her Memorial Lecture on “The Middle Years from the Carol to Copperfield,” Supplement to the September Dickensian (London, 1970), 14, says that “possibly the most important contribution of the Christmas Books to Dickens's later novels … lies … in their treatment of time.” She emphasizes the psychological aspects of Dickens' experimentation, his “breaking through the barriers of ordinary experience.” She concludes, without pressing her point as far as I, that “the Carol can be translated out of fairy tale, into an experience whose truth strikes deep.” Her subsequent elucidation of the importance of time and memory in the immediately succeeding novels confirms and extends George Ford's discussion of the same subject in “Dickens and the Voices of Time,” NCF, 24 (1970), 428–48.

  14. At the end of August 1843 Dickens had a curious dream, elements of which reemerge a few weeks later when he begins to compose the Carol.

    A propos of dreams, is it not a strange thing if writers of fiction never dream of their own creations; recollecting, I suppose, even in their dreams, that they have no real existence? I never dream of any of my own characters, and I feel it so impossible that I would wager Scott never did of his, real as they are. I had a good piece of absurdity in my head a night or two ago. I dreamed that somebody was dead. I don't know who, but it's not to the purpose. It was a private gentleman, and a particular friend; and I was greatly overcome when the news was broken to me (very delicately) by a gentleman in a cocked hat, top boots, and a sheet. Nothing else. “Good God!” I said, “is he dead?” “He is as dead, sir,” rejoined the gentleman, “as a door-nail. But we must all die, Mr. Dickens, sooner or later, my dear sir.” “Ah!” I said. “Yes, to be sure. Very true. But what did he die of?” The gentleman burst into a flood of tears, and said, in a voice broken by emotion: “He christened his youngest child, sir, with a toasting-fork.” I never in my life was so affected as at his having fallen a victim to this complaint. It carried a conviction to my mind that he never could have recovered. I knew that it was the most interesting and fatal malady in the world; and I wrung the gentleman's hand in a convulsion of respectful admiration, for I felt that this explanation did equal honour to his head and heart. (Walter Dexter, ed., The Letters of Charles Dickens, 3 vols., The Nonesuch Dickens [Bloomsbury, 1938], I, 536, hereafter cited as NL.)

    It may be that Dickens never did dream of his fictional creations after he had realized them, but this episode suggests in several ways that his fiction, springing from unconscious sources, may work out his own inner tensions and anxieties. Without attempting to indulge in parlor analysis, I would point out the similarity of the deceased to Fagin, the physical and spiritual despoiler of childhood, who commits the one “fatal malady” in Dickens' world, and Dickens' inability, in his dream or subsequently, to identify this person, “a private gentleman, and a particular friend.” Scrooge avoids an analogous confrontation with his old self until the last minute.

  15. Michael Steig, “Dickens' Excremental Vision,” VS, 13 (1970), 339–54, esp. p. 341.

  16. John Butt, “Dickens' Christmas Books,” Pope, Dickens, and Others (1951) pp. 127–48.

  17. Cf. my article, “The Art of Pickwick's Interpolated Tales,” ELH, 34 (1967), 349–66.

  18. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, Trans. Willard Trask (New York, 1959). The distinction goes back at least to Durkheim.

  19. Dickens' spiritual world is spatially lateral, rather than vertical, in the Carol, though elsewhere (The Old Curiosity Shop, for instance) the church as vertical axis figures more prominently. His concern in the Carol is to show how spiritual powers manifest themselves on the human plane: even the church bell which “was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window” becomes invisible in the fog and darkness, “and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there” (13).

  20. Matt. 6:19–21 is a favorite text for Trollope too; he uses it in describing Archdeacon Grantley in The Warden.

  21. Johnson, I, 489.

  22. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York, 1967).

  23. Lawrence Durrell, Clea (London, 1960), p. 14.

  24. Johnson, I, 489. I cannot agree with the learned and perceptive John Butt, either when he dismisses the goblins that visit Gabriel Grub as “meaningless agents of Grub's transformation,” or when he identifies the Ghosts in the Carol, a “welcome advance,” as “moral agents with an ulterior, though very obvious, significance. They resemble the allegorical figures in a newspaper cartoon, who bear their names clearly printed on their garments” (p. 146). This last remark is useful in reminding us of the iconographical tradition from which some elements of Dickens' art derive, but as I have tried to show elsewhere (“Portraits of Pott: Lord Brougham and The Pickwick Papers,Dickensian, 66 (1970), 205–24), neither the tradition, nor Dickens' adaptation of it, is simple.

  25. Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time, trans. Elliott Coleman (Baltimore, 1956), pp. 33–34.

  26. See Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2d ed. (New York, 1963), chap. 7, and his “Identity and the Life Cycle,” Psychological Issues, ed. George S. Klein (New York, 1959), pp. 1–171.

  27. The psychosocial modality of Erikson's third stage includes “to ‘make like’ (= playing)”; Scrooge's appropriate radius of significant relations, the basic family, does not exist, so he substitutes from fiction models for his Ideal Prototypes. For Erikson, this stage occurs between three and six, but Scrooge seems somewhat older, being already in boarding school (Erikson, Psychological Issues, p. 166).

  28. Household Words, 6 (1 January 1853), 361–63. Cited by Philip Collins, “‘Carol Philosophy, Cheerful Views,’” ES, 23 (1970), 158–67, an article that offers a useful corrective to this one, emphasizing the hearty, demotic, and celebratory aspects of Dickens' notion of Christmas.

  29. “A Christmas Tree,” Household Words, 2 (21 December 1850), 295.

  30. Quoted from The Knoxville Journal in “Varieties,” Dickensian, 65 (1969), 112–13.

  31. In graduate seminars given at Rutgers, the State University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

  32. Georges Poulet, Introduction, The Metamorphoses of the Circle, trans. Carley Dawson and Elliott Coleman (Baltimore, 1966).

  33. Dickens becomes a bit self-conscious about the complexity of these temporal identities: the Ghost refers to his brothers, “the younger members of my family; meaning (for I am very young) my elder brothers born in these later years” (p. 40).

  34. Steig, VS, pp. 342–43.

  35. Dickens' response here is very “primitive”: eating or sex in primitive cultures “is, or can become, a sacrament; that is, a communion with the sacred” and an imitation of the Divine vitality originating the universe (Eliade, Sacred and Profane, pp. 14, 97–100, et passim).

  36. Dickens recognized that Sabbatarianism was a social weapon, used by the upper classes to keep down the lower, “another means of … enforcing the ‘prudence’ and economy already advocated by the Malthusian politicians” (Humphry House, The Dickens World, 2d ed. (London, 1942), p. 124. See section 6.

  37. It is testimony to the effect of this feast on Dickens' readers that Ian Watt recently recalled it as being one of abundance (“Oral Dickens,” Centenary Conference, University of Alberta, 2 October 1970).

  38. Tillotson, Dickensian, p. 14.

  39. Cf. the familiar identity of space and time in Carlyle, who calls them both “Thought-forms” of our earthly life.

  40. John Henry Raleigh, “Dickens and the Sense of Time,” Time, Place, and Idea (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 1968), p. 136.

  41. Eliade, Sacred and Profane, pp. 8–9.

  42. Quoted in Davies, Worship and Theology, pp. 194–95.

  43. I am grateful to the Rev. John D. Worrell and Professors T. D. Kelly and R. S. Cox for their help in the succeeding discussion.

  44. See Forster, Life, IV, i, 298, and Maurice's Kingdom of Christ, passim, quoted in Davies, p. 293.

  45. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, trans. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia, 1950), p. 27.

  46. Richard Leighton Greene, ed., The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1935), No. 322, pp. 221–22. The nineteenth-century versions were recorded in North Staffordshire, Derbyshire (the one quoted), and Scotland, the latter by James Hogg, The Mountain Bard and Forest Minstrel, whose mother used to recite it. See Greene's notes, pp. 411–12, and his Introduction, pp. liv-lvi,xciv, for discussions of the poem's origin and meaning.

  47. See Percy Dearmer's Preface to The Oxford Book of Carols (1928; rpt. London, 1950).

  48. Edmondstoune Duncan, The Story of the Carol (London, 1911), in Appendix D lists printed collections of carols in various English libraries: between 1833 and 1841 four different collections were published (p. 241).

  49. T. S. Eliot notwithstanding, this is a more usual conception; see Eliade, Sacred and Profane, esp. pp. 85–88.

  50. Quoted by Kermode, Sense of an Ending, p. 121.

  51. Jean Mouroux, The Mystery of Time, trans. John Drury (New York, 1964), p. 76.

  52. Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time, p. 21.

  53. For the Eucharist, see Cullmann, Christ and Time, p. 74; Hymn 231 for Holy Communion.

  54. Kermode, Sense of an Ending, p. 46.

  55. Erich Auerbach, “‘Figura,’” Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (New York, 1959), pp. 11–76. For this and references to Victorian attitudes toward theology, I am indebted to Miss Kay Pope, who has just completed a doctoral thesis on “Religion in Martin Chuzzlewit” at Rice University.

  56. Eliade, Sacred and Profane, p. 21.

  57. The point is partly made by David Elkind, “Erik Erikson's Eight Ages of Man,” New York Times Magazine (5 April 1970), 25ff.

  58. An amused Dickens reported to Forster that the organ of the philosophical radicals, the Westminster Review, took a dim view of Scrooge's gift, considering it “grossly incompatible with political economy” (NL, I, 632 [October 1844]). The reviewer complained that Dickens' story obscured the fact that somebody had to “go without” for the Cratchits to regale themselves (quoted by Butt, Pope, Dickens, and Others, p. 138, from a review of R. H. Horne, A New Spirit of the Age (1844), in the Review, 41(1844), 374–76). Equally defiant of sound utilitarian practice, Bradbury and Evans had on at least one occasion presented Dickens with a Christmas turkey (cf. Madeline House and Graham Storey, eds., The Letters of Charles Dickens [The Pilgrim Edition, Oxford, Vol. I, 1820–39; Vol. II, 1840–41; pub. respectively in 1965 and 1969], II, 1; 2 January 1840).

  59. The “evangelical press attacked Dickens … for … the almost total absence of church-going of a proper public kind” (House, The Dickens World, p. 119).

  60. “If this were a book on adulthood, it would be indispensable and profitable at this point to compare economic and psychological theories (beginning with the strange convergencies and divergencies of Marx and Freud) and to proceed to a discussion of man's relationship to his production as well as his progeny” (Erikson, Childhood and Society, p. 268).

  61. Nicholas Berdyaev, The Bourgeois Mind and Other Essays. (1934; rpt. Freeport, N.Y., 1966), p. 11. (Essay Index Reprint Series) Further citations appear in the text.

  62. In his Introduction to The Critical Heritage: Charles Dickens (London, 1971).

  63. A. O. J. Cockshut, The Imagination of Charles Dickens (New York, 1962), pp. 183–86, a book which Steven Marcus, for some curious reason, praises as an “excellent study [which] will take its place among the growing body of intelligent commentary on Dickens” (dust jacket, quoting The New Statesman). Cockshut subscribes in less temperate language to House's verdict, that Dickens' “work shows no indication of any powerful feeling connected with a genuinely religious subject” (p. 131).

  64. Quoted by Monroe K. Spears, Dionysus and the City (New York, 1970), p. 22.

  65. Eliade, Sacred and Profane, p. 10.

  66. Forster, Life, IX, i, 721, referring to Carlyle's 1827 Edinburgh Review essay on Jean Paul Richter.

  67. See J. Hillis Miller's remarks on discontinuity in his Preface to the forthcoming Penguin English Library edition of Bleak House.

  68. Spears, p. 21; T. E. Hulme's Speculations opens with a similar observation.

  69. John Holloway, “Dickens and the Symbol,” Dickens 1970, pp. 53–74, reviewed by E. D. H. Johnson, Dickens Studies Newsletter, 1 (1970), 6.

  70. Butt, Pope, Dickens, and Others, p. 137, paraphrased with one alteration (“his message” to “the theme”) on p. 140.

  71. Instructive parallels and differences are to be found in the first half of Browning's Christmas Eve and Easter Morning, published in 1850 along with two other poems Mrs. Tillotson cites (p. 19) as being centrally concerned with “the eternal landscape of the past” and “the ties / That bind the perishable hours of life / Each to the other.”

Elliot L. Gilbert (essay date 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol,” in PMLA, Vol. 90, No. 1, 1975, pp. 22–31.

[In the following essay, Gilbert considers the “Scrooge problem,” or the issue of the credibility of Scrooge's conversion during the course of A Christmas Carol.]

As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty …

Hamlet i.iv


It is impossible to get into a serious discussion of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol without sooner or later having to confront “the Scrooge problem.” Edmund Wilson stated that problem succinctly and dramatically in his well-known essay “The Two Scrooges” when he wrote:

Shall we ask what Scrooge would actually be like if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably, he would relapse, when the merriment was over—if not while it was still going on—into moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion. He would, that is to say, reveal himself as the victim of a manic-depressive cycle, and a very uncomfortable person.1

Other critics have made much the same point about Scrooge. Humphry House, for example, remarked about the old man's conversion that

it seems to be complete at a stroke, his actions after it uniform. There is no hint of his needing at intervals to recruit his strength for the new part he has to play; there are implied no periods of restlessness or despondency.2

Biographer Edgar Johnson, briefly summarizing this critical approach to A Christmas Carol, added his own speculation about how such an attitude might have developed. “There have been readers,” Johnson wrote,

who objected to Scrooge's conversion as too sudden and radical to be psychologically convincing. But this is to mistake a semi-serious fantasy for a piece of prosaic realism.3

And as recently as 1972, Scrooge was still being discussed in the same terms. The personality transformation in A Christmas Carol, Joseph Gold remarks in Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist,

is not much more than magical or symbolic. Indeed, by writing a fairy or ghost story, Dickens deliberately avoids dealing with the question of psychological or spiritual growth.4

The Scrooge problem, as defined by these four statements, appears to be one of credibility. It is true that even the severest critic of A Christmas Carol is likely, thanks to Dickens' skill as a dramatist and manipulator of language, to find himself moved and almost convinced by Scrooge's change of heart.5 Speaking purely from the point of view of the laws of weights and measures that govern esthetics, sufficient emotional intensity is generated by the visits of the three Christmas Spirits to justify, at least within the terms of the work itself, the old man's conversion at the end, and to cause us temporarily to suspend our disbelief in the reality of that conversion. I say “almost convinced,” however, because often there is a measure of discontent in even the most positive emotional response of the serious reader to this book. It is a discontent arising from the obvious disparity between the way in which moral and psychological mechanisms operate in the story and the way in which they seem to the reader to work in the “real world,” a discontent focusing, as the quoted passages suggest, on the unconvincing ease and apparent permanence of Scrooge's reformation.

The critical reader knows, that is, that men who spend whole lifetimes in miserable offices and lonely rooms, bullying their clerks, grinding the faces of the poor, reveling in misanthropy, do not turn overnight into decent, generous people, touched only in their own best interests by the past, and dedicated to the good of their fellowmen. To admit the possibility of such a thing is to appear to deny all that life teaches in favor of sentimental wishful thinking. Thus, the more deeply a serious reader finds himself moved by A Christmas Carol, the more likely he is to feel afterward that he has been betrayed both by the author and by his own worst instincts,6 and the more eager he will be, in the face of what seems to be Dickens' moral and/or psychological dishonesty, to seize upon the hardheaded Wilsonian prognosis in the Scrooge case as the real truth of the matter. Nor does calling the book a fantasy or a fairy tale, as Johnson and Gold do, solve the problem raised by these critical objections. For while it is true that an author may deliberately employ fairy-tale elements in an otherwise realistic fiction in order to take advantage of the mythic resonance of such material,7 Dickens' use of fantasy in A Christmas Carol, in the view of Johnson and Gold, renders the story not more intense and significant but less so; makes of it, to use a phrase F. R. Leavis once applied to Dickens' fictional achievement as a whole, the sort of work in which “the adult mind doesn't as a rule find … a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness.”8

What such seriousness in literature amounts to may be gathered from another of the passages in Wilson's essay. In it, the critic writes that

the real beginnings of a psychological interest [in Dickens' books] may be said to appear in Hard Times, which, though parts of it have the crudity of a cartoon, is the first novel in which Dickens tries to trace, with any degree of plausibility, the processes by which people become what they are.

(p. 54)

It is important to understand the ideas about life and fiction implicit in this statement. Among the key words in the passage are “plausibility” and “processes,” both terms that suggest the intensely rationalistic bias of such criticism; suggest, that is, the critic's assumption that life consists, for the most part, of events serially and even causally linked; that human beings are products—accretions, really—of such events, developing inexorably toward ends ever more remote from their beginnings; and that fiction ought to be the more or less literal record of that development—social, moral, and psychological—through time and experience. If these “serious” ideas do indeed form the basis of Wilson's esthetic of fiction, it is no wonder that even Hard Times, singled out by him (as it also is by Leavis) for praise, is nevertheless conceded to display, in part, the crudity of a cartoon. For whatever Dickens' greatness may consist of, it is not principally a function of his “plausibility,” at least in Wilson's sense of the term, or of any genius of his for making quasi-scientific examinations of psychological processes.9

Naturally, social, moral, and psychological matters all play their parts—often brilliantly—in Dickens' stories, as they would have to do in the work of any first-rate novelist. But it is quite true that in such terms the story of Scrooge does not (and cannot) really satisfy. In the “real” world defined by these terms, men do not recover easily, if at all, from years of isolation, wickedness, and paranoia. Human beings are not infinitely resilient; flesh and spirit wear out; a point is inevitably reached where no restoration can be looked for. It is, then, by defying realistic, “adult” expectations, Wilson and the others would say, that Dickens damages the credibility of A Christmas Carol.

But to emphasize unduly the absence of such “realistic” elements from the story is to distort a work that is in fact constructed along very different lines. One clue to what those lines may be lies in the often repeated observation that Dickens' characters tend to define themselves, and to present themselves to the reader, not so much through their developing relationships with other characters as through their continually ramifying expositions of self. They are all, this argument goes, monologists in one way or another, and Dickens is therefore to be seen as an author much more interested in what his characters “are” than in what they are “in the process of becoming”; much more devoted, in other words, to the vivid presentation of their already accomplished selves than to analysis of their developing natures.10

The problem most readers have with the Dickens of A Christmas Carol, then, is that their rationalistic presuppositions about life and fiction are at odds with their own best insights into the author's actual antirationalistic accomplishment. Could these readers only trust their insights more, they would have less difficulty in accepting Scrooge's reformation as credible and as fully justifying the emotional response it evokes from them. For Dickens is concerned, in A Christmas Carol, not so much with those aspects of his protagonist that are subject to development, depletion, and decay—the proper concern, according to the critics I have quoted, of the serious novelist—as with those elements in Scrooge that are of the essence of a human being and that therefore do not change, elements that predate all the moral, social, and psychological character mechanisms a man acquires through the process of living, and that are always there waiting to be rediscovered and reinvoked when those mechanisms finally fail.

But if Dickens' interests in this book are not fundamentally moral or psychological, what are they? Albert Camus, writing about Dostoevsky, a novelist greatly influenced by Dickens, distinguished between two kinds of sensibilities in writers of fiction by suggesting that one sort of novelist thrives on “moral problems” and the other sort—like Dostoevsky—on “metaphysical problems.”11 And elsewhere, Frank Kermode has spoken of the “metaphysical despair”12 that characterizes many of Dickens' stories. I would like to suggest that we adopt, for the time being, the notion of Dickens as primarily a metaphysical novelist, if only because this hypothesis will permit us to account for the extraordinary power of a tale like A Christmas Carol in the face of the story's obvious inadequacies when judged by the more traditional standards of plausibility and “realism.” For if A Christmas Carol is at least a partial failure as the moral fable of a man expiating years of wickedness with a few hours of generosity, or as a social document about a world in which human obligations may be satisfactorily discharged with some random charitable gestures, or as a psychological case history of a “manic-depressive” temporarily reformed by Christmas sentimentality and self-pity, then it is most certainly a success as the metaphysical study of a human being's quest for, and rediscovery of, his own innocence.

This concept of metaphysical innocence in Dickens requires some explanation, for in his works the author also depicts many kinds of innocence that are not notably metaphysical: for example, the innocence, which is in fact a kind of stubborn and almost calculated naïveté, of Tom Pinch13 in Martin Chuzzlewit, or even of Mr. Pickwick; or the curious Victorian sexual innocence of Little Nell or Esther Summerson; or that most general and apparently self-evident of all innocence in fiction to which one critic alludes when he writes that “every central character must … be relatively innocent at the beginning of his book; that is, he must be more innocent early in the story than he is later.”14 All these different innocences have, to make an obvious point, one thing in common: they all can be lost; indeed, they all ought to be lost in a well-regulated life, and once they are lost they cannot be recovered. For they all represent the absence of something important and valuable—experience, maturity—and so cannot properly be recommended to us in and of themselves without an author running the risk of sentimentality. Moreover, they all exist within a framework of the everyday “real” world of observable phenomena in which human life is commonly experienced as a linear journey from youth to age and from innocence to experience, in which the world makes a progress through time in one direction only, without possibility of return, a progress through an essentially rational universe in which nothing is more unlikely than that, to use Keats's famous phrase, “a rose should shut, and be a bud again.”

Metaphysical innocence is a very different matter. It is a positive, not a negative quality; a substantial presence rather than a mere vacancy. Moreover, it is a permanent characteristic of human life and so, unlike other kinds of innocence, can never be lost. To be sure, in many lives the gradual accumulation of worldly experience may have the effect of obscuring from a man his own metaphysical innocence, of making it appear to him that that innocence has vanished along with the more ephemeral innocences of which we have been speaking. But, in fact, metaphysical innocence is immutable, retaining its original strength behind the gathering clouds of experience;15 and it is therefore always potentially recoverable by the individual, always ready to be reintroduced by him into his consciousness of himself. From this definition of innocence comes a view of life as something other than a linear movement through events, a mechanical progress from blankness to surfeit in a world in which a man is invariably “more innocent early in his story than he is later in it.” Instead, this definition urges us to see life as a cyclical journey, a journey setting out from the innocence that, paradoxically, is to be the goal, circling away from that innocence for the purpose of achieving, by way of contrast, a better view of it, and returning finally to the start, to where, as D. H. Lawrence puts it in his poem “Pomegranate,” “the end cracks open with the beginning.”

It is as difficult to define a concept like metaphysical innocence as it is to define the Christian concept of “grace,” of which it is perhaps a modern analogue. In both cases, one falls inevitably into the rhetoric of mysticism. Albert Camus, however, has succeeded admirably in putting the matter in relatively practical terms. Writing, again in The Myth of Sisyphus, about what he calls “absurd” man, Camus says:

At a certain point on his path the absurd man is tempted [to substitute faith for doubt]. History is not lacking either in religions or prophets, even without gods. He is asked to leap. All he can reply is that he doesn't fully understand, that it is not obvious. Indeed, he does not want to do anything but what he fully understands. He is assured that this is the sin of pride, but he does not understand that notion of sin; that perhaps hell is in store, but he has not enough imagination to visualize that strange future; that he is losing immortal life, but that seems to him an idle consideration. An attempt is made to get him to admit his guilt. He feels innocent. To tell the truth, that is all he feels—his irreparable innocence.16

(italics mine)

Readers will recognize in this passage a contemporary statement of the theme of the Book of Job, where also a man is urged, both by the horror of his condition and by the logic of his friends, to admit his guilt, but where, in spite of everything, he too insists upon his “irreparable innocence.” The key fact about all such protestations of innocence, it should be noted, is that they are profoundly antirational. In his book Irrational Man, William Barrett makes the point that whenever men insist on the limits of reason, they are taking an existentialist stand. But the reverse of this statement is also true. Wherever men are found taking an existentialist stand, asserting what Camus calls their “irreparable innocence,” they are insisting on the limits of reason. Interestingly, the Camus passage represents just such a quarrel between “reasonable man,” who believes in a world of causality where conclusions follow necessarily and logically from premises, and “absurd man,” who rejects such mechanical rationalism as a basis for human life. Job's comforters are also apostles of such a rationalism. Beginning with the premise that God is just, they conclude, logically, from the fact that Job is suffering, that he is guilty and deserves to suffer. Job, on the other hand, noting his own persistent sense of guiltlessness in the face of calamitous punishment, recognizes the radical discontinuity in the universe between a man's deeds and his fate. The moment he makes this discovery, the moment he accepts the fact that he can suffer as if he were guilty and still be innocent, he is freed from the burdensome rationality of his friends, from their curiously corrupting sense of justice which omits a man's own experience of himself from its moral equation,17 freed to be the final judge of his own worthiness and so to come again into his old legacy of wholeness and health, that original innocence from which his cyclical journey began.

The extraordinary parallels between the Book of Job and A Christmas Carol make it tempting to cast all the readers who have ever deplored the unreasonableness of Scrooge's conversion in the roles of Job's comforters. For the restoration of Scrooge's innocence at the end of his story, like the restoration of Job's prosperity at the end of his ordeal, seems to declare that a rose can indeed shut and be a bud again, and this is an idea no rational critic can countenance. But it is precisely this subversive, antirational point that Dickens is determined to make in his story, a story whose success is attested to by the very uneasiness with which so many readers confront their favorable responses to it.


Though we never see Scrooge at the very beginning of his life, we may reasonably assume that, since he is a human being, he too, like all other human beings, experienced in his earliest days that infant sense, celebrated by Wordsworth in the “Immortality Ode,” of his absolute continuity with the rest of the universe, his identity with everything around him.18 Tennyson makes this same point when he writes, in In Memoriam, of how

The baby new to earth and sky
          What time his tender palm is prest
          Against the circle of the breast,
Has never thought that “this is I”

Tennyson, like Wordsworth, is speaking of that phenomenological sense of wholeness in the earliest moments of life, that inability to distinguish between what is the self and what is not the self which Freud calls the “oceanic” effect and which is implicit in nearly every “myth of the beginning,” not least in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden.

In the beginning, Adam is in the Garden, but just as important, he is of the Garden, literally of its clay, and figuratively of its essence. This is the crucial point. In the profoundest sense, Adam and the Garden are coextensive. The environment that sustains the man belongs to him in exactly the way in which his body belongs to him. He need not earn his living; he need take no action to prove that he is worthy of life. He is whole—that is, healthy—in his at-oneness, and indeed, Adam's innocence in the Garden may be seen principally as a function of that wholeness. It is a function, too, of the timelessness of the Garden; for there is no death in Eden, and without death there is no direction in which time can flow. Thus Adam's innocence, like the innocence of the infant described by Wordsworth—and by extension like the innocence of Scrooge in his infancy—is an innocence of eternity and omnipresence, an innocence of perfect metaphysical health.

It is Adam's fate—man's fate—to lose that health. Specifically, Adam's “sin” is to act upon his discovery that there is a difference between his own will and the will of everything that is not himself, this latter will being called “God” in the story. His punishment is to have to live for the rest of his life with the knowledge of that difference, and his famous fall is therefore a fall out of eternity into time and out of omnipresence into the limited confines of self. The moment time appears in the world, the possibility of endings—of death—also appears. From that moment, man is committed to the process that characterizes the world of reality, the irreversible journey from birth to death. He is also burdened, through becoming aware of the difference between himself and everything else, with the curse of self-consciousness which Matthew Arnold, for one, saw as the particular plague of the post-Renaissance world (“The dialogue of the soul with itself has begun”),19 but which Thomas Carlyle perhaps more aptly characterized as the congenital disease of men in all ages (“Here as before, the sign of health is Unconsciousness”).20

Thrust out of Eden, the symbol of his old innocence, Adam also falls from grace. He is no longer, as he was before, entitled to life. Everything that was once his through the mere fact of his existence he must now struggle to regain. His universe is now a universe of causality in which, if he does not labor, he does not eat; a universe in which everything once lovingly given must now be meanly purchased. It is also, for the first time, a world of rationality and therefore of guilt, for there is no great difference between the idea that if Adam is hungry, it must be because he has not worked, and the idea that if Job is suffering, it must be because he has sinned.

When we first see Ebenezer Scrooge as a young man, he too has fallen from grace, his paradise already lost. (The story only hints at the occasion of the fall, though it does so in terms that emphasize the Edenic nature of the event. “Father is so much kinder than he used to be,” says Scrooge's sister, urging the boy to return to the family, “that home's like heaven.”) Under the aegis of the Spirit of Christmas Past, the old miser sees himself as a young boy seated alone in an empty school-room, rejected by his companions, reading stories about Ali Baba, and Robinson Crusoe, and the Sultan's Groom turned upside down by the Genii. The images all confirm the postlapsarian nature of the scene. The boy is alone, driven from his own world, shades of the prison house of self already falling about him.21 He sits in an empty school-room, empty not just because the others have left, but empty metaphorically as well, for it is not through any logic of the school that Scrooge's old health will be regained. Rather, that logic is itself the disease, though he does not yet know it.

In his loneliness, the young Scrooge tries to recapture, through the exercise of his imagination, which is a form of memory, the lost state of grace, his books the vehicles of that magical return. Ali Baba, the fabulous Arab who comes into his rich legacy through the mere pronouncement of a magic word, is a particularly poignant symbol of Scrooge's own desire. Robinson Crusoe, on the other hand, forecasts more realistically the young man's future, representing as he does the triumph of bourgeois enterprise, the achievement of material success after a lifetime of lonely labor on a desert island. And it is Scrooge himself, the old man, faithful Groom of his great Sultan, Money, who in the end will be turned upside down by the Genii of the Spirit of Christmas.

Soon enough, Scrooge decides that books are no answer to his problem; indeed, they only exacerbate it. When one has lost something precious, it seems clear to the young man, one must labor to get it back. Magic and nostalgia will not restore it, only hard work will even begin to recover the lost legacy, as Adam was the first to find out. Scrooge, too, learns this lesson and plunges early into a life of acquisition, as if by accumulating one by one all the elements of his lost paradise, he could reconstruct it whole one day and live in it again. This is the rationale of his miserliness, a miserliness that we must therefore see not as a sign of his depravity but rather as an indication of how passionate is his desire to recover his lost innocence.

His commitment to a life of accumulation, to the typical Victorian metaphysic of rational materialism, becomes final in the scene in which a somewhat older Scrooge, still in the prime of life but with signs of “care and avarice” already in his face, breaks painfully with his fiancée. Actually, it is she who breaks with him, bringing out into the open a truth which for years both have recognized in silence: that any passion the young man may once have had for her has long since been supplanted by the passion for gain. Given Scrooge's fate, this is necessarily so. For having won the girl, he cannot be satisfied with her, since she represents only a part of what he lost when he lost his “oceanic” innocence, and he cannot rest until he has recovered it all. In “Ulysses,” Tennyson seemingly makes a virtue of this insatiable longing for wholeness, but where Tennyson was writing, at least in part, about the triumph of post-Renaissance, Faustian man, Dickens was writing about his tragedy.

The girl tells Scrooge that he has changed (“When [our contract] was made,” she says, “you were another man”). Her statement defines Scrooge's fallen condition. There is no change in Eden, but in the world men change day by day, all their days linked to one another logically and causally until they forge the heavy chain that weighs down the ghost of Jacob Marley—who continues to exist in time even after his death—and that in the end sinks everyone implicated in its logic. Scrooge acquiesces wholeheartedly in his enchainment, imagining, curiously, that with the addition of each new link he is moving closer to his old freedom and health. This belief is the clue to all his behavior: his miserliness, his insistence upon punctuality, his terror of losing even one day of work at Christmas, his treatment of the men who come to ask for charity. This latter scene is very important in any analysis of the story. Everyone recalls Scrooge's famous reply to the request for alms for the poor: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” For Scrooge, prisons and workhouses, the machinery that a rational society has constructed to deal with the problem of the poor, are consonant with his own rational commitment to life. Charity, on the other hand, is entirely subversive of that commitment, destroying the crucial connection between cause and effect, suggesting that a man has a right to live even if he has not earned that right and can offer no logical proof that he deserves it. To do him justice, Scrooge applies the same hard standards to himself. When it is he who is being offered the charity of his nephew's affection, he rejects such unearned love as peremptorily as he refuses to give it to others. For, monomaniacally, Scrooge keeps his eye always on his one great goal, to get back to his first home, a goal he long ago decided could be reached only as other, more worldly goals are reached—by logically calculating the shortest road to it and then by walking down that road one logical step at a time.

That this strategy is radically mistaken is the whole point of the story; that such a rational road as Scrooge travels leads only away from his old home and toward death is Dickens' Christmas lesson. It is a lesson that has been taught many times before—in the story of the Tower of Babel, for example. The men who attempted to build a tower to God were not guilty of that “sin of pride” of which Camus is so contemptuous. Their impulse was understandable and even legitimate, very much like Scrooge's. They sought only to get back home and recover lost innocence, which they quite properly associated with God. But their strategy was wrong. They supposed that they could get to heaven by putting one brick on top of another, that they could reach infinity through finite means, that they could communicate with eternity in the language of time. Thus, the confusion of tongues, which the Bible says followed the attempt to build the tower, in fact preceded it.

Scrooge's problem too is one of a confusion of tongues. He too tries to reach infinity through finite means, to recover wholeness by collecting parts, to arrive at eternity by moving through time. He believes that the world of material reality is the only reality there is, and therefore, along with so many of his fellow post-Renaissance men, supposes that if anything important is to be accomplished, it must be accomplished in terms of that material reality—by manipulating it, cataloging it, buying and selling it—and by applying the rational laws which the study of that material reality discovers. And, significantly, no one is more thoroughly taken in by this idea than the reader of A Christmas Carol. For Dickens' great triumph as an artist in this tale is to get us to see Scrooge's mistake in the story by causing us first to make that mistake ourselves.

We mistakenly suppose, for example, that Scrooge is an old man. It is a natural enough mistake, one to which Hamlet, for example, calls attention when he tells Polonius of how

the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum.

When we see a man with such infirmities, slow of movement and set in his ways, we naturally call him old. He has lived many years since his birth, and the chance of his returning to the innocence of those old days seems remote indeed. Even more remote, we would suppose, is the chance of his changing his long-established ways. After the merriment of his nephew's house—even during it—Scrooge will surely sink back into “moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion.” This is what can realistically be expected of such an old man.

But to analyze the story in these terms is to accept the very principles of rational materialism which it is the purpose of the story to undermine. For Scrooge is not in fact an old man; it is only a satirical rogue who would say so. With the exception of the events in the brief prologue and epilogue, the whole of his life is actually lived in the course of one night; if he is of any age at all, he is barely half-a-dozen hours old. Chronology, in short, is an allusion, the story tells us, one of the illusions man suffers from when he falls out of eternity into time. But time, which is therefore the enemy, can be defeated by a phenomenological insight into the simultaneity of all experience; defeated as Scrooge himself defeats it when, immediately upon awakening from his dream, he cries out, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”22 In truth, of course, he has always lived simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future, as all men do. It is only the immediacy, the insistence of material reality, Dickens tells us, that distracts men from the greater reality of their inner lives. Marley's chains, could he have but known it, were only “mind-forged manacles” after all.

That the past, present, and future exist in an eternal present is made clear in a number of other ways in the story. Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, for example, exist simultaneously between the stroke of midnight and the stroke of one. Again, one of Dickens' favorite devices, appearing memorably, for example, in Dombey and Son, is the use of a child and an adult together in a story to represent the same character at different stages of his life, but with the two existing—as if to underscore the metaphysical point of the story—simultaneously. Tiny Tim and Scrooge have that kind of a relationship in A Christmas Carol, the rejected child of Scrooge's memory of himself being actualized in the crippled boy with whom, through Bob Cratchit, the old miser has an inescapable rapport. It is, for example, in the vision of the future in which Scrooge sees his own grave that Tiny Tim is also dead. In the alternate future, on the other hand, in which Scrooge reforms, Tiny Tim is cured and flourishes. The boy whom Scrooge sends for the turkey on Christmas morning participates in this same symbolism. The boy's nimbleness presages the coming nimbleness of Tiny Tim, and Scrooge's complimentary references to him as “a remarkable boy, a delightful boy,” apply at least as much to himself, in his new-found youthfulness, as to the young turkey-bearer. “I'm quite a baby,” Scrooge cries. “Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby.”23

This is not mere giddiness on Scrooge's part, likely to vanish when the manic phase gives way to the depressive. It is, rather, a very precise statement of the man's most persistent ambition. His whole life has been a quest for the lost innocence, the lost wholeness of his infancy. He has always, in one sense, wanted to be a baby, but time has kept defeating him, bearing him further and further from his goal as long as he believed in its power. The moment, however, that Scrooge decides to live simultaneously in the past, present, and future, time loses all its terrors for him and all its power over him. He is no longer borne ruthlessly away by it in one direction only. As the master of time now, he can move freely through it in any direction. He can be a baby because he is a baby, as much as he is a man of any other age. The experience, we know, is a common one; no one, whatever his years, ever quite loses a sense of himself as the child he once was. One recalls Rostov in War and Peace lying wounded on the battlefield, hearing the French soldiers approaching to finish him off, and finding it genuinely astonishing that they should be coming to kill him, the good child, whom his father and mother love.

It is from this universal sense of eternal childhood and “irreparable innocence” that Scrooge's change of heart derives its conviction. We must not let ourselves be embarrassed into questioning the durability of that change, on a metaphysical level, by psychoanalytic critics who are still trapped in a rationalism that both Scrooge and Dickens have been at such pains to overcome. The burden of the psychoanalytic argument is that Scrooge has been a hardened old man so long that no real change in him is possible. But if we agree with Wordsworth, as well as with Dickens, that “the Child is father of the Man,” then in fact Scrooge has been a child much longer than he has been a person of any other age, and we can trust him not to ignore again his most venerable self.

That venerable child now shows Scrooge the way home he has been seeking. During the visit of the Spirit of Christmas Past, the old man is brought to recall a day when his life at school was interrupted by the sudden arrival of his sister.

A little girl, much younger than the boy, came darting in, and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her “Dear, dear brother.”

“I have come to bring you home, dear brother!” said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. “To bring you home, home, home!”

“Home, little Fan?” returned the boy.

“Yes,” said the child, brimful of glee. “Home, for good and all. Home, forever and ever.”

Years later the sister's son, Scrooge's nephew Fred, renews his mother's old offer of rescue. “Don't be angry, Uncle,” the young man says, having dropped in on Scrooge at the office to wish him a Merry Christmas, and having received only grim lectures and repeated shouts of “Humbug!” in return. “Come, dine with us tomorrow.”

As we have seen, it is impossible at this point for Scrooge to accept such a charitable invitation from his nephew. For to the old man, such unsolicited generosity, requiring nothing in return, is an anomaly in a material universe where everything must be bought and paid for, and is thus a threat to the very order of his existence. That such an act of grace epitomizes the innocence whose loss Scrooge feels so keenly and toward the recovery of which his whole life of frenzied acquisitiveness has been directed is a fact he still has to learn; and had he been called upon, at this point, to define the home for which he was secretly yearning, he probably could have done no better than to reply, with Robert Frost's dour farmer in “The Death of the Hired Man,” that

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

Only later, after the visits of the three Christmas Spirits, and after his literal rejuvenation, could Scrooge have understood the compassionate rejoinder of the farmer's wife:

                              I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.

That very night, Scrooge appears hesitantly at the door of his nephew's house, still enough of a rationalist to wonder what he can expect at the hands of one from whom he deserves so little. Fred's gracious welcome dispels all doubt. The answer had been there for the taking all along, even as early as the sister's invitation to come “Home for good and all. Home, forever and ever,” but it had been necessary for Scrooge to make his cyclical journey. Now, with time once more his servant rather than his master, and with everything of value already his without his asking, he returns to the state of metaphysical innocence from which he started, and his history comes to an end.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in his short story “Markheim,” reproduces, without beginning to equal the power of A Christmas Carol, the basic philosophical structure of Dickens' tale.24 Markheim, who, with the best intentions in the world, sinks lower and lower in life until he is reduced to murder, meets the devil, who offers to save him from the consequences of his act for the usual price of his soul. When Markheim hesitates, indicating that even at his lowest he still cherishes a hope of redemption, the devil mocks his faith. Man, the devil points out, like any other physical object in the universe, must follow natural laws, and since Markheim's course has always been downward, there is no rational basis for expecting a change. To this, Markheim replies with a fine statement—later supported by a penitent act—of what I have been speaking of as that metaphysical innocence in man which can be obscured but never destroyed by the accumulation of worldly experience, and which is, as I have suggested, the theme of A Christmas Carol:

My life is but a travesty and slander on myself [says Markheim]. I have lived to belie my nature. All men do; all men are better than this disguise which grows about and stifles them. You see each dragged away by life, like one whom bravos have seized and muffled in a cloak. If they had their own control—if you could see their faces—they would be altogether different, they would shine out for heroes and saints. I am worse than most; my self is more overlaid; my excuse is known to me and God. But had I the time, I could disclose myself.


  1. The Wound and the Bow (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), p. 53.

  2. The Dickens World (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1942), p. 53.

  3. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, i (New York: Little, Brown, 1952), 488.

  4. Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1972), p. 147.

  5. About Thomas Carlyle, e.g., it is reported that A Christmas Carol “so worked on [his] nervous organization that he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and has actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties with only a day between.” Letter to Jeannie Welsh, 23 Dec. 1843, Jane Welsh Carlyle: Letters to Her Family, 1839–1863 (London: J. Murray, 1924), p. 169.

  6. John Lucas, in The Melancholy Man (London: Methuen, 1970), remarks that “we call [the Cratchit family scenes] sentimental because we do not like admitting how moved we are by the pressure of Dickens' writing” (p. 140).

  7. A number of critics have suggested that Dickens does just this. See, e.g., Toby Olshin, “‘The Yellow Dwarf’ and The Old Curiosity Shop,Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 25 (June 1970), 96–99; also Harry Stone, “Fire, Hand, and Gate: Dickens' Great Expectations,Kenyon Review, 24 (1962), 662–91.

  8. The Great Tradition (New York: Doubleday, 1954), p. 32. Leavis' almost Scrooge-like change of heart about Dickens is recorded in his Dickens the Novelist (London: Chatto & Windus, 1970).

  9. For further discussion of the idea of plausibility in Dickens' work, see George Ford's “The Poet and the Critics of Probability,” in Dickens: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Martin Price (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 58–67.

  10. Barbara Hardy, e.g., writes that we can understand what happens to Dickens' characters “less by seeing what they have done than by seeing what they are.” The Moral Art of Dickens (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 55. And George Ford, distinguishing between “static” and “developing” characters and action in Dickens' fiction, observes that “foreground scenes, in which change occurs, are usually not so convincing as the more static background” (p. 64).

  11. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1955), p. 77.

  12. Romantic Image (New York: Random, 1964), p. 5.

  13. Northrop Frye suggests that Dickens himself recognized Tom Pinch's innocence to be more “obsessive than genuine.” See “Dickens and the Comedy of Humors,” in Experience in the Novel, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1968), p. 60.

  14. Alan Friedman, The Turn of the Novel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), p. 7.

  15. D. H. Lawrence frequently makes this point, writing on one occasion that “while a man remains a man, a true human individual, there is at the core of him a certain innocence or naiveté which defies all analysis, and which you cannot bargain with, you can only deal with it in good faith from your own corresponding innocence or naiveté. This does not mean that the human being is nothing but naive or innocent. He is Mr. Worldly-Wiseman also to his own degree. But in his essential core he is naive, and money does not touch him” (“John Galsworthy,” Phoenix, ed. Edward D. McDonald, London: Heinemann, 1936, pp. 540–41).

  16. P. 39. In fact, Camus is here redefining, in phenomeno-logical terms, something very like the Christian concept of grace, shifting the emphasis from God's initiation of the act to man's experience of it. Such a redefinition, Camus argues in effect, is necessary if the concept of grace is to continue to have meaning in an age that has rejected traditional theology. Dickens' position in A Christmas Carol is very much the same.

  17. When Camus's absurd man, e.g., says that he “does not want to do anything but what he fully understands,” he is assured by his logical tormentors that “this is the sin of pride.”

  18. Lionel Trilling, for one, discusses this matter at length in his essay “The Immortality Ode,” collected in The Liberal Imagination (New York: Doubleday, 1950).

  19. “Preface to Poems, 1853.” See also the self-consciousness that precipitated John Stuart Mill's soul crisis in Ch. v of the Autobiography.

  20. “Characteristics,” Critical & Miscellaneous Essays, iii (London: Chapman & Hall, 1899), p. 4.

  21. In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens had already devoted a whole novel to a study of the vice of self. By the time of A Christmas Carol, however, the author's interest in this subject had become much more clearly metaphysical than social or moral.

  22. There has already been a foreshadowing of this solution earlier in the story. When Marley's ghost speaks of the three Spirits who will be appearing one after another, Scrooge replies, “Couldn't I take 'em all at once?”

  23. On this point Angus Wilson has written that “to be a child and to be a child again are not in Dickens' fiction quite the same thing—yet both, in their different ways, are the symbols of the spiritual life. … We may take St. Matthew's ‘Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven’ … and think of the saved Scrooge joining in the children's games” (“Dickens on Children and Childhood,” in Dickens 1970, ed. Michael Slater, New York: Stein & Day, 1970, p. 197).

  24. “I wonder if you have ever read Dickens' Christmas Books? … They are too much perhaps. I have only read two yet but I have cried my eyes out, and had a terrible fight not to sob. But oh, dear God, they are good—and I feel so good after them—I shall do good and lose no time—I want to go out and comfort someone—I shall give money. Oh, what a jolly thing it is for a man to have written books like these and just filled people's hearts with pity.” Robert Louis Stevenson to an unidentified correspondent, quoted in the Dickensian, 16 (1920), 200.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Churchill, R. C., ed. A Bibliography of Dickensian Criticism, 1836–1975. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. 12. New York: Garland Publishing, 1975, 314 p.

Guide to writings about Dickens published between 1836 and 1975.


Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952.

Definitive modern biography. Johnson makes use of much previously unavailable material.


Brown, John Mason. “Ghouls and Holly.” In Seeing More Things, pp. 161–67. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1948.

Traces Scrooge's spiritual development in A Christmas Carol and describes his conversion as “divided, like a symphony, into movements.”

Chesterton, G. K. “Dickens as Santa Claus.” In G. K. C. as M. C.: Being a Collection of Thirty-Seven Introductions, edited by J. P. de Fonseka, pp. 90–5. New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1967.

Originally published in 1929; emphasizes the “dramatic importance” of The Christmas Carol in English history.

Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, 283 p.

Traces the literary and cultural impact of Dickens's novella throughout the decades.

Gold, Joseph. “‘Where Else Can I Be?’: A Christmas Carol.” In Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist, pp. 147–54. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.

Addresses the relationship between the characters of Scrooge and Marley.

Guida, Fred. A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: A Critical Examination of Dickens's Story and Its Productions on Screen and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2000, 264 p.

Discusses the many literary, stage, and cinematic adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

Hancher, Michael. “Reading the Visual Text: A Christmas Carol.Yale University Library Gazette 74, nos. 1–2 (October 1999): 21–40.

Describes the physical appearance of the original edition of Dickens's novella, including the John Leech illustrations.

Slater, Michael. “The Triumph of Humour: The Carol Revisited.” Dickensian 89, no. 3 (winter 1993): 184–92.

Defines the Victorian concepts of wit and humor and analyzes their role in A Christmas Carol.

Additional coverage of Dickens's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 23; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 13; British Writers, Vol. 5; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 55, 70, 159, 166; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 1, 2; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 8, 18, 26, 37, 50, 86, 105; Novels for Students, Vols. 4, 5, 10; Reference Guide to English Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Something About the Author, Vols. 15; Supernatural Fiction Writers; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism; Writers for Children; and Writers for Young Adults.

Michael Patrick Hearn (essay date 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An introduction to The Annotated Christmas Carol, Clarkson N. Potter, 1976, pp. 1–51.

[In the following introductory essay, Hearn places Dickens's novella within a literary, political, and historical context and recounts the circumstances surrounding the publication of the story as well as the critical reaction to it.]

A Christmas Carol remains the most popular work of England's most popular novelist, and it has had something of a life of its own beyond its author's reputation. Should all of Charles Dickens' marvelous creations, from Mr. Pickwick to Edwin Drood, be suddenly threatened with extinction, the story of Mr. Scrooge would certainly survive. It has become a part of Christmas folklore. All misers are Ebenezer Scrooge, all plum puddings the same as that devoured by the Cratchits. Besides having written a thoroughly entertaining narrative, Dickens possessed the special ability of defining better than anyone before or since the spirit of the holiday season. In what he called “the Carol philosophy,” he went beyond merely venerating Christmas for “its sacred name and origin” to acknowledging its basic humanism: “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” By the time of his death, Dickens had already secured so sure a place in the mythology of the holiday that a story circulated about a little costermonger's girl in Drury Lane who, on hearing of his funeral, asked, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

Few modern readers realize that A Christmas Carol was written during a decline of the old Christmas traditions. Dickens has even been credited with almost single-handedly reviving the holiday customs. By the early nineteenth century, there seemed little left of the old celebrations that had begun in A.D. 601 when Pope Gregory instructed his missionary St. Austin of Canterbury, in converting the Anglo-Saxons, to make the local winter feast a Christian festival.1 The result of this conversion was a strange conglomeration of pagan customs adapted to Christian purposes. These traditions originated from the celebrations of the Roman Saturnalia, Yule (the Saxon feast for the return of the Sun, in honor of the god Thor), and the Druid holiday.2 Apparently the Medieval Church saw no conflict between the Christian and pagan intentions; as Chaucer noted, the Roman god Janus was welcome wherever Christian men sang “Nowel.” Under the Anglo-Norman kings, the holiday festivals grew to twelve days of celebration, from Christmas Eve until Epiphany. As early as 1170, at the command of Henry the Second, the court welcomed the season with plays, masques, and other spectacles; and the clergy promoted religious instruction and entertainment through miracle plays. During the Middle Ages, many legendary feasts and pageants were sponsored by the English nobility; among these Christmas extravagances was the order of Henry III in the thirteenth century to slaughter six hundred oxen for one holiday banquet. These festivities did not lessen under the auspices of the Church of England; Henry VIII was not merely a promoter of the Christmas pageants but a performer as well. The court continued to support playwrights and poets in honoring the season; Ben Jonson wrote a celebrated Masque of Christmas (1616), and Robert Herrick composed several carols and other verse venerating these holidays.

Everything changed under Cromwell. He attacked the old customs as pagan superstition, condemned in the Scriptures; it was blasphemous to celebrate the birth of Christ in the Roman tradition of the Saturnalia.3 The Puritans showed no patience with such simple customs as mince pies which were seen now as “an abomination, idolatry, superstition and Popish observance.” The first blow to the old festivities came with an ordinance of 1642 on the suppression of the performance of plays. On June 3, 1647, Parliament ordained that the feast of the Nativity of Christ could not be celebrated with the other holy days. The final condemnation came on December 24, 1652, which proclaimed that “no observance shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof.”

The defeat of the Royalists by the Puritans was accepted also as a conquest of the old holidays. The author of The Arraignment, Conviction, and Imprisoning, of Christmas (1645) found old Father Christmas “much wasted, so that he hath looked very thin, and ill of late.” He was now an outcast, because his season had formerly been “a time observable for the common People to bring in large offerings to the Pope holinesse, to maintaine the Cardinalls, Priests, and Fryers.”4 The suppression of Christmas became proof of the degeneracy of the time; good fellowship declined, and the wealthy neglected the old Christmas spirit of charity.

The Restoration of the English monarchy failed to completely revive the splendor of Christmas Past. Many people looked back nostalgically to the glories of the season; Needham's History of the Rebellion (1661) seemed to express the general attitude:

Gone are those golden days of yore,
          When Christmass was a high day:
Whose sports we now shall see no more;
          'Tis turn'd into Good Friday.

Many of the old traditions, however, were still preserved in the countryside. “The spirit of hospitality has not quite forsaken us,” observed the author of Round about our Coal-Fire, or Christmas Entertainments (1740); “Several of the gentry are gone down to their respective seats in the country, in order to keep their Christmas in the old way, and entertain their tenants and trades-folks as their ancestors used to do, and I wish them a merry Christmas accordingly.” But by the end of the eighteenth century many of the old trappings and entertainments had completely vanished. Such items as plum porridge and peacock pie from the old bills of fare were now unknown. The court harbored little interest in celebrating the season in the old way. The masques, pageants, banquets and other festivities were no longer on the same scale as before the Revolution; even the New Year's Ode given by the Poet Laureate was forgotten.

The Industrial Revolution further discouraged the simple pleasures of the season; employees now were not given time off to celebrate Christmas Day. “If a little more success had crowned the Puritan movement of the seventeenth century, or the Utilitarian movement of the nineteenth century,” G. K. Chesterton observed in his introduction to A Christmas Carol (1924 edition), the old holiday traditions would “have become merely details of the neglected past, a part of history or even archeology. … Perhaps the very word carol would sound like the word villanelle.”

Fortunately, a few brave voices were raised in praise of the holiday. Charles Lamb in a brief essay, “A Few Words on Christmas” described some of the games and other delights of his holidays past; he defined Christmas as “the happiest time of the year. It is the season of mirth and cold weather. It is a time … when mistletoe, and red-berried laurel, and soups, and sliding, and school-boys, prevail; when the country is illuminated by fires and bright faces; and the town is radiant with laughing children.” A handful of scholars and historians shared Lamb's respect for the old Christmas pleasures. Among the most important early studies was Thomas K. Hervey's The Book of Christmas (1835); it was notable not only for its in-depth history and evaluation of the English Christmas but also for its jolly etchings by Robert Seymour, the first illustrator of The Pickwick Papers (1836).5 Other scholars tried to preserve the old songs still sung in the country.6 The earliest significant collection was Davies Gilbert's Ancient Christmas Carols (1822), but the most ambitious anthology was that by William Sandys, published in 1832. Sandys, an expert on Cornish customs and one of Dickens' correspondents, found the preserving of the old songs not an easy task. “In many parts of the kingdom, especially in the northern and western parts,” he explained in his introduction, “the festival is still kept up with spirit among the middling and lower classes, though its influence is on the wane even with them; the genius of the present age requires work and no play, and since the commencement of this century a great change may be traced. The modern instructors of mankind do not think it necessary to provide popular amusements, considering mental improvement the one thing needful.”

However it was an American who best portrayed how the English Christmas still might be preserved. In his description of an old-fashioned Christmas celebrated at Bracebridge Hall, Yorkshire, in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819), Washington Irving7 recognized that the old traditions now “resemble those picturesque morsels of Gothic architecture, which we see crumbling in various parts of the country, partly dilapidated by the waste of ages, and partly lost in the additions and alterations of later days.” During this holiday when its “tone of solemn and sacred feeling … blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment,” the Squire of Bracebridge Hall entertained his guests with dances, songs, blindman's buff, an amateur masque, and other amusements in the same good fellowship characterized by the country gentlemen of centuries past.

One of Irving's most avid admirers was Charles Dickens, who expressed a particular affection for the doings at Bracebridge Hall.8 In his first Christmas work, the short essay “A Christmas Dinner” in Sketches by Boz (1836), Dickens shared Irving's sentiment that this day was “the season for gathering together of family connexions.” This sketch described an urban Christmas family-party, celebrated “in a strain of rational goodwill and cheerfulness, doing more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party in behalf of his neighbour, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, than half the homilies that have ever been written, by half the Divines that have ever lived.”

This early piece was just preparation for the “good-humoured Christmas chapter” of The Pickwick Papers. Here, in fiction, Dickens captured all the sentiments and customs honored by Irving in his holiday essays. The “old-fashioned” drive down to Dingley Dell was as spirited as that to Bracebridge Hall, and when Pickwick and his fellow club members arrived at the ancient country estate, Old Wardle occupied their stay with such songs, dances, mistletoe, blindman's buff, and other sports that would have delighted old Squire Bracebridge himself. Although the story takes place in the immediate past, the Christmas at Dingley Dell recalls an earlier period, a preindustrial England, full of amusements which “are not quite so religiously kept up, in these degenerate times.” These festivities were pervaded by the feeling that “in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.”

Inspiration for another Christmas story did not come to Dickens until, like Marley's Ghost to Ebenezer Scrooge, seven years later. One could hardly have predicted that so good spirited a work as A Christmas Carol might have been written by the end of 1843. It had been a terrible year for Dickens, full of disappointments and seemingly insurmountable pressures. For the first time since his phenomenal success with The Pickwick Papers, Dickens faced the possibility of a decline in popularity and income. His new novel Martin Chuzzlewit was coolly received. Although selling prodigiously in England, American Notes (1842) concerning his tour of the New World offended readers across the Atlantic, and the monthly parts of the new novel showed a marked decrease in sales. His family pressed him for money, and his own extravagance in keeping a large house on Devonshire Terrace depleted his earnings. He also had to face the responsibility of his wife's being pregnant with their fifth child. He was desperate to regain the public's faith in his writing. In a clumsy attempt to stimulate the novel's sales, he sent his hero to the United States. Trying to capitalize on the interest in American Notes, he continued his vitriolic criticism of American democracy in action. The result was disastrous. The English showed little interest, and the Americans were further irritated; “Martin has made them all stark raving mad across the water,” he wrote John Forster, his friend and biographer.

Chapman and Hall, his publishers, too were distressed at the poor return on the new novel, and they awkwardly suggested that their most important author's monthly salary be reduced from £200 to £150. Dickens was furious, and by late June he seriously contemplated leaving the firm to join forces with their printers Bradbury and Evans. “A printer is better than a bookseller,” he wrote Forster, June 28, “and it is quite as much the interest of one (if not more) to join me.” Forster, acting as Dickens' literary advisor, knew of Bradbury and Evans' proposal to Dickens, but he tried to discourage the novelist from changing publishers at this delicate time. Dickens was momentarily appeased; but he admitted, “I am so irritated, so rubbed in the tenderest part of my eyelids with bay-salt … that a wrong kind of fire is burning in my head, and I don't think I can write.”

The composition of the novel, what he called his “Chuzzlewit agonies,” was indeed becoming difficult. He considered other projects that might relieve him of his present troubles. He hoped to go to the continent, perhaps to Italy, where it not only was cheaper to live than in London, but also might provide him material for a series of travel sketches. Another story to recapture the public lost by Martin Chuzzlewit seemed more immediate. Even if he was unsure of the public taste, he was sure of his abilities. “I feel my power now, more than I ever did,” he wrote Forster on November 2. “I have a greater confidence in myself than I ever had. That I know, if I have health, I could sustain my place in the minds of thinking men, though fifty writers started up to-morrow. But how many readers do not think!”

Among the possibilities intended to “sustain my place in the minds of thinking men” were several pamphlets. Dickens had recently become preoccupied with the child labor question. The first report of the Commission for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactories (1842) so incensed Dickens that he went to Cornwall in the fall of that year to see the appalling conditions for himself. One of the four Infant Labour Commissioners, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, kept Dickens informed of the progress of the second report (1843) to encourage the famous novelist to write about the commission's findings. At first Dickens was reluctant to “take up the subject,”9 but when the actual report was published, Dickens was “so perfectly stricken down by the blue book” that he decided to write a cheap pamphlet to be called “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child.”10

Dickens, however, was delayed in writing this appeal and was soon involved in other projects. Miss Burdett Coutts, a wealthy friend and philanthropist (to whom he dedicated Martin Chuzzlewit), asked Dickens' council in regard to a request to give financial support to the Ragged Schools of Field Lane, Holborn. His response was to visit these free institutions for the poor, located in a dismal part of London. “The school is held in three most wretched rooms on the first floor of a rotten house,” he wrote in his “sledge-hammer account of the Ragged Schools” to Miss Coutts on September 16. “One room is devoted to the girls: two to the boys. The former are much the better looking—I cannot say better dressed, for there is no such thing as dress among the seventy pupils.”11 Dickens recognized the great difficulty in giving these wretches even the simplest of religious instruction. “To gain their attention in any way,” he continued, “is a difficulty, quite gigantic. To impress them, even with the idea of a God, when their own condition is so desolate, becomes a monstrous task. To find anything within them … to which it is possible to appeal, is at first, like a search for the philosopher's stone.” Dickens heartily encouraged Miss Coutts to assist these institutions, but he added, “My heart so sinks within me when I go into these scenes, that I almost lose the hope of ever seeing them changed. Whether this effort will succeed, it is quite impossible to say.”

Dickens, however, was determined to help the education of the poor in his own way. He approached the editor of The Edinburgh Review with the idea of an article about “certain voluntary places of instruction, called ‘The Ragged Schools’ … and of the schools in Jails—and of the ignorance presented in such places, which would make a very striking paper—especially if they were put in strong comparison with the effort making, by subscription, to maintain exclusive Church Instruction. I could shew these people in such a state so miserable and so neglected, that their very nature rebels against the simplest religion—and that to convey to them the faintest outlines of any system of distinction between Right and Wrong, is in itself a Giant's task, before which Mysteries and Squabbles for Forms, must give way.”12 Expressing a warning that Dickens not unnecessarily attack the church, the editor accepted the proposal, but a confusion over the deadline prevented the article from being written.

By the end of the year, Dickens found an opportunity in a public forum to express his opinions on the conditions of the poor. The Atheneum, a charitable institution for the Manchester working class, invited the novelist to speak at a fund-raising soirée of October 5. This invitation gave him the opportunity to visit his sister Fanny and her family who lived in the city, so he accepted. Sharing the platform with Disraeli and others, Dickens spoke passionately on the education of the poor. He praised the Atheneum for recognizing through its lectures and other opportunities for bodily and intellectual exercise that even “with the clanking of stupendous engines and the whirl of machinery, the immortal mechanism of God's own hand, the mind, is not forgotten in the din and uproar.”13 He had little patience with those who still held to the old axiom “A little learning is a dangerous thing”: “Why, a little hanging was considered a very dangerous thing, according to the same authorities, that because a little hanging was dangerous, we had a great deal of it; and because a little learning was dangerous, we were to have none at all.” To instruct such people as to which was “the most prolific parent of ignorance,” “‘a little learning’ and a vast amount of ignorance,” Dickens offered to take them “into certain jails and nightly refuges … where my own heart dies within me when I see thousands of immortal creatures condemned, without alternative or choice, to tread, not what our great poet calls ‘the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire,’ but one of jagged flints and stones, laid down by brutal ignorance, and held together by years of this most wicked axiom.” He found hope in such institutions as the Atheneum where the working man who as yet not able to keep “the wolf of hunger from his door” might still “once have chased the dragon of ignorance from his hearth.”

The speaker was touched by the audience's enthusiastic applause, and something about “the bright eyes and beaming faces” before him inspired a desire to try to capture the warmer feelings of the people at large. He recognized who his audience was; from the literary point of view, he realized that such institutions as the Atheneum were “of great importance, deeming that the more intelligent and reflective society in the mass becomes, and the more readers there are, the more distinctly writers of all kinds will be able to throw themselves upon the truthful feeling of the people, and the more honoured and the more useful literature must be.”

During the remainder of his three-day visit to Manchester, Dickens was obliged to keep several appointments and had to hurry about the streets. One evening while on such a journey, his mind still burning with thoughts of Ignorance and Want and the necessity of throwing himself “upon the truthful feeling of the people,” Dickens conceived the story of A Christmas Carol. On his return home, this inspiration so possessed him that over the book's writing he “wept and laughed and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed.”

In the book's composition Dickens relied heavily on his earlier writing. The rudimentary plot came from the Christmas tale related at the famous party at Dingley Dell. In “The Goblins Who Stole A Sexton,” the prototype for Scrooge may be found in the ill-tempered gravedigger Gabriel Grub. On Christmas Eve, this man, who can think of nothing better to do than to drink from a bottle of Hollands and dig a grave, is confronted by a band of goblins in an old churchyard. They spirit the sexton away to their enchanted cavern to view panoramas of Christmas life. In their den, old Gabriel sees both the rich and the poor and how they and he should celebrate the holiday. Through this supernatural medium, Gabriel Grub, like Ebenezer Scrooge, is converted to a new, reformed life.

The scenes and sentiments of the new story in part came too from the previous writing on Christmas. A Christmas Carol shares the attitude of the “good-humoured Christmas chapter” of The Pickwick Papers: “Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and quiet home!” The Fezziwig Ball sports the active good-fellowship of the old Christmas hosted by Old Wardle; the holiday party of Scrooge's nephew exudes the same spirited domesticity of the earlier family party in Sketches by Boz.

What distinguishes A Christmas Carol from the earlier holiday pieces is the conscious recognition that this festive season “is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” In writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens retained his purpose as a writer, what he had adhered to in his previous works, “an earnest and true desire to contribute … to the common stock of healthful cheerfulness and enjoyment.”14 But in the new book, he added a new approach in its composition; as he wrote in a letter of April 3, 1844:

I have great faith in the Poor; to the best of my ability I always endeavor to present them in a favourable light to the rich; and I shall never cease, I hope, until I die, to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as the circumstances of their condition in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming. I mention this to assure you of two things. Firstly, that I try to deserve their attention. And secondly that any such mark of their approval and confidence as you relate to me, are most acceptable to my feelings, and go at once to my heart.

Through this growing social consciousness, Dickens found the proper form in which to make his “Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child.” He no longer had to follow his initial scheme for the “appeal”; there may have been an inkling of his intentions, when he wrote to Dr. Smith on March 10, that by the end of the year “you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer15 has come down with twenty times the force—twenty thousand times the force—I could exert by following out my first idea. Even so recently as when I wrote to you the other day, I had not contemplated the means I shall now, please God, use. But they have been suggested to me, and I have girded myself for their seizure—as you shall see in due time.”

The form and purpose having been chosen, Dickens proceeded to draw heavily on his own experience to flesh out the narrative. He depended greatly on his own childhood. The boy Scrooge, left in the school-house, delights in the same books beloved by the boy Dickens. The warmth and exuberance of the Cratchits' humble but hardly insignificant Christmas dinner recalls Dickens' own celebrations when a child in Camden Town. The pathos of the death of Tiny Tim, too, came from those early years; the boy Charles knew the tragedy of child mortality due to the deaths of both a brother and sister in infancy. “It is from the life, and I was there,” he wrote of an episode in Dombey and Son with an assurance also applicable to A Christmas Carol; “I remember it all as well, and certainly understood it as well, as I do now. We should be devilish sharp in what we do to children.”

These experiences were further expanded into the metaphor of the demon children Want and Ignorance. In defending the boy and girl, the Ghost of Christmas Present speaks out for all the children “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” who labored in the factories and the Cornish mines and who attended the Ragged Schools. Through these children Dickens could act as prophet to warn the public at large of the consequences of its great indifference. In composing his story, Dickens was surely visited by all three ghosts of past, present, and future.

With all the elements clearly falling into place, Dickens frantically worked to complete the story. He locked himself up in his house, and while struggling through the next two installments of the “Chuzzlewit agonies,” he feverishly worked on the manuscript. All other projects (such as the article on the Ragged Schools) had to be postponed, because “I plunged headlong into a little scheme … ; set an artist at work upon it; and put it wholly out of my own power to touch the Edinburgh subject until after Christmas is turned. For carrying out the notion I speak of, and being punctual with Chuzzlewit, will occupy every moment of my working time, up to the Christmas Holidays.”16 He worked all hours of the day and late into the night. He broke appointments, such as that with his solicitor Thomas Mitton, because his “note found me in the full passion of a roaring Christmas scene!”17 He could not receive all his friends when they came to visit him. “At the time when you called, and for many weeks afterwards,” he explained to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist, “I was so closely occupied with my little Carol (the idea which had just occurred to me), that I never left home before the owls went out, and led quite a solitary life.” So closely did he work on the story that within six weeks (by the second week in November) he presented the completed manuscript to the printers. “To keep the Chuzzlewit going, and to do this little book, the Carol, in the odd times between the parts of it,” he wrote his American friend C. C. Felton, “was, as you may suppose, pretty tight work. But when it was done I broke out like a madman.”

At the completion of the manuscript, the Christmas fervor still burned within him, and when the holidays did arrive, he celebrated them with an exuberance that his friends (including Forster, William Thackeray, and Thomas Carlyle) had not witnessed before. “Such dinings, such dancings, such conjurings, such blindman's-buffings, such theatre-goings, such kissings-out-of-old-years and kissings-in of new ones, never took part in these parts before,” he wrote Felton. “And if you could have seen me at a children's party at Macready's the other night, going down a country dance with Mrs. M., you would have thought I was a country gentleman of independant property, residing on a tip-top farm, with the wind blowing straight in my face every day.” These giddy activities seemed totally justified, because from all immediate indications, A Christmas Carol would be an unquestioned success, both artistically and financially.

Apparently Chapman and Hall at first expressed limited enthusiasm in publishing the Christmas book. They proposed instead issuing either a cheap edition of the already published work or a new magazine edited by Dickens. The author rejected both suggestions: he thought the cheap edition premature and that it might do damage to himself and the titles in print; and he feared the magazine might appear to the public that he was “writing tooth and nail for bread, headlong, after the close of a book taking so much out of one as Chuzzlewit.” He had still not fully recovered from his run-in with the publishers, but through Forster's negotiations, Chapman and Hall agreed to bring out A Christmas Carol on commission terms. Under this proposal made by Dickens himself, the author was charged the full cost of production and would thus receive the entire profits of the sale; the publishers retained only a fixed commission on the total number of copies sold. Dickens rationalized that under these terms he would receive the largest possible earning. He likely now saw Chapman and Hall as little better than his printers, but his experience with the financial facts of publishing was obviously limited and perhaps ill-advised.

For his “little Carol,” Dickens devised an elaborate scheme of production. He had to pay all these costs, but he also insisted that the price be low (five shillings) to encourage as many buyers as possible and thus larger sales. Dickens personally went over every aspect of the book's makeup. He approved the russet binding (blind-stamped with the title in gold), the color endpapers, the gilt edges, and the title page printed in green and red. With Forster he discussed the cover design and advertising, and as late as December he had the title page “materially altered” to blue and red as these leaves “always look bad at first.”18 At this time the green endpapers (printed with an ink that easily rubbed off the page) were changed to yellow. Despite his having an eye on the financial, Dickens did not skimp on the artistic. Dickens produced an elaborate volume that far excelled any other work sold then for a mere five shillings.

To illustrate the story, Dickens chose the Punch cartoonist, John Leech (1817–1864). Author and artist had first become acquainted as early as 1836 when, at the suicide of Robert Seymour, Leech desired to succeed him as illustrator of The Pickwick Papers. At George Cruikshank's introduction, the young artist went to speak with Dickens and presented him with a drawing “Tom Smart and the Chair,” illustrating an episode from the book. Dickens was cordial when he wrote Leech, “I have to acknowledge the receipt of your design for the last Pickwick, which I think extremely well-conceived, and executed,” but he was reluctant to commit himself as his publishers had already employed another artist, Hablot Knight (“Phiz”) Browne, “a gentleman of very great ability, with whose designs I am exceedingly well satisfied, and from whom I feel it neither my wish, nor interest, to part.”19 Leech pursued the possibility of securing another commission from Chapman and Hall, but Dickens evidently wanted to get rid of the artist, because when he wrote of the interview to his publishers, he showed less enthusiasm20: “He left the Inclosed Sketch from Tom Smart, here yesterday—as a specimen I suppose. As he threatened to call to-day, I have left out a note for him, saying that I supposed he wanted you to see it, and I have sent it on accordingly.” No commission was forthcoming from Chapman and Hall, but about a year later Leech sent another drawing21 which was likewise lukewarmly received by Dickens.

Within three years, Leech established himself as one of the leading cartoonists in this age of comic artists. Among the first contributors to Punch, Leech soon dominated the humor weekly with his satires on modern manners. In autumn of 1842 when the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit were announced for publication, Leech with more restraint than before again approached Dickens as a collaborator. Certainly the novelist could no longer ignore Leech's reputation. “I have never forgotten the having seen you some years ago,” he energetically wrote the artist, November 5, 1842, “or ceased to watch your progress with much interest and satisfaction. I congratulate you heartily on your success; and myself on having had an eye upon the means by which you have obtained it.” Dickens now seriously considered Leech as his collaborator, if not on Martin Chuzzlewit, then on another project which never materialized. “In the meantime let me say with perfect sincerity, that I shall hope, in any case, to improve your acquaintance, and not to lose sight of you anymore.” By November 7, Dickens asked the artist to dine with him, and this invitation became the source of their long and hearty friendship.

Not until the third week in October 1843 did Dickens finally have something for Leech to illustrate. As “Phiz” was occupied with illustrating the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens had to employ another artist to decorate A Christmas Carol. Although Leech got the commission, Dickens devised the elaborate, costly scheme for the illustration of the book: full-page, hand-colored steel engravings and textual woodcuts. As he had with every other part of the book's design, Dickens carefully went over each illustration with Leech. For the woodcuts, Leech seems to have first prepared pen-and-ink sketches for Dickens' approval, and then final pencil and wash drawings for the engraver. These textual illustrations were cut by W. J. Linton,22 but evidently Leech etched the steel engravings himself.23 For these plates, the artist first made wash drawings and then, to guide the colorers, finished watercolors. As the pencil sketches were transferred to the wood blocks, alterations were made from the original art to the finished illustrations; similarly, changes occurred between the watercolors and the completed hand-colored plates. Small differences in details may be spotted in comparisons between nearly every preliminary drawing and the finished illustration. For example, in the color sketch of “Scrooge's third visitor” (now in the Pierpont Morgan Library), the ghost's robe is red; likely at Dickens' request, it became green in the final plate in agreement with the text. Leech was a nervous, easily offended artist, and Dickens likely took pains to please and appease him. Leech was disappointed with the final hand-coloring. “This was a primitive process,” explained Edgar Browne, Phiz's son. “Leech of course set the pattern, the copyist would spread out a number of prints all around a large table, having a number of saucers ready prepared with appropriate tints, blue for skies … then all the coats, and so on, till every object was separately coloured, and the work was done. The effect was certainly gay, but generally too crude to be pleasant.”24 “I do not doubt, in my own mind,” Dickens tried to console Leech, December 14, “that you unconsciously exaggerate the evil done by the colourers. You can't think how much better they will look in a neat book, than you suppose. But I have sent a Strong Dispatch to C and H, and will report to you when I hear from them. I quite agree with you, that it is a point of great importance.”25 Leech had no reason to worry; these hand-colored plates remain as fresh and charming as when they were first produced.

Dickens was satisfied with Leech's work on the book. For each of the subsequent Christmas Books, Leech contributed illustrations. Although A Christmas Carol was the only Dickens book he illustrated entirely on his own, Leech was the only illustrator to be represented in each volume of the holiday series. He never illustrated a Dickens novel. The last drawing that he made for a Dickens text was a woodcut, the frontispiece to the cheap edition of the Christmas Books (1852), the first collected edition of the five stories. This design, a new version of the frontispiece to the 1843 edition, is in some respects superior to the earlier steel engraving “Mr. Fezziwig's Ball.” By the time of the later edition, Leech's style had matured, and as he was not a skilled etcher with the genius of a Cruikshank, his drawings gained in strength by being transferred to wood. This woodcut is one of his finest designs.

Leech was a pivotal figure in the history of caricature.26 His work fell somewhere between the grotesque energy of Cruikshank and the more solid, natural drawing of John Tenniel,27 who succeeded Leech at Punch. As his career developed, he relied on questions of manners (anticipating George DuMaurier's Punch cartoons) and on sporting subjects in the spirit of Rowlandson and Gilchrist (carried on by Randolph Caldecott after Leech). A prolific artist, Leech produced his most enduring designs for A Christmas Carol. Despite the odd omission of a drawing of Bob Cratchit with Tiny Tim on his shoulder (a subject that nearly every illustrator of the book since Leech has depicted28), the set of eight drawings beautifully complement the settings and sentiments of Dickens' text. The novelist reserved only praise for this “great popular artist of the time, whose humour was so delicate, so nice, and so discriminating, and whose pencil like his observation was so graceful and so informed with the sense of beauty that it was mere disparagement to call his works ‘caricatures.’”29 Whether it be in the Fezziwig Ball or in the depictions of Marley and the other ghosts, every other illustrator of the story has had to pay his respects to Leech's original conceptions in some way. When “The Library Edition of Dickens' Works” appeared in 1859, the half-title page of the Christmas Books contained a small engraving of Scrooge and Marley drawn by Phiz, but it is Leech who will always be the illustrator popularly linked with the Dickens Christmas. Other artists (Daniel Maclise, Edwin Landseer, Richard Doyle, Tenniel, and others) all contributed one or more drawings to the subsequent volumes, but it was Leech's spirit that dominated the series.

With the illustrations cut and colored and the manuscript at the printers, the completed volume took only a few weeks to be produced, and came out just a few days before Christmas. The first presentation copies arrived around December 17, and Dickens' immediate feelings toward the book were encouraging. The few friends fortunate enough to receive advance copies shared his enthusiasm. “I am extremely glad you feel the Carol,” he wrote Mitton, December 6. “For I knew I meant a good thing. And when I see the effect of a little whole as that, on those for whom I care, I have a strong sense of the immense effect I could produce with an entire book.”30 Carlyle was among those to receive the precious early copies, and he was so strongly moved that, according to Thackeray, this “Scotch philosopher who nationally does not keep Christmas Day, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dine—this is a fact.”31

Dickens did not have long to wait for the public's verdict. From the date of publication, the sales were tremendous; on one day, Christmas Day, six thousand copies were sold, and by December 27, Dickens could proudly announce that “as the orders were coming in fast from town and country, it would soon be necessary to reprint.”32 By January 3, 1844, he wrote Forster that “two thousand of the three printed for second and third editions are already taken by the trade.” Dickens described its prodigious success to Felton: “And by every post all manner of strangers write all manner of letters to him about their homes and hearths, and how this same Carol is read aloud there, and kept on a little shelf by itself. Indeed, it is the greatest, as I am told, that this ruffian and rascal has ever achieved.”

The reviewers too took the little book to their hearts. Tom Hood of Hood's Magazine (January 1844) lauded the appearance of “that famous Gobbling Story, with its opulence of good cheer, and all the Gargantuan festivity of hospitable tide”: “A happy inspiration of the heart that warms every page. It is impossible to read, without a glowing bosom and burning cheeks, between love and shame for our kind. …” Dickens was touched by such notices and typically thanked those who sang praises for his “Carol.” “I cannot thank you enough for the beautiful manner and the true spirit of friendship in which you have noticed my ‘Carol,’” he wrote Laman Blanchard, a friend and reviewer. “But I must thank you because you have filled my heart up to the brim, and it is running over. You meant to give me great pleasure, dear fellow, and you have done it. The tone of your elegant and fervent praise has touched me in the tenderest place. … I have derived inexpressible gratification from what I know was a labour of love on your part. And I can never forget it.” Another review, Thackeray's piece in Fraser's Magazine (February 1844) pleased Dickens too: “Boz writes that my notice of him has touched him to the quick, encouraged him, and done him good.”33 Dickens obviously realized that the highest praise was that expressed by one novelist for another. “The last two people I heard speak of [A Christmas Carol] were women,” Thackeray wrote; “neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, ‘God bless him!’ … There is not a reader in England but that … he will say of Charles Dickens, as the woman just now, ‘God bless him!’ What a feeling is this for a writer to be able to inspire, and what a reward to reap!”

With the “prodigious success” of the new story came the usual nuisances Dickens had learned to expect with each publication of his work since the early days of The Pickwick Papers. Composers without remuneration to the author capitalized on Dickens' book by publishing quadrilles and songs dedicated to his conceptions. More annoying to the novelist were the unauthorized dramatizations of his work without any financial arrangement paid to the story's creator. At least two separate and distinct productions opened in early February 1844, and their dramatists took odd liberties with the original text. One of these plays was A Christmas Carol; or The Miser's Warning!, a drama in two acts by C. Z. Barnett, first performed at the Royal Surrey Theatre, and published in 1852. This production's many alterations were not improvements on the original: for example, Scrooge's nephew received a coy surname “Frank Freeheart,” and a new character “Dark Sam” was introduced for the single purpose of picking Bob Cratchit's pocket, so that the clerk may be befriended by Scrooge's nephew with a sovereign. Dickens attended a performance of another adaptation, that by actor-playwright Edward Stirling, first performed at the Adelphi Theatre. The novelist was unimpressed: “Better than usual, and Wright seems to enjoy Bob Cratchit, but heart-breaking to me. Oh Heaven! if any forecast of this was ever in my mind! Yet O. Smith was drearily better than I expected. It is a great comfort to have that kind of meat underdone; and his face is quite perfect.” Dickens reluctantly had learned to tolerate these infringements on his art and rights; these plays at the least helped to publicize the individual works.34

Another consequence of the book's popularity was the publication of foreign editions. Notable among these was the German edition of the English text published by Bernhard Tauchnitz of Leipzig. On a visit to London the previous summer, Tauchnitz had secured the rights to authorized continental editions of the works of English authors, Dickens among them; advance proofs were provided to his company, and he advertised that his “edition sanctioned by the author” would be published simultaneously with the London edition. For this volume (set from the uncorrected first printing and illustrated with a redrawn plate of Leech's “Marley's Ghost” as frontispiece), Dickens was reportedly liberally paid. The first foreign translation appeared only a few months after publication, as Les Apparitions de Noël, in Révue Britannique (May to June 1844). Since this early French translation, the story of Scrooge has appeared in one form or another in nearly every tongue.

Not all foreign editions were sanctioned by the author. The earliest American versions likely appeared without Dickens' knowledge. In 1844, Carey and Hart of Philadelphia issued a reasonable reproduction of the Chapman and Hall edition; this (like the Tauchnitz edition) was set from the uncorrected first printing, and the hand-colored illustrations were crude redrawings of the Leech plates. The Carey and Hart volume was far more attractive than another pirated edition, that of Harper and Brothers.35 This cheap pamphlet, bound in blue wrappers and printed in double columns, sold for six cents; it was hastily produced and lacked any illustration. Despite Dickens' impassioned plea for international copyright protection during his American tour the previous year, he failed to prevent the unauthorized publication of his work abroad.

However, he was determined to stop this piracy at home. In the past his only recourse was public protest, but he was now prepared to bring legal action against these flagrant infringements on his rights. What sparked this attack was the publication on January 6, 1844, in the sixteenth number of Parley's Illuminated Library,36 of “A Christmas Ghost Story reoriginated from the original by Charles Dickens Esquire and analytically condensed for this work.” Dickens was already well aware of this publication's unscrupulous dealings,37 but it was not until January 8, 1844, that he found the means to attack these pirates.

Through his solicitor Mitton, Dickens filed an affidavit to obtain an injunction to stop publication of this journal. As he was directly involved in the publication of A Christmas Carol (and he needed to sell as many books as possible to ease his debts), he could no longer tolerate this competition with his original work. “I have not the least doubt that if these Vagabonds can be stopped, they must be,” he wrote Mitton. “So let us go to work in such terrible earnest that everything tumble down before it. … Let us be sledge-hammer in this, or I shall be beset by hundreds of the same crew, when I come out with a long story.”38 Mitton proceeded to register the book's copyright in Dickens' name and followed the author's further instructions.

Dickens was furious with what Parley's Illuminated Library had done to his book. “The story is practically the same,” he explained to Mitton; “with the exception of the name Fezziwig, which is printed Fuzziwig. That the incidents are the same, and follow in the same order. That very frequently indeed … the language is the same. That where it is not, it is weakened, degraded; made tame, vile, ignorant, and mawkish.” Dickens' evaluation can easily be supported by quoting the pedestrian opening of the pirated version:

Everybody, as the phrase goes, knew the firm of “Scrooge and Marley;” for, though Marley had “long been dead” at the period we have chosen for the commencement of our story, the name of the deceased partner still maintained its place above the warehouse door; somewhat faded, to be sure, but there it was. …

The incidents are indeed the same, but the style has none of the flavor, none of the wit, of Dickens' original. Dickens was fully justified in filing affidavits “against a gang of Robbers who have been pirating the Carol; and against whom the most energetic vengeance of the inimitable B is solemnly (and carefully) denounced.”39 As “A Christmas Ghost Story reoriginated,” Dickens's book had been “made to appear a wretched, meagre, miserable thing; and is still hawked about with my title and my name—with my characters, my incidents, and whole design.”

When Dickens (through his counsel) filed a petition for the cessation of publication, the defendants Lee and Haddock moved to dissolve the injunction. They argued that when, in 1841, Lee and the writer Henry Hewitt “analysed, abridged, re-originated, and published the plaintiff's well known and then recently published works, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge … the plaintiff had never interfered with those publications.”40 They further explained that Hewitt, working from critical notes by Lee, “made very considerable improvements, and in some instances large original additions” as in supplying for the “song about a lost child travelling in the snow” an original carol of sixty lines. The defendants concluded that in their “colorable imitation of the Plaintiff's said work,” the “numerous incongruities involving … the unhinging of the whole story have been tastefully remedied in the said Henry Hewitt's work.” Four additional affidavits were filed41 including one from Hewitt claiming that “besides the defects or wants of harmony pointed out by … Lee this deponent detected so many others as to induce him in numerous instances to abandon the plot of the plaintiff's tale and to substitute what this deponent verily believes to be more artistical style of expression and of incident.”

But the Vice-Chancellor, Sir J. Knight Bruce, would have none of this nonsense. As Dickens reported to Forster, Bruce demanded that Lee and Haddock's counsel “produce a passage which was not an expanded or contracted idea from my book. And at every successive passage he cried, ‘That is Mr. Dickens' case. Find another!’ He said that there was not a shadow of doubt upon the matter. That there was no authority which would bear a construction in their favour; the piracy going beyond all previous instances.” Dickens was jubilant at the court's findings, and he announced to Forster, “The Pirates are beaten flat. They are bruised, bloody, battered, smashed, squelched, and utterly undone.”

Dickens, however, spoke too soon. He plunged into no less than six chancery suits and demanded £1,000 in damages from the publishers and their plagiarists; he even considered publishing the petitions in a number of Martin Chuzzlewit to acquaint the public with the injustice afforded him by the pirates. The defendants were far from being “utterly undone”; they were not yet out of legal tricks. Lee and Haddock declared bankruptcy, and Dickens was forced to take action against the assignees. Dickens was being pressured on all sides; one defendant went so far as to send an associate to intimidate Dickens at his home by threatening to publish a damaging advertisement in addition to further legal action. Dickens remained firm. The booksellers who had hawked the periodical finally gave in, but the publishers persisted in their legal entanglements. Dickens realized by January 29 (in a letter to Blanchard) that “through the villainy of the law, which after declaring me robbed, obliges me to bring action against men for whom it demands no security for the expenses to which I shall be put”; he would be forced to pay £300 in legal fees. “Never mind. I declare war against the Black Flag; and down it shall come, if strong and constant hauling will do it.”

By May, the actions had not been settled, and Dickens had to withdraw his suits with the hope he would be charged only the costs for bringing them before the court. As the pirates had no assets, Dickens was legally responsible for the court costs. “I have dropped—dropped!—the action and the chancery suit against the bankrupt Pirates,” he wrote a friend on May 5. “We have had communication with the assignees, and find their case quite desperate. … By Lee and Haddock (the vagabonds) I do lose of course, all my expenses, costs and charges in those suits.”42 His total losses were estimated to be £700, a sum he could ill afford. Despite his desperate attempts to protect his legal rights, Dickens failed to save his “little carol” and subsequent work from the encroachments of plagiarism. A few years later, when he was again beset by pirates, Dickens bitterly opposed bringing the culprits to trial. “I shall not easily forget,” he wrote Forster in August 1846, “the expense, and anxiety, and horrible injustice of the Carol case, wherein, in asserting the plainest right on earth, I was really treated as if I were the robber instead of the robbed.”

At the height of the chancery suit action, Dickens was struck with yet another financial setback. When the threat of the court costs had become apparent, Dickens desperately looked to the Christmas Carol accounts from Chapman and Hall. He had expected the earnings to clear him of the past year's debts and the legal expenses. “Prepare yourself for a shock!” he wrote Mitton. “I was never so knocked over in my life, as when I opened this Carol account on Saturday night; and though I had got over it by yesterday and could look the thing good humoredly in the face, I have slept badly as Macbeth ever since—which is, thank God, almost a miracle with me.”43 Although he “had set my heart and soul upon a Thousand clear,” the profit on the first six thousand copies was a paltry £230; after all the production costs had been accounted for, Dickens was left with enough money to pay only a fraction of his many debts. He did not dare predict much of a gain on the next four thousand. “Such a night as I have passed!” he wrote Forster on February 10. “I really believed I should never get up again, until I had passed through all the horrors of a fever. I found the Carol accounts awaiting me, and they were the cause of it.” Dickens quickly noticed the irony of the situation: “What a wonderful thing it is, that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!” The weight of his debts was so heavy that “all the energy and determination I can possibly exert will be required to clear me before I go abroad.” He was determined to reduce his expenses, because “if I do not, I shall be ruined past all mortal hope of redemption.” Dickens perhaps exaggerated his dilemma, because, by March, with the half year accounts being encouraging, he was far from the ruin he had predicted.

The blame of the book's disastrous profits must be given to Dickens himself. The author had demanded an expensive, luxurious product, but he had intentionally set the low selling price. The gilt edges, elaborate binding, eight woodcuts and steel engravings, and the enormously expensive hand-coloring all cut deeply into the profits. Perhaps Chapman and Hall were in part to blame; they might have advised the innocent author on the realities of publishing costs.

Dickens decided that the culprits responsible for the poor showing of A Christmas Carol were Chapman and Hall. His opinion had changed little; he was furious, even before the accounts arrived, because they had not promoted the book as he had expected. “Can you believe that with the exception of Blackwood's,” he reported to Mitton on December 4, “the Carol is not advertised in One of the Magazines! Bradbury … says that nothing but a tremendous push can possibly atone for such fatal negligence. Consequently, I have written … and said—Do this—Do that—Do the other—keep away from me—and be damned.”44 This irritation likely influenced his belief that Chapman and Hall were cheating him on the book's production costs. “I have not the least doubt,” he complained to Mitton, “that they have run the expenses up anyhow purposely to bring me back and disgust me with the charges. If you add up the different charges for the plates, you will find that they cost me more than I get.” His bitterness was evident in his comment that what he had finally earned on the popular Christmas book was little more than he had received on an earlier work, “a poor thing of little worth published without my name.” Seeing “the shadow of war” before him, Dickens wrote Chapman and Hall a curt business letter.

His only alternative was to change publishers. He thought Bradbury and Evans would prove far more profitable. His entire earning on the sales of A Christmas Carol, from January through December 1844, was a modest £726, for the first seven thousand copies. The printers now offered him £2,800 down on assignment of a fourth share in everything he might write during the next eight years, and they would pay Chapman and Hall the remainder of Dickens' debt.45 Ironically, the sentiments of good-fellowship and mercy, the tone of A Christmas Carol, did not touch its purveyor in his dealings with either his publishers or the pirates of the story. Although the book had been his most popular work in several years (he now referred to himself as “the author of A Christmas Carol in prose and other works”), Dickens suffered more anxiety and disappointment upon publication of the Christmas book than from any previous work.

In spite of all these troubles, Dickens did not overlook the necessity to follow A Christmas Carol with a sequel for the next holiday season. Dickens reported to Forster that the new story would be “a great blow for the poor”; it would be powerful, “but I want to be tender too and cheerful; as like the Carol in that respect as may be, and as unlike it as much as a thing can be. The duration of the action will resemble it a little, but I trust to the novelty of the machinery to carry that off; and if my design be anything at all, it has a grip upon the very throat of the public.” This second Christmas book, The Chimes, set the pattern for the subsequent volumes; it was a companion to A Christmas Carol but in a less expensive format. Dickens was ecstatic over the new story: “I believe I have written a tremendous book, and knocked the Carol out of the field. It will make a great uproar, I have no doubt.” The Chimes, as did the other three sequels, did sell better than A Christmas Carol; but none ever succeeded in knocking the first out of the field. They are little read today, among the most neglected of Dickens' work; they lack the magic of the first Christmas book. With the exception of The Battle of Life (an uncharacteristic, brief, sentimental romance of sacrifice), each of the Christmas series retains the basic structure of A Christmas Carol: the resolution of a human problem through the intervention of a supernatural force, acting on the protagonist's psychology generally through the agent of memory. Each volume is dependent on Dickens' “Carol philosophy—cheerful views, sharp anatomization of humbug, jolly good temper … and a vein of glowing, hearty, generous, mirthful, beaming references in everything to Home, and Fireside.” Dickens just reclothed the same story in a new holiday dress. The later stories are forced, dependent on a formula; by the time of The Haunted Man (1848), Dickens felt obligated to write still another holiday story, because he hated “to leave a gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill.” He obviously realized his ideas were now hackneyed; The Haunted Man was the last of the Christmas Books. Even the characters were repeating themselves: the Tetterbies are crude imitations of the Cratchits, and the chemist Redlaw has a similar history but less distinctive character than Scrooge. As Chesterton observed in Charles Dickens (1906), “All the good figures that followed Scrooge when he came growling out of the fog fade into the fog again.” Not without their curiosities, these later books fail to sustain a unique, unified tone as in the tale of Scrooge's conversion; they are dependent more on intentions than on inspiration, and what they lack in spirit, they also lack in expression. The other Christmas stories in the many holiday numbers of Dickens' periodicals, Household Words and All The Year Round, are even less successful than the worst of the Christmas Books; these later stories written in collaboration with other authors did not follow Dickens' but another's plan, so they are even free of the original Carol philosophy. More characteristic of the earlier tone are Dickens' several holiday essays, “A Christmas Tree,” “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older,” “A December Vision,” and others; these intimate articles were direct expressions of Dickens' Christmas thoughts and experiences and restore in part the Carol philosophy so lacking in the subsequent Christmas fictions.

A legacy of the enormous popularity of Dickens' Christmas Books was the establishment of a unique branch of English letters: the holiday book. Most were ephemeral pieces, now long forgotten, which had little in common with Dickens' originals except for a likely imitation in design and illustration. Dickens' artists were often called on to illustrate these books (for example, Cruikshank contributed to the undistinguished The Snow Storm by Mrs. Gore, 1845) and the growing number of Christmas supplements to such periodicals as The London Illustrated News. Perhaps the most enduring of these seasonal works is Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring (1855), a comic fairy tale directly inspired by Dickens' Christmas Books; it still retains a following uniquely its own. Hans Christian Andersen's Christmas Greetings to My English Friends (1847), another special example of this genre, was a collection of seven fairy tales dedicated to Dickens.46 Andersen's use of Christmas is often as touching as Dickens': “The Little Fir Tree” and “The Snow Queen” deserve their status as holiday classics, and the story of the Little Match Girl displays a pathos comparable to that of Tiny Tim. Oscar Wilde, in part a direct descendant of both Dickens and Andersen, wrote an unusual holiday fairy tale, “The Young King” (first published in the December issue of The Ladies' Magazine and later as a part of The House of Pomegranates, 1891). This latter fantasy appears to be Wilde's unique adaptation of A Christmas Carol to embody his own aesthetic principles and theory of Christian martyrdom: in the conversion of the vain, sensuous young Prince through the medium of three dreams lies the same machinery as that of the miser Scrooge and the agents of the three ghosts. Other holiday books of the nineteenth century blatantly plagiarized Dickens' ideas; Christmas Eve With the Spirits … With Some Further Tidings of the Lives of Scrooge and Tiny Tim (1870) purported to tell the remainder of Scrooge's story from his conversion to his death.47 The twentieth century has produced one Christmas story comparable to the best of Dickens; Dylan Thomas' Child's Christmas in Wales (1954) is unsurpassed by any other seasonal work, and it shares much of the flavor of Stephen Dedalus' boyhood Christmas described by James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Each of these numerous Christmas stories, each written by artists who differ in style, owes something of its spirit to Dickens; what is known of these Christmases past was in part defined by the Dickens philosophy.48

A Christmas Carol (both a single volume and collected as one of the Christmas Books, 1852) continued to sell so well that by 1892 the author's son could announce in his introduction to the Macmillan collected edition that it “shares with Pickwick and David Copperfield the distinction of being the most universally popular of all the books of Charles Dickens.” This sustained interest in the old Christmas story was in part supported by Dickens himself in his public readings; A Christmas Carol was the first of his books to be read publicly, and it remained the most frequently read adaptation of his works in all his public tours. Since that statement of Charles Dickens the Younger, the first Christmas book has gone beyond the popularity of even Pickwick and David Copperfield.

Although the public taste for the story has remained consistent, the critical response has been mixed. “Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this?” Thackeray wrote in his review. “It seems to me to be a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” Obviously many others have found things to object to in the story. It has been seen as “saturated with exaggerated Christmas fervour” and “larded with soggy and indigestible lumps of sickly sentiment”; “neither in conception nor characterization” can this book be placed “in the same class as the greater novels.”49 By the latter part of the nineteenth century, Dickens had fallen out of favor with most critics, and he could not seriously be considered an artist. “He knew nothing of the nobler power of superstition,” complained John Ruskin, “was essentially a stage manager, and used everything for effect on the pit … it is Dickens' delight in grotesque and rich exaggerations which has made him, I think, nearly useless in the present day. I do not believe he has made any one more good-natured.”50 Dickens, however, remained beloved by the poets. Swinburne found the story “delightful” and argued that, if Dickens had never written any lengthier work, he “would still be great among the immortal writers of his age by grace of his matchless excellences as a writer of short stories,” particularly the earliest Christmas Books.51 The young Robert Louis Stevenson, too, was profoundly affected by these stories; as he wrote a friend, “they are too much perhaps. I have only read two of them yet, and feel so good after them and would do anything, yes and shall do anything, to make it a little better for people. … I want to go out and comfort some one; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money—I shall give money; not that I haven't done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”52 Despite such praises for the little books, it became conventional not merely to underrate Dickens' powers as an artist but also to deride his popularity. “In literature as in dress,” André Maurois explained in his appreciation of Dickens, “there are fashions. Certain books are deemed beautiful or graceless, certain authors admirable or damnable, not because the reader experiences pleasant or unpleasant emotions, but because he ought to experience them.”53

During the twentieth century the fashion has slowly turned in favor of Dickens, and by the centenary of his death in 1970, he was universally recognized as one of the great literary figures of the Victorian Age. Disgust with A Christmas Carol has persisted in some literary circles. Many agree with Richard Aldington's evaluation in Four English Portraits (1948): one must be a “ruthless” Dickensian to deny that the death of Tiny Tim is “an unwarrantable hitting below the sentimental belt, … that the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge is as full of cant as it is of improbability.” While some critics persist in overlooking the Christmas stories, others have published a few eccentric studies based upon current literary trends. For example, it has been argued that Dickens á la Jonathan Swift had an “excremental vision,” apparent in A Christmas Carol; thus descriptions of the London fog and even Bob Cratchit's “stool” are given unconscious symbolic significance which unfortunately discloses more about the critic's obsessions than those of the author.54 Similarly, Elliot L. Gilbert in his essay “The Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol” (PMLA, January 1975) unconvincingly argued “the Scrooge problem,” that the miser's conversion is immediate and lacks psychological depth, with support from the opinions of several eminent scholars; but this approach is actually a study of Dickens' critics, not of Dickens. Sadly, such indulgences in scholarly taste waste much fine intellectual energy in the pursuit of confining a classic piece of writing to a narrow literary trend or to support a current critical prejudice.

Of far more significance are the few modern voices that have praised A Christmas Carol, not as a minor work in the Dickens, canon but as a crucial milestone in the development of the artist as a mature writer. Chesterton early recognized the importance of this book in Dickens' total output. “The mystery of Christmas is in a manner identical with the mystery of Dickens,” he explained in Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911). “If ever we adequately explain the one we may adequately explain the other.” Likewise, Edmund Wilson in his pivotal study “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” of The Wound and the Bow (1941) took as metaphor for Dickens' entire career the story of the miser's conversion. “If we try, after rereading the whole of Dickens, to forget the detail of this immense mass of people and scenes, and to isolate the two or three essential impressions which dominate the rest and in a way give the general tone,” Maurois suggested in his fine study, “I feel for my own part that I should be left first and foremost with certain scenes from the Christmas books.” Edgar Johnson, author of the finest critical biography of Charles Dickens, credited A Christmas Carol with being “indeed the very core of Dickens' vision of what the relations between men should be, a warm and glowing celebration of sympathy and love.”55

In considering the persistent criticisms of A Christmas Carol, the reader may learn how truly significant a work of art the book is. A major complaint has been—as in the words of Nicholas Bentley—“Scrooge is hardly more than a symbol of avarice”; the miser is merely a puppet manipulated by the author to the point of his unconvincing conversion. This simplistic platitude cannot be supported by a reading of the text of A Christmas Carol. To understand Scrooge, one must also comprehend the nature of Dickens' characters in general. Chesterton tried to defend Dickens by arguing that all his figures are caricatures, and then proceeded to prove that there is an art in exaggeration; perhaps George Orwell was more perceptive in his analysis of Dickens' creations. He recognized that the novelist “did not think of himself as a caricaturist, and was constantly setting in action characters who ought to be static.”56 “The monstrosities he created,” Orwell continued, “are still remembered as monstrosities, in spite of getting mixed up in would-be probable melodramas. Their first impact is so vivid that nothing that comes afterwards effaces it.”

Ebenezer Scrooge is a fine example of Orwell's argument. When first met, the miser is portrayed in such broad strokes that he could easily be the ogre of any family, not just the Cratchits. Dickens' method is caricature: “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” He exudes a dreary atmosphere of “his own low temperature always about him,” as prevalent as the London fog or as engulfing as “the infernal atmosphere” of Marley's Ghost. In his words as in his actions, Scrooge lives up to his physical description. He is cold to his clerk's comfort and feels no sympathy for his nephew. When asked to give to charity, he replies in the cant of the utilitarian economic theoreticians of the time: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” At first glance, Dickens has created a man without qualities. So strong and convincing is this introduction that the name “Scrooge” has entered the language as descriptive of the most hardhearted of misers.

Yet Scrooge is not so simple a character as first presented. One quality of his personality which anticipates the possibility of his redemption is his sense of humor. This characteristic was made more evident in Dickens' public readings. Charles Kent in Dickens As A Reader (1872) noted that Scrooge's “Good morning!” aimed at his nephew was “delivered with irresistibly ludicrous iteration.” The callous attack on Christmas with its wild threat of boiling in Christmas puddings and driving stakes of holly through hearts also suggests the miser's “keen sense of humour,” and “one almost feels as if he were laughing in his sleeve from the very commencement.” The tone is sarcasm, as when Scrooge tells his nephew, “You're quite a powerful speaker, I wonder you don't go into Parliament.”

This strange suggestion of humor is further developed in the interview with Marley's Ghost. During this discussion, one is jarred by Scrooge's flippancy and lack of fearful respect. His jokes are made with some reluctance, but his attitude still conflicts with the reader's initial presentation of the “old screw.” Here perhaps Dickens' attitude as the author should be considered. He portrays Scrooge at the start exactly as the businessman wishes to be seen by the world. As he has no friends, no confidants, and “nobody ever stopped him in the street,” his character is determined by how he acts in his office and how he treats the few people he will have business with. The “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner” is the public Scrooge.

It is, however, when Marley's Ghost appears that the reader gets a glimpse of the private Scrooge. Dickens as the omnipotent author can portray the intimate Scrooge, in his dressing gown, behind his apartment door, in a state none of his associates have had the opportunity to observe. Even the initial materialization of the spirit does not disrupt Scrooge's privacy; he views the spirit as an hallucination, of his own creation, not of imagination through fancy but instead through the cold facts of indigestion; the specter is no more than a bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato, to the pragmatic Scrooge. His joke that there is more of gravy than the grave about this spirit is but a private jest of the hidden Scrooge.

Dickens is not satisfied to leave the impression that this is a contradictory characteristic of the miser's personality. He demands sympathy for this man. When the spirit screams and Scrooge falls to his knees, the miser's actions that follow are as shocking as the apparition's. One could hardly predict from the Scrooge of Dickens' initial description that anything could affect this man, as “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire.” His indifference to the wretched state of the poor would seem to prove that nothing could affect his own purposes. Yet in the interview with Marley's Ghost, Dickens has stripped Scrooge of all his defenses. Through his terror, the horrible old man earns the reader's sympathies. During the conversation, he displays humility and desires comfort from the spirit; he is not unlike other men. He expresses a touch of tenderness toward his old partner: he inquires why the specter is chained and admits they had always been good friends. The Scrooge here presented is psychologically more complex than in his introduction. Clearly this man may receive salvation.

Orwell complained that “Dickens' characters have no mental life. They say perfectly the thing that they have to say, but they cannot be conceived as anything else. They never learn, they never speculate.” Obviously Orwell has forgotten the story of the miser's redemption. Ebenezer Scrooge's example may be unique in Dickens' work: the story's motivation is the regeneration of a single lost soul; it is basically a one-character narrative told through the mind of the protagonist. Dickens carefully unfolds the secret workings of this man's mind and heart. The possibility of retribution is first evident in the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past. When taken back to his boyhood home, the old man cries out in joy and a tear of happiness falls down his cheek. When the ghost confronts him with the reality of this sentiment, Scrooge shrugs it off as a pimple. This crustiness soon passes; on viewing the Norfolk coach filled with laughing boys on their way home for the holidays, Dickens asks, “Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap as they went past! Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas!” How could these feelings be aroused in the same man who said, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”?

Through the visitations of the three spirits, Dickens reveals further the repressed feelings of this once seemingly unredeemable soul. At first these gentler sentiments appear to be selfish; he cries as he pities his former self, a boy left alone in a dismal schoolhouse during the holidays. The touching memories of his childhood affect him emotionally because he once experienced them, but they also teach him a lesson. He shows that he is not without sympathy for his fellowman; he atones for the three sins committed earlier in the day. On seeing himself, a lonely forgotten boy, he reflects on his abuse to a young caroler. At the introduction of his beloved sister Fanny when a little girl, Scrooge remembers her son, his nephew Fred, and seems “uneasy in his mind,” likely regretting his harsh words to the young man. And finally, during the wild gaiety of the Fezziwig Ball, he takes a moment to consider his own cruel treatment of his poor clerk, and he expresses a glint of remorse for his callousness. His deep concern for others is given further development when, at the Cratchits' poor house with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge shows true concern for a child's fate:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

These sentiments of painful remorse are prevalent in the scenes he is shown. He weeps on seeing himself as a child; on hearing a tune known to his sister and sung by his niece, “he softened more and more and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindness of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton's spade that buried Jacob Marley.” He pitifully realizes the lost possibilities of his avaricious life when he sees the daughter of his former sweetheart Belle: “and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a springtime in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.” In the sad scene where he breaks off his engagement, the girl gives him the key to his salvation, “in a changed nature, in an altered spirit, in another atmosphere of life, another Hope as its great end.” The process of his change of mind is affected by that of his heart; the emotional instructs the intellectual. In these journeys with the spirits, the other atmosphere is revived in him. In the lifting of his cold, hard character like the passing of the dismal fog to the glorious golden sunshine of Christmas day, it is evident that Scrooge was not totally free of the Christmas spirit; it just lay dormant within him. So little was needed to revive it: the old man is so caught up in the gaiety of forfeits at his nephew's party that “wholly forgetting in the interest he had in what was going on, that his voice made no sound in their ears, he sometimes came out with a guess quite loud, and very often guessed right, too.” So carried away with the festivities of the Fezziwig Ball, Scrooge seems to be “speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self.” Chesterton's supposition that Scrooge was all along secretly dispersing Christmas turkeys to the poor is pure fancy, but certainly the old man had also retained within him like the flame of memory never completely “bonneted” the possibility of resurrecting his old Christmas spirit.

His choice to isolate himself from all the joys and nuisances of daily life has allowed him to forget the sentiments that were once part of his character; the process of his return to his former self is long and carefully constructed. In the pictures of the Cratchit household, Scrooge finds the example for his later life and the medium for his salvation. When he poignantly asks that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come show him “some tenderness connected with a death,” he is spirited to the Cratchits' first Christmas following the recent death of Tiny Tim. Scrooge at this point is ready to alter his life; he will accept whatever the spirit shows him. That his conversion is an active process is evident in that, when he is taken to his office, he sees no figure of himself: “It gave him little surprise, however, for he had been revolving in his mind a change of life, and thought and hoped he saw his new-born resolutions carried out in this.” Despite this seemingly encouraging sign, he is confronted with his true legacy: death. His only mark on the world is a cold, gray stone in a forgotten graveyard. Confronted with this vision of no apparent means to absolve himself, Scrooge promises to alter the future, not only his own welfare but that of his fellowmen. This change of life is not so sudden (as Chesterton said) “as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army”; the process as presented in Dickens' narrative is precise and subtle, playing on the man's deeper repressed feelings aroused from a recollection of his former self, an education through the example of his clerk and nephew, and a warning of what his fate will be should he follow the same path in life. Scrooge must admit with the chemist Redlaw of The Haunted Man the necessity of every life, even that of an old bachelor miser:

In the material world, as I have long taught, nothing can be spared; no step or atom in the wondrous structure could be lost, without a blank being made in the great universe. I know, now, that it is the same with good and evil, happiness and sorrow, in the memories of men.

Scrooge must agree with Jacob Marley, “Mankind was my business!” Clearly, of the two demon children protected by the Ghost of Christmas Present, the one Scrooge in his own life must beware of is the boy Ignorance.

As determined by the slow steps in the miser's alteration, Scrooge's failure as a human being began in his suppressing the sentiments of his childhood. “If we can only preserve ourselves from growing up,” Dickens explained in “When we stopped growing” (Household Words, January 1, 1853, p. 363), “we shall never grow old and the young may love us to the last. Not to be too wise, not to be too stately, not to be too rough with innocent fancies, or to treat them with too much lightness—which is as bad—are points to be remembered that may do us all good in our years to come.” Dickens actively kept these thoughts in his life as well as in his writing. In composing Scrooge's life, Dickens relied on his own: the boy Scrooge is the boy Dickens, the Cratchits of Camden Town were the Dickenses of Bayham Street. “Here was a child who had suffered,” explained Maurois, “who was to keep all through his life that sympathy with the poor which cannot easily be attained by those who have not lived the life of the poor. … From now on he would have a war to wage against the hard of heart who exploit children, against the hypocrites who style themselves religious and yet lack charity, against bullying schoolmasters, against prisons and poverty and insolence, and he would wage it victoriously.” Unlike the miserly Scrooge, Dickens kept his childhood active within himself. “No one, at any rate no English writer,” wrote Orwell, “has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child's point of view.” Dickens displayed this rare ability in recording Scrooge's childhood and both the joyous and pitiful scenes in the Cratchit home. The first indication of retribution comes in the return to Scrooge's childhood. Through his avarice he has denied his natural feelings of wonder and joy in favor of indifference to the troubled world, but on his recollection of times past, his reactions are unashamed and instinctual, for the ghost has touched him deeply. On spotting the old, familiar country road, the old man cries out “with fervour”; on recognizing Ali Baba, he proclaims the name “in ecstasy.” These recollections of course are not all pleasant, because nostalgia demands a touch of pain in the joy.

For Dickens it is not enough to merely recollect what it was like to be a child; one must also be like a child. What distinguishes Scrooge from his clerk is that Bob Cratchit has not forgotten how to be childish. Despite the hard facts of poverty, Cratchit never suspects it below his dignity to go down a slide with a group of boys or to play blindman's buff. Similarly, the miser's nephew, although neglected by his uncle, too retains the spirit of a child within him as he fills his Christmas with children's games. In his journey, Scrooge awakens to this characteristic of both his clerk and nephew. The metaphor that Dickens most frequently employs to describe Scrooge at his most joyous and uninhibited is that of a child. When the Ghost of Christmas Present motions them to leave Fred's party, Scrooge begs “like a boy to be allowed to stay until the guests depart.” In his conversion, Scrooge admits to being “as merry as a schoolboy.” This childish spirit even infects the narrator himself, as in his reference to Belle's children “What would I not have given to be one of them! … I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value.”

It is through a child that Scrooge will earn his inevitable salvation. Although he has neglected his nephew and in releasing Belle he has no children of his own, Scrooge has another chance to redeem himself through being “a second father” to Tiny Tim. Marley's Ghost laments, “Were there no poor homes to which [that Blessed Star] would have conducted me!” This warning is exemplified by another spirit, similarly fettered with the symbols of his avarice, “who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman and an infant.” Scrooge's second visitor, both man and child, arouses in Scrooge through glimpses of childhood past regret for his abuse of another child, the caroler he threatened with a ruler. In Scrooge lies the prototype of David Copperfield; this child “deserted by his schoolmates” is the same figure of “singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily and mentally,” the boy Charles Dickens abused by his parents' indifference and bullied by an unjust educational system. This boy is a character often portrayed in Dickens' work: the child surprisingly unchildlike in his observations.

Here lies a paradox in Dickens' conception of childhood and what constitutes the childlike spirit. What is most sympathetic about the adults, Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Fred, becomes apparent when they act childish; what is most remarkable about the children is their maturity. Pip of Great Expectations is surprisingly observant for his tender years: “Within myself, I had sustained from my time when I could speak that my sister … was unjust to me.” Paul Dombey is even more extreme; he was “never so distressed as by the company of children. … ‘Go away, if you please,’ he would say to any child who came to bear him company. ‘Thank you, but I don't want to.’” This ambivalence toward other children is shared by Judy Smallweed of Bleak House (1853) who “never owned a doll, never heard of Cinderella, never played at any game. She once or twice fell into children's company when she was about ten years old, but the children couldn't get on with Judy, and Judy couldn't get on with them. She seemed like an animal of another species, and there was instinctive repugnance on both sides.” She is but one branch on the great family tree of adult children. “There has only been one child in the Smallweed family for several generations,” Dickens described Judy's lineage. “Little old men and women there have been, but no child, until Mr. Smallweed's grandmother, now living, became weak in her intellect, and fell (for the first time) into a childish state.”

Among these mature children must be included Tiny Tim. He is remarkably reflective, with an almost supernatural power of observation, that baffles even his loving father:

Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me … that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggers walk, and blind men see.

This wretched crippled boy possesses the wisdom that Scrooge so sorely lacks. During the joyous merrymaking of the Cratchit home, this child takes time to sing “a song about a lost child in the snow.” It is this character who adds the more perceptive and original corollary to his father's greeting: “God bless us every one!” This child of “singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate” even in death possesses a “childish essence from God.” If “these shadows remain unaltered,” the fate of child creatures like Tiny Tim and Paul Dombey is the grave. The other individuals robbed of their childhoods like Scrooge and Tom Gradgrind of Hard Times become social monsters. Because the old man sees his folly, Tiny Tim does not die. Scrooge realizes that although the losses of his own life may not be recovered, perhaps this boy may not have to run a similar course under that other idol Gain. In The Haunted Man, Dickens presented a horrifying vision of the consequences due to neglect of the child:

All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft … is the same barren wilderness. … From every seed of evil in this boy, a field of ruin is grown that shall be gathered in, and garnered up, and sown again in many places in the world, until regions are overspread with wickedness enough to raise the waters of another Deluge. Open and unpunished murder in a city's streets would be less guilty in its daily toleration, than one such spectacle as this. … He is the growth of man's indifference; you are the growth of man's presumption. The beneficent design of Heaven is, in each case, overthrown, and from the two poles of the immaterial world you come together.

The warning Scrooge views in the demon children Want and Ignorance; he is shown the terrible seeds of human indifference. By his concern for Tiny Tim, Scrooge may act as an example as to how each person might prevent the approaching plague.

Dickens' view of the child goes beyond his personal obsession derived from his own experience and beyond the immediate beneficence toward a single child to an accusation of the society as a whole as to its terrible responsibility. A Christmas Carol may be seen, as in the words of Edgar Johnson, as “a serio-comic parable of social redemption: the miserly Scrooge is the embodiment of the pursuit of material gain and indifference to human welfare represented by both the businessmen and the nineteenth century economists, and his conversion is a symbol of that change of heart in society on which Dickens had set his own heart.”57 Scrooge is the archetypical “economic man,” the utilitarian who exists only for the accumulation of money; he prays to that other idol Gain, for he is a disciple of what Carlyle called the cult of Mammonism. Scrooge's life like Marley's is weighed down by “cashboxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” His profession demands precision, exactness, and has no place for human sentiment that might unbalance the laws of mathematics and economics; appropriately, he threatens the young caroler with a ruler.

In his callous opinions, Scrooge reiterates the economic cant of the political theorists of his day. The poor are poor because they have made themselves so, and Scrooge cannot be bothered to provide the means “to make idle people merry.” The only refuges Scrooge is willing to provide for them are the prisons and the workhouses. His debt to society has been paid through compulsory taxation; there is no need for him to provide charity at Christmas or any other day of the year. He loses nothing in these transactions, because the Treadmill and Poor Law were instituted to protect men such as him from being cheated by their creditors. Whatever might be the correct solution to the dilemma, Scrooge does not care whether the poor live or die as long as they do not disrupt his utilitarian ends.

Scrooge does not merely express the ideas of popular political cant, but also his character is motivated by its hardhearted facts. He views all sentiment as humbug; any emotion that might hinder business is nonsense. At the burial of his partner, he honors it not with bereavement but with the making of an undoubted bargain. He completely lacks a sense of the fanciful; any flight of the imagination must have some basis in fact, in indigestion or a cold in the head. He comprehends nothing beyond his “factious purposes.” Not even his senses can be trusted when they present something so extraordinary as his dead partner's ghost. He may see the apparition, but, because it does not conform to his narrow, utilitarian worldview, it is mere “humbug.”

This economic man is confronted by another utilitarian, his partner Marley. The ghost tries to warn his friend of the false path he followed in life and what road he should have taken: “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.” To have saved him from ceaseless wanderings after death, all that would have been needed was for him to improve the condition of one poor family. The true defender of the destitute is the Ghost of Christmas Present. This vision of Father Christmas is the only purely active spirit in the story. The Ghost of Christmas Past has the ability to present only “shadows of the things that have been”; it does not judge, it cannot alter what has been. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come lacks any power for reflection; this grim reaper cannot be diverted from its inevitable course. Only the Ghost of Christmas Present has the ability to comment on the events and to offer alternatives to Scrooge's miserable life.

This ghost early establishes its position. It explains that the light of its torch falls most of all upon a poor dinner “because it needs it most.” It demonstrates no patience with the narrow Puritanism that would deny the common man his simple pleasures in the name of God. The most spirited Christmas scenes are those of the less fortunate. The working classes running to the bakeries for a hot holiday meal are as festive as “the Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House.” The ghost finds its way to the hovel of a Cornish miner and his family and on to a ship in a storm at sea. The most memorable holiday scenes in all English literature are those in the humble house of Bob Cratchit and the lower-middle-class parlor of Scrooge's nephew Fred. Despite their poverty, each can sing some ancient carol whose cheer transcends their common misery.

There may be tenderness in these pictures of poverty, but the ghost shows no mercy toward Scrooge. At the height of the holiday season, following a children's Twelfth Night party, Scrooge is bluntly confronted with two children who know nothing of twelfth-cake and conjuring. The Ghost of Christmas Present in a voice like Thomas Carlyle's discloses the monster girl and boy, Want and Ignorance, protected in the folds of his robe. These two miserable creatures embody Dickens' most powerful indictment of the utilitarian mind. Without the spirit of Christmas to comfort them, the narrow Puritanism and Mammonism would release these wretched beings upon the world. They foreshadow the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come whose work they will do should Man in the present not shelter them. Society has a responsibility to find a new solution to prevent the crime and misery apparent only as children at the moment. When Scrooge demands if the two have any refuge, the ghost cruelly replies in Scrooge's own words the evil economic cant, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Notice how easily Dickens makes the transition from the two demon children to the fearful Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come; in the third spirit lies the Doom which must be erased from the child's brow. Dickens argues that not only is the creation of a poor class the result of the whim of the wealthy but also the possibility of protection and advancement for a better life also restricted by the interests of the rich.

What Dickens offers as a solution to the social condition is a change of heart. The Christmas spirit that harbors these children is their only refuge; only if it dwells within other men can the Doom be removed from their young brows. As Orwell observed, “It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change in spirit rather than a change of structure.” Dickens does not give specific alternatives. He does not disclose how Scrooge was a second father to Tiny Tim. The author consciously avoids such specifics, as when Scrooge, in telling the portly gentleman his offer, discreetly whispers into the gentleman's ear. Dickens gives no ready-made plan to be followed.

As a political tract, A Christmas Carol fails dismally. “From one angle the Christmas Carol appears as propaganda in favour of pathetic resignation,” argued T. A. Jackson in Charles Dickens: The Progress of A Radical (1938). “Bob Cratchit … has little enough to be thankful for, and yet is presented as still finding excuses for his wretched old screw of an employer. … For Bob Cratchit a miserly boss was, in a time of economic depression such as prevailed in 1843, just one more of those ills which, since it could not be cured, must be endured.” The change in consciousness must come from the employer, not the employee; Bob Cratchit never demands what Carlyle thought every working man deserved, “a fair day's wages for a fair day's work.” Dickens sees nothing in the clerk's character to be criticized; as expressed in his speech before the Manchester Atheneum, the relationship between employer and employed, like that of squire and servant at Dingley Dell, is one of mutual trust and benevolence.58 It is Scrooge, not Bob Cratchit, who must change. Dickens defined his purpose as “in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forebearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.” Dickens' means toward economic reform is to change the individual who is the cause of the injust system, not the system itself; it is psychological, not political. Evidently Dickens saw no need to change the structure of society before there were better people to live in it. Most social critics prefer the argument that a change in the system will ultimately improve human nature. Dickens' purposes perhaps explain in part why his story is still frowned upon by the utilitarian world. Dickens' argument appeals more to the poet than to the political scientist.

In considering the social intent of this “carol in prose,” one must recognize how unreligious a Christmas story it is. Lang found it merely “Christianity illuminated by the flames of punch.” Dickens' religious convictions did not correspond to the Established Church. He did not accept its dogmas and had little interest in questions of miracles. When he refers in A Christmas Carol to Biblical characters, they appear on tiles in an old fireplace; they seem to have more in common with children's storybooks than with the Holy Scriptures. Dickens' Christmas story surprisingly lacks any major church scene; although the spirits take the miser to many holiday gatherings, never once do they visit a place of worship. “His Christmas,” explained Ruskin, “meant mistletoe and pudding—neither resurrection from the dead, nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherds.” Dickens' story is free of clerical preaching; A Christmas Carol is a domestic sermon. When referring to current pious dogma, Dickens attacks rather than supports its tenets; he judges it according to how it affects the common man, and if it is wanting in charity, he voices his opposition. He does not tolerate callous Puritanism: “There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred and bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are strangers to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived.” He had no need for “mysteries and squabbles for forms” when the people these principles should be confronting remain “in a state so miserable and so neglected, that their very nature rebels against the simplest religion.” Through A Christmas Carol Dickens offered a popular religion that he hoped would touch all men. As Thackeray understood, this “charity-sermon” is free of theological discussion and full of simple holiday pleasures and feelings: “I believe it occasioned immense hospitality throughout England; was the means of lighting up hundreds of kind fires at Christmas time; caused a wonderful outpouring of Christmas good-feeling; of Christmas punch-brewing; an awful slaughter of Christmas turkeys, and roasting and basting of Christmas beef.”59 Dickens' “charity-sermon” was to be preached, not in the pulpit at Westminster, but by the hearth of the common man.

Dickens did not ignore the Christmas story in his book. His carol refers many times to the Biblical accounts, but what Dickens emphasizes are the good works of Christ. His sympathies were at one time linked to the Unitarian Church and its creed, “Believe in the supremacy of God the Father, and in the humanity and divine mission of Jesus of Nazareth.” It has been suggested that the theme of A Christmas Carol parallels an axiom of the popular contemporary theologian Thomas Arnold, “the salvation of man's soul is effected by the change in his heart and life wrought by Christ's spirit.”60 This humanity of Christ was what Dickens tried to teach his own children in his introduction to The Life of Our Lord (1849): “No one ever lived, who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.” He stressed the poverty of Christ and that he chose his disciples from among the poor: “Heaven was made for them as well as for the rich, and God makes no difference between those who wear good clothes and those who go barefoot and in rags. The most miserable, the most ugly, deformed, wretched creatures that live, will be bright Angels in Heaven if they are good here on earth.” And it is through an active Christ, his good works and example, that Dickens derived his religion; as Tiny Tim observed, one must reflect during this season of merrymaking on “He who made lame beggers walk and blind men see.”

Central to Dickens' interpretation of Christ's teachings is His attitude toward children. When Scrooge visits the Cratchit home at the death of Tiny Tim, he hears a line from the Gospels: “And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” Christ's tenderness toward a little child is the religious teaching that Scrooge must follow. Marley's Ghost laments, “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?” Like the Wise Men, Scrooge is led by a Christmas vision to the home of a poor child, Tiny Tim, whom through Christ's example the miser might save him from his sad fate. Christmas as a time for children has a scriptural basis: “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.” Through the divine grace of this Christmas spirit, Scrooge discovers his particular salvation in coming to the aid of this Christchildlike boy. Truly, as Dickens suggests, “Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God!”

All these intentions, personal, social, religious, are well meaning, yet they would be sought in other sources if A Christmas Carol did not succeed as a work of literature. Chesterton argued that “the historical and moral importance is really even greater than the literary importance,” but this conclusion does not explain why this story in particular should survive all the other well-intentioned pamphlets of the last century. A Christmas Carol is a work of art and must be considered as such to place it firmly in its proper perspective within Dickens' work.

Despite the ghost machinery (and the author's jest “in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an idea”), the story's form cannot strictly be labeled “a ghost story.” “For all his moral Christmas ghosts, and his interest in the ghostly,” wrote Andrew Lang in his introduction to the Christmas Books (1897), “Dickens never … wrote a good ghost story au naturel. He brought in the fantastically grotesque: he had not the success in this province, because he had not the seriousness, of De Foe, of Scott, and Bulwer-Lytton.” A Christmas Carol is closer to being a fable, and such a form demands a strict structure. As Edgar Johnson observed, the story is a seriocomic parable of social redemption. Marley's Ghost is the symbol of divine grace, and the three Christmas Spirits are the working of that grace through the agencies of memory, example, and fear.”61 Weaknesses have crept into the design. For example, if the Ghost of Christmas Past is the agent of memory, the scene in Belle's home seven years ago does not seem justified; unless he were in the habit of being a Peeping Tom, Scrooge never experienced this recollection. In tone as in detail, this scene seems to be more characteristic of the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present. It seems to repeat the sentiment of the previous scene, the breakup of the engagement; Dickens in his public readings wisely deleted the arbitrary episode. The scene is rarely included in other adaptations of the text.62

As Lang explained, Dickens created “a ghost with a purpose.” His structure remains complex and clear. Chesterton found the story as “everywhere irregular. … It has the same kind of artistic unity that belongs to a dream. … The incidents change wildly: the story scarcely changes at all. The Christmas Carol is a kind of philanthropic dream, an enjoyable nightmare, in which the scenes shift bewilderingly and seem as miscellaneous as the pictures in a scrapbook, but in which there is one, constant state of the soul, a state of rowdy benediction and a hunger for human faces.” Chesterton, however, failed to look beneath the surface of event; although a dream, the story does not ramble from its intent or its plan. Nearly every one of these “bewildering scenes” has a specific purpose in the direction of Dickens' parable. Although the technique of shifting scenes is sprawling, the line of argument moves as steadily as the unfaltering Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Nearly every act and attitude of Scrooge in the opening pages of the book is revived later in the narrative. Through the revelations of his past life, he regrets his past cruelties, to the boy singing a carol, to his nephew, and to his clerk. The Ghost of Christmas Present plays devil's advocate when he confronts Scrooge with his own callous political theories. Through the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, Scrooge sees the consequences of these acts: each scene is a step closer to his ultimate end, forgotten and unloved in death.

The story develops carefully as in many fables and fairy tales. Dickens characteristically borrows the opening from the traditional folktale, “Once upon a time. …”63 From the fairy tale, he also adopted the supernatural medium; Marley's Ghost acts in his visitation to Scrooge in the same tradition as the fairy godmother in the French contes de fées and the animal guides in the German Hausmärchen. Like the folk protagonist, Scrooge is presented with three stages of development toward his fairy tale reward. And Dickens' story too ends “happily ever after” with a line as effective and memorable as that traditional phrase: “And so as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us Every One!”

The world of fairy tales is evident in the style. Dickens infuses his descriptions with an animism as prevalent as that in the work of Grimm and Andersen. Inanimate objects possess the same touch of the grotesque as the living characters. His style can no longer be called naturalism; as Edgar Johnson explained, “the elements of the fairy tale are superimposed on the everyday world, and the deep symbolic truths of myth gleam through the surface.”64 The clock in the bell tower strikes the hours “as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head,” and Scrooge's house plays hide-and-seek with the other buildings; Spanish onions wink and French plums blush in the marketplace, and the fog and frost are transformed into “the Genius of the Weather.” As Orwell commented, “His imagination overwhelms everything, like a kind of weed.” Dickens' effect is ironic: the London personified is so animated with life in all its details that the utilitarian protagonist who “had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London” does not realize the strange forces about him until he spies the face of his dead partner in his door knocker.

In these descriptive passages Dickens' style is at its liveliest. Thackeray objected somewhat to the liberal use of free verse in the text; Dickens' prose does depend heavily on poetic elements, on alliteration, assonance, apostrophe, simile, internal rhyme. Dickens knew what he was doing in his Christmas Books: he warned Forster in regard to The Battle of Life, “If going over the proofs you find the tendency to blank verse (I cannot help it, when I am very much in earnest) too strong, knock out a word's brains here and there.” And Dickens was never more in earnest than in A Christmas Carol. The reader easily comes across passages which could easily be scanned as verse, such as

Beat on the handle with the handle of his knife,
And feebly cried Hurrah


Beware them both, and all of their degree,
But most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see.

Obviously the author cannot help himself. His presence is so often felt in the style that truly Dickens himself is constantly “standing in the spirit at your elbow.” He is so caught up in his descriptions that those of the markets piled high with seasonal delights are often just great lists of marvelous objects. In these paragraphs about the London streets and those of Scrooge's boyhood home, the senses are all stimulated; individual passages are restricted to odors or tastes or sounds or sights. “Every thing is piled up and up, detail on detail, embroidery on embroidery,” wrote Orwell. “It is futile to object that this kind of thing is rococo—one might as well make the same objection to a wedding-cake. Either you like it or you do not like it.” These descriptions are often overwhelming, like the season itself; Christmas is a time of excess, too much eating and too much drinking. Not everyone reacts the same to these passages; they may either delight the reader with their festive Christmas cheer or sicken him. Flaubert employed a similar device in the wedding scene of Madame Bovary, but the French novelist was always in control of his material, never carried away like Dickens. Similarly not everyone reacts the same way to Dickens' humor; puns and jests and other jokes abound and in the oddest places and from the most unexpected characters. Dickens knew there are many kinds of laughter, as different as Fred's hearty humor and the unsettling outbursts of Mrs. Dilber and her cronies.

The spirit of Dickens' style is at its most characteristic in the great scenes of Christmas pleasure, the festivities of Fezziwig, Bob Cratchit, and the nephew Fred. “As you read any of the passages where Dickens is at his happiest,” observed Maurois, “there are certain words which perpetually occur: there is brisk, there is jolly, there are all the adjectives expressive of open-heartedness, cheerfulness, sympathy, zeal.” Their spirit is infectious; these must have been the passages that he said possessed him. Here Dickens is often his most intimate, author to reader. He frequently uses the personal pronouns “you” and “I” in trying to establish a rapport with his audience. This tone is sustained throughout the narrative so that the story moves with a rapidity and immediacy lacking in his lengthier, more labored novels.

No matter how emotionally involved the author is with his material, Dickens never steers clear of his intended purposes. Often when the action is at its most giddying and exuberant, Dickens jars the reader with a scene or statement of abject poverty. A Christmas Carol is a story of contrasts. The Ghost of Christmas Past, intent on his mission to teach Scrooge a lesson, takes the miser without warning from the joyous Fezziwig Ball to the pitiful interview with his sweetheart. Likewise the Ghost of Christmas Present alarmingly buffets the old man from the bustling London streets to the misery of a Cornish miner's hut to a storm at sea and back again to the cozy but active domesticity of Fred's Christmas party; the gale at sea bluntly transforms into the boistrous laughter of the nephew. Stave Four sustains its atmosphere of scattered gloom and mystery, but here again contrast is crucial. Dickens juxtaposes the terrifying picture of the miser's forgotten corpse with “some tenderness connected with a death” in the Cratchit house, now dressed in mourning. Some critics have objected to the author's manipulation of the reader, but they cannot criticize him for carelessness in the writing. Nothing is arbitrary in these frantic shifts in time and place. The story is tightly constructed and painstakingly executed.

Dickens wrote the story in a few weeks during an impassioned inspiration, but a glance at the original manuscript (now in the Pierpont Morgan Library65) demonstrates with what great care Dickens constructed the story. Unlike the previous novels, A Christmas Carol did not appear in monthly installments, but was composed as a sustained, complete work from its inception. The critic John Butt in his study Pope, Dickens, and Others (1969) recognized the significance of this new approach to composition by Dickens; A Christmas Carol was “the first time [Dickens] had attempted to direct his fertile imagination within the limits of a carefully constructed and premeditated plot.” It is a transitional work between the early novels and his mature work. Butt continued, “This is the first occasion of Dickens discovering a plot sufficient to carry his message, a plot, that is to say, the whole of which bears upon his message and does not overlap.” It is the first example in Dickens' work to fuse together his purpose of “healthful cheerfulness and enjoyment” and his “great Faith in the Poor.” As Butt explained, Dickens had, through A Christmas Carol, “at last begun to keep a steadier eye on his purpose and design of his work which was to characterize his novels from Dombey and Son onwards.” This, the first Christmas book, defined not only the holiday itself, but also the nature of Dickens' subsequent work.

A Christmas Carol was always one of Dickens' personal favorites. He recognized its importance in respect to his entire output. He seems never to have been completely satisfied with the writing. From the early galleys until the final authorized version published the year of his death, Dickens was constantly revising the text. His many changes between the manuscript and the first edition demonstrate his struggle to choose the right word or phrase. Many alterations are minor punctuation and spelling corrections (he had particular difficulty including the “u” in “parlour,” “honour,” and “flavour”) and a toning down of his exclamations (“Good God” becomes “Good Heaven,” “Lord bless me” merely “Bless me”), but often he greatly improved a passage (for example, the awkward “why do spirits come on earth, and only to me” in the manuscript to the more polished “why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me” in the final text). For the first collected, cheap edition of the Christmas Books and in the final Charles Dickens Edition of 1870, Dickens slightly altered spellings and punctuation. His most drastic remolding of the text was prepared for his public reading tours; during the many years he traveled both in England and America, he constantly reworked his prompt copy (now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library66). In 1867 he gave permission to his American publishers to issue his public reading version to be distributed in the halls where he spoke.

The present edition includes the first, uncorrected printing of A Christmas Carol in Prose (1843).67 Significant textual differences in the many states of the story are indicated in the notes in the margins. The other annotations deal with the literary, autobiographical, and other concerns suggested by the familiar text.

Over one hundred years have passed since the first edition of A Christmas Carol, and there is no indication that the story's popularity will ever wane. Many people still react to its philosophy with “Bah! Humbug!” The economic man today works his way but with a different vengeance. The current utilitarian does not view the season as “a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December”; he rejoices in it, because its present commercialism pays homage to that other idol Gain. The old Christmas spirit, apparent in a Salvation Army Santa Claus or a young caroler in the snow, still carries his torch, even if in a feeble way, to combat both Want and Ignorance. The secular sentiments of Christmas still prevail because of Dickens' carol. Despite the machinations of modern industrialization and the other brutalities of a progressive society, Christmas remains “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; … when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” For Dickens to have added even a little to this common good makes his contribution to the world of letters unique and enduring. As Thackeray advised, “God bless him!”


  1. Because the early church fathers feared it came too close to the Roman festival of Saturnalia (a seven-day feast celebrating the New Year), December 25 had to wait until the second century to be proclaimed a holy day. Not until the fourth century was the birth of Christ celebrated as a public feast.

  2. For example, holly, used in pagan divination, became a Christian symbol: three red berries and three green leaves on a common stalk represented the Holy Trinity. The Druids venerated mistletoe, in the belief that this parasitic evergreen possessed mystical and medicinal qualities. And the early Christians decorated the altars of converted local temples with this remarkable greenery—as Dickens noted in A Child's History of England (1852–1854)—“the same plant we hang up in houses at Christmas Time now—when its white berries grew upon the Oak.” “In fighting for Christmas,” G. K. Chesterton in Charles Dickens (London: Methuen & Co., 1906, p. 161) explained, Dickens “was fighting for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday.”

  3. In The Lawfulness and Right Manner of Christmas Shewn in a Familiar Conference between a Churchman and a Dissenter (1710), the Puritan argued that the celebration of Christmas was condemned in the Scriptures and that its coming at the same time as the Saturnalia gave proof that the local superstitions venerated in Christian homes were rituals in praise of the Roman corn goddess Ceres. The response to such accusations was that the customs were symbolically Christian, as was decorating with holly, ivy, and other greenery to “remind us that Our Blessed Saviour was God and Man, and that he should Spring up like a tender plant, be always Green and Flourishing, and live for Evermore.” (A similar sentiment as a motto attached to a portrait of a benefactor from Queen Elizabeth's day is the central theme of The Haunted Man [1848]: “Lord, Keep my Memory Green.”)

  4. The result of such persecution received expression in the chapbook Christmas Lamentation (1635):

    Christmas is my name: farre have I gone …
                        Without regard;
    Houses where musicke was wont for to ring,
    Nothing but bats and howlets doe sing. …
    House where pleasure once did abound,
    Nought but a dogge and a shepheard is found
    Place where Christmas revels did keep,
    Is now become habitations for sheepe. …
  5. Dickens perhaps knew this book well: the old gentleman depicted by Seymour “Enjoying Christmas” with a copy of Hervey's book in his hand shows a striking resemblance to that other old gentleman Mr. Pickwick, first drawn by Seymour only a few months later in the first monthly part of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, April 1836.

  6. Many of the English Christmas customs originated in the country, but by the sixteenth century, when the nobles spent more time in the cities, the local celebrations lost much of their character. A revival of 1589, begun by the country gentlemen of Norfolk and Suffolk, attempted to save the old traditions with a new emphasis on brotherhood between the poor and the more fortunate. The anonymous author of the chapbook Round about our Coal-Fire, or Christmas Entertainments (1740) affectionately recounted the former holiday celebrations in the countryside: “the rooms were embower'd with holly, ivy, cypress, bays, laurel, and missleto, and a bouncing Christmas log in the chimney glowing like the cheeks of a country milk-maid. … This great festival in former times kept with us so much freedom and openness of heart, that every one in the country where a Gentleman resided, possessed at least a day of pleasure in the Christmas holydays.”

  7. Another American, Clement C. Moore, added to popular Christmas mythology the common conception of Santa Claus, the holiday patriarch derived in part from Father Christmas and the legendary St. Nicholas. His “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (1822) is now as much a part of the holiday season as Dickens' A Christmas Carol. By the end of the nineteenth century, largely through the cartoons of Thomas Nast, this American Ghost of Christmas Presents became as well known to English children as their own Father Christmas; but as of 1843, when Dickens wrote his story, Moore's poem was not widely known outside the United States. See also “Santa Was an American” by Martin Gardner, The New York Times Book Review, December 7, 1975, pp. 8–12.

  8. “There is no living writer, and there are very few among the dead, whose approbation I should feel so proud to earn,” Dickens wrote Irving on April 21, 1841 (see Letters of Charles Dickens, National Edition, 1908). “And with everything you have written, upon my shelves, and in my thoughts, and in my heart of hearts, I may honestly and truly say so. … I should like to travel with you, astride the last of the coaches, down to Bracebridge Hall.” Although the two authors got along famously during Dickens' American tour of 1842, Irving was offended by Dickens' attitude toward the United States in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit and so he did not cultivate Dickens' admiration. See “Washington Irving and Charles Dickens” by W. C. Desmond Pacey, American Literature, January 1945, pp. 332–39.

  9. “Firstly and mainly,” Dickens explained in a letter of February 1, 1843, “because I am fully engaged in doing my best for similar objects by different means. And secondly, because this question involves the whole subject of the condition of the mass of the people in this country. And I greatly fear that until Governments are honest, and Parliaments pure, and Great men less considered, and small men more so, it is almost a Cruelty to limit, even the dreadful hours and ways of Labor which at this time prevails. Want is so general, distress so great, and Poverty so rampant—it is, in a word, so hard for the Million to live by any means—that I scarcely know how we can step between them, and one weekly farthing.” (The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume Three, 1842–1843, edited by Madeline House, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, and Noel C. Peyrouten, associate editor, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974, pp. 435–36.)

  10. According to a letter to Southwood Smith, March 6, 1843 (Letters, Clarendon Press, vol. 3, pp. 459–60). Dickens was evidently moved by the blue book's descriptions of parish orphans and other children of the destitute, employed generally at seven years, some as young as three, who were brutalized, ill-fed, and ill-clothed, during their fifteen- to eighteen-hour workday; they were promised skilled training and other education but received little, and their meager wages went directly into their parents' pockets.

  11. Letters, Clarendon Press, vol. 3, pp. 562–64.

  12. In a letter to Macvey Napier, September 16, 1843 (Letters, Clarendon Press, vol. 3, p. 565).

  13. In his speech delivered at the first annual soirêe of the Atheneum, Manchester, October 5, 1843 (see The Speeches of Charles Dickens, edited by K. J. Fielding, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960, pp. 44–52).

  14. In an address given at a banquet in Dickens' honor, Boston, February 1, 1842 (see Speeches, Clarendon Press, p. 19).

  15. John Forster in his biography of Dickens identified this “sledgehammer” as a reference to The Chimes (1844), a conclusion shared by Walter Dexter in his notes to the Nonesuch Press edition of the Letters, 1938; but it seems more likely that Dickens, already planning it, was referring to what would become A Christmas Carol.

  16. In a letter to Macvey Napier, October 24, 1843 (Letters, Nonesuch Press, vol. 1, p. 543).

  17. In a letter of November 25, 1843 (Letters, Clarendon Press, vol. 3, p. 602).

  18. In a letter to Thomas Mitton, December 6, 1843 (Letters, Nonesuch Press, vol. 1, p. 549).

  19. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Dickens' correspondence with Leech are taken from “Letters to John Leech,” The Dickensian, Winter Number 1937–1938, pp. 3–13.

  20. “The chair's not bad,” he wrote Chapman and Hall in August 1836, “but his notion of the Bedroom is rather more derived, I should be disposed to think from his own fourth pair back, than my description of the old rambling house” (see “The Agreement to Write Pickwick,The Dickensian, Winter 1936–1937, pp. 7–8).

  21. A caricature of the actor J. P. Harley as “The Strange Gentleman,” now in the Walter Dexter collection, the British Library (reproduced in The Dickensian, Spring Number 1938, p. 109). “I enclose Mr. Leech's sketch,” Dickens wrote Harley; “you can tell me what you think of it when I see you to-morrow morning. I think he has not got the face well, or the hat. The general character is very good” (quoted in “The Letters of John Leech,” The Dickensian, Spring Number 1938, p. 6).

  22. William James Linton (1812–1897) was one of the most skilled of Victorian wood engravers. Generally based on drawings by other artists, Linton's engravings often graced The Illustrated London News and other publications. He encouraged younger artists, the most successful being Walter Crane; and he wrote the verses that accompanied Crane's art for The Baby's Aesop (1887). In 1866, Linton emigrated to the United States where he established the Appledore Press in Hamden, Connecticut; and in 1891, he received an honorary degree from Yale University. Apparently Linton cared little for the great English novelist. “Warm-hearted and sentimental, but not unselfish,” Linton wrote in his memoirs Threescore and Ten Years, 1820–1890 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894, p. 161), Dickens “was not the gentleman. There was no grace of manner, no soul of nobility in him.”

  23. The design of A Christmas Carol followed the same scheme of an earlier Leech book The Wassail Bowl (1842): a small volume bound in russet cloth with a Christmas motif stamped in gold on the cover and illustrated with both inserted steel engravings and textual woodcuts. Dickens likely knew this publication (a collection of comic sketches by his friend Mark Lemon), which may have influenced his decision to employ Leech to decorate his Christmas story.

  24. In Phiz and Dickens as they appeared to Edgar Browne (London: James Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1913, p. 21).

  25. Quoted in “The Letters of John Leech,” The Dickensian, Spring Number 1938, p. 101, but mistakenly said to be 1847, instead of 1843.

  26. Leech did receive serious critical appreciation. In his lecture “The Fireside: John Leech and John Tenniel” (included in The Art of England, 1883), John Ruskin praised “the kind and vivid genius of John Leech, capable in its brightness of finding pretty jest in everything, but capable in its tenderness also of rejoicing in the beauty of everything, softened and illumined with its loving wit the entire scope of English social scene.” “In all his designs, whatever Mr. Leech desires to do, he does,” Dickens wrote in a review of the artist's The Rising Generation (The Examiner, December 30, 1848). “His drawing seems to us charming; and the expression indicated, though by the simplest means, is exactly the natural expression, and is recognized as such immediately. … Into the tone as well as in the execution of what he does, he has brought a certain elegance which is altogether new, without involving any compromise of what is true. Popular art in England has not had so rich an acquisition.” The popularity of Leech's work in Punch made his sketches immediately recognizable by his monogram, a doctor's leech (a glass bottle containing a bloodsucking leech used to rid a patient of poisons in the system).

  27. Tenniel paid homage to his predecessor on Punch by drawing a parody of Leech's famous drawing of “Scrooge's Third Visitor” with Gladstone as the miser, published December 30, 1893.

  28. From the first “newly illustrated” edition (that by the American Sol Eytinge, Jr., in 1868), A Christmas Carol has been fortunate in its illustrators. Fred Barnard, Charles E. Brock, Charles Dana Gibson, Fritz Kredel, Arthur Rackham, Philip Reed, Ronald Searle, Everett Shinn, and Jessie Wilcox Smith are among the many artists who have pictured Dickens' celebrated characters.

  29. In a speech given at the second anniversary dinner of the Newsvendor's Benevolent Institution, held at Albion Tavern, January 27, 1852 (Speeches, Clarendon Press, p. 136).

  30. A letter of December 6, 1843 (Letters, Clarendon Press, vol. 3, p. 605).

  31. Carlyle was not noted for his Christmas cheer. As he wrote in his journal, December 28, 1857, “All mortals are tumbling about in a state of drunken saturnalia, delirium, or quasi-delirium, according to their several sorts; a very strange method of thanking God for sending them a Redeemer; a set singularly worth ‘redeeming,’ too, you would say.” He and Mrs. Carlyle did join in some festivities with the Dickenses, and he and his wife were among those who celebrated the holiday with the novelist when “he broke out like a madman” on completing A Christmas Carol. Dickens gave an early copy of the story to the great philosopher who then presented it to a friend with the inscription, “Read with satisfaction; presented with satisfaction, and many Christmas wishes.” Mrs. Carlyle noted the effect Dickens' book had on her husband when she wrote her sister Jeanie Welsh, December 23, 1843, that “the vision of Scrooge—had so worked on Carlyle's nervous organization that he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and has actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties with only a day between” (Jane Welsh Carlyle: Letters to Her Family. 1839–1863, London: J. Murray, 1924, p. 169). Dickens clearly had hoped to please Carlyle; his economic writing clearly influenced passages in the Christmas story. Kathleen Tillotson in “The Middle Years from the Carol to Copperfield(Dickens Memorial Lectures 1970) has suggested that the novelist may have recalled both the title and structure of Carlyle's Past and Present (1843) in composing A Christmas Carol. Years later, Carlyle was rather harsh in his appraisal of Dickens' intentions. “His theory of life was entirely wrong,” Carlyle was quoted by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy in Conversations with Carlyle (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892, p. 75). “He thought men ought to be buttered up, and the world made soft and accommodating for them, and all sorts of fellows have turkey for their Christmas dinner.”

    Not everyone was pleased with the story. The poet Samuel Rogers, to whom Dickens sent a copy of A Christmas Carol, found it dull and the colloquialisms in the style offensive (P. W. Clayden's Rogers and His Contemporaries, vol. 2, 1889, pp. 239–40).

  32. In a letter to Thomas Mitton (Letters, Nonesuch Press, vol. 1, p. 550).

  33. In a letter to Mrs. Thackeray, March 11, 1844 (The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, collected and edited by Gordon N. Ray, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1945, vol. 2, p. 165). Thackeray was so delighted with Dickens' “Christmas Books” that he wrote his own series, the most celebrated volume being The Rose and the Ring (1847).

    Dickens was similarly touched by a notice of praise for his story by another friend. “Blessings on your kind heart, my dear Dickens,” wrote Lord Francis Jeffrey, founder and editor of The Edinburgh Review, “and may it always be as light and full as it is kind, and a fountain of kindness to all within reach of its beatings! We are all charmed with your ‘Carol’; chiefly I think for the genuine goodness which breathes all through it, and is the true inspiring angel by which its genius has been awakened. … Well, you should be happy yourself, for you may be sure you have done more good, and not only fastened more kindly feelings, but prompted more positive acts of beneficence, by this little publication, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals … since Christmas 1842.” Dickens was evidently deeply touched by Lord Jeffrey's support of his work; he named his third son (born 1844) after the editor, and dedicated The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), the third Christmas Book, to his friend.

  34. A Christmas dare not pass without ushering in several new dramatizations of A Christmas Carol. It is impossible to estimate how many adaptations of the story have been performed by schools, church groups, and the legitimate stage since the book's publication. The movie industry early saw the entertainment possibilities in the Dickens classic. The first motion picture version, an Essanay silent picture, was released in 1908; but perhaps the most successful screen adaptation was that film starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, produced in 1954. With less care, it was adapted as a musical sporting Albert Finney as the miser, singing an undistinguished score by Leslie Bricusse; the libretto took alarming and inexplicable liberties with the story, as in changing its date from 1843 to 1860. During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lionel Barrymore each read the book over the radio; similarly Alec Guinness (who took the role of Marley's Ghost in the musical film) portrayed Scrooge on the radio in the 1950s. Recently Lawrence Olivier recorded his reading of A Christmas Carol; Paul Scofield and Ralph Richardson have also performed the story, for Caedmon Records. Television has produced many dramatizations, including a 1955 CBS musical with libretto by Maxwell Anderson. The networks have been particularly imaginative in animated cartoon versions: in the 1950s, Walt Disney produced an unorthodox film of Scrooge as a mouse miser, and UPI's Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol has often been revived on television. The finest cartoon version was that made in 1969 by Richard Williams, who beautifully animated the original Leech drawings with Sim recreating his role as Scrooge. This sensitive and accurate interpretation of the Dickens classic in both word and picture well deserved the Academy Award for the best animated feature of 1970.

  35. E. L. Carey and A. Hart had long been competitors with Harper & Brothers (particularly over the American rights to Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novels). It was customary for an American publisher to secure rights to a foreign book either by receiving the first copy of the publication or by “announcing” it in the trade first.

    E. L. Carey was the brother of Henry Carey of Lea & Blanchard (formerly Carey & Lea), the only American publisher who paid Dickens any remuneration for American editions of his books. In late 1836, Carey had pirated The Pickwick Papers, and when it proved so successful, he sent some payment to “Mr. Saml. Dickens.” Although the moneys were not much, Dickens was so delighted with the gesture that he authorized Carey's American editions of his books; but in December 1842, he dissolved his negotiations with Lea & Blanchard, not because he was displeased with them, but on principle because he was furious with the current copyright laws. See Messrs. Carey & Lea of Philadelphia, A Study in the History of the Booktrade by David Kaser (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957).

  36. Not to be confused with the original “Peter Parley,” the American author Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860). Dickens had met him in the United States and found him “a scoundrel and a Liar; and if he would present himself at my door, he would, as he very well knows, be summarily pitched into the street” (a letter to Thomas Hood, October 13, 1842, The British Library). Dickens felt Goodrich had betrayed him on the copyright question; they had spoken cordially while in Washington on the importance of a strong international copyright law (the Peter Parley books were widely pirated overseas), but when he returned to Boston, Goodrich presided over a meeting where he argued that the law need not be changed. Dickens was determined to “ever proclaim said Parley to be a Scoundrel.” Perhaps some of this animosity toward the real Peter Parley was transferred to the hated pirates of Parley's Illuminated Library.

  37. In December 1842, Dickens learned of Parley's plagiarism of The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, and American Notes in its cheap pages. “The fellow who publishes these Piracies hasn't a penny in the World,” Dickens wrote T. N. Talfourd, December 30; “but I shall be glad to know, at your convenience, whether the Law gives us any means of stopping him short” (Letters, Clarendon Press, vol. 3, pp. 410–11). Apparently the reply was negative, and Dickens did not begin legal proceedings at this time.

  38. In a letter to Mitton, January 7, 1844 (Letters, Nonesuch Press, vol. 1, p. 559).

  39. In a letter to Clarkson Stanfield, January 9, 1844 (Letters, Nonesuch, vol. 1, p. 559).

  40. See also Charles Dickens in Chancery. … by Edward Tyrrell Jaques (London, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1914); and “At the Dickens House: Legal Documents Relating to the Piracy of A Christmas Carol” by S. J. Rust, The Dickensian, Winter Number 1937–1938, pp. 41–44.

  41. Among these documents was one filed by Edward Leman Blanchard, a playwright and novelist, who should not be confused with Dickens' friend S. Laman Blanchard. “When I went down to my Solicitor's today,” Dickens wrote Laman Blanchard on January 29, 1844, “the first thing said was ‘Who do you think has made an affidavit?’ ‘God knows, Bunn?’ ‘Your friend, Mr. Blanchard.’ ‘D—d nonsense.’ ‘O, but he has, and there aren't two Laman Blanchards, for I went down to Sarjeant Talfourd's directly, and his clerk says there's only one, and it's your friend!!!! But you can't see the cream of the thing without seeing the affidavit itself. Oh my stars!” (Letters, Nonesuch Press, vol. 1, p. 565).

  42. In a letter to T. N. Talfourd, May 5, 1844 (Letters, Nonesuch Press, vol. 1, p. 598).

  43. In a letter, February 12, 1844 (Letters, Nonesuch Press, vol. 1, p. 567).

  44. Letters, Clarendon Press, vol. 3, pp. 604–5.

  45. After a dispute with Bradbury and Evans in 1858, Dickens returned to Chapman and Hall, who remained his publishers until his death in 1870.

  46. “A Thousand Thanks, my dear Andersen,” Dickens wrote in January 1848, “for your kind and dearly-prized remembrance of me in your Christmas book. I am very proud of it, and feel deeply honoured by it, and cannot tell you how much I esteem so generous a mark of recollection from a man of such genius as yours.” See Hans Andersen and Charles Dickens, A Friendship and Its Dissolution by Elias Bredsdorff (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bogger, 1956, p. 30).

  47. The author elusively explained his reasons for anonymity as being “for any Author who, having written and published many works with his name attached, wishing to test whether his writing deteriorates or improves, published one anonymously, and consequently without any prestige attaching to his name” and “for any Author publishing his first work and wishing it to be fairly tested by its own merits alone.” Evidently the second is the true reason. He seems to have had two other purposes in mind: to suggest to the reader that this Christmas Eve may be by Dickens, and to protect himself from any legal action from the author's estate.

  48. The holiday book also made its way across the Atlantic. Frank Stockton early wrote fine Christmas stories, and Bret Harte composed an amusing parody of Dickens' The Haunted Man. More current popular examples of this genre include O. Henry's “The Gift of the Magi” (1911), Valentine Davies' Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street (1947), and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) with its whimsical cousin of Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps the finest of American holiday stories is Truman Capote's touching A Christmas Memory (1957).

  49. Norman Berrow, “Some Candid Opinions on A Christmas Carol,The Dickensian, Winter 1937–1938, p. 21; and Nicholas Bentley, “Dickens and His Illustrators,” Charles Dickens 1812–1870, A Centenary Volume, edited by E. W. F. Tomlin (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969, p. 219). Bentley evidently agrees with George Gissing who, in Charles Dickens; A Critical Study (1903), wrote that he could not find in A Christmas Carol “anything to be seriously compared with the finer features of his novels.”

  50. In two letters to Charles Eliot Norton, June 19 and July 8, 1870 (The Works of John Ruskin, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn [London: George Allen; New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1909], vol. 37, pp. 7, 10).

  51. In “Charles Dickens,” A Pilgrimage of Pleasure (Boston: Richard D. Badger and the Gorham Press, 1913), pp. 104–5.

  52. In a letter to Mrs. Sitwell, September 1874 (The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Sidney Colvin [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911], vol. 1, p. 178).

    Elliott L. Gilbert, in “The Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol” (PMLA, January 1975, p. 29), argued that Stevenson, in his short story “Markheim,” “reproduces … the basic philosophical structure of Dickens' tale.”

  53. Dickens, André Maurois, translated by Hamish Miles (London: John Lane, 1934), p. 107.

  54. Michael Steig, “Dickens' Excremental Vision,” Victorian Studies (March 1970), pp. 339–54.

  55. Edgar Johnson, “Dickens: The Dark Pilgrimage,” Charles Dickens 1812–1870, p. 50.

  56. “Charles Dickens” (1939), Critical Essays (London: Secker and Warburg, 1946), pp. 7–56.

  57. Johnson, “Dickens: The Dark Pilgrimage,” p. 50.

  58. As Scrooge in speaking of Fezziwig defines the relationship between employer and employed: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

  59. In a lecture “Charity and Humour” (1853) (quoted in Dickens: The Critical Heritage, edited by Philip Collins [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971], p. 354).

  60. According to N. C. Peyrouton, “The Life of Our Lord,” The Dickensian, Spring Number, May 1963, p. 106.

  61. In “The Christmas Carol and the Economic Man,” American Scholar (Winter 1951–52, p. 98).

  62. Often when a work of literature becomes popular fable, the common versions eliminate those elements from the original text which appear to conflict with the author's seeming purpose. For example, translations of Charles Perrault's “La Belle au bois dormant” (“The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”) generally omit the distasteful, anticlimactic scene of the evil mother-in-law eating the royal children. The author has his own intentions, but they may also conflict with the narrative power within the story itself.

  63. “No one was more intensely fond than Dickens of old nursery tales,” wrote Forster in his biography, “and he had a secret delight in feeling that he was here only giving them a higher form. The social and manly virtues he desired to teach, were to him not less the charm of the ghost, goblin, and the fairy fancies of his childhood; however rudely set forth in those earlier days. What now were to be conquered were the more formidable dragons and giants that had their places at our own hearths. …”

    Earle Davis, in The Flint and the Flame: the Artistry of Charles Dickens (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1963, pp. 148–49), suggested that Dickens, in his first short fiction, was influenced by the chapbooks (the cheap, popular literature of his childhood) and that Dickens “in writing the first Christmas Books was to provide a higher form for the old chapbook manner. He appropriated the fairy tale atmosphere and intended to preach a moral.”

  64. Quoted in Dickens Criticism: Past, Present and Future Directions, a symposium with George H. Ford and others (Cambridge, Massachusetts: A Charles Dickens Reference Center Publication, 1962, pp. 10–11).

  65. Dickens presented “My own, and only MS of the Book” (bound in red morocco, stamped in gold) to his solicitor Thomas Mitton, who had been so helpful in the suits against the piracy of A Christmas Carol. Five years after Dickens' death, Mitton sold it to a London bookseller, Francis Harvey, reportedly for £50. It was quickly purchased by an autograph collector, Henry George Churchill, who in turn, in 1882, sold it to the firm of Robson and Kerslake for £200. Stuart M. Samuel, a Dickens collector, bought it from them for £300; and it was from Samuel that J. Pierpont Morgan secured the manuscript. There is no record of what Morgan paid for the priceless volume. Before it left England (perhaps for the last time), the manuscript was published in facsimile in 1890 by Eliot Stock in London and Brentano's in New York. In 1967, the Pierpont Morgan Library published their own edition which is currently available in paperback from Dover Publications, Inc.

  66. A facsimile of this copy was edited by Philip Collins and published by the library in 1971. The published reading version was apparently only issued in the United States; in 1858, Bradbury and Evans issued a “Reading Edition,” a cheap paperback reprint of the standard book.

  67. A few obvious typographical omissions made by the printers in the first edition but corrected in the second have been silently added in the present reproduction of the first printing.

George Anastaplo (essay date 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Notes from Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol,” in Interpretation, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1978, pp. 52–73.

[In the following essay, Anastaplo examines the timing of and the reasons for Scrooge's conversion.]

One cried “God bless us!” and “Amen!” the other,
As they had seen me with these hangman's hands,
List'ning their fear. I could not say “Amen!”
When they did say “God bless us!”
LADY Macbeth:
Consider it not so deeply.
But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.

Shakespeare, Macbeth II, ii


A classical scholar, in assessing the Greek dramatists, has remarked on the “extraordinary creative power that [Aeschylus] shares with Shakespeare and Dickens.” An Encyclopaedia Britannica article observes that Charles Dickens stands second only to Shakespeare in English literature, that he is “[g]enerally regarded as the greatest English novelist.” Thus, one finds again and again, in critical discussions, elevations of Dickens to the most exalted heights.1

Whatever reservations one may have about the ultimate soundness of these assessments, no English author ever enjoyed during his lifetime the popular acclaim which came to Charles Dickens. Only Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll created so many characters who (either in their names or in now familiar quotations) have taken on a life of their own.

Among Dickens' memorable characters is, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge, the hero of that 1843 tale, A Christmas Carol, one of the author's best known books. No Christmas among us is complete without its representation on stage, radio and television, as well as in the home. Indeed, for many people, there are only two Christmas stories of note, that of the New Testament and that written by the 31-year-old Charles Dickens. It has even been said that Dickens has made the modern Christmas what it is, a time for feasting and good cheer, “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.” (C.C., p. 49)2

The story of the conversion of Scrooge is familiar. It is the story of the instructive “haunt[ing] by Three Spirits” of “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” a man who was “[h]ard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” (C.C., pp. 63, 46) We first see our hero (on Christmas Eve) disparaging the Christmas spirit in the approaches to him (in turn) of his lively nephew, of two gentlemen soliciting for the poor, of a little boy who tries to sing him a Christmas carol, and of Bob Cratchit (his clerk) whom he reluctantly gives the next day as a holiday with pay (but not without the parting injunction, “Be here all the earlier next morning!” [C.C., p. 53]).

Within a few pages, one has a lively (and permanent) awareness of the kind of man Scrooge is. One is not yet aware, however, of anything in him which could lead to his famous conversion, a conversion which follows upon the visitation to Scrooge of the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, and thereupon of Three Spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Marley's Ghost (who is almost as chilling as the sombre Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) is anticipated for Scrooge by what he experiences when he returns home after “his melancholy dinner”, an experience which so startles him “that his blood was … conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy.” (C.C., pp. 53, 55) Since it is this “rejuvenating” experience which proves to be the threshhold for Scrooge to everything else of note in the remainder of the story, it would be useful to recall the narrator's account of it (C.C., pp. 54–55):

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it night and morning during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London. … Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven-years' dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Marley's face.

Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath of hot-air; and though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be, in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

Dickens, in this passage, lays down for us an instructive challenge when he says, “And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge … saw in the knocker … not a knocker, but Marley's face.” (C.C., p. 54) This challenge—how it happened that Scrooge saw not only Marley's face but also, if I may expand it, Marley's ghost and thereafter three more ghosts—this challenge is what provides us, on this occasion, an opportunity to discuss a great novelist and his art by examining one of that artist's favorite stories. An opportunity is also provided thereby to develop further what we may know about how to read a book.3

A simple explanation of the extraordinary manifestations in A Christmas Carol is, it can be said, implied by Dickens himself in the way he presents this story. Cannot everything that happens after Scrooge “took his melancholy dinner in his usual tavern” (C.C., pp. 53–54) be understood as an extended dream by Scrooge? (This understanding may not be essential to my interpretation of the book—but it does add at least a diverting, and perhaps instructive, grace note to my composition.)

An early hint of a dream may be provided us in the observation that Scrooge, after “having read all the newspapers [in his tavern] and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker's-book, went home to bed.” (C.C., p. 54) It is only after this is reported by the narrator—only after Scrooge is said to have gone “home to bed”—that Scrooge is described as “actually” walking up to his door, encountering the transformed knocker and then other strange sights and noises as he ascends to and settles into his chambers.

But to suggest that all this is essentially a remarkably productive dream is only a preliminary explanation in response to Dickens' challenge. We have still to consider how this dream “works” and what it says about Scrooge and, indeed, about human beings generally. How did it happen that Scrooge had this revolutionary experience, whether or not in the form of a dream? After all, this Christmas Eve was spent in his usual melancholy manner. Why was this night different from all other nights?4


A Christmas Carol begins with the stark observation, “Marley was dead.” (C.C., p. 45) And a few paragraphs further on, the narrator emphasizes this by saying, “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” (C.C., p. 45) Scrooge's counting-house, we are told, still bears the sign, “Scrooge and Marley” (C.C., p. 46):

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names: it was all the same to him.

Death looms large throughout A Christmas Carol, and not only emphatically in its very beginning. All of the Third Spirit's visitation, for example, turns around two future deaths, that of Tiny Tim and that of Scrooge himself, a death (in the latter case) which is grim, lonely and an occasion for jesting if not even “serious delight” on the part of others. (C.C., pp. 119–20) But, in a manner of speaking, Scrooge had already died—at least insofar as he is interchangeable with Marley (in whose chambers he now lives [C.C., p. 54]). Scrooge has seen someone very much like himself, with his own interests and resources, come to die. He was reminded of Marley's death, when he was obliged to inform the charitable gentlemen, “Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years. He died seven years ago, this very night.” (C.C., p. 50)

A few minutes earlier, Scrooge had had an encounter with his well-wishing nephew—in the course of which the nephew had defended Christmas as

the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

[C.C., p. 49.]

Scrooge does seem to consider himself one of those “creatures bound on other journeys”—one of those who have somehow transcended their mortality. His journey is in a substantial chariot fashioned of silver and gold—but the recollection of Marley, who had died this very night, can be said to have reminded him that the rich man's journey is at best but a slight detour on the route to the grave.

Perhaps Scrooge also senses—and this the nephew's liveliness may have impressed upon him—that there is something deadly about his own way of life. He may sense, that is, that he has cut himself off from genuine human contact, from a life of breadth and meaning. He may even sense, especially at a season of the year when so much is made of a Birth and of rebirth, that he has somehow hastened for himself the death which (it is evident throughout the book) he dreads. In short, he has, in his desperate efforts to preserve himself made himself more vulnerable.


To speak of vulnerability and of preservation is to direct our attention (if only briefly) to what it is that really moves a miser such as Scrooge. After all, what do the avaricious seek?

Avarice is an attempt to fence oneself off from death and from any lesser, related vulnerability. It is an attempt to save one's life by providing oneself the means to deal with whatever may threaten one. It is an attempt to be self-sufficient rather than to have to rely upon someone else in a critical moment.

The helplessness which the miserly Scrooge is determined to avoid lies just below his veneer of worldly wisdom and everyday competence. The first episode that Scrooge recollects, under the aegis of the Ghost of Christmas Past, is of himself as a schoolboy who is abandoned at Christmas time, left alone in his miserable boarding school, when all the other boys have gone home. (C.C., pp. 70–73) Is there not about this experience something traumatic, so much so that it is only natural that the scarred adult might make every effort not to permit himself ever to become helpless again? (The plight of a vulnerable child means a great deal to Dickens also, as is evident in the first [and best] part [which is autobiographical] of David Copperfield.)

Scrooge as a child (again, it seems, like Dickens before him) suffered from the callousness of his father. The second episode shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Past once again displays a child abandoned at Christmastime—but, on that occasion, he is rescued from his loneliness by his sister, who had interceded with their father. (C.C., pp. 73–75) Scrooge repeats before us, in a more dramatic form, the conversion evidently experienced by his father, who (for an unstated reason) changed suddenly from a harsh parent to a kind one. Indeed, Scrooge can be thought of, at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, as subject still to the harsh father in himself. His rescue on the reader's Christmas Eve is again contributed to (in effect) by his now-dead sister. She acts this time through her son, the nephew who had insisted upon bringing Christmas cheer to his formidable uncle.

The nephew's unwelcome visit on Christmas Eve to Scrooge's counting-house begins a series of recollections which can be said to have naturally brought to the surface of Scrooge's consciousness a reexamination of the kind of life he had resorted to.


The problem with Scrooge's kind of life is pointed up in one critical exchange he has with his nephew. Scrooge responds to his nephew's opening greeting, “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!”, with his now notorious, “Bah! Humbug!” The disgruntled uncle goes on to say, “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? what reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough.” To which the nephew replied gaily, “Come, then. What right have you to be dismal? what reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough.” And, the narrator adds, “Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, ‘Bah!’ again; and followed it up with ‘Humbug’” (C.C., pp. 47–48).

It is significant that Scrooge does not have here a ready answer (something which he does have in dealing immediately thereafter with the two solicitors and with Bob Cratchit). He had himself invoked right and reason in challenging the appropriateness of merriment in his poor nephew: he had thereby indicated the standards by which he judged others and was prepared to be judged himself. He evidently cannot deny that he is dismal and morose—and this despite his wealth. That is, he tacitly concedes, when it is implicitly pointed out to him, that his wealth has not insulated him from childlike misery, from that vulnerability of which death is the most dramatic form. Scrooge is practically dead in the way he lives—and this the nephew's argument brings home to his not unperceptive uncle.

This may be brought home as well by the aborted Christmas carol sung to Scrooge through his keyhole by the little boy whom he drives off (C.C., p. 53):

God bless you merry gentlemen!
May nothing you dismay!

This has been said by the editor of the Oxford Book of Carols to be “the most popular of Christmas carols.” The version usually sung in London streets in the time of Dickens has been changed in this story from “God rest you” to “God bless you”. “Rest”, which means (in this context) “keep,” would be inappropriate for Scrooge. He cannot be kept merry. “Bless”, however, has the connotation of being made something, of being changed into something, of having something done for one. The boy can be considered providential in making this vital change (as well as other appropriate changes) in what he sings. Perhaps he senses what Scrooge is in need of.

“May nothing you dismay!” It is dismay—or dismalness or moroseness (to use the nephew's language)—which Scrooge has somehow accumulated with (not necessarily because of) his wealth. And, being an eminently practical man of considerable intelligence, he is aware that his state of affairs really does not make sense. This awareness is put together, in an imaginative and hence instructive manner, by the visitations he conjures up this Christmas Eve.5


Critical to one's understanding of what does happen to Scrooge is how the nephew regards his Christmas Eve encounter with his uncle. The nephew's opinion is shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Present, when he hears the nephew explain to his Christmas Day guests what had happened the evening before upon visiting his uncle's counting-house (C.C., pp. 103–104):

[T]he consequence of his taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us [today], is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his mouldy old office, or his dusty chambers. I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him. He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can't help thinking better of it—I defy him—if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you? If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that's something; and I think I shook him, yesterday.

The narrator then adds (C.C., p. 104),

It was their turn to laugh now, at the notion of his shaking Scrooge. But being thoroughly good-natured, and not much caring what they laughed at, so that they laughed at any rate, he [Scrooge's nephew] encouraged them in their merriment, and passed the bottle, joyously.

Such willingness to be laughed at anticipates (in the nephew) that which happens (at the very end of the story) to Scrooge himself (C.C., p. 134):

… Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Thus, both uncle and nephew are revealed to be more perceptive, more discerning, and hence perhaps even wiser than most of their associates. Is the nephew correct in believing that Scrooge “can't help thinking better” of Christmas if he finds the nephew visiting him, “in good temper, year after year”? How often has the nephew gone there before? We are not told. Even so, the nephew does stand for the gentlemanly proposition that one should persist in doing what one believes to be right, without being much concerned about the likely futility of one's efforts.

The central question in our analysis of this story may well relate to the observation by the nephew which had moved the guests to laugh, “I think I shook him, yesterday.” I have already suggested what it was that may have shaken Scrooge, the nephew's meeting him on his own ground with respect to the supposed correlation of poverty to misery and of wealth to happiness. We have noticed that Scrooge had been at a loss for words in response to his nephew's deadly query, “What right have you to be dismal? what reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough.” (C.C., p. 48)

More significant, perhaps, than the nephew's effectiveness in checking Scrooge's attack on Christmas merriment is that the nephew noticed that Scrooge had indeed been checked, that he had been shaken. But even more significant, however, is that Scrooge himself may have noticed that the nephew noticed that Scrooge had been shaken. For, it has been suggested, this narrative may best be understood as Scrooge's dream—an introspective reverie in which Scrooge is able to step back and see what he has really been up to all his life.

The central question in our analysis of the story is, then, What is there about Scrooge in his circumstances which accounts for, perhaps even justifies, his conversion? Critical to his salvation, it has also been suggested, was his perceptiveness, his awareness of what his life past and present meant and what that life was tending to. It was no accident nor simply due to the ministrations of Jacob Marley (for what, after all, moved or permitted Marley to intervene?) that salvation came to Scrooge, but rather as the result of efforts on the part of others (such as his nephew). These efforts prompted Scrooge to face up to what had become of the vulnerable child abandoned decades before in a lonely schoolroom.

There is about this view of the matter something hopeful and reassuring, for it rests on the proposition (does it not?) that virtue is somehow dependent upon wisdom, that one can somehow learn to be good. Thus, cause and effect can be discerned and relied upon in the moral as in the physical universe: the conversion and salvation of Scrooge are, therefore, not mere happenstance. But, one might wonder, was Scrooge really capable of the kind of perceptive soul-searching I have conjured up here?

It is said by the narrator, in his account of the transformation of the knocker into Marley's face, that “Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London.” (C.C., p. 54) Does not “fancy” refer, as in the words of one dictionary, to a capricious or delusive sort of imagination? Such imagination is one thing—and Scrooge is not subject to that. But an imagination informed by an awareness of things, and of the implications or tendency of one's life, is quite another matter. (C.C., pp. 117, 124, 126)

That Scrooge is not simply unimaginative by nature is attested to in the course of the first episode presented in Christmas Past. As real in Scrooge's recollection as his former schoolmates are the images of characters in books he read as a neglected child, characters who came to him then (for his solace) as Marley and the other ghosts come to him now (for his “reclamation” [C.C., p. 69]). Notice how Scrooge recalls those storybook characters of Christmas Past (C.C., pp. 72–73):

The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading an ass laden with wood by the bridle.

“Why, it's Ali Baba!” Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. “It's dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! And Valentine,” said Scrooge, “and his wild brother, Orson; there they go! And what's his name, who was put down in his drawers, asleep, at the Gate of Damascus; don't you see him! And the Sultan's Groom turned upside-down by the Genii; there he is upon his head! Serve him right. I'm glad of it. What business had he to be married to the Princess!”

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed.

“There's the Parrot!” cried Scrooge. “Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing around the island. ‘Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn't. It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running for his life to the little creek! Halloa! Hoop! Halloo!”

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, [Scrooge] said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.

Scrooge is much moved by “yonder solitary child … left here all alone”: twice in the course of this recollection of storybook characters, he says, “in pity for his former self, ‘Poor boy!’” This recollection, which has the effect of reviving that “former self” buried deep within the singleminded businessman, moves Scrooge to tears (C.C., p. 73):

“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it's too late now.”

“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.

“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all.”

This is, in the book, Scrooge's first articulation of a desire to reform his former way of life. It is his first explicit repudiation of past conduct—and it consists in the identification by him of one boy with another, the identification of the abandoned child in the schoolroom at Christmas time many years before with the chased-off singer of a Christmas carol the evening before. Scrooge expresses the wish to act more kindly to such a child as the caroller. Should he not be taken as now wanting to reenact toward that child (and to other children) the role long ago of the converted father toward the youthful Scrooge himself? (The first act of generosity on Scrooge's part, the Christmas morning after his fateful night, is toward still another little boy, the youngster whom he rewards liberally for serving as a messenger to the Poulterer's from whom the turkey will be purchased for the Cratchit family.)

The importance of the revived child in Scrooge, a battered child so to speak, is attested to by the emphasis given in the book to Tiny Tim. I dare say that Scrooge feels more deeply about that rather trying youngster than many readers—but then, Scrooge may see in the crippled child something of himself. We return to Scrooge's relation to his mysterious father when we notice the report that Scrooge became “a second father” to Tiny Tim (C.C., p. 134), a child saved thereby from impending death of the body just as Scrooge himself is saved from impending death of the spirit.

I return for a moment to Scrooge's first expression of repentance, the desire to have given something to his Christmas Eve caroller. The narrator then adds, “The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, ‘Let us see another Christmas!’” (C.C., p. 73)

This is the episode already referred to, of an older (but still youthful) Scrooge again abandoned at school. Things are even worse than the time before. “He was not reading now, but walking up and down despairingly.” (C.C., p. 73) Scrooge watches the scene “with a mournful shaking of his head, glanc[ing] anxiously towards the door.” (C.C., p. 73) Scrooge knows whence his deliverance will come, even as he feels deeply for the despairing boy, the schoolboy so burdened by dismay that he no longer takes refuge in imaginative reading. In this way, too, the Scrooge of the reader's Christmas Eve has within him both the moroseness noted by his nephew and the deliverance begun by his nephew—thereby repeating the pattern of that Christmas episode when the nephew's mother (Scrooge's sister) came to release her despairing brother from his holiday bondage.

There are prefigured, then, in these two schoolroom scenes, essentially what happens to the “mature” Scrooge we come to know. When he is moved to repent for his treatment of the youthful caroller, his redemption is decisively on its way.


The first steps in Scrooge's conversion are the hardest, just as they might be in any sincere repentance. Indeed, Scrooge's night of intense soul-searching can be considered equivalent to a program of thoroughgoing therapy, all compressed in one long session. He is obliged to unearth, put together and face up to diverse elements of his life, an enterprise initiated by the self-realization pressed upon his consciousness by his Christmas Eve conversations.

Scrooge, in going back to childhood, becomes again as a child—in order to be “born again,” an appropriate enough motif at Christmas time (C.C., pp. 55, 128). He has to become helpless again, in order to see whether he can adopt a course different from that adopted by him the first time around. That course is suggested to him by the third episode presented by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the episode with Mr. Fezziwig, an employer of Scrooge's youth who does well by his associates, especially at Christmas (C.C., pp. 75–77). Mr. Fezziwig's course is the one Scrooge does pursue upon his conversion: he throws himself into his nephew's party (as old Fezziwig had done); he becomes a generous employer of Bob Cratchit.

But Scrooge had not taken Fezziwig's generous route the first time around—and the reason is given in the next episode, that in which the parting of the ways is shown between Scrooge and his fiancée, Belle. The narrator reports of Scrooge (C.C., p. 79):

He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of care and avarice. There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.

Belle tells him that a golden idol had displaced her. And, she says to him in a benevolent spirit, “if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve” (C.C., p. 79). Scrooge justifies his acquisitiveness in this fashion: “This is the even-handed dealing of the world! There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!” Her reply is (C.C., p. 79),

You fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?

That which the girl had tried to tell him in her gentle way, experience has moved Scrooge to learn the hard way, the fruitlessness of the approach he had taken out of fear of the world and in his effort to avoid the helplessness of poverty. At this point in his recollections, there is an exchange between Scrooge and the Ghost (C.C., 81):

“Spirit!” said Scrooge, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”

“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.

“No more!” cried Scrooge. “No more. I don't wish to see it. Show me no more!”

But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms, and forced him to observe what happened next.

What he is shown next is an episode of seven years before, the night Jacob Marley died. Marley had, in effect, replaced Belle for Scrooge—and Scrooge sat alone in his office as his partner died. (C.C., p. 83) But the episode shown to him is neither about himself nor about Marley's death but (for the first time) about something Scrooge had never previously witnessed but which (it would seem) he had come to sense that he could not bear to contemplate—the happy, fruitful life enjoyed by Belle and the man fortunate enough to marry her. The narrator reports (C.C., p. 82),

And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.

Had not Scrooge, a man not without an ability to calculate, come to the realization that he had gotten the worst of the bargain in his effort to protect himself against the vagaries of life? Already, seven years before, he was (as he has Belle's husband report to her), “[q]uite alone in the world.” (C.C., p. 83) It is at this point that Scrooge insists to the Ghost, “Remove me! I cannot bear it!” And, as is usually true of dreamers, he controls the duration of his dream—this part of his dream—as he seizes an extinguisher-cap and presses it down upon the head of the Ghost of Christmas Past in an effort to hide the light which had illuminated a past which he had come to see the misery of.

Once Scrooge has come to terms with his past, by recognizing it for what it is, he can then bear to consider the present and, even more formidable, the future. He can, among other things, face up to the death—the death of himself and the death of others—which his present course of life tends to. Having so faced up to death (that death which he dreads as the extreme of helplessness), he is prepared for a radical reclamation. The most difficult thing Scrooge has to do, when he returns to the world of the living, is to go to his nephew's house on Christmas Day: “He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it …” (C.C., p. 131). It had proved far easier to be generous to the messenger-boy sent to the Poulterer's and to make amends to the gentlemen who had solicited money for the poor the evening before; and it was to prove far easier (the following morning) to reform his relations with Bob Cratchit.

Perhaps Scrooge's marked hesitation before the visit to his nephew's house confirms what I have suggested about the importance of his encounter with his nephew in the counting-house the evening before. It had been in that encounter, more than anywhere else, that Scrooge had had to face up to the fact that his way of life, of which he had been so confident, had not produced for him the results he had bargained for. It had been the nephew, in his comment on Scrooge (as presented by the Ghost of Christmas Present), who had made the decisive assessment of Scrooge's way of life (C.C., p. 102):

He's a comical old fellow, that's the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.

And, the nephew goes on to say (echoing his decisive exchange with his uncle the evening before), “His wealth is of no use to him. He don't do any good with it. He don't make himself comfortable with it. He hasn't the satisfaction of thinking—ha, ha, ha!—that he is ever going to benefit Us with it” (C.C., pp. 102–103).

To speak thus is to account not only for Scrooge's deliverance but also for the form it takes. Otherwise, that deliverance may seem mysterious, perhaps even unjust (in that he is permitted to escape the misery he deserves). This, then, is not a miraculous deliverance but one rooted in Scrooge's character, in his understanding of the world and in calculations having to do with what he fears and with how to achieve that which he longs for. No doubt, the appearance of a miraculous story contributes to the engaging character of this story with the multitudes who have enjoyed it for more than a century. But even more interesting, it seems to me, has been to see how the dramatic miracle works—and this has shown us as well how an artist of genius works and what he understands about the movements of the human soul, waking and dreaming alike. Indeed, it is because the artist senses what souls are like, thereby striking a responsive chord in soulful readers, that works such as this have an enduring effect.6


But to say that an artist has an enduring effect is not to say, of course, that what he does should never be questioned.

It may be somewhat a matter of chance whether a presentation such as Dickens' becomes rather sentimental. At times, some will think—particularly in the treatment of the Cratchit family, especially of Tiny Tim—Dickens goes too far. But the unduly pathetic is corrected, or at least moderated, by the humor employed, much of it exaggerated, some of it fairly subtle, all of it good-natured. It is corrected as well by the reader's tendency to regard Scrooge as more memorable as a rogue than as a saint. We are given very little of the converted Scrooge—just a few pages. After all, what is there to say about him then? There is not much variety, and hence poetic interest, in thoroughgoing goodness.

A question should be raised, if only in passing, about the status of death in the stories of Dickens. Is not Scrooge's terror of death made too much of and in effect legitimated by this story? Does not this reflect the modern attitude—an attitude of deep-rooted anxiety in the face of death, of that death which threatens the continuation of the self, of the individuality, we make so much of today? This considerable concern about death, which Dickens repeatedly puts to dramatic use, may be seen as well in the remarkable role assigned to food and drink in this and other Christmas-season tales by Dickens. The virtue of liberality is endorsed—but at the cost of at least the virtue of temperance—so much so that Dickens' accounts do remain the most exuberant accounts of what Christmas feasting should be like.

Does not glorying in food and drink assert, in a way, that one is really alive? May it not be for many, and perhaps even for Dickens himself, an effort to repress the terrors of death?

There may be, in short, something corrosive and perhaps even corrupting in Dickens' attitude toward death.7


I have been touching upon the question of what Dickens considers a truly good man. Virtues such as temperance sometimes seem to be sacrificed by him to the fellow feeling evident in an enthusiastic liberality.

One should pose the question of the status for Dickens of still another virtue, that of justice—and this naturally leads, in turn, to the question of what Dickens considers a good community, another question which we can do no more than touch upon.

One effect of Scrooge's self-centered avarice, it can be argued, is that he does accumulate the wealth required for effective charity. It can also be argued that the thriftiness practiced by Scrooge is desirable, if not even necessary, if there is to be available as well the capital required for steady industrial development and thereby a systematic alleviation of old-fashioned poverty.

Scrooge does have (before his conversion) that ability which many of the poor, it seems, simply do not have, the ability to defer gratification of ordinary desires. “[D]arkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it” (C.C., p. 55). “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge” (C.C., p. 46). He can live a simple life and be satisfied with it—or, at least, be reconciled to it. He can be depended upon to live up to his bargains, to deliver what he promises to deliver, to pay what he promises to pay (C.C., pp. 45, 133). He believes in minding his own business—and, it turns out, is open to reconsideration of what is truly one's business (C.C., pp. 51, 62, 115).

Scrooge is, in his way, a reliable man—and we depend on the likes of him for the remarkably high standard of living to which we are accustomed. The unconverted Scrooge places an emphasis upon social reforms, upon political efforts, to deal (as efficiently as a sound economy permits) with the inevitable ills of modern industrial life (C.C., pp. 51, 108–109). Dickens himself, if not also Scrooge after his conversion, seems to have been skeptical about the value of political endeavor. He may have come to political endeavor from too low a level to appreciate its genuine scope (C.C., p. 49). He much preferred, in dealing with problems of the day, to rely upon personal influence. (This may help account for the dependence of Dickens' stories upon remarkable coincidences to make things work out right.)

To say as we often do that commercial industrialization may be the most efficient way to organize the economic exploitation of natural and human resources is not to say that the character of many of the people caught up in such an impersonal enterprise may not be stunted. Such a life easily degenerates into a frantic pursuit of private pleasures, into a more and more desperate concern about one's self. Dickens' remarkably popular melodrama about Ebenezer Scrooge, a modern-day Faust of the marketplace, can provide a salutary corrective.

Among the salutary efforts made by Dickens are his repeated endorsements of festivals, particularly Christmas, which prompt men to commune from time to time with their “fellow-passengers to the grave,” to establish a humanizing contact with others in a highly mobile society which ordinarily tends toward anonymous isolation. Dickens made a great deal of festivals associated with family life, however, perhaps inadvertently reinforcing thereby the tendency of modern life to make too much of our private lives (and hence of death?). That is, the festivals he promotes are not primarily patriotic occasions.

Even so, Dickens does condemn self-centeredness. The self-centered are characterized by a lack of grace and of graciousness. They are too much concerned with themselves, especially with what they take to be their preservation, to be really open to or to care for others. A Christmas Carol should promote among a commercial people good-natured compassion and a useful cheerfulness—and may help guard against that patriotism which degenerates into a ruthless, death-defying nationalism.


Its graphic descriptions of London and of English life in the middle of the nineteenth century no doubt contribute to the enduring charm of A Christmas Carol. So does the simple fact that Dickens can write. Besides, his heart is, as we say, in the right place as he appeals to children and to the childlike in us.

That Dickens can really write is suggested, as we saw at the outset of these remarks, by the high praise he has again and again received during the past century. I return to the comparison of Dickens with Aeschylus and Shakespeare provided us (providentially enough) by a classical scholar.

The best known stories of redemption and rehabilitation by Aeschylus and Shakespeare may well be The Oresteia and The Tempest. In both of these tales redemption can be understood to depend ultimately upon political (including divine) rearrangements, not upon family circumstances or personal inclinations. In Dickens' stories, on the other hand, virtues, misconduct and remedies are of a tamer, or more domestic, variety.

The move, then, from Aeschylus and Shakespeare to authors such as Dickens may reflect a shift from political concerns to private, from a concern with justice to a concern with personal salvation. One finds that the petty and the common often do interest moderns more than the grandiose and the noble.

Are we to understand that the deep-rooted concerns of, say, The Oresteia have been taken care of, once and for all, so much so that we can safely devote ourselves to promoting benevolence and charity? Or have those once all-consuming concerns merely been concealed from view, only to erupt in ever more destructive forms from time to time because they have not been properly tended to by moderns dedicated to a determined pursuit of private happiness?

Dickens is more sentimental, and otherwise more limited, than Aeschylus and Shakespeare were—or were permitted by their more discerning publics to become. Yet, cannot much be said among us for the generous festival of Christmas as Dickens fostered it? If that is the case, we should not permit “unhallowed hands” (C.C., p. 45) to mishandle the salutary parable he has endowed us with.


  1. See Eric T. Owen, The Harmony of Aeschylus (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1952), p. 102; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia (15th ed.), vol. 5, p. 706.

    See, also, Edmund Wilson, “Dickens: The Two Scrooges,” in The Wound and the Bow (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1941); George Orwell, “Charles Dickens,” in Inside the Whale, a Book of Essays (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1940).

  2. Citations to A Christmas Carol are designated “C.C.” and are keyed to Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972), vol. I.

    There has become available to me, since this essay was prepared, The Annotated Christmas Carol, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1976), a useful reference work for readers of A Christmas Carol. See e.g. p. 64, on the number seven.

  3. See, on how to read a book, Leo Strauss, On Tyranny (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963); Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato's Meno (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1965). See note 7, below. An entertaining, as well as instructive, application of this approach to “literary” texts may be seen in Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes (New York: Basic Books, 1966).

    See, for citations to readings of literary texts by various scholars influenced by Mr. Strauss, A Contemporary Bibliography in Political Philosophy and in Other Areas (1976), ed Harvey Lomax (4215 Glenaire Drive, Dallas, Texas 75229).

  4. A more obvious use by Dickens of a dream may be seen in his next story of the Christmas Season, The Chimes. The Christmas Books, vol. I, p. 149. (One can be reminded by the way “went to bed” may have been used in A Christmas Carol, of the two accounts of Creation in Genesis. See also, Hilail Gildin, “Revolution and the Formation of Political Society in the Social Contract,” 5 Interpretation 247 at 248 [1976].)

    See, for suggestions about how dreams “work” in the Lewis Carroll stories, Anastaplo, “On Art, Calculation and Dreams: Lewis Carroll, C. L. Dodgson and their Alices,” 68 University of Chicago Magazine (Winter 1975), p. 26. It is instructive to notice how solidly grounded A Christmas Carol is in nature—in the nature of dreams or at least a dreamlike recollection, in the nature of certain vices, and perhaps even in the “nature” of Providence. This grounding assures us that the story is deeply realistic, not mere “fancy,” and hence something worthy of serious study. Thus, Scrooge can sense (“I know it, but I know not how.”) when the final episode with the Ghosts is drawing to a close. (C.C., p. 123) That is, what happens to him is not arbitrary but rather complete and purposeful. (Scrooge had heard stories about the ways of ghosts. [C.C., p. 57])

    See, for indicated interpretations of various literary texts which provide a backgound for my reading of A Christmas Carol, Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist: Notes on the First Amendment (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1971), pp. 651, 798–99 (Antigone), 30–32, 436–38, 651, 687, 725, 772 (Hamlet), 278–81, 552–53, 690, 791–92, 807–08 (Iliad), 790–91 (King Lear), 581, 707–08, 817 (item 1) (Little Orphan Annie et al.), 439, 503, 793 (Nathan the Wise), 278–81, 546, 552–53, 612, 690, 719–20, 791–92, 797 (Odyssey), 642, 783, 798–99 (Oedipus), 510, 779, 787 (Remembrance of Things Past). (Corrections for The Constitutionalist may be found in L.P. deAlvarez, ed., Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address and American Constitutionalism [Irving, Texas: University of Dallas Press, 1976], pp. 130–32. In The Constitutionalist, as in my other publications, “cf.” means “compare” and points to a qualification of or something different from what has just been said or cited.)

  5. Scrooge had been told by Marley (Prodromos?) that he would be subjected to three nights of visitations. (C.C., p. 63) But all three visits were accomplished in one night. (C.C., p. 128) This can be considered a Trinitarian element in a Christmas story in which explicit religious references are (in a rationalistic age) prudently muted (as can be seen even in how far the boy is permitted to go in singing his carol [C.C., p. 53]). See C.C., pp. 49, 56, 65, 87, 91, 94, 104, 120, 131. See, for the Trinity in still another form, Harry V. Jaffa, The Conditions of Freedom: Essays in Political Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1975), p. 153.

    Scrooge, as he looks ahead, carries the carol sung by the boy through to its “logical” conclusion: When he dies in Christmas Yet to Come, it is said by one of his business acquaintances, “Old Scratch [i.e., Satan] has got his own at last, hey?” (C.C., p. 112) This tends to confirm the grim alternative indicated in the lines subsequent to those sung by the boy:

    Remember Christ our Saviour
              Was born on Christmas Day,
    To save poor souls from Satan's power
              Which had long time gone astray …

    Oxford Book of Carols (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), p. 25.

    Be that as it may, fragments of the Christmas Eve conversations in Scrooge's counting-house are worked into his nightlong recapitulation of his life. Various episodes in that recapitulation either challenge positions Scrooge has taken or illustrate what has been said to him by others. Scrooge himself comes to realize that even seemingly trivial details serve his Ghosts' purpose. (C.C., p. 113)

    Consider the use of “blessing” in the epigraph to this essay taken from Macbeth. (Also muted, if readers are not to be permanently put “out of humour” with their comic hero, is the ugly evil that an unrepentant Scrooge was capable of. [C.C., pp. 41, 110–20])

  6. Had the inspired Dickens realized the extent to which Scrooge's experiences took the form of a dream, he might have left us more clues toward the solution of such puzzles as how Scrooge knew (if merely dreaming) about Topper and “the plump sister in the lace tucker” at his nephew's house on Christmas Day. (C.C., pp. 103, 105) See Plato, Apology 22B-C.

    It should be noticed, in considering this and other anomalies, that the printed editions (as well as Dickens' original manuscript) do happen to show an extra space before the final two paragraphs of A Christmas Carol (and nowhere else in the book). (C.C., p. 133) Perhaps we should entertain the possibility that the dream continues almost to the very end of the book. (It is not unusual to have a dreamer dream that he wakes up.) Thus, the ingenious Scrooge can be understood to have extended his dream to include his immediate acts of reformation, permitting him to provide the Cratchits a huge turkey for their Christmas dinner, to run into the charitable solicitor, to visit his nephew (where he can meet the guests earlier conjured up by him), and to “have” Cratchit come in eighteen and a half minutes late to work (something highly unlikely for the clerk to do?) on the day after the Christmas holiday.

    However all this may be, the final two paragraphs of the book do assure us that Scrooge has been permanently reformed by his experience of this fateful Christmas Eve. What more should be expected? That the nephew's prospective child, if a boy, should be named Ebenezer? And that Scrooge will have “the satisfaction of thinking … that he [will] benefit [his nephew's family] with [his wealth]”? (C.C., pp. 49, 102–03, 112. See, also, Plato, Republic 328C-D, 331D.)

    Is not the reformation of Scrooge effected more by his pained realization of what is happening to him than by a selfless dedication to virtue for its own sake? Compare Plato, Republic 588E-589C, 591A-E, 619B-D. Does not death remain for Scrooge, as for Dickens himself, too great a concern? See note 7, below.

  7. Modern men have allowed themselves to act as if they have discovered death. One need only compare the attitude toward the prospect of death in Tolstoy's popular Ivan Ilytch to that in Homer's Iliad or to that in Plutarch's Lives (to say nothing of that in Plato's Phaedo) to realize our decline. Compare Plato, Republic 386C, 516D-C; The Constitutionalist, pp. 278–81.

    Or is it that we are to believe that we have somehow become more sensitive than our predecessors to the “situation” of man in the universe? What we certainly do have, I am afraid, is considerably more anxiety than they—as well as considerable hostility toward those who are not anxious or who are otherwise superior. See, on Martin Heidegger, ibid., p. 815. “Anxiety” reflects and reinforces self-centeredness. (Self-centeredness [with its relativistic tendencies] can be seen in the contemporary preference for “authentic” over the old-fashioned “good” or “substance” or “true.”)

    See, on death, the funeral talk (for Jason Aronson) by Leo Strauss, reproduced in Anastaplo, “On Leo Strauss: A Yahrzeit Remembrance,” 67 University of Chicago Magazine (Winter 1974), pp. 30, 38. See, also, the essays on death, on the Apology, on natural right, on the Crito and on Mr. Klein's Meno in Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen: Essays on Virtue, Freedom and the Common Good (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975). See, as well, the discussion of Edwin Muir's “The Animals” in Anastaplo, “The Public Interest in Privacy: On Becoming and Being Human,” 26 DePaul Law Review, No. 4 (Summer 1977); W.B. Yeat's “Death.” On Mr. Klein's Meno, see note 3, above.

    See, on avarice, New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 1122; Plato, Phaedo 66C-D, 68B-C. Compare the Andy Capp comic strip for June 15, 1977: the importunate hero observes, in response to his long-suffering wife's reminder that “money can't buy 'appiness,” “True, pet, true-but it 'elps you to look for it in a lot more places.” Compare, also, Plato Republic 591E. (One is reminded of the role assigned by Aristotle to “equipment” in the happy life.)

    One is induced to wonder whether any villain in a Dickens story eats well. (C.C., pp. 86, 90, 93, 94–96) In any event, Scrooge is shown that he will die thoroughly if he continues to pursue the course he has chosen. (C.C., pp. 111, 115, 126) “Good deeds,” on the other hand, imply “life immortal”? (C.C., p. 118)

Harry Stone (essay date 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Fairy-Tale Form in A Christmas Carol,” in Readings on Charles Dickens, edited by Clarice Swisher, The Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 74–81.

[In the following excerpt from Stone's 1979 study Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making, Stone asserts that Dickens uses fairy-tale elements in A Christmas Carol.]

Dickens wrote five Christmas books: A Christmas Carol (1843), The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848). … The Christmas books draw their innermost energies from fairy tales: they exploit fairy-tale themes, fairy-tale happenings, and fairy-tale techniques. Indeed the Christmas books are fairy tales. As Dickens himself put it, he was here taking old nursery tales and “giving them a higher form.” …

The design could hardly be simpler or more direct. A protagonist who is mistaken or displays false values is forced, through a series of extraordinary events, to see his errors. This familiar, almost pedestrian given is interfused with fairy-tale elements, a commingling that shapes and transfigures every aspect of the design. Storybook signs set the mood, herald the onset of the action, and enforce the moral lessons. Magical happenings dominate the story. The crucial action takes place in a dream or vision presided over by supernatural creatures who control what goes on. The resolution occurs when the happenings of the vision—a magically telescoped survey of the protagonist's life, and a masquelike representation of the consequences of his false attitudes—force him to reassess his views. In the fashion of most fairy stories, the moral is strongly reiterated at the end. …

[Dickens] could now show misery and horror and yet do so in a context of joyful affirmation. He could depict evil flourishing to its ultimate flowering and still deny that flowering. He could introduce the most disparate scenes, events, and visions without losing the reader's confidence. He could manipulate time with no need to obey the ordinary laws of chronology. He could make his characters and events real when he wished them real, magical when he wished them magical. He could effect overnight conversions which could be justified aesthetically. He could teach by parable rather than exhortation. And he could deal with life in terms of a storybook logic that underscored both the real and the ideal. …


In A Christmas Carol, to take the first of the Christmas books, Dickens adapts fairy-tale effects and fairy-tale techniques with marvelous skill. All readers are aware of the ghosts and spirits that manipulate the story, but these supernatural beings are only the most obvious signs of a pervasive indebtedness to fairy stories. Dickens himself emphasized that indebtedness. He subtitled his novelette A Ghost Story of Christmas, and he followed this spectral overture with other magical associations. In the preface to the Carol he told potential readers that he had endeavored “in this ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea.” Then he went on: “May it haunt their houses pleasantly and no one wish to lay it!” The chapter headings continue this emphasis. Four of the five headings reinforce supernatural expectations: “Marley's Ghost,” “The First of the Three Spirits,” “The Second of the Three Spirits,” and “The Last of the Spirits.” With such signposts at the outset, we can expect the journey itself to be full of wondrous events. We are not disappointed, though the opening begins disarmingly enough. It insists on the deadness of Marley and then drifts into a long, facetious reference to the ghost of Hamlet's father. The narrator's attitude is worldly and commonsensical, but Marley's deadness and the ghost of Hamlet's father set the scene for the wild events that are about to take place.

Scrooge sets the scene too. He has much of the archetypal miser in him, but he is more of an ordinary man than his immediate prototypes, prototypes such as Gabriel Grub, Arthur Gride, Ralph Nickleby, and Jonas Chuzzlewit.1 Yet at the same time Scrooge is compassed round with supernatural attributes that cunningly suffuse his fundamental realism. One soon sees how this process works. The freezing cold that pervades his inner being frosts all his external features and outward mannerisms (nipped and pointed nose, shrivelled cheek, stiffened gait, red eyes, blue lips, grating voice), and this glacial iciness chills all the world without. “He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas. … No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.” In this respect Scrooge is a prototype of Mr. Dombey. That cold gentleman freezes and congeals his small universe with haughty frostiness.


The story proper of A Christmas Carol begins with the traditional “Once upon a time.” After this evocative opening Dickens quickly intensifies the storybook atmosphere. Scrooge lives in Marley's old chambers, and Marley died seven years ago on Christmas Eve, that is, seven years ago on the night the story opens. It is a foggy night. Nearby houses dwindle mysteriously into “mere phantoms”; ghostly forms loom dimly in the hazy mist. Out of such details, out of cold, fog, and frost, and out of brief touches of contrasting warmth, Dickens builds an atmosphere dense with personification, animism, anthropomorphism, and the like. The inanimate world is alive and active; every structure, every object plays its percipient role in the unfolding drama. Buildings and gateways, bedposts and door knockers become sentient beings that conspire in a universal morality. Everything is connected by magical means to everything else. Scrooge's chambers are a case in point. The narrator tells us that they are in a lonely, isolated building that must have played hide-and-seek with other houses in its youth, run into a yard where it had no business to be, forgotten its way out again, and remained there ever since. This lost, isolated, cutoff building, fit residence for a lost, isolated, cutoff man, has its own special weather and tutelary spirit. The fog and frost hang so heavy about the black old gateway of this building “that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.”

Given a universe so magical and responsive, we are hardly surprised when Scrooge momentarily sees Marley's face glowing faintly in his front-door knocker, its “ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead.” When Scrooge sees an equally ghostly hearse on his staircase a few moments later, we know that he is in for a night of it. Thus we are fully prepared for Marley's ghost when it does appear, and we know how to interpret its every movement and accoutrement. Marley's ghost is a superb compound of social symbolism, wild imagination, realistic detail, and grisly humor. It moves in its own strange atmosphere, its hair and clothes stirring curiously, as though agitated by “the hot vapour from an oven”; it wears a bandage round its head, and when it removes this death cloth, its lower jaw drops down upon its breast. Like Blake's city-pent Londoner, Marley's ghost drags and clanks its “mind-forg'd manacles,” the chain it “forged in life” and girded on of its “own free will”; like the ghost of Hamlet's father, it is doomed to walk the night and wander restlessly abroad. Scrooge is skeptical of this apparition, but he is no match for the ghost's supernatural power. Like the Ancient Mariner with the wedding guest, the ghost “hath his will.” When Scrooge offers his last resistance, the ghost raises a frightful cry, shakes its chains appallingly, and takes the bandage from round its head. Scrooge falls on his knees and submits. Like the wedding guest, now Scrooge “cannot choose but hear.” And as in the Ancient Mariner, where the wedding guest's struggle and reluctant submission help us suspend our disbelief, in A Christmas Carol Scrooge's struggle and submission help us to a like suspension. The ghost has accomplished its mission; the work of the three spirits, work that will culminate in Scrooge's redemption (and our enlightenment), can now begin.


The three spirits or ghosts (Dickens uses the terms interchangeably) are allegorical figures as well as supernatural agents. The Ghost of Christmas Past combines in his person and in his actions distance and closeness, childhood and age, forgetfulness and memory; in a similar fashion the Ghost of Christmas Present is a figure of ease, plenty, and joy—an embodiment of the meaning of Christmas; the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, on the other hand, a hooded and shrouded Death, bears implacable witness to the fatal course Scrooge has been pursuing. Each spirit, in other words, enacts a role and presides over scenes that befit its representation. But it is the scenes rather than the spirits that are all-important. The scenes embody Dickens's message in swift vignettes and unforgettable paradigms—Fezziwig's ball, the Cratchits' Christmas dinner, Scrooge's lonely grave. By means of the fairy-tale machinery Dickens can move instantaneously from magic-lantern picture to magic-lantern picture, juxtaposing, contrasting, commenting, and counterpointing, and he can do all this with absolute freedom and ease. He can evoke the crucial image, limn the archetypal scene, concentrate on the traumatic spot of time, with no need to sketch the valleys in between. Like Le Sage much earlier in The Devil upon Two Sticks (a boyhood favorite of Dickens), he can fly over the unsuspecting city, lift its imperturbable rooftops, and reveal swift tableaus of pathos and passion; like Joyce much later in the opening pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he can race through the years, linger here and there, and provide brief glimpses of the unregarded moments that move and shape us. The overall effect, however, is more like that of a richly colored Japanese screen. Amid swirling mists and dense clouds one glimpses prototypical scenes of serenity and turmoil, joy and nightmare horror.


Through Scrooge Dickens attempts to embody symbolic, social, psychological, and mythic truth. Scrooge is an outrageous miser and ogre, but he is also an emblem of more ordinary pathology: he is an epitome of all selfish and self-regarding men. In his latter aspect, he touches our lives. He allows us to see how self-interest—an impulse that motivates each one of us—can swell to monster proportions. He shows us how not to live, and then, at the end, he points us toward salvation. That lesson has social as well as symbolic ramifications. We are made to see that in grinding Bob Cratchit Scrooge grinds himself, that in letting Tiny Tim perish he perishes alive himself. All society is connected: individual actions are not self-contained and personal, they have social consequences; social evils are not limited and discrete, they taint the whole society. These ideas, of course, were not unique to Dickens. They were being preached by many Victorians, by two such different men—both friends of Dickens—as Douglas Jerrold and Thomas Carlyle,2 for example. But Dickens presents these ideas in a more seductive guise than any of his contemporaries. And he blends teaching with much else.

For one thing, he merges symbolic paradigms and social doctrines with psychological analysis. By means of a few swift childhood vignettes he gives us some notion of why Scrooge became what he is. The first spirit shows Scrooge an image of his early self: “a solitary child, neglected by his friends,” and left alone in school at Christmas time. This scene of loneliness and neglect is mitigated by a single relief: the boy's intense reading. The reading is not simply referred to, it comes to life, a bright pageant of color and warmth in his drab isolation. The exotic characters from that reading troop into the barren room and enact their familiar adventures. Scenes from The Arabian Nights flash before Scrooge, then images from Valentine and Orson, then vignettes from The Arabian Nights again, then episodes from Robinson Crusoe—all as of yore, all wonderfully thrilling and absorbing. Scrooge is beside himself with excitement. The long-forgotten memory of his lonely self and of his succoring reading softens him: he remembers what it was to be a child; he wishes that he had given something to the boy who sang a Christmas carol at his door the night before. A moment later Scrooge is looking at a somewhat older image of his former self, again alone in a school, again left behind at Christmas time. But now his sister Fan enters and tells him that he can come home at last, that father is kinder now and will permit him to return, that Scrooge is to be a man and “never to come back here” again. These memories also soften Scrooge.

The memories, of course, are versions of Dickens's own experiences: the lonely boy “reading as if for life,” and saved by that reading; the abandoned child, left in Chatham to finish the Christmas term, while the family goes off to London; the banished son (banished while Fanny remains free), exiled by his father to the blacking warehouse and then released by him at last. These wounding experiences, or rather the Carol version of them, help turn Scrooge (and here he is very different from the outward Dickens) into a lonely, isolated man intent on insulating himself from harm or hurt. In a subsequent vignette, a vignette between him and his fiancée, Scrooge chooses money over love. He is the victim of his earlier wound. He seeks through power and aggrandizement to gird himself against the vulnerability that had scarred his childhood. But in making himself invulnerable, he shuts out humanity as well. This happens to Scrooge because, paradoxically, in trying to triumph over his past, he has forgotten it; he has forgotten what it is to be a child, he has forgotten what it is to be lonely and friendless, to cry, laugh, imagine, yearn, and love. The first spirit, through memory, helps Scrooge recover his past, helps him recover the humanness (the responsiveness and fellow feeling) and the imagination (the reading and the visions) that were his birthright, that are every man's birthright.


All this, and much more, is done swiftly and economically with the aid of Dickens's fairy-tale format. The rapid shifts from scene to scene, the spirits' pointed questions and answers, the telescoping, blurring, and juxtaposition of time, the fusion of allegory, realism, psychology, and fancy—all are made possible, all are brought into order and believability, by Dickens's storybook atmosphere and storybook devices. A Christmas Carol has a greater unity of effect, a greater concentration of thematic purpose, a greater economy of means towards ends, and a greater sense of integration and cohesiveness than any previous work by Dickens.

A Christmas Carol is the finest of the Christmas books. This preeminence results from its consummate melding of the most archetypal losses, fears, and yearnings with the most lucid embodiment of such elements in characters and actions. No other Christmas book displays this perfect coming together of concept and vehicle. The result is a most powerful, almost mythic statement of widely held truths and aspirations. Scrooge represents every man who has hardened his heart, lost his ability to feel, separated himself from his fellow men, or sacrificed his life to ego, power, or accumulation. The symbolic force of Scrooge's conversion is allied to the relief we feel (since we are all Scrooges, in part) in knowing that we too can change and be reborn. This is why we are moved by the reborn Scrooge's childlike exultation in his prosaic physical surroundings, by his glee at still having time to give and share. We too can exult in “Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells”; we too can cry, “Oh, glorious. Glorious!”; we too can give and share. Scrooge assures us that we can advance from the prison of self to the paradise of community. The Carol's fairy-tale structure helps in that assurance. The structure evokes and objectifies the undefiled world of childhood and makes us feel that we, like Scrooge, can recapture it. Deep symbolic identifications such as these, identifications that stir us whether we are consciously aware of them or not, give A Christmas Carol its enduring grip on our culture. A Christmas Carol is a myth or fairy tale for our times, one that is still full of life and relevance. Its yearly resurrection in advertisement, cartoon, and television program, its reappearance in new versions (in Bergman's Wild Strawberries, to cite only one instance), testify to this.


  1. characters in Dickens's other books

  2. Jerrold was a playwright and humorist; Carlyle an essayist and historian

Stephen Prickett (essay date 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Christmas at Scrooge's,” in Victorian Fantasy, Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 38–74.

[In the following essay, Prickett delineates the defining characteristics of Victorian literature and regards A Christmas Carol as a prime example of the Christmas book genre.]

The ‘internalization’ of fantasy in the early nineteenth century meant, in effect, the evolution of a new language. The worlds of dreams and nightmares, madmen and children were areas of human experience which had hitherto been all too often ignored or even denied. Their recognition helped to open up a new view of the human mind in which conventional distinctions between aesthetics and psychology were blurred by a growing awareness of the unconscious in shaping our mental processes. As we have seen, it is possible to trace something of this evolution by looking at various key figures in the development of late-eighteenth-century sensibility, yet such men as Walpole and Beckford, or their successors of the next generation like Coleridge or Keats, Martin or Pugin, at best perhaps arbitrarily selected to illustrate a point, only give us a part of the picture. A new ‘language’ of the mind does not come into being through a few innovators alone, however important they may be; it has also to reflect a genuine shift in the climate of feeling in a whole society. If we are to try and understand such a cultural sea-change we must look to a quite different stratum of its literature, and at the world from which this literature sprang.

It is fatally easy to generalize about Victorianism and to construct a model of fantasy to fit. For instance it is tempting to argue that the peculiarly rich development of fantasy within the period is in some way the product of social repression and inhibition. In an impressionistic and personal little book, The Victorian Age in Literature,1 G. K. Chesterton for example summarizes the prevailing mood of the mid-century as the ‘Victorian Compromise’. What gave the era its distinctive flavour, at once urban and yet culturally provincial, self-searching and yet smug, he argues, was that it rested upon a peculiar emotional and intellectual ‘compromise’ between forces whose conflict would otherwise have threatened the stability of the whole social order. In short, for the sake of certain immediate practical advantages, it was as if Victorian society tacitly agreed to pretend that quite incompatible beliefs and aims could successfully co-exist. Such an argument clearly deserves respect if only because, as he himself reminds us, Chesterton was born a Victorian, and he can convey a sense of what it actually felt like to be one that is difficult for even the most scholarly historian to recapture. He was also a prolific creator of fantasies. His argument summarizes what many late Victorians, from Hardy to Gosse, came to feel about their own upbringing. As a modern literary historian has put it, ‘Despite the resounding clash of individual wills, there was until late in Victoria's reign, a desire for cultural synthesis urgent enough to inspire from even the most rebellious a concession to an established social morality.’2 Certainly it is difficult for us to sympathize with the accepted bases of Victorian society unless we grasp that England in the 1840s was engaged in one of the greatest moral and social clean-ups that, short of actual physical revolution, any society has known. During the 1830s there had been a series of wide-reaching political reforms—extending the franchise and attempting to check some of the cruder forms of electoral corruption. Slavery was abolished; a few of the worst excesses of child and female labouring conditions were tackled, and in many occupations working hours were limited for the first time. Even the labyrinthine processes of ecclesiastical reform were put in motion. At a voluntary level a multitude of interconnected Evangelical societies had sprung into existence by the 1840s, concerning themselves with everything from cruelty to animals to prostitution.3 Like all revolutionary clean-ups it involved repression. That was the price to be paid, and for many Victorians it undoubtedly seemed a cheap one. It is easy for the twentieth century, preoccupied with its own troubles, to look back with nostalgia to Victorian Britain as an age of peace, order, and increasing prosperity, and to ignore the fact that for those actually living at the time it was a period of intense anxiety and self-doubt. Carlyle, Dickens, Kingsley, George Eliot, William Morris, Ruskin, and a host of others betray constant fears for the fate of their society. Indeed, the fear of actual revolution was never very far from the minds of many of the middle-class until well into the 1850s, and as fears of the Chartists and radical agitation slowly abated they were replaced by a no less profound ‘ontological insecurity’ produced by increasing social mobility and the threats to the traditional religious world-picture posed by Evolution and the materialism of the physical sciences. It is against this background of social and personal anxieties that we must see the tensions between the need for reform and the need for a social consensus. Such a viewpoint perhaps explains better than any other the phenomenon of Victorian tenacity to a series of moral half-truths—what Conrad, with pessimistic clarity was to call ‘a few simple notions of goodness’—as well as the sense of apparently permanent unease and weariness that afflicted so many eminent and energetic Victorians. Later ages may have been quick to label it ‘hypocrisy’ without asking what were the social and intellectual conditions that made such ‘hypocrisy’ for many people the preferable choice. For all its faults, and its fundamental instability, what Chesterton calls ‘the Victorian Compromise’ was one that managed to hold Dickens, Browning, and Tennyson for much of their lives. If a few, like Matthew Arnold, saw through it, they had little to put in its place, and its strength might be nowhere better illustrated than by the degree of anguish needed finally to drive George Eliot and Newman, in their own very different ways, out into the cold.

Yet the picture of Victorian society as a repressive one, based on an impossible compromise and therefore ‘hypocritical’ and even collectively schizophrenic, though, as we have seen, it clearly contains some elements of truth, can also be dangerously misleading. There were plenty who were prepared to speak out not merely against individual abuses, but against the fundamental tenets of society itself, and the idea of the world of Dickens, Carlyle, Ruskin and Thackeray as complacent or self-satisfied is absurd. It was probably the most profoundly self-critical age in English history. Writers were quick to campaign on matters of public and social importance. John Martin and Kingsley were both fanatical advocates of better sewage and water supplies—especially for London. Dickens led in the fight for better education. Hood was the author of The Song of the Shirt, exposing (like the omnipresent Kingsley) the sweatshops of the East End.

Similarly, the notion of a silent consensus over sex, plausible enough as a generalization, begins to break down rapidly when we start to look at individual examples. It is true that the fantasies of Lear and Carroll show every sign of latent repressions, arguably homosexual in the case of Lear, even paedophiliac in Carroll, but the moment we start to look at Kingsley or MacDonald the theory is much more difficult to sustain. Steven Marcus in The Other Victorians has shown not merely the rise of a shadow pornographic literature of the period, often directly parodying the major writers, but also the part which sexual references, overt and oblique, play in the psychology of the major literature itself.4 In much of Dickens, indeed, it is clear enough. There is more overt sexuality in Steerforth's relationship with Rosa Dartle, in David Copperfield, for example, than there is in the work of any novelist writing earlier in the century. Neither does the fantasy of the period sublimate or evade sexuality, as one might expect if it were primarily the product of sexual repression. MacDonald's Phantastes opens with an obliquely suggested (but clear) seduction, and contains what one modern Freudian critic has called the sexiest song in Victorian literature.5 Nor could Kingsley be accused in any sense of needing to compensate for repressive sexual inhibitions. We have already mentioned his erotic drawings: though private by their very nature, as presents for his wife, they were hardly furtive. Perhaps more significantly for any social thesis on the roots of fantasy, he was also publicly outspoken on the subject—as, for instance, in his comments on a particular strike that it was the sexual licence of the millowners with their factory girls that was ‘the unspoken cause, among brothers and sweethearts, of fearful indignation, which only found vent in political agitation’.6 When Mrs. Gaskell caused scandal among her readers by dealing with illegitimacy in Ruth, and even condoning a ‘fallen woman’, Kingsley wrote at once, as a stranger, to offer her his support.7

Our earlier metaphor of fantasy, therefore, as the ‘underside’ or ‘obverse’ of the Victorian imagination cannot be taken simply to mean that fantasy is always an escape or refuge from a repressive social code. There are too many variables and too many levels involved. In most societies evidence for some kind of social ‘compromise’ can be found: one might argue that, to a greater or less degree, it is the permanent condition of any complex society. Though it may be superficially attractive to link evidence for repressions in Lear and Carroll, for instance, a detailed examination of their work suggests they were very different kinds of repression8—as we shall see in a later chapter. Similarly, Richard Dadd, painter of grotesque and erotic fairies, seems to be a very different case from either—or from other ‘fairy’ illustrators such as Cruikshank, Leech, or Doyle, who show no particular signs of hidden repressions. We do not know the causes of Dadd's madness, but it was apparently hereditary.9 It is true, however, that the period did produce one of the most potent myths of repression in fantasy in Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—where the worthy and benevolent Jekyll contains within himself, unassimilated, the alter-ego of the evil and terrifying Hyde, who finally overwhelms and destroys the respectable doctor. Yet to argue as Chesterton does in support of his thesis that the story is a paradigm of what the Victorian age did not understand about itself is surely difficult to sustain.10 It is quite clear, even if only from the symbolism of Hyde's name, that Stevenson knew very well what he was about in creating his story. To talk of the ‘age’ as having a common collective consciousness (that would have to exclude Stevenson) is simply a misuse of metaphor. Evidence for psychological naïvety—and there is certainly plenty in the literature of the period—can be matched by equal evidence of psychological subtlety and penetration. Richard Reis has similarly criticized Robert Lee Wolff for his unwarranted assumption that MacDonald was an example of an unconscious mythmaker who did not understand the forces behind his art.11 If the nineteenth century was fascinated by its dreams and nightmares, there is every indication that many of the dreamers were well aware of what dreams were made of.

It is in fact much more rewarding to see this polarity of fantasy and imagination straightforwardly in terms of literary genre. Sociological and psychological accounts of this great flowering of fantasy in Victoria's reign are entertaining in almost direct proportion to their speculativeness, but their real weakness is that the more one looks at the detailed interconnections between the writers the more such macro-theories look redundant. With the exception of Lear, the great creators of fantasy knew each other personally—often as friends. Carroll read The Water Babies before publication and when he was at work on Alice; he himself sent his completed manuscript to MacDonald for advice on publication. Kipling and Nesbit exchanged books and frequently borrow ideas directly from one another, as well as from the earlier writers, accepting their place in what was by then a recognized genre.12 Yet its foundations were older than Kingsley or Lear. Behind the great writers of fantasy was a tradition of vigorous popular journalism in satire and cartoon which had never been tied to naturalistic conventions. From such figures as Cruikshank or Hood down to a host of minor entertainers, often anonymous, an older tradition of symbolic names and stylization lived on and flourished. Dickens was able to use such expressive names as Mr. Jingle, the Cheerible brothers, or Sir Leicester Deadlock, because he found ready-made a comic tradition as old as the mediaeval ‘humours’. Yet there is a difference in the Victorian forms. What strikes us immediately about a Dickens episode, a Cruikshank or a Phiz illustration, is the endless busy detail. It is overflowing with life. So far from being a simplification or limitation of experience, they seem rather to suffer from a superabundant richness that can only be captured and contained by the conventions of the cartoon—just as Chesterton's own splendid story, The Man who was Thursday, was itself clearly the product of exuberance rather than repression. Here, if anywhere, in this exuberant overspill of reality, lie the real roots of Victorian fantasy.

Thus we encounter the paradox that in what is often taken to be the great age of ‘realism’, humour and satire commonly achieved literary expression within conventions that were essentially unrealistic and fantastic. Reviewing Dickens's The Battle of Life in a long article for Frazer's Magazine in 1847 entitled ‘A Grumble about the Christmas Books’, Thackeray argues that unreality was an essential attribute of the new genre he was discussing.

If I judge Mr. Dickens's present volume rightly, it has been the author's aim, not to produce a prose tale of mingled fun and sadness, and a close immitation of life, but a prose poem, designed to awaken emotions tender, mirthful, pastoral, wonderful … The action of the piece you see clearly enough, but the actors speak and move to measure and music. The drolls are more violently funny; the serious heroes and heroines more gracefully and faultlessly beautiful. Such figures are never seen among real country people. … these charming little books of Mr. Dickens's are chorals for Christmas executed in prose.13

That Thackeray picks out the ‘poetic’ and the stylized as the essential qualities of the form tells us much about its origins in the popular literature of the 1820s and 1830s. Following on the success of Ackermann's Forget Me Not in 1825 there had been a vogue for similar annuals with collections of poems and short stories with a family appeal intended specifically for the lucrative Christmas market. Quite the most outstanding were those of Thomas Hood (1799–1845) who had started his career as a comic writer with two volumes called Whims and Oddities in 1826 and 1827, and had then edited a Christmas anthology, The Gem, in 1828. His first Comic Annual in 1830 was a new and original departure: previous annuals had carried comic material, but the prevailing tone had been lightly sentimental. Hood's new annual was a vehicle for wit and satire, but the tone was zany, fantastic, and grotesque—even at times savage. Visually, it drew upon an older satiric tradition of ‘tail piece’ illustration. Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) had illustrated natural history books not merely with his famous wood-cuts of birds and animals themselves, but also with little cartoons at the foot of the page which drew satiric human parallels. A tail piece of a gourmet vomiting, for instance, illustrates a seagull's regurgitation.14 Hood's Comic Annuals were filled with elaborate puns and extravagant conceits. They continued regularly throughout the 1830s, the last volume appearing in 1842, only three years before his death. From the first they inspired a host of imitators. Louisa Sheridan's Comic Offering or Ladies' Melange of Literary Mirth, which ran until 1835, kept to the same format and binding, and was a blatant parody of Hood's style and puns. More startling in origins was the New Comic Annual produced by Hood's own publishers, Hurst Chance & Co., in identical size and layout which was clearly intended to deceive the reader into believing it was by Hood himself. The dedicatory poem at the beginning actually refers to Hood by name in the first line. Though the Comic Annuals were full of jokes, puns, cartoons, and comic verse, they were never bawdy (Hood prided himself on his ‘wholesomeness’) but frequently macabre—occasionally, with an underlying moral seriousness.

In a changed key, and worked into an organic whole, these were elements that were to reappear in the first real ‘Christmas book’, Dickens's Christmas Carol in 1843. In spite of a host of imitators, including himself, Thackeray was in no doubt that it was Dickens who had ‘invented’ the genre—and there is circumstantial confirmation of this from Thackeray's earlier review for Frazer's, ‘Our Batch of Novels for Christmas 1837’, in which the books dealt with are all ordinary fiction, with no suggestion of any particular seasonal content. By 1847, however, the formula was clearly well established. Thackeray selects, so he tells us, ‘8 or 9 of the 25 or 30 volumes’ on offer for Christmas 1846. We have, for instance, A Christmas in the Seventeenth Century, by Mrs. Percy Sinnett; A New Year's Day: A Winter's Tale, by Mrs. Gore, illustrated by George Cruikshank; January Eve: a Tale of the Times, by G. Soane Esq., B.A.; The Good Genius that Turned Everything into Gold; or, the Queen Bee and the Magic Dress. A Christmas Fairy Tale, by the Brothers Mayhew, illustrations by Cruikshank; The Yule Log for Everybody's Christmas Hearth, by the author of The Chronicles of the Bastille, yet again illustrated by fast-working Cruikshank; and Fisher's Drawing-Room Scrap-Book, by the Hon. Mrs. Norton. Dickens, as aforementioned, has produced The Battle of Life, and there is a newly translated volume of Wonderful Stories for Children, by Hans Anderson. Having singled out these last two for praise, and damned the rest, Thackeray begins a caustic review of Mrs. Perkins's Ball—only to break off in mock-horror at the discovery that it is by himself. Though the second of the books listed above is maudlin rather than magical, the contents of the rest are only too predictable:

‘Curses on all fairies!’ I gasp out; ‘I will never swallow another one as long as I live. Perdition seize all Benevolence! Be hanged to the Good and the True! Fling me every drop of the milk of human kindness out of the window!—horrible, curdling slops, away with them! Kick old Father Christmas out of doors, the abominable old imposter! Next year I'll go to the Turks, the Scotch, or other Heathens who don't keep Christmas. Is all the street to come for a Christmas Box? Are the waits to be invading us by millions, and yelling all night? By my soul, if anybody offers me plum-pudding again this season, I'll fling it in his face!’15

It was perhaps predictable too that when Thackeray himself was tempted away from the rather heavy comic realism of Mrs. Perkins's Ball, it was to parody this avalanche of Christmas fantasias in a ‘pantomime’ of his own: the highly successful Rose and the Ring of 1853,—which effectively brings to an end the decade in which all the best examples of the genre appeared.

Though this popular tradition depended on many illustrators, including Leech, Doyle, and Thackeray himself, visually it had been to an astonishing degree the creation of one man: the indefatigable George Cruikshank. If Bewick had popularized the use of the realistic comic ‘tail-piece’, Cruikshank had given shape to the fantasy of his age by his brilliant illustrations to Grimms' fairy tales in 1823. He had been brought up in the tradition of the eighteenth-century caricaturists Hogarth and Gillray, and had begun his career as a cartoonist during the Napoleonic wars. When he turned to fairies he naturally adapted the grotesques of caricature and satire that he was used to.16 The ravings of Buonaparte became the model for the raging Rumpelstiltskin. The figures of political in-fighting were simply mythologized. During the 1830s and 1840s Cruikshank became one of the best-known as well as most prolific of artists, and his name began to appear more prominently than the author's on title-pages. His own Comic Almanack joined the stream of other comic books of the mid-1830s, and he was the illustrator of Dickens's Sketches by Boz. Though his pictures often appeared to be spontaneous sketches, they were in fact carefully prepared and full of significant detail in the manner of Hogarth. His series of drawings on ‘The Drunkard's Children’ is a direct imitation of Hogarth's ‘moralities’. Eventually his obtrusive moralizing and fanatical teetotalism caused a breach even with Dickens who, in an article on ‘Frauds and Faries’ complained that he was despoiling childhood memories.17

Hood himself had been trained as an engraver and illustrator in this tradition, though most of his short working life was spent as a not-very-successful journalist, often in poor health, and always pushed for money. His draughtsman's apprenticeship, however, meant that like so many of the Victorian fantasists he could illustrate his own work. The basic cast of mind revealed by his puns is both visual and concrete. Yet though his surprisingly anti-patriotic ‘Angel of Death’, for instance, is essentially a visual pun, a closer inspection reminds us that its ingredients, the cannon and the two ensigns, are themselves symbols. He was also capable of highly abstract and un-visualisable puns, such as the lines from The Ballad of Faithless Nellie Gray:

… here I leave my second leg,
And the Forty-Second Foot.

Hood's basic form of fantasy, the pun, as Empson has shown, demands a very special and complex mental set, bringing together things which the mind normally manages to keep clearly separate.18 For our own sanity, we do not usually think of a numbered infantry regiment as a quantity of real feet. As we shall see, there are similarities between Hood's outrageous punning and Edward Lear's, whose creation of a genre of ‘nonsense’ by words and pictures is apparently much less complicated, but who, in fact, often hinges his limericks on concealed and unsuspected puns, sometimes of a very bizarre order. The man who wrote of himself in 1840 that ‘no gentleman alive has written so much comic and spitten so much blood within six consecutive years' was very much a loner, but a glance at Hood's work may for all that suggest ways in which he was—exaggeratedly perhaps—symptomatic of his uncertain age.

Ruskin was one of the first to see a link between the spirit of Cruikshank and Hood. In his Appendix to Modern Painters on ‘Modern Grotesque’ he acknowledges the ‘innate and incommunicable’ style of the caricaturist, but goes on to see in his work something of the spirit of the age.

When the powers of quaint fancy are associated (as is frequently the case) with stern understanding of the nature of evil, and tender human sympathy, there results a bitter or pathetic spirit of grotesque, to which mankind at the present day owe more through moral teaching than to any branch of art whatsoever.

In poetry the temper is seen, in perfect manifestation, in the works of Thomas Hood; in art it is found both in various works of the Germans—their finest and their least thought of; and more or less in the works of George Cruikshank, and in many of the illustrations of our popular journals.16

A recent biographer of Hood has gone on to link this spirit of the grotesque directly with the pun—a verbal equivalent of the Cruikshank cartoon:

Punning was inveterate to Hood's nature. Both in speaking and in writing he punned continually and, it would seem, compulsively. His punning indicated that his mind possessed a fundamental, unresolved dichotomy: he perceived the comic in the tragic and the tragic in the comic. But this discovery of incongruity caused him distinct unease. Since equivocation came easily to his nature, Hood was, through puns, provided with a defense mechanism by which he could shy away from the full implications of his vision. In his social poems his marked reluctance to affirm in a straight-forward manner his beliefs on controversial subjects reveals a basic insecurity; through punning, the outlet his gifts permitted him, he reconciled his embarrassment before unease. Rarely did he stare boldly in the face of a problem, social, political, or other—hence the puns and anticlimactic endings of so many works.19

There are two very interesting ideas here. The first is that Hood was strongly, even compulsively, aware of unresolved contradictions in his society, and that his puns are in some way an expression of this conflict. This is surely a fruitful extension of the argument already advanced by Chesterton and others which we have been examining in this chapter. The second assumption, however, is more odd: namely, that equivocation and ambiguity are not so much a literary device as an admission (conscious or unconscious) of personal weakness and insecurity. According to this scheme of things, puns are examples of pathology rather than rhetoric. Unrewarding as I find this kind of psychological argument ad hominem, nevertheless it does highlight an important fact about Hood's style. Irony and puns are only possible within a group who use words in exactly the same sort of way. Hood's fiercely ironic satires of poverty and injustice were in a tradition that goes back through the eighteenth century at least as far as Swift. They depend as do Swift's on the reader's ability to gauge tone with familiarity and precision. The more pluralistic a society becomes, the more difficult irony becomes. There is a final irony in the way in which Hood's puns and jokes are dependent upon the very consensus of language and values that he, like so many of his socially aware contemporaries, wished to attack.

The variety and range of Hood's output reveals an alteration between crude comic brutality and a much more sensitive social awareness. A writer who can move from the gothic and grotesque Haunted House, or Eugene Aram, to the puns of Nellie Gray, the social satire of Miss Kilmansegg, or the bitter social conscience of The Bridge of Sighs or The Song of the Shirt, however insecure he may have been personally (and how many writers are not?), clearly had also a certain professional and literary confidence. He would have been delighted, but not altogether astonished, to find that children in Russia today learn some of his social poems in translation—just as he was to discover how widely read his poems were when he went to Germany in the 1830s.

Appropriately enough, the full range of Hood's extraordinary sensibility is best exhibited in the ‘Golden Legend’ of Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg which first appeared in parts in the New Monthly magazine in 1840, and was then reprinted complete in the Comic Annual of 1842. Morality, social satire, buffoonery, and the grotesque are here all intertwined into a single poem of mock-epic proportions: some 2,388 lines altogether. The illustrations, by John Leech, Cruickshank's most successful pupil, exactly capture the tone of savage caricature. Its target is one that has consistently inspired fantastic satire from Ben Jonson to Dickens: Gold, and the worship of Gold in all its forms. The name of the heroine, of course, ‘killman's—egg’ is a reference to the legend of the Golden Goose, as the text makes clear:

For money had stuck to the race through life
(As it did to the bushel when cash so rife
Pozed Ali Baba's brother's wife)—
          And down to the Cousins and Coz-lings,
The fortunate brood of the Kilmanseggs,
As if they had come out of golden eggs,
          Were all as wealthy as ‘Goslings’.(20)

The pace of the verse, with its sustained wit (only sometimes appearing as outright puns), and constant inventiveness, is astonishing—as is the range of feeling, from broad comedy and biting satire to occasional pathos. With all its humour, Miss Kilmansegg is not primarily a comic poem, but an attack on a society maimed and de-humanized by greed. Miss Kilmansegg is an heiress, born to enormous, and, above all, conspicuous wealth. Her Christening, for instance, is but the first act of a life of ritually displayed pride and status—translated into its universal currency:

Gold! and gold! and besides the gold,
The very robe of the infant told
A tale of wealth in every fold,
          It lapp'd her like a vapour!
So fine! so thin! the mind at a loss
Could compare it to nothing except a cross
          Of cobweb with bank-note paper.(21)
… Gold! still gold! it rain'd on the nurse,
Who, unlike Danae, was none the worse;
There was nothing but guineas glistening!
          Fifty were given to Doctor James,
          For calling the little Baby names,
                    And for saying Amen!
                    The Clerk had ten,
And that was the end of the Christening.(22)

The child grows up, pampered and surrounded by the symbols of wealth even in her games. Her doll is of solid gold, and

          The yearly cost of her golden toys
Would have given half London's Charity Boys
And Charity Girls the annual joys
          Of a holiday dinner at Highbury.(23)

When she is still a child, however, her horse (‘Banker’ ‘by Bullion out of an Ingot mare’) bolts when she is riding in the park, and, as a result of the ensuing accident she has to have her leg amputated. To emphasize the maiming effect of her wealth, Hood now produces his crowning symbol of vulgar ostentation, at once fantasy and satire: her missing leg is replaced by an artificial one of pure gold:

So a Leg was made in a comely mould,
Of Gold, fine virgin glittering gold,
          As solid as man could make it—
Solid in foot, and calf, and shank,
A prodigious sum of money it sank;
In fact 'twas a Branch of the family Bank,
          And no easy matter to break it.
All sterling metal—not half-and-half,
The Goldsmith's mark was stamp'd on the calf—
          'Twas pure as from Mexican barter!
And to make it more costly, just over the knee,
Where another ligature used to be,
Was a circle of jewels, worth shillings to see,
          A new-fangled Badge of the Garter!
'Twas a splendid, brilliant, beautiful Leg,
Fit for the Court of Scander-Beg,
That Precious Leg of Miss Kilmansegg!
          For, thanks to parental bounty,
Secure from Mortification's touch,
She stood on a member that cost as much
          As a Member for all the County!(24)

As was intended it should, her fame is spread far and wide by this golden limb—which is prominently displayed on social occasions. When she appears at a Ball as Diana, her tunic ‘is loop'd up to a gem in front / To shew the Leg that was Golden!’ As in Volpone, gold has now subverted every human desire. A woman's leg was considered so sexually suggestive that it would normally have been highly indecent to reveal it at all in public, let alone at a Ball (we are entering the age of the crinoline), yet the exhibitionism of her wealth is only applauded. An added irony is introduced by her fancy-dress appearance as Diana—the Goddess of Chastity. Naturally inflamed with desire for gain more sordid and artificial than mere sex, suitors of every walk of life pursue her ardently, but in the best tradition of Victorian morality she chooses disastrously, and marries a spendthrift foreign Count who, equally naturally, is only after her money. Eventually, when he has succeeded in gambling away her entire fortune, he tries to persuade her to part with the precious leg itself in order to sell it. When she refuses, he beats her to death with the golden leg and disappears with it.

Gold, still gold! hard, yellow, and cold,
For gold she had lived, and she died for gold—
          By a golden weapon—not oaken;
In the morning they found her all alone—
Stiff, and bloody, and cold as stone—
But her Leg, the Golden Leg was gone,
          And the ‘Golden Bowl was broken!’(25)

Over and over again the refrain of gold, and its corrupting influence is driven home by direct reference and imagery alike. The physical grotesqueness of the golden symbol that (literally) upheld her is constantly emphasized. At their engagement, for instance,

… instead of the lock that lovers beg,
The Count received from Miss Kilmansegg
A model, in small, of her Precious Leg—
          And so the couple were plighted!(26)

At her death the coroner's jury finally bring in the verdict of ‘suicide’: ‘Because her own Leg had killed her!’ It is more than just another of Hood's bad jokes.

Hood's work is best understood within a tradition of popular journalism rather than high art, but his pity and indignation are none the less real for being expressed through puns and grotesque fantasy. His influence on his contemporaries was widespread and lasting. On a visit to Germany, when driven out of England by debt and in search of somewhere cheap to live abroad, he found that his books were already widely known. In America no less a person than Poe acclaimed his ‘marked originality’ as ‘a glowing grotesquerie, uttered with a rushing abandon vastly heightening its effect.’ ‘The field in which Hood is distinctive,’ he added, ‘is a borderland between Fancy and Fantasy. In this region he reigns supreme. Nevertheless, he has made successful and frequent excursions, although vacillatingly, into the domain of the true Imagination.’27 Once again we find the ‘Fantasy’/‘Imagination’ antithesis being used by a contemporary to distinguish between two very different kinds of sensibility: as it were, the satire of Miss Kilmansegg and the ‘realism’ of The Song of the Shirt. Yet Hood's own ambivalence—if ambivalence it is—is mirrored by Poe's. Is it really for his striving towards ‘true Imagination’ that Poe admires him? or is it rather for the peculiar intensity of his fantasy? When Poe himself uses the word ‘Imagination’ in his Tales of Mystery and Imagination it is this very element of the fantastic that predominates—and reveals where his own deepest interests lay.

1843, the year after Hood's last Comic Annual, saw the publication of the first real Christmas book, Dickens's Christmas Carol. Though written in response to particular circumstances of the day and in a tone that is unmistakably Dickens's alone, it stands in a tradition of popular literature that goes back through Hood and beyond. Its plot is so well-known that it is easy for us to forget what an extraordinary story it actually is. Chesterton himself has called attention to one aspect of this—the curious phenomenon of Victorian ‘spirituality’:

… in spite of a certain ethical cheeriness that was almost de rigeur—the strange fact remains that the only sort of supernaturalism the Victorians allowed their imaginations was a sad supernaturalism … When we think … of the uncountable riches of religious art, imagery, ritual and popular legend that has clustered round Christmas through all the Christian ages, it is a truly extraordinary thing to reflect that Dickens (wishing to have in The Christmas Carol a little happy supernaturalism by way of a change) actually had to make up a mythology for himself.28

As we shall see, such a view of Christmas Carol is by no means the whole story, but in general the observation is an acute one. Thackeray was quick to notice in his Grumble about Christmas Books that Dickens was not alone in this amazing spiritual vacuum of a supposedly religious age. The world of the Christmas books of Hood, Dickens, and Thackeray belonged to a popular literature whose emotional set was light years away from the earnest piety of Evangelical, Broad, or High Churchman alike. Even if we discount the sub-literary world of the proliferating tract societies, literally hundreds of ‘religious’ novels were published during the 1840's and 1850's. Kingsley, Hughes, Maurice, Manning, and Newman all wrote one or more. Yet, as Newman had perceptively recognized, the mediaeval synthesis that had produced the mixture of genuine piety and vulgar comedy of the Feast of Fools or the Townley Shepherds' Play had been rejected by a weakened and insecure Protestantism as corruption and blasphemy.29 After the emotional wholeness and vigour even of Blake or Coleridge, there is all too often something petty, partial, or inhibited about the accepted Christianity of mid-Victorian England. It is little wonder that many of the finest and most sensitive spirits found themselves drawn, in spite of its obvious defects, towards the less truncated vulgarities of Roman Catholicism. Pugin, Newman, Manning, Faber, Hopkins, and even, finally, a broken Oscar Wilde made the journey at a social cost almost inconceivable to the more pluralistic twentieth century.

Just as Hood's Christmas recipe of sentimentality and bizarre satiric fantasy was the product not so much of a religious sensibility as a strongly felt humanitarianism, so Dickens's greatest Christmas myth was first and foremost a response to contemporary revelations about the state of the poor. Earlier in 1843 he had been deeply disturbed to read a Government Blue-book on the conditions of children's employment (the same report that had moved Elizabeth Barrett Browning to write her poem, The Cry of the Children) and he had contemplated bringing out ‘a very cheap pamphlet called An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man's Child.’30 In October of that year, however, he was invited to speak at the first annual soirée of the Manchester Athenaeum—sharing the platform with such people as Disraeli. The Athenaeum was an institute founded to bring culture and education to the working classes, and Dickens in his speech proceeded to expound his passionate belief that education was the answer to England's desperate social problems.

Sometime during that evening in Manchester the idea of the Christmas Carol was born. It was composed during long walks about the London streets (‘fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed …’) in the intervals of writing Martin Chuzzlewit. By the end of November it was finished, and, with a publishing speed not uncommon for those days, Chapman and Hall had it on sale, complete with four hand-coloured illustrations by John Leech, by December 17th. By Christmas Eve it had sold six thousand copies and was reprinting.

Since Christmas Carol has remained one of the most consistently successful pieces of fantasy ever written, it is worth looking in some detail at just how the fantastic elements serve the basic plot in a way that conventional ‘realism’ could not do. The story, in essence, hinges upon a problem that was to interest a number of the greatest novelists of the century: George Eliot and Tolstoy among them.31 Is ‘conversion’ possible? Is it really the case that a person can suddenly and dramatically change his entire outlook and way of life, as it were overnight? Elsewhere this was to be a theme demanding some of the most lengthy and subtle analyses of realistic fiction; here, the new medium, constituting what Thackeray called a ‘prose poem’, enabled Dickens to work by a hitherto impossible concentration and compression by a series of powerful and emotionally compelling images. The opening scenes of Scrooge alone in his flat above the counting-house on Christmas Eve, prepared to quarrel with the ‘humbug’ and hypocrisy of the whole world, is rapidly contrasted with flashbacks to his own youth with the Ghost of Christmas Past, the uneasy present, and especially what is happening in the lives of those most directly affected by him (such as the Crachits), and finally the sinister, dismal, and sordid future with the last Ghost. This technique of concentrating on the juxtaposition of a succession of highly emotive images enables the narrative to move at a great pace, yet at the same time convey an enormous amount of factual information. We see, for instance, the young Scrooge left alone at boarding school over Christmas with nothing but his books, Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe, the very diet of fantasy that had delighted Dickens himself as an unhappy child. On a second occasion (implying others in between) he is reprieved at the last moment by his sister, who explains ‘Father is so much kinder than he used to be. …’ Encapsulated in the two scenes, and the odd remark, is a whole vision of miserable and isolated childhood. These cheerless vistas are suddenly thrown into even starker relief by the next scene: a nostalgic Christmas to end all nostalgic Christmases at Fezziwig's Ball. Finally, we are shown, by the briefest of glimpses, Scrooge's own ill-fated love affair, and the girl's eventual happy marriage to another poorer, but more warm-hearted, man. The ‘magic’ of the ghost has, in effect, produced a history of Scrooge's own life in a series of ‘spots of time’, comparable in form though not in direction of development, with those of Wordsworth's Prelude (not to be published for another seven years) and, like those, used as a means of psychological exploration.

The strength of Christmas Carol lies quite simply in its psychological credibility. Supernatural marvels are barren tricks unless they show us aspects of character that we would not otherwise see. The loveless boy Scrooge from an unhappy home, abandoned in his formative years in neglect at the grimmest of schools, is himself unable to give or receive love as an adult. Instead he turns increasingly to the security and, above all, the power that money appears to offer. Money as power is a central theme of Victorian fiction. As Ruskin was to put it:

What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends … the art of becoming ‘rich’, in the common sense … is ‘the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favour.’32

The will to dominate rather than money per se is thus the key to Scrooge's character—and in this he does not change. In the first encounters described at the beginning of the book his delight is always to shock and horrify those with whom he has contact. Bob Crachit can be bullied. The nephew and the benevolent gentleman who seek him out are not merely repulsed, but turned away with a quite flamboyant exhibition of surly misanthropy:

Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? ‘If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas”, on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!’33

Scrooge's hatred of mankind and its preposterous benevolence never lacks the rhetorical flourish. Even when he is confronted by Marley's ghost, he does not easily relinquish the conversational initiative, and argues vigorously that the apparition is merely an halucination with some obvious physical explanation. His utilitarian ethics and sceptical materialism are all of a piece.

‘You don't believe in me,’ observed the Ghost.

‘I don't,’ said Scrooge.

‘What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?’

‘I don't know,’ said Scrooge.

‘Why do you doubt your senses?’

‘Because,’ said Scrooge, ‘a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’34

This initial power-struggle is repeated with the Ghost of Christmas Past—who, indeed, is eventually ‘extinguished’ by the agonized Scrooge. That he does not similarly resist the second and third Spirits is more due to his growing interest and involvement in what is happening than because he is actually cowed by them.

Moreover, Scrooge's attempt to ‘psychologise’ Marley's Ghost is significant in more ways than one. Marley, we notice, never actually disproves Scrooge's claim, and the whole series of visitations and visions can, as he stoutly argues, be interpreted as an ‘inner’ psychological experience. This view, indeed, is actually reinforced by the discovery that what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him is not the ‘real’ future at all, but merely projections based upon his present way of life. Tiny Tim, after all, whose death is the excuse for the tear-jerking scene in the Crachit family, ‘did NOT die’, and the whole vision is, as it were, a double fantasy: one fantasy within another. The Spirits, in fact, cannot be said anywhere to show Scrooge anything that he does not in one sense already ‘know’. Nevertheless, even if the argument that Marley's Ghost is merely a ‘crumb of cheese or a fragment of underdone potato’ cannot be disproved, its obstinate reductionism is instantly refuted existentially: Scrooge is reduced to a terrified submission for the moment by the Ghost, who utters a ‘frightful cry’ and shakes his chain with ‘a dismal and appalling noise’. What actually changes Scrooge, however, is not fear, but a stark confrontation with the basic needs of human life. Again, Marley's Ghost strikes the keynote that is to be echoed throughout the story:

‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’35

Scrooge is taken back, almost without comment by the Ghost itself, to re-live certain key moments in his former life; he is then shown his present life—and finally where it will inevitably lead. As we have observed, he is, in one sense, told nothing new at all; he is merely shown his life as a whole—as a cumulative development, in the context of Christmas. His attempt to cling to a mechanistic and deterministic psychology is thus attacked at a quite different level from that at which it sought to provide ‘explanations’—that of ‘charity, mercy, forebearance, and benevolence’, and finally personal guilt.

This conviction that personal values are more important than any systems of mechanistic psychology puts Scrooge's ‘conversion’ into a familiar category of nineteenth-century experiences. Dickens is showing us an experience essentially similar to events in the lives of Wordsworth, John Stuart Mill, or Carlyly, which they came to look back on as turning-points in their lives. In his Autobiography, for instance, Mill tells us of how he lost all sense of value in what he was doing—as he believed, for the good of mankind—and it was only through reading the poetry of Wordsworth that he was able to discover

… a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical and social condition of mankind.36

Mill's ‘conversion’, like that of Scrooge, is not at first sight a religious one: he remains this-worldly and humanistic. Moreover, however they may have appeared to observers, such experiences are not felt by those who underwent them to be alterations of the personality so much as discovery of their true personality. Similarly, Scrooge's character is not transformed. He retains all his old desire to shock, startle, and dominate: the purchase of the turkey on Christmas morning (‘the one as big as the man’), the surprise visit to his nephew, and the raising of Bob Crachit's wages all have the authentic drama of the old Scrooge. What has been transformed is his feeling of identity with mankind: his realization that what he has lost and needs most is love.

The true paradox of Dickens' construction, of course, is that this psychological credibility is only made possible by the technique of fantasy. The ‘prose poem’ relates and compresses the action, not merely to the point of being unrealistic, but into literal impossibility:

‘What's today?’ cried Scrooge, calling downwards to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered to look about him.

‘EH?’ returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

‘What's today, my fine fellow?’ said Scrooge.

‘Today!’ replied the boy. ‘Why, CHRISTMAS DAY.’

‘It's Christmas Day!’ said Scrooge to himself. ‘I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can …’37

All three visitations, it turns out, did miraculously occur on a single night, thus, as it were, foreshortening the perspective and exaggerating the speed of development, without destroying the psychological ‘realism’ of Scrooge's change of heart. This is the more remarkable since, as we have pointed out, his ‘conversion’ is apparently not a religious one, but humanitarian. If we compare Scrooge's experience with that, say, of Martin the Cobbler in Tolstoy's short story, Where Love is, God is, we can see how strikingly secular is his conversion to universal benevolence. Yet there is more to Dickens' carefully controlled secularity than meets the eye. Tiny Tim, the little child, is set in the midst of his family at Christmas, and he it is who hopes that the people in Church will remember ‘upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.’ If we half-expect a Christ Child in Christmas Carol, we find only the ‘meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish’ children clinging pitifully and yet menacingly to the skirts of Christmas Present: Ignorance and Want. The message is clear: divine compassion and charity in the England of the 1840s, means also education in the name of enlightened self-interest.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man's,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!’

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’

The bell struck twelve.38

What we do not pity now, we shall have cause to fear later.

Fantasy thus performs a dual role in the story. It offers, in an amazing technical tour de force, a non-Christian Christmas ‘magic’ that persuades the miser to re-discover his own roots and so effect a conversion, while, at the same time, linking this personal self-discovery directly with universal social problems without any kind of divine intermediary that might soften the stark choice. Thackeray's description of the Carol as a ‘prose poem’ is peculiarly apt: without breaking natural or psychological realities, it concentrates and compresses them, while securing for the means a willing suspension of disbelief.

How perilous this achievement is can be seen by comparison with another of Dickens' Christmas books that in its own day enjoyed nearly as high a reputation as the Carol,The Chimes. Though it has a social concern that is as strong, if not stronger, the mainspring of the story is somehow lacking. The supernatural or fantastic element, the spirits of the chimes themselves, remain outside the action which, indeed, is much less dynamic altogether. Trotty Veck's vision of the future, terrible and bleak as it is, and drawing on the same horrors of the sweatshop that moved Hood and Kingsley, is simply a vision; it does not change people or situations because it is less personal. Veck lacks the drive and robustness of Scrooge. He is never in control, and remains essentially a spectator at the end as he was at the beginning. The fantasy is enclosed in a little story within a story. This greater passivity of character, and therefore of plot, is reflected in a diminished intensity and vitality of language. Entertaining as it often is as a piece of prose, the opening of The Chimes seems merely idiosyncratic and ‘Dickensian’ in the most whimsical sense beside the humorous dramatic suspense of the famous opening on Marley's death in A Christmas Carol.

They were old chimes, trust me. Centuries ago, these Bells had been baptized by bishops; so many centuries ago that the register of their baptism was lost long, long before the memory of man: and no one knew their names. They had had their Godfathers and Godmothers, these Bells (for my own part, by the way, I would rather incur the responsibility of being Godfather to a Bell than a Boy): and had had their silver mugs no doubt, besides. But time had mowed down their sponsors, and Harry the Eighth had melted down their mugs: and now they hung, nameless and mugless, in the church tower.

Not speechless, though. Far from it. They had clear, loud, lusty, sounding voices, had these Bells; and far and wide they might be heard upon the wind. Much too sturdy Chimes were they, to be dependent on the pleasure of the wind, moreover; for, fighting gallantly against it when it took an adverse whim, they would pour their cheerful notes into a listening ear right royally …39

The Chimes was published the year after Christmas Carol, for Christmas 1844, and, as Dickens had hoped, it was an even greater success. Five dramatizations appeared on the London stage within weeks. Twenty thousand copies were sold inside three months. The political message, even more explicit than that of the Carol, aroused fierce controversy among critics—as Dickens had intended it should. Yet less critical attention was paid to the way in which this greater social ‘realism’ had, paradoxically, weakened the overall ‘reality’ of the plot. Deprived of the single organizing vision that had commanded willing suspension of disbelief in the first book, much of the writing in The Chimes remains episodic and merely clever. The fantasy removed, we are left with fancy.

The wind came tearing round the corner—especially the east wind—as if it had sallied forth, express, from the confines of the earth, to have a blow at Toby. And oftentimes it seemed to come upon him sooner than it had expected, for bouncing round the corner, and passing Toby, it would suddenly wheel round again, as if it cried ‘Why, here he is!’ Incontinently his little white apron would be caught up over his head like a naughty boy's garments, and his feeble little cane would be seen to wrestle and struggle unavailingly in his hand, and his legs would undergo tremendous agitation, and Toby himself all aslant, and facing now in this direction, now in that, would be so banged and buffeted, and touzled, and worried, and hustled, and lifted off his feet, as to render it a state of things but one degree removed from a positive miracle, that he wasn't carried up bodily into the air as a colony of frogs or snails or other portable creatures sometimes are, and rained down again, to the great astonishment of the natives, on some strange corner of the world where ticket-porters are unknown.40

This is a very ‘Dickensian’ piece, but it could come from almost any book. It was, as Thackeray acutely pointed out, the worst features of Dickens' whimsical style, devoid of their function within the overall scheme, that most attracted the legion of inferior imitators.

‘To see the faults of a great master, look at his imitators,’ Reynolds says in his Discourses; and the sins of Mr. Dickens' followers must frighten that gentleman not a little. Almost every one of the Christmas carollers are exaggerating the master's own exaggerations, and caricaturing the face of nature most shamefully. Every object in the world is brought to life, and invested with a vulgar knowingness and outrageous jocularity. Winds used to whistle in former days, and oaks to toss their arms in the storm. Winds are now made to laugh, to howl, to scream, to triumph, to sing choruses; trees to squint, to shiver, to leer, to grin, to smoke pipes, dance hornpipes and smoke those of tobacco.41

It is hardly surprising that when, in 1853, Thackeray himself was at last tempted into producing a Christmas fantasy, he should have sternly eschewed all possibility of comparison with Dickens, and attempted to put into practice his own prescription of 1847.

That's your proper sort of pantomime business—that's the right way in Christmas books. Haven't you seen the Clown in the play; his head cut off by the butcher and left on the block before all beholders; his limbs severally mangled and made into polonies, and yet in two minutes he says, ‘How are you?’ (the droll dog!) as lively as ever? Haven't we seen Pantaloon killed before our very eyes, put pitilessly into his mother's mangle, brought out from that instrument utterly dead, and stretched eighteen feet in length?—and are we hurt, are our feelings outraged? No, we know Harlequin will have him alive in two minutes by a quiver of his stick … And as in pantomimes, so I say in Christmas stories, those fireside Christmas pantomimes, which are no more natural than Mother Goose or Harlequin Gulliver.42

The Rose and the Ring is indeed described by Thackeray in the Prelude as being ‘a fire-side pantomime’ in exactly this sense. It was, he says, written to accompany a series of drawings he had made for his family while staying in Italy. The image of the ‘Pantomime’ echoes the 1823 Preface to Grimm's fairy tales. We shed no tears for the Count of Hogginarmo when he is gobbled up by the ravening lions ‘bones, boots, and all.’ But as in all good pantomimes there is a moral to the story as well. In his 1847 article on Christmas books Thackeray had been very decided on the subject of Morals to fairy-stories.

If a man wants to make a mere fantastic tale, nobody calls upon him to be tight and close in his logic. If he wants to moralize, his proposition should be neat and clear, as his argument is correct. I am reconciled now to the Wolf eating up Red Riding Hood (though I was sceptical in my childhood on this point), because I have given up believing that this is a moral tale altogether, and am content to receive it as a wild, odd, surprising and not unkindly fairy story.43

But in the hands of Thackeray—the cynical old ‘puppet-master’ of Vanity Fair—the element of self-parody is never very far from the surface. He cannot lose himself in his story as Dickens frequently does. The description of Dickens reading The Chimes aloud with tears streaming down his face exhibits a totally different kind of sensibility. Reflecting a growing sophistication of popular taste in the 1850s, The Rose and the Ring not merely advances propositions that are neat and clear, but contrives to satirize both its own moral confidence, and the conventions of the fairy-story itself.

But by 1855 the conventions of the fairy story were themselves changing. The most important single influence was probably the volume of Hans Anderson's Wonderful Stories for Children which Thackeray had praised so enthusiastically in his 1847 review. It was only one of five translations of Anderson's stories to appear that year—indicating both his enormous popularity and the growing market for fairy stories as a genre. Up to this time such stories had been retold, rather than made up—even Southey's Three Bears is now known to be a re-working of an earlier tale.44 Now, at the same time as Anderson's original stories were finding a public, two English writers also tried their hands at totally original creations. So far as is known, John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River is the first original English fairy story. Though it had actually been composed by the youthful Ruskin for the twelve-year-old Effie Gray in 1841, it was not published until ten years later for a public he hoped had been made more receptive by Anderson. The basic plot, with two evil brothers, Schwartz and Hans, and their kindly younger one, Gluck, is conventional enough, nevertheless, the story is unmistakably nineteenth century in tone, with a clear moral, and a certain restrained wit in the telling. Quite the most memorable and original character, however, is the South West Wind, who is possibly the first magical personage in fiction to show that combination of kindliness and eccentric irascibility that was to appear so strongly in a whole tradition of subsequent literature, including Thackeray's Fairy Blackstick, Nesbit's Psammead, and even Tolkein's Gandalf.

He had a very large nose, slightly brass-coloured; his cheeks were very round, and very red, and might have warranted a supposition that he had been blowing a refractory fire for the last eight-and-forty hours; his eyes twinkled merrily through long silky eyelashes, his moustaches curled twice round a like a corkscrew on each side of his mouth, and his hair, of a curious mixed pepper-and-salt colour, descended far over his shoulders. He was about four-feet-six in height, and wore a conical pointed cap of nearly the same altitude, decorated with a black feather some three feet long. His doublet was prolonged behind into something resembling a violent exaggeration of what is now termed a ‘swallow tail’ but was much obscured by the swelling folds of an enormous black, glossy-looking cloak, which must have been very much too long in calm weather, as the wind, whistling round the old house, carried it clear out from the wearer's shoulders to about four times his own length.45

In payment for his inhospitable reception by the two elder brothers on a wet and gusty night, he promises to return at twelve—which he does, with complete punctuality.

The two brothers sat up on their bolster, and stared into the darkness. The room was full of water, and by a misty moon-beam, which found its way through a hole in the shutter, they could see in the midst of it an enormous foam globe, spinning round, and bobbing up and down like a cork, on which, as on a most luxurious cushion, reclined the little old gentleman, cap and all. There was plenty of room for it now, for the roof was off!

‘Sorry to incommode you,’ said their visitor, ironically. ‘I'm afraid your beds are dampish; perhaps you had better go to your brother's room. I've left the ceiling on, there.’46

In 1846, however, another book had appeared that is a much more clear ancestor of The Rose and the Ring. Francis Edward Paget's The Hope of the Katzekopfs, is of the same brand as The King of the Golden River in its clearly defined moral with allegorical undertones. To those who know The Rose and the Ring, other elements of the plot are immediately familiar. When a long hoped-for son is born to the Fairy King and Queen, they do not invite the bad-tempered fairy Abracadabra to the christening. Naturally, she comes nonetheless, and gives the baby prince the name of Eigenwillig (‘self-will’). In due course he lives up to his name. Eventually Abracadabra retrieves the situation by literally drawing him out—into a long thin elastic string. Pulling him through a keyhole she rolls him into a bouncy rubber ball which is sent all over the kingdom as she wishes. Both the court christening and something of the zany humour of this story are picked up by Thackeray for his ‘fire-side pantomime’, which, as he frequently stresses runs exactly according to the rules of all such stories: no matter if the actual conventions that he implies are immemorial (at least as old as Paflagonia ‘ten or twenty thousand years ago’) are many of them less than ten years old.

What is, perhaps, most original about the plot of The Rose and the Ring is that the greatest moral development takes place not in any of the human characters, but in the formidable Fairy Blackstick herself—the originator of all the magic in the story. Before the tale opens at all she has tried, and become tired of, the normal devices of supernatural justice.

She had scores of royal godchildren; turned numberless wicked people into beasts, birds, millstones, clocks, pumps, bootjacks, umbrellas, or other absurd shapes; and in a word was one of the most active and officious of the whole College of fairies.

But after two or three thousand years of this sport, I suppose Blackstick grew tired of it. Or perhaps she thought, ‘What good am I doing by sending this Princess to sleep for a hundred years? by fixing a black pudding on to that booby's nose? by causing diamonds and pearls to drop from one little girl's mouth, and vipers and toads from another's? I begin to think I do as much harm as good by my performances. I might as well shut my incantations up and allow things to take their natural course.

‘There were my two young goddaughters, King Savio's wife, and Duke Padella's wife: I gave them each a present, which was to render them charming in the eyes of their husbands, and secure the affection of those gentlemen as long as they lived. What good did my Rose and Ring do those two women? None on earth. From having all their whims indulged by their husbands, they became capricious, lazy, ill-humoured, absurdly vain, and leered and languished, and fancied themselves irresistibly beautiful, when they were really old and hideous …’47

When she is invited, in the normal course of events, to the christenings of the baby Prince Giglio, son of King Savio of Paflagonia and the Princess Rosalba, daughter of King Calvafiore of Crim Tartary, she merely wishes each of them ‘a little misfortune’ and sails out of the window. As is only proper with fairy wishes, they come true. On the death of Savio, the throne of Paflagonia is usurped by his brother, Valoroso, and Calvafiore is shortly afterwards murdered and replaced by the rebellious Duke Padella. The two new monarchs have learnt the lesson with regard to capricious fairies and Blackstick is not invited to the christenings of Angelica and Bulbo, their respective offspring. Unblessed with misfortune in any shape, they grow up, petted and spoiled, in the lap of luxury, while Giglio and Rosalba, reduced to menial roles, learn humility through suffering. The Dickensian theme of the need for education is repeated with comic exaggeration. Rosalba, now the Princess Angelica's maid and companion, scrapes her education by attending Angelica's lessons with her, while Giglio, who has spent an idle and dissolute youth, has to make up for lost time by strenuous application, living in fear of discovery under the assumed name of ‘Giles’.

So he sat down and worked away, very, very hard for a whole year, during which ‘Mr. Giles’ was quite an example to all the students in the University of Bosforo. He never got into any riots or disturbances. The professors all spoke well of him, and the students liked him too; so that, when at examinations he took all the prizes, viz:—

The Spelling Prize The French Prize
The Writing Prize The Arithmetic Prize
The History Prize The Latin Prize
The Chatechism Prize The Good Conduct Prize

all his fellow-students said, ‘Hurray! Hurray for Giles! Giles is the boy—the student's joy! Hurray for Giles!’ And he brought quite a quantity of medals, crowns, books, and tokens of distinction home to his lodgings.48

The pay-off for this prodigious feat of learning comes only a few pages further on, when Giglio, throwing off his disguise, confronts the vanguard of the vast Paflagonian Army under its veteran commander, Captain Hedzoff who calls on the Prince to surrender his sword: ‘we are thirty thousand men to one!’

‘Give up my sword! Giglio give up his sword!’ cried the Prince; and stepping well forward on the balcony, the royal youth without preparation, delivered a speech so magnificent, that no report can do justice to it. It was all in blank verse (in which, from this time, he invariably spoke, as more becoming his majestic station). It lasted for three days and three nights, during which not a single person who heard him was tired, or remarked the difference between daylight and dark. The soldiers only cheering tremendously, when occasionally, once in nine hours, the Prince paused to suck an orange, which Jones took out of the bag … and at the end of this extraordinary, this truly gigantic effort, Captain Hedzoff flung up his helmet, and cried, ‘Hurray! Hurray! Long live King Giglio!’

Such were the consequences of having employed his time well at College!49

In the manner of all good fairy-stories, however, virtue is not left to be its own reward, and in the battle that follows Giglio is equipped by the Fairy Blackstick with nothing but the best. His suit of armour is not merely dazzling to the eyes, it has the added advantages of being water-proof, gun-proof, and sword-proof. ‘Besides the fairy armour, the Prince had a fairy horse, which would gallop at any pace you please; and a fairy sword, which would lengthen and run through a whole regiment of enemies at once.’50 Not unnaturally, his opponent, King Padella, feels the injustice of the odds against him, and sensibly gives up at once. ‘If,’ says he to Giglio ‘you ride a fairy horse, and wear fairy armour, what on earth is the use of my hitting you?’ The point is well taken by the magnanimous Giglio, a satisfactory peace is forthwith concluded, Giglio marries Rosalba, and the virtuous live happily ever after.

The Rose and the Ring is in many ways no more than Thackeray claimed it to be: a Christmas entertainment for the family. It has, for instance, none of the urgency or power of Christmas Carol. Yet, technically, it marks an important change in Victorian sensibility. The elements of self-parody, the use of fantasy both to present a ‘serious’ moral, and, simultaneously to satirize the magical means by which the virtuous (and hard-working!) are rewarded, and the wicked and idle punished, show a real change of tone from the earlier popular literature of both Hood and Dickens. As if to make the separation of categories doubly plain, Hood's poems were posthumously collected and bound in two twin volumes, marked ‘comic’ and ‘serious’ respectively. Dickens mingled his serious message with passages of comedy, but the basic earnestness of that message is similarly never tampered with. By contrast, Thackeray's technique looks forward to the much more complex and ambiguous comedy of Kingsley in The Water Babies, which parodies the very moral it wished to affirm, and is always ready to satirize an uncritical acceptance of its own message. From the 1850s onwards fantasy is more self-conscious, more free, flexible, and reflexive, inviting the reader to accept, but to think about the nature of his acceptance. Thackeray points the way towards the role fantasy was to play in bridging the divided halves of the Victorian psyche. The next developments in fantasy were to come from a very different stratum of the literary world, but the works of Kingsley, Carroll, Lear, and MacDonald owe much to the vigorous and popular journalistic tradition which preceded them.


  1. First published Home University Library, 1912; republished Williams and Norgate, 1925.

  2. Jerome Buckley, The Victorian Temper, Vintage Books, 1951, p. 12.

  3. See, for instance, Ian Bradley, The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians, Cape, 1976, Chapter VII.

  4. Corgi Books, 1969.

  5. The song from Chapter XV. See Robert Lee Wolff, The Golden Key, Yale U.P., New Haven, Conn., 1961.

  6. Kingsley, Life and Letters, ed. F. E. Kingsley, 7th edn. 1877, Vol. I, p. 475.

  7. Ibid., p. 370.

  8. See Ch. 4 for a detailed comparison. Briefly, the difference lies in the way in which they handled forbidden or suppressed material. For Carroll there seems almost always the conscious elaboration of a game. It is only a shift in key from the complexities of the Alice books to the two poems to the same baby: the first, the official variation for the parents, began:

    What hand may wreathe thy natal crown,
              Oh tiny tender spirit blossom,
    That out of Heaven has fluttered down
              Into this Earth's cold bosom?

    The second, private poem starts:

    Oh pudgy podgy pup
    Why did they wake you up?
    Those crude nocturnal yells
    Are not like little bells.
  9. See Patricia Allderidge, The Late Richard Dadd 1817–1886, Tate Gallery, 1974, p. 23.

  10. Op cit., pp. 245–6.

  11. Richard H. Reis, George MacDonald, Twayne Books, New York, 1972, pp. 41–2.

  12. See Ch. 5, below, p. 150; and Ch. 6, p. 214.

  13. Stray Papers by W. M. Thackeray 1821–47, ed. Lewis Melville, Hutchinson, 1901, p. 422.

  14. Thomas Bewick, Water Birds, Newcastle, 1816, pp. 192–3.

  15. Op. cit., p. 396.

  16. Blanchard Jerrold, The Life of George Cruikshank, Ward Lock Reprints, 1970, pp. 9–12.

  17. See William Fever, When We Were Young, Thames and Hudson, 1977, p. 14.

  18. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, second edn. Peregrine, Penguin Books, 1961, pp. 239–40.

  19. John Clubbe, Victorian Forerunner: The Later Career of Thomas Hood, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 1968, p. 16.

  20. The Comic Annual for 1842, pp. 14–15.

  21. Ibid. p. 17.

  22. Ibid. p. 19.

  23. Ibid. p. 21.

  24. Ibid. p. 38. Scander-Beg (or Skanderbeg) was the national hero of Albania, who in the fifteenth century led the fight against the Turks.

  25. Ibid. p. 106.

  26. Ibid. p. 69.

  27. Cited by J. C. Reid, Thomas Hood, Routledge, 1963, p. 247.

  28. The Victorian Age in Literature, p. 131.

  29. Lectures on Anglican Difficulties, 1850, Ch. IX.

  30. Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books, ed. with Introductions by Michael Slater, Penguin, 1971, Vol. I, p. 33.

  31. It is also, significantly, the theme of Kingsley's Hypatia (1853) and Newman's Calista (1856).

  32. John Ruskin, Unto this Last, George Allen, 1901, pp. 44–6.

  33. Christmas Carol, p. 48.

  34. Ibid. p. 49.

  35. Ibid. p. 62.

  36. J. S. Mill, Autobiography, World's Classics, Oxford University Press, 1924, p. 125.

  37. Christmas Carol, p. 128.

  38. Ibid. p. 108.

  39. Ibid. p. 151. Part of the greater slackness of construction in The Chimes can be seen in the fact that Doyle and Stanfield, the illustrators, presumably on Dickens' instructions, modeled their belfry on that of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street, which had only been completed in 1830. (Ibid., p. 261.)

  40. Ibid. p. 152.

  41. Op cit. p. 412.

  42. Ibid. p. 404.

  43. Ibid. p. 410.

  44. Roger Lancelyn Green, Tellers of Tales, revised edn., Edmund Ward, 1965, p. 24.

  45. The Works of John Ruskin, ed. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903, Vol. I, p. 316.

  46. Ibid. 323.

  47. ‘The Rose and the Ring’, The Works of W. M. Thackeray, Vol. XXI, 1891, pp. 297–8.

  48. Ibid. p. 373.

  49. Ibid. p. 377.

  50. Ibid. p. 396.

Martin H. Sable (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Day of Atonement in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol,” in Tradition, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 66–76.

[In the following essay, Sable debates Dickens's familiarity with Judaism and finds parallels in Scrooge's conversion to the three main aspects of the Jewish Day of Atonement: repentance, prayer, and charity.]

A Christmas Carol is a permanent fixture in Western literature and popular culture, if only because it is retold at Christmas-time annually. As a morality tale it is a favorite of all age groups, not only because of its sincerity but due also to its emotional appeal.

Dickens completed the work in approximately two months during the autumn of 1843, and in December of that year it was published by Chapman and Hall of London.1 The plot is a simple one: Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old bachelor, has outlived his business partner, Jacob Marley, in a firm which employs one underpaid, overworked clerk, Bob Cratchit. It is almost Christmas eve and we perceive Scrooge's detestable qualities as he deals with Cratchit and the other moral, humanitarian personalities who call upon him in his office: his nephew, and two gentlemen who request donations for the poor.

That night, in his rooms, Scrooge is visited by Marley's ghost, doomed to wander the world as punishment for being the kind of man Scrooge is: hard-hearted and oblivious to the needs of humanity. He warns Scrooge that three ghosts (of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come), will visit him, and that Scrooge will have an opportunity to save himself from Marley's fate. The ghosts take Scrooge into his past, pointing out the happiness of family and friends he had missed as a result of his anti-social way of life; the current joy experienced by the Cratchit family and by Scrooge's nephew; and Scrooge's future, niggardly death, unless he turns over a new leaf. Scrooge awakens the next (Christmas) morning, overjoyed at being alive; learning from his painful and harrowing experiences, he has a complete psycho-social metamorphosis. The author ends by confirming to his readers that Scrooge's change of heart and personality are permanent.2

This novelette of nineteenth-century London has been categorized as a sentimental romance, and as a “hymn to the spirit of Christmas.”3 Let us consult one critique:

It appeals to a basic instinct in all of us: the need to overcome self-hate and live in benign self-esteem. We are no good to ourselves or anyone else unless we can find within our own souls the seeds of that goodness we hope to find in the world. Miser and misanthrope, Ebenezer Scrooge has given up on others; he expects nothing and gives nothing. It is ironically fitting that Dickens makes him the master of a counting-house: his ‘ledger’ is perfectly balanced: nothing has gone out and nothing comes in.

Marley's Ghost provides the terrifying example: this is all Scrooge has to look forward to if he continues to live without involving himself in mankind. The ghosts that follow reveal to the reader the psychological reasons for Scrooge's warped character, but they are also messengers from Scrooge's unconscious mind forcing him to confront repressed disappointments and failures of kindness; he is rewarded for standing up to the pain of confrontation with the balm of self-pity. As the various ghosts of Christmas Past; Present, and Future enable Scrooge to confront the truth about his own life, a subtle transference takes place: Scrooge shifts from self-pity to compassion and concern for others. He is reborn in love.

He rises in the morning, a man possessed with the possibilities of kindness and charity. … The ecstasy of his rebirth is infectious. The Cratchits, Scrooge's nephew, and the charity collectors are not only the beneficiaries of Scrooge's largesse; they are also the heirs of his spiritual awakening. When Tiny Tim cries ‘God Bless us, Every One!’ he is emblematic, of the cripple who finds God in his own affliction, as did Scrooge in his loneliness, only to walk in the higher regions opened by the bliss of human love.4

A Christmas Carol, the first in a series of Dickens' “Christmas Books,” embodied what Dickens himself termed his “Carol philosophy,” upon which he did not elaborate very much.5 For that reason it is provident to turn to recent interpretations. “Dickens' personal religious views and principles are derived exclusively from the New Testament,” comprises the first sentence of a summary of George S. Larson's doctoral dissertation, entitled Religion in the Novels of Charles Dickens.6 He continues: “In his fiction a truly religious person may be identified through his generosity, his judgment, his piety, and his selfless life. The efficacy of these Christian qualities is demonstrated by the fact that through them one may transform individual character. …”7 The summary ends as follows: “Dickens, however, is more sure of his personal faith than his fellow writers are of theirs, and he makes more thematic use of Christianity in his novels than they do.8 (italics mine).

It would be almost impossible that Dickens would have had knowledge of the details of the Jewish Day of Atonement prayers, for Larson and others specify through their research that Dickens was a dedicated Christian believer. Nevertheless, annually on the Day of Atonement, in praying to be written into the Book of Life for the coming year, Jews confirm in Hebrew: “U-teshuvah, u-tefillah, u-tsedakah ma'avirin et ro'a ha-gezerah.9 The English translation of this prayer is: “And Repentance, and Prayer, and Charity avert the Evil Decree” (i.e., Death).

Prior to dealing with the elements of Repentance, Prayer and Charity, as well as the ability to experience a Change of Heart, as represented in A Christmas Carol, and their existence in Jewish prayer and tradition, it is appropriate to emphasize Dickens' remoteness from Jewish influences. In a letter to Dickens subsequent to the publication of Oliver Twist, a Jewess of some influence, Mrs. Eliza Davis, stated that Jews regarded the portrayal of Fagin as “a great wrong to their people.” Although in his reply to Mrs. Davis, Dickens stated that he knew of no reason why he should be considered hostile to Jews, he added that Fagin was described as a Jew because during the time period in which the story was set, it was unfortunately true that the class of criminal represented by Fagin was almost invariably Jewish.10 Nevertheless, in a subsequent novel, Our Mutual Friend, one of the characters, Mr. Riah, was an upright, Jewish gentleman, victimized by a Christian money-lender. In the same work one of the heroines, Lizie Hexam, remarks, in speaking of her Jewish employers: “The Gentleman certainly is a Jew. But I think there cannot be kinder people in the world.”11 In a subsequent exchange of correspondence, and after Mrs. Davis' gift to him of a Hebrew-English Bible, Dickens wrote that he had a true regard for Jews, whom he would not have willingly offended “or done an injustice for any worldly consideration.”12

Although we eschew the possibility of Dickens' familiarity with Judaism through Old Testament sources and prayerbooks, another author has pondered as to whether Dickens may have read about ghosts in Classical literature. A two-page article appearing in a 1938 issue of The Classical Journal deals with the possibility that Dickens may have read, in English translation, stories of visits by two ghosts to haunted houses, written by Pliny the Younger. There are striking similarities between Marley's ghost and those of Pliny, and the author of the 1938 article wondered about the similarities.13

A current expert provides the final corroboration for what he claims to be Dickens' New Testament religious-philosophical influences (as opposed to those of the Old Testament). In critically analyzing the social situations of characters in Little Dorrit, Ronald S. Librach states:

A comparable bondage, therefore, is shared by Dorrit, whose ‘peace’ tacitly admits the social cruelty which the Marshalsea represents, and Mrs. Clennam, whose ‘compensation’ for confinement allows expressly for the religious cruelty which, for Dickens, the Old Testament promulgates. If a man is to find ‘release’ in society, therefore, he must himself embrace a ‘covenant’ like that offered in the New Testament, for the God of the New Testament is for Dickens the God who forgives, who asks in return the willing and loving obedience of man, and who transforms death from a condemnation into a paradoxical condition for eternal life.”14

(emphasis added)

Exception must here be taken to Librach's statements. Let us treat individually, the three elements of Repentance, Prayer, and Charity, and end with a discussion of the “Change of Heart,” a topic encountered in both the Old Testament and in A Christmas Carol. In dealing with each element and the “Change of Heart” theme, it is advantageous to point out the circumstances pertaining to each, first in A Christmas Carol, and correspondingly in Jewish sources.


There are numerous instances of Scrooge's repentance in A Christmas Carol. Just after the Ghost of Christmas Past revealed to Scrooge his solitary boyhood at school, Scrooge stated his wish to have given something the previous night to a boy singing carols under his window.15 When meeting the Ghost of Christmas Present, he states: “Spirit, conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working me now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”16 Finally, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come identifies Scrooge's gravestone to him, Scrooge cries: “Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope? Good Spirit, your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”17

Compare Scrooge's italicized assertions with the following prayer from the Additional Service of Yom Kippur: “For according to Thy name so is Thy praise. Thou art slow to anger and ready to forgive. Thou desirest not the death of the sinner but that he return from his evil way and live. Even until his dying day Thou waitest for him, perchance he will repent and Thou wilt straightway receive him.”18 Certainly, the flavor and the essence of this Yom Kippur prayer are embodied in the words which Dickens placed in Scrooge's mouth, as are the words from the Book of Micah (Chapter VII, verses 18–20), which are also read on the Day of Atonement:

Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth the iniquity,
And passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?
He retaineth not His anger for ever,
Because He delighteth in mercy.
He will again have compassion upon us;
He will subdue our iniquities;
And Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.
Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob, mercy to Abraham,
As Thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.

On the afternoon of the Day of Atonement, incidentally, the story of Jonah is retold, in order to teach the lesson that God accepts repentance. But another reason exists for so doing: Jonah was to deliver a message to the Ninevites; he was reluctant to do so because if he warned them of their sins, they might repent and be forgiven, thus he might become the agent of their salvation. The lesson here is that Gentiles, who are also God's creatures and the recipients of His pity, must not be begrudged God's love, care and forgiveness; as God's creatures, they also merit His pardon if they are sincere in repentance. The thrust of the Book of Jonah, therefore, is not the well-known adventure in the whale's belly but rather the rebuke delivered to Jonah due to his begrudging of potential salvation of the Ninevites and their repentance.19

In a discussion of free will, Rabbi J. H. Hertz states that mankind may or may not choose to cooperate with God: “And if a man stumble and fall on the pathway of life, Judaism bids him rise again and seek the face of his Heavenly Father in humility, contrition and repentance. ‘If a man sin, what is his punishment?’ ask the Rabbis … The answer of the Almighty is, ‘Let a man repent, and his sin will be forgiven him’—the wages of sin is repentance.”20

The foregoing concerns only sins committed by man against The Almighty. For sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone “unless and until he (i.e., the sinning individual) has conciliated his fellow-man and redressed the wrong he has done him.”21 This particular Day of Atonement requirement ties in precisely with Scrooge's greatly modified treatment of Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Scrooge's nephew, the donation-collectors, and (according to Dickens' statement at the end of the tale) all humans with whom Scrooge came into contact subsequent to his harrowing experiences with the ghosts. How does Dickens have Scrooge conciliate them? Scrooge ceased neglecting his nephew, specifically by taking Christmas dinner with him and his family, and acting the life of the party. On the day after Christmas, Scrooge redressed grievances committed against Bob Cratchit, by saying: “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I'll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” And Dickens added: “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew. …”22


Dickens has Scrooge go to church,23 where (it must be assumed), he prayed devoutly on Christmas morning. An additional instance, with an indirect reference to prayer, is Dickens' statement about Scrooge:

and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed that knowledge.24

The most emphatic use made by Dickens of prayer occurs in Stave Five, paragraph Two, immediately after Scrooge realizes that he is alive. “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Old Jacob Marley! Heaven and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!” Fervent prayer, indeed, articulated in solemn thanksgiving.

In the morning service of the Day of Atonement, the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah is read. In that chapter the ancient Israelites complain that despite their prayers and fasting on the Day of Atonement, the Almighty has not responded. Isaiah underlines the worthlessness of following ritual without practicing righteousness, impressing upon them that both appropriate conduct and approach to God must underlie prayer and fasting. In other words, “doing justice and loving mercy must go hand in hand with walking humbly with thy God.”25

Can God's answers to our prayers be as simple, direct and immediate as portrayed in A Christmas Carol? According to Jewish tradition, divine responses are based fundamentally on ethical and spiritual values. Man really provides the answer to his own prayer, and the solution to his problem/situation/need is provided by “a significant change of spirit and outlook. … In sum, the Bible conceives prayer as a spiritual bridge between man and God. It is a great instrument of human regeneration and salvation, worthy even of martyrdom. Rooted in faith and moral integrity, it banishes fear and asks, in its noblest formulations, only the blessing of divine favor. … Both the Christian and Muslim liturgies have been profoundly influenced by the spirit, thought, and forms of biblical prayer.”26 It is obvious, then, that Scrooge, by means of the aforementioned Change of Heart and Outlook, secured his own means of salvation. We shall treat the Change of Heart topic shortly.


After he awakens from his apparent dream (having realized he is alive), Scrooge opens his window. He calls to a boy outside, subsequently rewarding him handsomely for buying a prize turkey and helping deliver it to the Cratchit home. While taking pleasure in his charity, Scrooge says: “I'll send it to Bob Cratchit's! He sha'n't know who sent it.”27 Later, on his way to his nephew's home, Scrooge meets one of the donation-collectors whom he had peremptorily dismissed the previous day. After requesting pardon for his behavior, Scrooge whispers a sum in the man's ear. When the collector is amazed by Scrooge's generosity, Scrooge replies: “If you please, not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favor?” The collector, shaking hands with Scrooge, is overcome: “‘My dear sir, I don't know what to say to such munifi-.’ Retorted Scrooge: ‘Don't say anything, please. Come and see me. Will you come and see me?’ ‘I will!’ cried the old gentleman ‘Thankee’, said Scrooge. I am much obliged to you. I thank you fifty times. Bless you!’”28

The Hebrew word for “charity” is Tsedakah, and its literal translation is “righteousness” or “justice.” It is rabbinical belief that charity is not a favor to the poor but something to which they have a right, and something which the donor must give. Thus, it is said that the poor do more for the donor, by accepting charity, than vice versa, since the poor provide donors the opportunity to perform a mitsvah (literally, to follow a “commandment,” but figuratively, to perform “a good deed”). What is the source of this attitude? The Rabbis have traditionally believed that all wealth belongs to God, and that He decides who is to be rich and who poor. Rabbi Assi stated that Tsedakah is as important as all of the other commandments together: “Giving charity is the way in which man can ‘walk after the Lord your God’, and saves from death.”29 Certainly, Scrooge took advantage of this opportunity, in addition to the others mentioned, in order to save his life.

Scrooge also learned another lesson concerning charity, based on Old Testament teachings; he came to realize that true joy is a result of sharing wealth. “The purpose of the poor tithe was to teach the salutary doctrine that man's possessions are only truly blessed when he permits others to join with him in their enjoyment. Self-indulgence, without a thought for those in need of assistance, brings no lasting satisfaction; and such a mode of living is without blessing.”30


Although there is a direct connection between Repentance and a Change of Heart, the Change is not automatic; further, the amount of change is also a matter for consideration. A recent doctoral dissertation categorizes Dickens' characters into five moral-ethical groups: benevolent benefactors, manipulators of righteousness, vehicles of salvation, outcasts, and little children (note that Scrooge, by means of his Change of Heart, transferred from the outcast category to that of benevolent benefactor). It should also be observed that Dickens, as an author, requires much of his characters for redemption: they must undergo suffering unwillingly. And how is this Change of Heart effected? Through by-play between those undergoing the Change and completely virtuous characters, who alternately jar the consciences and solace the souls of the sinners such as Scrooge, the latter ultimately accept suffering as the catalyst by which they repent and experience the Change of Heart,31 which itself is corroborated by their good works.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, according to Dickens, taught Scrooge by taking him on an instructive trip to comfort the sick, commiserate with those in poorhouses and jails, and in general supply hope and courage to those who struggle with life.32 On a later visit with the Ghost of Christmas-yet-to-Come, Scrooge says: “Let me see some tenderness connected with a death …,”33 a far cry from his heartless remark to the donation-collector in Stave One, regarding the poor who prefer to die (rather than go to workhouses), and thus, according to Scrooge, help to decrease the surplus population.34

Scrooge's Change of Heart, as a result of the Ghosts' “teachings,” is complete when he pleads with the Ghost of Christmas-yet-to-Come: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons they teach.”35 The fact that his “education” was permanent is evinced by Dickens in the tale's final paragraph: “and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed that knowledge.”36

What is Dickens' method for portraying a Change of Heart? A Victorian anti-hero (Scrooge) is caused to review his past and present way of life, and its impact on fellow-humans through the intervention of supernatural beings, who themselves manipulate his attitudes (he regards them as teachers). The manipulation is mainly emotional at first, the elements being nostalgia, pity and fear37 (the fear of death supplied by the Ghost of Christmas-yet-to-Come). The combined elements, however, eventuate in a complete Change of Heart, with impacts on the mind as well as the heart. (It should be noted here that in Jewish tradition a Change of Heart occurring when death is imminent comprises the lowest level of repentance;38 it, however, is still acceptable.)

In the Yom Kippur Additional Service, the “U-Netaneh Tokef” (“We Shall Declare”) prayer lists a number of means by which, in the coming year, humans might meet death. A high point of the prayer, however, is the previously mentioned statement: “But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity can avert the Evil Decree.” This statement, rather than asking us to dwell on potential disaster, bids us to experience a Change of Heart,39 in order to avert the evil decree, as Scrooge did.

Freedom of will (i.e., individual responsibility for our actions), is a fundamental in Jewish ethics. According to Maimonides,

Free-will is granted to every man. If he desires to incline towards the good way, and be righteous, he has the power to do so; and if he desires to incline towards the unrighteous way, and be a wicked man, he has also the power to do so. Since this power of doing good or evil is in our own hands, and since all the wicked deeds which we have committed have been committed with our full consciousness, it befits us to turn in penitence and forsake our evil deeds, the power of doing so being still in our hands; nay, it is the pillar of the Law and of the Commandments.40

The foregoing is a commentary on Deuteronomy 30:19, which reads:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.

To sum up, the bases upon which Scrooge chose life (and as a result of which he experienced a Change of Heart), Repentance, Prayer, and Charity, as set forth in the “U-Netaneh Tokef” prayer of the Yom Kippur Additional Service, comprise the formula by which Jews might avert the evil decree and be written into the Book of Life, which Scrooge so earnestly desired. While this formula and its Judaic origin might at first surprise Dickensians (and Dickens himself, in his lifetime), upon further examination it might be utilized to advantage for further research into Dickens' ethical-moral philosophy.


  1. See “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas,” in The Charles Dickens Encyclopedia. Compiled by Michael and Mollie Hardwick. New Yorks Scribner's, 1973, p. 13, column 1.

  2. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: The Peter Pauper Press, [no date], p. 93.

  3. “A Christmas Carol,” in: Masterplots. 2,010 Plot Stories and Essay Reviews from the World's Fine Literature, (revised edition, including the four series and further critical evaluations), edited by Frank N. Magill. Story Editor Dayton Kohler. Volume 2: BOU—CRI, 611–1222. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press, 1976, pp. 947, 949).

  4. Ibid., p. 949.

  5. “Dickens, Charles” (In: Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, volume 5. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1974, p. 707).

  6. “Religion in the Novels of Charles Dickens.” George Stanley Larson, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, 1969. Dissertation Abstracts International (30:1), 1969, 328A-329A.

  7. Ibid., 328A.

  8. Ibid., 329A.

  9. High Holiday Prayer Book. Rosh Hashanah-New Year's Day. Yom Kippur—Day of Atonement. With a new Translation and Explanatory Notes, together with Supplementary Prayers, Meditations, and Readings in Prose and Verse. Compiled and Arranged by Rabbi Morris Silverman. Published for United Synagogue of America. Hartford, CT: Prayer Book Press, 1964 printing, p. 358.

  10. Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph. Volume 2. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952, p. 1010.

  11. Ibid., pp. 1011–1012.

  12. Ibid., p. 1012.

  13. Rife, J. Merle. “Marley's Ghost in Athens.” The Classical Journal 34, 1938, pp. 42–43.

  14. Ronald S. Librach. “The Burdens of Self and Society: Release and Redemption in Little Dorrit.Studies in the Novel 7, 1975, p. 546.

  15. A Christmas Carol, op. cit., p. 30.

  16. Ibid., p. 46.

  17. Ibid., pp. 82–83.

  18. High Holiday Prayer Book, op. cit., p. 358 (English).

  19. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs. Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary. Edited by Dr. J. H. Hertz. Second Edition. London: Soncino Press, 5736–1976, p. 964, columns 1–2, English commentary).

  20. Ibid., “Genesis-Additional Notes,” p. 196.

  21. Ibid., Leviticus (XVI, 30, English commentary, p. 485).

  22. A Christmas Carol, op. cit., p. 92

  23. Ibid., p. 89.

  24. Ibid., p. 93.

  25. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, op. cit. (“Day of Atonement-Morning Service, Leviticus XVI; Additional Readings: Numbers XXIX, 7–11, Isaiah LVII, 14-LVIII, 14,” p. 960, column 1, paragraph 1).

  26. “Prayer” (In Encyclopedia Judaica, volume 13. Jerusalem, Keter, 1971, columns 980–981).

  27. Anonymity in providing charity is very highly esteemed in Judaism. In fact, according to Encyclopedia Judaica (volume 5, 1971, column 341), “It is permitted to deceive a poor man who, out of pride, refuses to accept charity, and to allow him to think that it is a loan …”

  28. A Christmas Carol, op. cit., pp. 88–89.

  29. Encyclopedia Judaica, op. cit., volume 5, columns 340–341.

  30. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, op. cit., Deuteronomy (XIV, 29, “may bless thee’, English commentary, p. 811, column 1, last paragraph).

  31. Kennedy, George Edward, II. “The Anatomy of Redemption: The Religious and Moral Implications of the Novels of Charles Dickens.” Dissertation Abstracts International 37, March 1977, 5852-A.

  32. A Christmas Carol, op. cit., p. 65.

  33. Ibid., p. 77.

  34. Ibid., p. 12.

  35. Ibid., p. 83.

  36. Ibid., p. 93.

  37. The Moral Art of Dickens. Essays by Barbara Hardy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 34.

  38. Encyclopedia Judaica, op. cit., volume 14, column 76.

  39. High Holiday Prayer Book, op. cit., p. 355, “Note on the U-N'-Sah-ne To-kef,” paragraph 2.

  40. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, op. cit., “Free-Will in Judaism,” English commentary on Deuteronomy XXX, 19, p. 882, column 1, last paragraph.

Paul Davis (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Retelling A Christmas Carol: Text and Culture-Text,” in American Scholar, Vol. 59, Winter, 1990, pp. 109–15.

[In the following essay, Davis explores how the innumerable retellings of Dickens's novella have changed the essential story and have kept the tale relevant in modern times.]

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

—W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”

So far from the Christmas Ghost Story being a colourable imitation of [Dickens's] book, numerous incongruities in the Carol, involving the unhinging of the whole plot, have been tastefully remedied by Mr. Hewitt's extended critical experience of dramatic effect and his ready perception of harmonies … to … a more artistical style of expression and of incident.

—Brief defending Hewitt's piracy of the Carol, 1844

Dickens is a terrible writer. In the original, Scrooge was mean and stingy, but you never know why. We're giving him a mother and father, an unhappy childhood, a whole background which will motivate him.

—President of Screen Gems, 1968


I cannot remember when I first knew the story of A Christmas Carol. I may have heard it read aloud before a Christmas Eve fire, or listened to one of Lionel Barrymore's annual radio performances, or seen a dramatic version at the town hall in Connecticut where I spent my childhood Christmases. I do know that my acquaintance with Scrooge feels preliterate, different from my sense of Dick and Jane, Dr. Doolittle, or Robinson Crusoe. I remember when I first met the Hardy Boys, but I feel as if I've always known Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

I doubt if my experience is unusual. For although the Carol began as a written text, it has been passed down orally from one generation to the next. In the thirties and forties, we knew the story through Lionel Barrymore, Ronald Colman, and the Roosevelts. Children today see animated TV versions or encounter Scrooge McDuck before they learn to read. The Carol has inverted the usual folk process. Rather than beginning as an oral story that was later written down, the Carol was written to be retold. Dickens was its creator, but it is also the product of its re-creators who have retold, adapted, and revised it over the years.

We remember the Carol as a cluster of phrases, images, and ideas. The images of Tim riding on Bob's shoulder or of Scrooge huddled behind his desk while Bob shivers on his high stool are etched on our consciousness. “Bah! Humbug!” and “God bless us, every one!” echo in our minds. Yet other parts of Dickens's story have almost disappeared from our folk version. Most of us do not remember, for example, Scrooge's journey to view the celebrations of the miners, mariners, and lighthouse keepers, or his vision in Christmas Future of the debtors whose holiday is lightened by news of his death.

Retellings of the Carol often seem to begin with the remembered story rather than with Dickens's words. In the innumerable adaptations almost nothing in Dickens's text has been sacred. Some versions eliminate Scrooge's nephew and his wife. Others turn them into a courting rather than a married couple. In some versions the Fezziwigs vanish. Others cut out all of the Christmas spirits. Although Scrooge appears in every retelling, he is not always the hero. His occupation changes from moneylender, to real-estate broker, to furniture dealer, to grain broker, to landlord, to CEO. His name remains the same, but the names of the characters around him are not so fixed. Scrooge's fiancée—Belle in Dickens's text—becomes Ellen, Mary, and Alice in other versions of the story. His nephew Fred is nearly as often Frank in other retellings, perhaps because the latter name seems more suggestive of his character.

Retellings often add to Dickens's story. Modern adaptors are apt to fill in Scrooge's personal history to explain his character. One elaboration, linking Scrooge's father's dislike of his son to the death of Scrooge's mother while giving birth to him, appears in several recent versions. So does the pilgrimage of the reformed Scrooge to the Cratchit family on Christmas day. Although this scene does not appear in Dickens's text, it is so lodged in the remembered version that even such an eminent critic as Edmund Wilson can write about it in The Wound and the Bow as if it does.

A Christmas Carol could be said to have two texts, the one that Dickens wrote in 1843 and the one that we collectively remember. I will distinguish the two by italicizing the title of Dickens's text as A Christmas Carol or the Carol, and I will capitalize references to the remembered version, the “culture-text,” and refer to it simply as the Carol. The text, A Christmas Carol, is fixed in Dickens's words, but the culture-text, the Carol as it has been re-created in the century and a half since it first appeared, changes as the reasons for its retelling change. We are still creating the culture-text of the Carol.

All of Dickens's works have been adapted and altered. Most of his novels were on the London stage before they finished their serial careers, and in abridged, modernized, and motion picture versions they have all been told and retold many times. But none has been redone more than the Carol. It has been adapted, revised, condensed, retold, re-originated, and modernized more than any other work of English literature. For the theater A Christmas Carol—or just as often Scrooge—has been adapted by scores of obscure playwrights as well as by such recognized dramatists as George S. Kaufman and Maxwell Anderson. It has been scored for ballet by Ralph Vaughan Williams and others, and Thea Musgrave's opera (1979) is only the most recent on a list of operatic versions. On television and in the movies, the Carol has been acted, animated, mimed, marionetted, choreographed, and puppeteered. Its first dramatic reading took place on its first Christmas, and it has been read aloud ever since. Among its many famous readers are Dickens himself, Lionel Barrymore, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The list of dramatic Scrooges reads like a theatrical hall of fame, including, in addition to Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Seymour Hicks, Bransby Williams, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Ronald Colman, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, and George C. Scott.

New editions of the Carol appear annually. They frequently condense, rewrite, or otherwise “re-originate” the story. Even those that keep Dickens's words intact often accompany the text with new illustrations that envision Scrooge in a world that Dickens never made. Since there is an original text—the version published in 1843—one could match later versions against this text, distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic, and separate faithful versions that maintain the spirit of Dickens's story from false piracies that pillage the original to serve selfish ends. By doing so we could rescue Dickens from his many self-appointed collaborators.

But making such distinctions would not get us closer to understanding A Christmas Carol and its power. For the Carol is the sum of all its versions, of all its revisions, parodies, and piracies. It is as much the Hollywood animation or the Henry Winkler re-creation as it is the fine facsimile complete with copies of the original illustrations by John Leech. Disguised as Lionel Barrymore or Mr. Magoo, Scrooge has become common cultural property and is as deeply embedded in our consciousness as George Washington or Dick Whittington, Merlin or Moses. His re-originations since 1843 have produced a culture-text of remarkable diversity. Reappearing in new guises from age to age, Scrooge is a protean figure always in process of reformation. Dickens initiated a continuing creative process in the Anglo-American imagination. It is a celebratory history, one that affirms the excesses of our collective imagination and recognizes all of the versions of the Carol as manifestations of a myth in the consciousness of the industrial era.


Charles Dickens both invited and resented the collaboration that would turn A Christmas Carol from text into culture-text. He sought public involvement with the story as a way to awaken social concern and to prove to himself that he had not lost his imaginative power. He delighted to hear of good deeds prompted by the Carol and of public readings that gathered together the broad audience he envisioned for the story. But he was upset by some of the theatrical adaptations and, when some self-appointed collaborators wanted to share in the financial proceeds from the Carol, he angrily asserted his authority over the story. Dickens soon learned, however, that he had begun a process he could not control. Almost from the day it appeared, the Carol was literary public property.

Dickens dated the Carol from his address to the Manchester Athenaeum on October 7, 1843. He was struck by the good will in the faces of the working people in his audience and stirred to write a Christmas story addressed to a similarly broad national audience. For several months he had been looking for an appropriate response to the unsettling parliamentary report on child labor that had been issued in February. (See The First Report of the Commissioners, Children's Employment Commission, 1842, and The Second Report, 1843.) He talked in his correspondence of writing a pamphlet “on behalf of the Poor Man's Child” and of striking a literary “Sledge-hammer” by the end of the year. The working-class audience in Manchester may have rekindled this earlier resolve and prompted the sledgehammer blow that Dickens struck when the Carol appeared in December.

Dickens also had more personal motives for writing the Carol. In the autumn of 1843 the novel he was publishing in monthly parts, Martin Chuzzlewit, seemed to be losing the audience that he had attracted during the first seven years of his writing career. A study of murderous greed and hypocrisy, the novel called forth less of Dickens's idealism than any of the earlier works. He wrote in his letters of the “Chuzzlewit agonies” and complained of the novel “taking so much out of one.” Chuzzlewit's Dostoyevskian subject matter inverts the Christian virtues. Its worldly characters have faith only in money and hope only for gain, while Charity Pecksniff, the shrewish daughter of its hypocritical villain, performs a perverse denial of her name. The Carol, a story of genuine charity, provided welcome relief both for Dickens and his readers from the depressing world of Martin Chuzzlewit.

According to John Forster's The Life of Charles Dickens (1927), Chuzzlewit proved so financially disappointing that Dickens's publishers, Chapman and Hall, talked of reducing his monthly payment by fifty pounds. This threat, added to the financial pressures of a growing family and mounting household expenses, led Dickens to seek new sources of income. He considered leasing his London house and going abroad where he could live more cheaply. Instead of doing so, he invented a new genre, the Christmas book, and devised a new marketing strategy. Rather than turning over the Carol completely to Chapman and Hall, he kept many of the production decisions to himself so that he could keep more of the earnings. After the book appeared he paid close attention to the balance sheet. His correspondence shows that when the profits failed to meet his great expectations, he was greatly disappointed.

Dickens's financial and emotional investment in the Carol intensified his creative process. The writing was well under way by the end of October, and his sister-in-law said she had never seen him more excited by a project. He worked with such fervor that he “wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner, in the composition, … thinking whereof, he walked about the black streets of London, fifteen or twenty miles, many a night” (January 2, 1844, letter to C. C. Felton). Dickens completed the manuscript by the end of November, and on December 19, A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas was in the bookstores, lettered in gold on the cover, with gold edges on the pages, and embellished with eight illustrations by John Leech, four of them hand-colored. It was Dickens's Christmas gift to the nation.

The British people took the gift and made it their own. Forster notes in his biography that Lord Jeffrey wrote to Dickens that the Carol had “done more good, … fostered more kindly feelings, and prompted more positive acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom since Christmas 1842.” Nearly all the magazines praised it. Thackeray, in the February 1844 Fraser's Magazine, called it “a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.” By February, eight theatrical companies had mounted productions. And on Grub Street the literary hacks were even more expeditious in pirating Dickens's story than he had been in creating it. A magazine that specialized in “re-originated” versions of popular works, Peter Parley's Illuminated Library, immediately appropriated the Carol. By the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, 1844, the first installment of its Christmas Ghost Story appeared, complete with some crude new illustrations.

Dickens was incensed. Although all six thousand copies of the first printing of the Carol had sold out and two thousand of the second printing were committed before publication, he saw the pirates killing his Christmas goose before it could lay its golden egg. On January 8, the Monday after the Saturday when the plagiarized version appeared, under the title of Ghost Story, Dickens filed suit against the pirates, Richard Egan Lee and Henry Hewitt. A temporary injunction forbidding publication of the second installment of the Ghost Story was granted on January 10, and on January 18, Vice Chancellor Knight Bruce continued the injunction, warning the brigands and vagabonds, as Dickens called the pirates, against foolishly pursuing their countersuit.

While the case was being heard, dramatists were also busy turning A Christmas Carol into post-Christmas gold. Among the eight dramatic productions mounted by early February of 1844 were Edward Stirling's adaptation at the Theatre Royal, Adelphi; Charles Webb's Scrooge, the Miser's Dream at Sadler's Wells; and C. Z. Barnett's A Christmas Carol; or, the Miser's Warning! at the Royal Surrey Theatre. By adding songs and enhancing the melodrama with characters like Barnett's Dark Sam, who tries to ruin Cratchit's Christmas by stealing his wages, these theatrical Carols took London by storm. The February 1844 Athenaeum remarked that their popularity threatened to rival that of Jack Sheppard, which was The Mousetrap of the 1840s.

Dickens attended at least one performance of Stirling's Carol, advertised as “the only dramatic version sanctioned by C. Dickens, Esqre.” In a letter to John Forster on February 21, 1844, Dickens called it “better than usual, … but heart-breaking to me. Oh Heaven! if any forecast of this was ever in my mind! Yet O. Smith [Scrooge] was drearily better than I expected. It is a great comfort to have that kind of meat underdone; and his face is quite perfect.” At worst this could be considered a mixed review. In spite of his misgivings, Dickens made no attempt to close down Stirling's play or any of the other theatrical productions.

The Grub Street pirates seemed to expect similar toleration. They had “re-originated” Dickens's earlier novels, and he had made no objection. Legally, they contended, Dickens had given up his right to object because he had not challenged their earlier plagiarisms. They also claimed that their activity benefited Dickens by making his work available to an audience that it otherwise would not reach. In effect, they insinuated, they were his artistic collaborators.

These arguments merely increased Dickens's anger. Writing had been his escape from the poverty that dogged his childhood, a way to suppress painful memories of the blacking warehouse where he had worked as a boy while his father was in debtor's prison. His fragmentary autobiography reveals the psychic scars he carried from that experience, particularly the “grief and humiliation” he felt in associating with his common fellow workers, Poll Green and Bob Fagin, as they worked beside him pasting labels on blacking bottles. “No words can express the secret agony of my soul,” Dickens later wrote, “as I sunk into this companionship.” The pirates recalled these companions of Dickens's secret past. Venal, vulgar and greedy men, Lee and Hewitt held up an ugly mirror to the profession of authorship, and by bringing themselves forward as his literary collaborators they suggested to Dickens that writing was not the way to escape the blacking factory.

American critics reinforced these disconcerting reflections. When Dickens had spoken out on his tour of America in 1842 for an international copyright agreement to prevent the pirating of British books by American publishers, American newspapers called him greedy and self-serving. American Notes (1842) and the American sections of Martin Chuzzlewit revived these attacks. Dickens's obsession with royalties, the Yankee journalists asserted, exemplified the greed he so roundly satirized in the novel. How could his characterizations of the Americans be believed, they asked? How could his plea for charity be taken seriously? Lee and Hewitt may have reminded Dickens of his mercenary motives for writing the Carol and given some troubling substance to these American questions.

These threats to his self-assurance may account for the virulence of Dickens's feelings and the violence of his exultation on January 18 when, in a letter to Forster, he thought his case had been won: “The pirates are beaten flat. They are bruised, bloody, smashed, squelched, and utterly undone.” But the celebration was premature. The pirates lost the legal battle, but they were bankrupt and unable to pay damages. They left Dickens with a moral victory and a legal bill for seven hundred pounds. To rub salt into the wounds, the pirates regrouped and, in only a matter of months, were again promoting their parasitic versions of Boz.

Dickens's reactions to the pirates and the playwrights reveal a contradiction in his aims for the story. On the one hand, he wrote to confirm his position as the voice for his established middle-class audience. At the same time he wanted to speak for the urban poor and write for a working-class audience such as the one he addressed in Manchester. Dickens tolerated the playwrights because they contributed to his recognition as the spokesman for his middle-class readers. As the embodiment of their belief in entrepreneurial achievement and success, Dickens was “the inimitable Boz,” the literary magician who alone could have created and produced the Carol. The book itself represented these bourgeois values. Its hand-tinted illustrations and the gold leaf on the binding attested to the success and authority of its producer.

The cost of the illustrations and the gold leaf, however, made the Carol too expensive for the working-class audience that Dickens also hoped to reach. At five shillings, a copy of the Carol would have cost one-third of Bob Cratchit's weekly wages. The pirates charged only a penny for their retelling of the story. They argued in court that their work enlarged the audience and enhanced the popularity of the original. But as they changed Dickens's words, they also changed the class context for the Carol. In its crude pulp format, the Christmas Ghost Story no longer symbolized the bourgeois achievement of Charles Dickens. As the “imitable Boz,” Dickens was no longer the image of success; he lost authority over the story. The Ghost Story reflected instead the world of its semi-literate readers, and in Dickens's eyes the pirates had “degraded” the Carol to make it, as he wrote to Thomas Mitton on January 7, 1844, “appear a wretched, meagre, miserable thing.”

The pirates may have had a better case than even they were aware of. To reach working-class non-readers who might listen to the tale as they had listened to Dickens's speech in Manchester, the Carol needed to be lifted from the pages of the book and lodged in the cultural memory. The pirates and the play-wrights were important participants in the beginning of this process. Along with Dickens, they were so successful that, in less than two months after the Carol appeared, the Illustrated London News in February 1844 commented in its review of one of the dramatic productions that “the story on which this piece is founded is too well known to enter into particulars of it.”

In spite of his early reservations, Dickens later entered the process and became one of his own adaptors. When Dickens turned the story into a public reading, he edited and re-edited the text to suit the many audiences for whom he performed it. Although Carlyle objected to the readings as pandering to readers too lazy to read for themselves, Dickens knew that the story was new in each performance. As he shared the re-creation of the Carol with his listeners, he joined in celebrating it as a culture-text.


John Forster, Dickens's friend and first biographer, said of the Carol, “Literary criticism here is a second-rate thing.” Following Forster's lead, most literary critics have neglected the Carol. It is too simple, too popular a work to elicit rigorous explication. Commentators have preferred commendation to close analysis. Yet from a broader perspective, the Carol is one of the most criticized works of English literature. Every new edition, adaptation, parody, or sequel derives from an implicit critical perspective. Each rewriting of the culture-text implies a new reading of Dickens's text.

This body of Carol “criticism” articulates a cultural commentary. Because the Carol is so widely known and its re-creators so diverse in their class and cultural points of view, this criticism broadly reflects Anglo-American culture during the last century and a half. It is not limited to recording the prejudices of the literary elite. It mirrors the mainstream of our culture.

The appeal of the Carol, continuous since 1843, has waxed and waned. Some times are more Dickensian in their celebration of Christmas than others. I have chosen six periods of intense Carol activity to shape this cultural history of the Carol. Each period re-creates the story in response to its own cultural needs. Each contributes to the evolving culture-text of the Carol by rereading Dickens's words and imagining its own text for the Carol. I have described these “texts” and the contexts that produced them. In this blending of text and culture-text, one can see the process Auden described as “the words of a dead man [being] modified in the guts of the living.” For the meaning of the Carol is not determined by the words of the author. Its meaning is created anew by each generation of readers.

The meaning of any literary work emerges from the interaction of the text and its culture, from the versions of the story created by its readers. Because there are so many public versions of the Carol and because these versions represent so broad and diverse and audience, the culture-text of the Carol exaggerates and makes visible the reading process. It provides a case study in literary theory and cultural history.

The Carol story begins in the 1840s, the decade of its creation. For Dickens's contemporaries the Carol was a parable. It told the same popular tale that George Eliot would later tell in Silas Marner, the story of a miser who learns charity through the agency of a child. But more important in the 1840s, Dickens's story proved that urbanization had not destroyed Christmas. In the British imagination, Christmas was associated with the manor house, peasant revels, and baronial feasts. During the first half of the nineteenth century—particularly in the two decades that preceded the publication of the Carol—the growth of industry and cities threatened this rural holiday by threatening its country seat. Dickens's story provided celebratory proof that the old Christmas could flourish in the new cities, in spite of dour Dissenting tradesmen who condemned Christmas revels. Scrooge's reformation thus became urban Britain's counter-reformation to puritanical excess.

The Victorian Carol connected the city to the traditions of the country. It also revealed a new urban world infused with spirits and so it became a kind of scripture. As Darwinism and doubt undermined the authority of the Bible, secular texts that assumed biblical authority were especially valued. Although we now see the Carol as a secular book, later Victorians of the 1870s, the decade following Dickens's death, read his Christmas story as a retelling of the biblical Christmas story. Scrooge became a nineteenth-century pilgrim, a modern-day magus seeking the Christ child, while the Cratchits reenacted the holy family. For later Victorians the Carol was secular scripture.

In the decade preceding World War I, the Carol was treated for the first time as a children's story. Remembering Dickens as their childhood reading, the parents in this golden age of children's literature passed the Carol on to the next generation as a children's classic in which Scrooge, in the Neverland of fairy tale, is transformed from the Baleful Ogre into the kindly grandfather. Although some thought of the story as a literary Peter Pan, a text that would not grow up, the carolers of the time, readers like Harry Furniss and G. K. Chesterton, melded the magic of the fairy tale with the darker adult dimensions of the story and turned childish merriment into myth.

In the years before and after the crash of 1929, some saw the Carol as a denunciation of capitalism, but most read it as a way to escape oppressive economic realities. The British denied the Depression by reaffirming a traditional Carol, but in America a revolutionary version of the Carol emerged that made Cratchit the protagonist. It suggested that Americans could escape the Depression by freeing themselves from European bankers and celebrating the Christmas of the common man. These distinctly British and American Carols inform the film versions of the thirties.

Restored to a central role in the sixties, Scrooge becomes himself a kind of revolutionary. In the postwar affluent society the “Carol problem” is no longer economic or social. The sixties Scrooge, a Freudian figure tormented by his past, subconsciously conjures up Marley as a way of calling for help. In therapy with the Christmas spirits, he learns to enjoy life in the here and now. After he has turned on to Christmas and tuned into joys he has denied himself, he joins the flower children in the streets to celebrate being human.

If there was joy in the streets of the sixties, in the eighties there is hunger and homelessness. Scrooge is again a social figure placed at the center of unsettling economic realities. The Carol has come full circle, for the economic issues of Dickens's time have been rekindled now when homelessness and the needy are again prominently in the news. The contradiction between self-interest and self-lessness that inspired the Carol in 1843 returns in its contemporary retelling and produces a Carol that makes the unreformed Scrooge its hero.

Dickens wrote his Christmas fantasy “to raise the Ghost of an Idea.” In the century and a half since its composition that ghost has not been exorcised, and A Christmas Carol continues to give substance to a spirit in the Anglo-American consciousness. This protean fantasy, the culture-text of the Carol, embodies the changing realities of the times as it is re-created by each generation to articulate its cultural identity.

Edward Wagenknecht in Dickens and the Scandalmongers (1965) characterized as a “glaring example of critical irresponsibility” Edmund Wilson's speculation that, after Christmas, Scrooge reverts to his old self. “We cannot follow Scrooge ‘beyond the frame of the story.’” Wagenknecht asserted, “for the simple reason that beyond the frame of the story he does not exist.” The history of the Carol since 1843 would suggest otherwise, for Scrooge exists in the Anglo-American consciousness independent of his Dickensian origin. Dickens may have framed our thoughts and established the broad outlines of the story, but the Carol is rewritten each Christmas, and Scrooge, an altered spirit, appears anew with each retelling.

Ronald R. Thomas (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Dreams of Authority and the Authority of Dreams,” in Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 17–69.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas provides a Freudian interpretation of A Christmas Carol.]

A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke.

—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The fundamental claim Freud would make about the origin of dreams is that they are expressions by the dreamer of a wish. The wish may be repressed and hence not immediately recognizable as a wish, and its expression may be disguised for a number of important reasons. But the dream is nevertheless an expression of the dreamer's desires. One of Freud's achievements was to establish the dream as a disguised wish and then to shift the center of the discussion about the significance of dreaming from the question of its origins to the tactics of its representation and decoding. The Interpretation of Dreams set out to repeat and undo the distortions and disguises of the dream work in the course of the dream analysis, and thereby to expose the wish at the root of the dream's “expression.”

Wordsworth's Arab dream expresses the poet's desire to speak in a transcendent voice from beyond himself, and it portrays the dream as a form of prophetic utterance or supernatural possession. The dream of Alice in Wonderland reveals a desire for personal mastery and takes the form of a myth of entrance from the childhood world of fantansy into the adult, secular world of political power. A Christmas Carol (1843) is the nineteenth-century myth that expresses the dream in terms of economic power. Dickens's subtitle aptly identifies the tale as A Ghost Story of Christmas; it takes the language of ghostly possession and transforms it into one of material possession.1 Lurking persistently behind the “spectral hand” of the spiritual visitors is the invisible hand of Adam Smith. The manifest plot relates a “conversion,” an “exchange” of Scrooge's moral personality from the miser to the philanthropist. But the term conversion has both religious and economic connotations, and Scrooge's dream works the exchange between them. The wishes that are fulfilled in dreams, Freud claims, “are invariably the ego's wishes, and if a dream seems to have been provoked by an altruistic interest, we are only being deceived by appearances” (267). Despite appearances to the contrary, the latent “conversion” resulting from Scrooge's dream is more in the service of mammon than of God, and its effects suggest Dickens's participation in a bourgeois ideology that unconsciously conflates conversion and profit.2

The worst fate one of the voices from Scrooge's dream can wish him is that he will awaken to see the path he has chosen as nothing but an “unprofitable dream” (81). But Scrooge will be sure to make his Christmas dream turn a profit for him. Rather than do that by telling his dream after he awakens, as Alice did, Scrooge does it by suppressing the dream—by keeping its unprofitable aspects secret, by ensuring that the “writing” that appears in the dream will be “erased” (108). Alice's dream allows her to enter the adult world and retain some authority and power by mastering the game of language. Scrooge's dream enables him to enhance his place in the economic world and tighten his hold over those in his “service” by understanding that “power lies in words and looks” (78). In his dream, he discovers that words can have as much power when they are strategically withheld as they can when they are spoken. It is important, therefore, for Scrooge's dream and his response to it to “look” like and be decribed in the “words” of moral reform. It must not appear to be motivated by self-interest if it is to be profitable for him.

A Christmas Carol is presented more in the tradition of an allegorical dream vision than as a genuine dream. In contrast to the confusion of Alice's dreams, Scrooge's is tightly structured by the visitation of three apparently supernatural figures, each bearing a clear moral message and each appearing in correct temporal sequence. Their explicit intention is to confront Scrooge with the error of his ways and to urge him to turn from those ways. These are the ghosts that represent and connect his past, present, and future. They show him that the “plot” of his life story will end in an unmourned grave if he persists along his current path. Despite the apparent narrative orderliness of this vision, however, other features of it resemble the dream's confusing “work,” as Freud described it. First, Scrooge's is a dream of regression. The persistence of his “forgotten self” in the form of repressed childhood memories and desires is at the heart of the dream material, appearing and disappearing in literal and symbolic forms in all parts of the dream, not just in the dream of Christmas past.3 Second, Scrooge's dream repeatedly dramatizes acts of repression, denial, and distortion. It could be accurately described as a dream about censorship, as well as one that practices it. Finally, the central wish of the dream is to extend the dreamer's power and life, a wish that is successfully disguised from beginning to end. According to Freud, the “true significance” of a dream is always overdetermined, and it is always disguised. If the dreamer achieves an instant and complete certainty or clarity about the significance of a dream, a failure—or refusal—to see its complexity is usually present. Scrooge's absolute certainty about the purpose of his dream and its implications for him must be read as an act of repression on his part, repeating his final act in the dream itself, when he expresses his desire to “sponge away the writing on this stone”—to erase, that is, the text he has been confronted with in his dream, to obfuscate the “true” wish expressed in the dream (126).

Each section of the dream concludes with an act of repression. Scrooge ends the first stage in a state of “resistance,” wrestling with the ghost, trying to end its haunting of him by pressing the “extinguisher cap” that covered the ghost's head (83–84). Scrooge “pressed it down with all his force” in his attempt to shut out the fragments of images from his past which the ghost cast around him (84). “No more!” Scrooge insists. “No more! I don't wish to see it. Show me no more!” (81). The second visitation also concludes with an act of suppression. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows to Scrooge the two child figures Ignorance and Want and then urges him to “beware them both.” “Deny it,” he says of the boy, Ignorance, instructing Scrooge to ignore the inscription of Doom on the child's head and to let the “writing be erased” (108). Scrooge seems to take the instructions literally, as is dramatized in the last scene of the final vision, which presents yet another portrait of denial. There Scrooge claims, “I am not the man I was,” imploring the ghost to allow him to “erase” the inscription on the stone that spells out his own death (126). Scrooge “escapes” the implications in each part of his dream by denial, erasure, or revision: “Assure me that I may yet change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life,” he says to the final ghost. Scrooge resists his dream and desires to change its content throughout, declaring even after he awakes that “the Spirits of all Three shall strive within me” (126). Their haunting, in other words, is not complete. The conflict within Scrooge is not resolved. It has only been repressed and postponed into the indefinite future, inviting our suspicion of the simplistic moral interpretation Scrooge imposes upon his dream.4

Even the narrative sequence of the dream may be read as a deceptive product of secondary revision. The sense of time in Scrooge's dream stands in direct contrast to Alice's in Wonderland, where past, present, and future cannot be distinguished and where narratives can never be controlled or completed. But in fact, the stages of Scrooge's dream are not purely of the “past” or “present” either, even though they are announced as such. Scrooge is present either figuratively or literally as both child and adult in every part of the dream. This ambiguity is reflected in the appearance of the specters themselves. The first ghost appears “like a child: yet not so much like a child as like an old man” (68). As the second ghost grows old and begins to vanish before Scrooge's eyes, he is replaced by two young children who appear from beneath his cloak, once again suggesting the persistence of the child within the man. The age of the final ghost, like all his features, is “concealed”; but the continual effort of that spirit is to direct Scrooge's attention toward two other absences: the one caused by the death of the child Tiny Tim and the one caused by the death of Scrooge himself as an old man (110). These conflations of child and old man throughout the dream are effectively acknowledged by Scrooge when he awakens and expresses the regressive desire of the dream: “I'm quite a baby,” he says. “I don't care. I'd rather be a baby” (128). Scrooge's dream dramatizes a desire to repossess his childhood world again, much as Alice's figured her desire to control the adult world.

The apparent narrative orderliness and the clarity of the dreamer's progressive moral viewpoint are not the only deceptions in this dream. Early on the tale announces itself as a critique of the ethos of the cash nexus. But the language of that critique within the scenes of the dream itself reveals it to be more of an endorsement. On the day preceding his dream, Scrooge rebukes the man collecting for the poor by quoting Malthusian sentiments on the fortunate demise of the “surplus population” (51). That rebuke is ironically repeated to Scrooge in the dream by the second ghostly visitor, but this admonition is softened when the ghost proceeds to lecture Scrooge that he had been wrong to say such things only because he misunderstood them: “Forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is” (97). The ghost goes on to urge Scrooge to think more seriously about what is of value and what is worthless in the sight of heaven. But these words may be read merely as a corrective rather than a repudiation. The “cant” is “wicked” only if it is wrongly applied. The principle of value remains intact. Scrooge simply needs to view the economics of time from a longer range and to understand that the “value” of a person is a more complicated computation than he has allowed.

Ultimately, the principles celebrated in the dream and applied to the value of individuals are those of the marketplace, as is most clearly dramatized in Scrooge's memory of his old employer Fezziwig. In that scene, Scrooge admires and envies the great dividends of “power” over his employees that a modest investment of capital manages to yield the employer: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune” (78). Scrooge sees before him the tremendous power an employer can have over an employee by simply bestowing the right “words and looks” at the right time. “In things so slight,” Scrooge sees, “power lies.” This kind of power must lie and deceive to achieve its purposes. It must make “service” that is “burdensome” look “light”; it must make “toil” appear like “pleasure.” And by these slight and insignificant strategies of representation, the canny employer can shape the modest desires of his employees and save himself a “fortune” at the same time.

This may well be the point Scrooge refers to when he tells his second ghostly visitor what he learned from the previous ghost: “I learnt a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it” (87). The specter proceeds to conduct Scrooge to the marketplace at Christmastime, where the lessons of profit are best learned. The vision there described offers a stunning rhetorical performance in tribute to the deceptive spectacle of the marketplace and the power of misrepresentation exercised there. The objects for sale are displayed in such a way that they are “urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags” (90). The workings of the market itself are presented as fraudulent and dangerous incarnations of human desire: “The scales descending on the counter made a merry sound. … the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks. … the candied fruits [were] so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious” (90). The customers' feelings of faintness are then transformed into a euphoric state of distration in the exhilarating atmosphere of extravagance and spending: “The customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, clashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes in the best humour possible” (91).

Here the marketplace is not condemned but celebrated as a place where confusion and deception mask the customers' “mistakes” in a flourish of entertaining good humor, where the thrills of exchange and activity hide the subtle “juggling tricks” of commerce. Behind the specious fiction that there is a privilege in simply participating in the market economy, there lurks a desire. At this point in the dream, the marketplace seems to act as the central metaphor for Scrooge's unconscious desire. He is the miser who wishes to be a consumer, who is tempted by the fruits of the marketplace. And in the end, A Christmas Carol is more fundamentally an account of the dream as a scene of wish-fulfillment than it is an account of moral reform.5

The desire behind the dream is made quite clear in the last scenes of it. Scrooge is most deeply moved not by the prefiguration of his death but by his portrayal as an object of exchange which he does not own. The ghost of the future shows him his clothes, his possessions, and his personal “effects” being sold by his employees to the man in the rag and bone shop. Scrooge literally becomes no more than a series of things for sale. When he hears his charwoman say that the proper end for a man like him is “to profit us when he was dead,” Scrooge recoils in horror (117). This is the expression of the “true significance” of the dream for Scrooge: the self is a thing to be owned, if not by oneself, then by someone else. To be owned by others is to die, to cease to be a self. This is what horrifies Scrooge—seeing himself as a commodity possessed and profited from by others than himself.

The ghost that accompanies Scrooge at the end of the dream is different from the other two in one important way: it is absolutely silent. At the outset of this part of the dream Scrooge resolved “to treasure up every word he heard” (113). But the words in this part of the dream are his; he takes over the power of describing and interpreting these scenes to himself rather than let the ghostly visitor have control over those actions. That power becomes a “treasure” for Scrooge to own and bury in secrecy after he awakes. As the third spirit silently glides through the city, past the deathbed, and into the graveyard, it attempts to present Scrooge with the figures of his own death. But Scrooge will not acknowledge that these things could have any relation to him. He describes the events in other terms, as if they concerned someone else. He refuses to lift the sheet that covers his own lifeless face and see it for what it is. By resisting the directives of the ghost and reinterpreting them for himself, Scrooge makes the dream his own, but only superficially so, since he doesn't “own up” to its “true” significance. He rejects what he sees as another's portrayal of him rather than a self-portrayal. When he is finally confronted with a representation he cannot reinterpret—the inscription of his own name on the tombstone—he demands to erase the name.6

The dream ends when this last silent specter “dwindle[s] down into a bedpost,” provoking in Scrooge a sense of elation over his possession of himself: “Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in” (126–27). At heart, Scrooge is the miser still, objectifying his self-amendment in terms of these things he possesses. The immediate effect of the dream on him is his listing of this “happy” inventory of the things that are “his own,” by which he is able to possess time itself. The dream, moreover, will be his most coveted possession, since it has expressed to him the possibility of owning his time by controlling how it is represented.

But if the dream is his possession, it is not something he has owned as Alice owned her dream. This story ends with the assurance that Scrooge has learned an important lesson: he now “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge” (134). The language of possession applies no longer to Scrooge's occupation alone but to the economy of his psyche as well. And whether we read Scrooge as reformed or simply reorganized, the important point is that his mind is shown to work like a business. The dream and the “knowledge” of it have become “possessions” that he “keeps” as “his own,” with the intention of more effectively mastering others rather than himself. The acts of kindness with which Scrooge “keeps” Christmas (the gift of the goose, the new coal scuttle for Cratchit, and the shared glass of punch) are little more than window dressing, a small price for Scrooge to pay to ensure his mastery over the people in his life.7

The publishing history of A Christmas Carol lends an interesting footnote to the suspicion with which I have read its moral. The book was an instant success at the bookstands and elicited a response from the public not unlike the impassioned enthusiasm described in the book's marketplace scenes. The sales reversed Dickens's very bad showing with Martin Chuzzlewit, and provided an economic turning point for his career. A Christmas Carol would surely become a classic means by which to “keep” Christmas in England, and it would provide Dickens with a sizable profit as well.8 But ironically, his profit would have been much greater had Dickens been able to retain sole possession of his own words. The astounding success of the book led to its widespread piracy by publishers who owned no copyrights and who paid the author no royalties for sales. Dickens's response was rather Scrooge-like. He launched a protracted and expensive lawsuit, which he won but which ended up costing him more money in legal fees than he was able to recover in damages. Nevertheless, he was victorious in the principle of the thing: there is a power in the possession of one's own words, and a profit in them as well.9

The form of Scrooge's dream in A Christmas Carol might be seen as expressing another of its most profound wishes: the desire for a plot, for a life story that has an ordered sense of past, present, and future, a story that connects the old man with his forgotten childhood self. In this his dream is an inversion of Alice's. It does retrospectively what hers does prospectively. But the form of this dream, like that of Alice's, also shows Scrooge's desire to take over its narrating power, to tell it himself, to erase, revise, and rewrite the story of his own life. Scrooge's increasing involvement as the voice within his dream is the fulfillment of that wish; it is the sponging away of the text of the dream as something visited on him and the replacement of it with another self-authored text after he awakens. We can read Dickens's own excursions into autobiographical writing as a repetition of Scrooge's action. Dickens began writing an autobiography in the late 1840s, but broke off the project, explaining to John Forster that he was so tormented by dreams of his past that he could not continue to write down the “deep remembrances” of those experiences. Dickens would only resume the project in the form of David Copperfield.10 There, he could revise his tormented dreams, mix fact and fiction, and present himself as “the hero of my own life,” only to rewrite that story once more in Great Expectations.

Together with the dreams in The Prelude, the Alice books, and The Interpretation of Dreams,A Christmas Carol connects the phenomenon of dreaming with the desire for self-possession and self-control, which are achieved by strategies of speaking or being silent, writing or suppressing writing, representing or refusing to represent the “true significance” of the dream. These are the very issues that more elaborately inform the function of dreams in the gothic, autobiographical, and detective novels with which I am concerned in the following chapters. Like any dreams, their images are overdetermined and could be associated with many different kinds of repressed materials from the dreamers' waking lives. But I attend specifically to the problems of representation as they are manifested in the dreams themselves and in the dreamers' responses to them. The gothic novel has a fundamental interest in these matters since uncanny dream experience is often so central to it. Gothic fiction consistently raises the possibility that the dream originates from some supernatural possession of the dreamer by an alien, uncontrollable force. This possibility, however, invariably becomes entangled with some psychological repression on the part of the dreamer, a repression that disables him or her and is expressed in the dream. Each of the three gothic texts in the next chapter takes the form of a different kind of first-person discourse in which the dreamer attempts to come to terms with the disturbing power of the dream either by taking control over it and recognizing its psychological origins or by denying responsibility for the dream and ascribing it to demonic origin. Like Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, these novels are acts of interpretation intended to replace an alien discourse with a discourse of control. Like Wordsworth's Arab dream, the dreams in these texts reveal the seductive power of a supernatural voice. Like Alice's, they express a desire to master the forces that drive us. And like Scrooge's, they result in either the loss or gain of authority over the words in which the self is kept and expressed.


  1. According to Humphry House, “the language of [Dickens's] religion is all in human metaphors, its charity is confined to the existing scheme of social life and takes its tone from common heartiness. Scrooge does not see the Eternal behind the Temporal, a new heaven and a new earth: he merely sees the old earth from a slightly different angle” (The Dickens World [1942], p. 53). I have used the Penguin edition of A Christmas Carol in The Christmas Books, vol. 1 (1971), cited in the text.

  2. For the limitations of Dickens's representation of moral conversion, see Barbara Hardy, “The Change of Heart in Dickens' Novels,” Victorian Studies, 5 (September 1961): 49–67.

  3. In Dickens: The Dreamer's Stance, Stoehr sees in much of Dickens's fiction a confusion analogous to Scrooge's between belief in what is and desire for what could be (pp. 261–70).

  4. Citing Scrooge's punning attempt to dismiss his visitation by Marley's ghost as a dream with “more of gravy than of grave” about it, Garrett Stewart identifies Scrooge as one of a series of “escape artists” in Dickens's fiction, figures whose imaginations are “tactical,” “narrowly functional,” and serve to deflect or fend off reality rather than face up to it (Dickens and the Trials of Imagination [1974], pp. 146–48).

  5. In what remains one of the best analyses of Dickens's politics and economics, House suggests such a reading when he claims that “the rather clown-like exaggerations of Dickens's satire of statisticians and economists are partly to be explained by the underlying doubt whether they might not be right after all” (p. 71). House also points out how the patronization of the poor was in the interests of the middle-class and how in Dickens's work “the beneficent characters have their full return in watching the happiness they distribute, and in the enjoyment of gratitude and power” (p. 111). He cites the cases of Fezziwig and Scrooge as examples of the “phoney” quality of the “good employer in action”: “We must, I think, conclude that all these attempts to show the working of the Christmas spirit in the relations between master and man are either cheats or failures—at least that they are so on the employers' side” (pp. 64–67).

  6. This climactic phase of Scrooge's dream and his subsequent awakening correspond to what Albert Hutter calls Dickens's “lifelong fascination with morgues, and tombs, and burial sites” and with resurrection (p. 12). Hutter sees in Dickens's novels a way of managing the terror of death, a way of “resurrect[ing] the corpse [of the past] into a living narrative, a history” (p. 19). See “The Novelist as Resurrectionist,” Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1984): 1–40.

  7. In his famous essay “Dickens: The Two Scrooges,” Edmund Wilson points out Dickens's introduction of a new kind of character in Martin Chuzzlewit, the novel immediately preceding A Christmas Carol: the character who does evil while pretending to do good (in The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature [1978], p. 27). The first symptom of Dickens's benevolence, House claims, is “generosity, in money, and in kindness that costs nothing” (p. 46).

  8. Edgar Johnson's presentation of these events in his biography of Dickens emphasizes the irony here and reads almost as parody. Johnson ends one paragraph with the following sentence: “A Christmas Carol is a serio-comic parable of social redemption, and Scrooge's conversion is the conversion for which Dickens hopes among mankind.” He begins the next paragraph with this: “The earnings of the Carol, he expected, would help make up for the disappointing returns from Martin Chuzzlewit.” See Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1986), p. 257.

  9. See J. A. Sutherland, “Dickens as Publisher,” in Sutherland, Victorian Novelists and Publishers (1976). Sutherland cites Dickens's experience with the Carol as the turning point in the novelist's relationship with publishers (p. 167n).

  10. John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. J. W. T. Ley (1928), p. 26.

Paul Davis (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Greening of Scrooge,” in The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge, Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 173–212.

[In the following essay from his full-length study of Dickens's novella, Davis contrasts the British and American versions, adaptations, and modernizations of A Christmas Carol.]

Consciousness III sees not merely a set of political and public wrongs, such as a liberal New Dealer might have seen, but also the deeper ills that Kafka or the German expressionists or Dickens would have seen.

—Charles Reich, 1970

When one observes that we devote a lion's share of our national budget to war and destruction, that capble scientists are tied up in biological and chemical warfare research that would make Frankenstein and his science-fiction colleagues look like Doctor Doolittle, we cannot avoid the question, do Americans hate life?

—Philip Slater, 1970

Comparing A Christmas Carol with Herman Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Pearl Solomon noted that in the American story the workingman takes the role that the master takes in the British tale: “Each is free to be a hero, set free by certain political, social, and ideological circumstances of their cultures to select their own paths.” Scrooge uses his freedom to “embrace mankind as his business,” while Bartleby severs all bonds with the human family in a “self-embrace … as representative an ‘expression of the American mind’ as the Declaration of Independence.”1

This difference between Scrooge and Bartleby also described the difference between British and American Carols. Cratchit-centered, the American Carol celebrated a hero who challenged established authority. Although George Bailey's conclusion lacks the existential toughness of Bartleby's, he makes no détente with Potter—with traditional power—at the end of his story. His triumph is uncompromised by politics. In his wishfulfilling version of the American Carol, Bailey/Cratchit reclaims his innocence while his Scrooge is vanquished and vanishes rather than reforms.

At the end of the British Carol Scrooge remained dominant, for his reformation testified to the ability of established authority to adapt and maintain its power. This authority was vested in the original text. Fearing that radio and television productions of the Carol would displace the traditional family ritual of reading the story aloud on Christmas Eve, British readers preferred facsimile and fine editions to film and radio adaptations, for such volumes celebrated the text and maintained its authority. British media versions followed the original more closely than American adaptations. While Disney translated Scrooge and Cratchit to Disneyland, Richard Williams in a 1971 British Christmas Carol animated the figures from Leech's original drawings.2 Even small departures from the original could evoke an alarmed response from British traditionalists. When the Post Office took such textual liberties in an ad describing Scrooge ordering the Cratchits' Christmas goose with a convenient telephone, an irritated country clergyman complained in a letter to the Times that “every properly brought-up person ought to know that it was ‘the prize turkey’ that was hanging at the poulterer's shop.”3

One of the most effective British Carols, and probably the best sound recording of the story, is the 1960 dramatic reading with Ralph Richardson as Scrooge.4 Running a full hour, twice as long as many radio adaptations, and notable for its fidelity to Dickens' text, it renders the tale as traditional comedy, unifying the story with a motif of laughter. Its Dickensian narrator (Paul Scofield) recalls the point of view in the original text and reenacts the familiar family reading. While it tones down the sentimentality of the original—cutting such well-known moments as Tim's “God Bless us, every one!”—it has no Freudian overtones, no suggestions of a conflicted Wilsonian Scrooge. Yet its commitment to the traditional representation of the story gives a certain ironic doubleness to Scrooge's demand of the Spirit of Christmas Past: “Haunt me, haunt me no longer.” For all its polish this rendering remains a reincarnation, a haunting from the past, that ignores the postwar implications of the tale.

For as World War II changed both Britain and the United States, it also changed the Carol. Historian David Snowman has decribed the period between 1945 and 1975 as one of the convergence of British and American cultures.5 The prewar differences that engendered the distinct national Carols were superseded after the war by an emerging common culture. As the distinctions between officers and men, masters and servants, were discarded on the battlefields, the paternalistic class attitudes of prewar Britain gave way to a growing egalitarianism and Cratchit assumed new power in the British Carol. Jack Lindsay exaggerated this change in his 1950 description: “The whole point of The Carol lies in the handing over of Christmas as a symbol and expression of union to the worker Cratchit, and the cutting of it away from Scrooge the employer. If Scrooge is to be saved, he must go to the Cratchits; and his going (since it transforms him) transforms society.”6 This postwar cockney Cratchit has taken on the power of his prewar American counterpart.

While the British Cratchit was “Americanized,” the American Scrooge lost his “Old-Worldliness.” The Scrooge of It's a Wonderful Life, the “European” Potter, a displaced father-figure,7 whose hard-headed business acumen reveals by contrast George Bailey's financial naivete, becomes an irrelevancy at the end of the film. He is not transformed; he is not even present at the final scene when the townspeople save the building and loan. His disappearance suggests that his parental role is over and that he and his European counterparts can no longer be blamed for the difficulties of their New World children. In the final image of the film, George, restored from his suicidal impulses, embraces his wife and children and accepts his parental role toward both his own family and the people of Beford Falls. As he takes on economic responsibilities that were once Potter's, Cratchit and Scrooge are merged.

The Depression Carols, both British and American, had articulated a cultural desire to escape from the pressures of economic necessity into an idealized world where family unity replaced social division and distrust. The structural representations of these societal hopes—the Lord Mayor's banquet and the family reading preserving British tradition; the New Deal projecting the promised American future—informed the Depression Carol's transforming vision. With the triumph of the allied democracies in the war, that vision should have become reality. But the war contained its own contradiction and the reality of human evil outlived Hitler. Although the Fascists were defeated, their pessimistic lesson about the nature of man persisted. Reviewing Capra's Carol for the Nation, James Agee challenged the film's prewar optimism. “I mistrust … any work,” he wrote, “which tries to persuade me—or rather assumes that I assume—that there is so much good in nearly all the worst of us that all it needs is a proper chance and example, to take complete control.” George Bailey, Agee contended, was an “exceptional man,” a heroic Cratchit saving the helpless people of Bedford Falls, and he embodied the film's “chief mistake or sin—an enormous one—its refusal to face the fact that evil is intrinsic in each individual, and that no man may deliver his brother.”8

As the deliverer of Bedford Falls, Bailey personifies the idealism implicit in the prewar Carol. But his triumph in this postwar film is at best ambiguous. Assuming his parental responsibilities at the end, George takes on Potter's former role, and in doing so he unconsciously accepts the belief espoused by his vanished antagonist that “evil is intrinsic in each individual.” With the American Cratchit assuming the power of Scrooge, this film's ending marks the beginning of the postwar Carol. The hero of that story is Scrooge.


Dickens' first experiment with the “Christmas book,” the Carol departed from the formula he used in his longer novels. In Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and David Copperfield, he centered the novel on a young man coming of age who wondered, as David Copperfield does, whether he would “turn out to be the hero of [his] own life.” With some variations, even Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers can be seen as versions of this quest for identity. The antagonist to the hero in these tales is often a greedy “uncle” or surrogate father, a figure like Ralph Nickleby or old Martin Chuzzlewit who frustrates the hero's quest. When the hero discovers his identity, defeats or transforms the interfering uncle, and establishes himself in the world, his quest is completed.

A Christmas Carol reverses the usual positions of protagonist and antagonist. The villain is given the central role and his negative presence obscures the quest story. Although attempts to place the Cratchits in the center of the Carol try to restore something closer to the usual Dickens plot, the figure who most resembles the Dickens hero is not Bob Cratchit but rather Fred, Scrooge's nephew. His suppressed story is that of a young man whose worldly advancement is frustrated by Scrooge's objections to his good humor, his marriage, his whole way of life. Scrooge's role in dashing his nephew's prospects is hinted at in Fred's wife's observation during the Christmas party that Scrooge must be very rich, and in Fred's reply that Scrooge's wealth is of “no use to him” because “he hasn't the satisfaction of thinking—ha, ha, ha!—that he is ever going to benefit US with it” (CB [Christmas Books; hereafter cited as CB], 52). In Nickleby or Chuzzlewit, this economic conflict would motivate the plot. Some versions of the Carol try to bring this subtext to the surface by making Scrooge's interference in Fred's life more active. In these adaptations, Fred is often portrayed as engaged and putting off his wedding until he can afford to marry, while Scrooge becomes an active villain by denying Fred financial help and thus preventing the marriage. After his Christmas transformation in this plot of fortune, Scrooge, like old Martin Chuzzlewit, shares his money with his nephew, usually by taking him into partnership, and enables him to marry. These changes, as in the 1938 Hollywood film starring Reginald Owen, could make the Carol more conventionally acceptable to the popular audience, but they suppressed much of the complexity in the character of Scrooge.

Making the Carol the story of Cratchit also simplified its center. Some readers could take ideological consolation in the transfer of economic power to the workers, but in such tracts Scrooge was flattened into either a stereotypical capitalist or an incipient Owenite. And the Cratchits, as good as they are, for most modern readers are just not interesting. Despite attempts in the thirties and forties to enlarge the role of the clerk and his family, many readers would have agreed with T. P. McDonnell “that Cratchit was an insufferable bore, … a wimpering fool.”9 To admit this possibility and not reject the story altogether called for recentering the Carol in the problematic character of its villain-hero.

The central fact of Scrooge's life is his conversion, but he is remembered as the ogre of Stave 1 rather than the kindly grandfather of Stave 5. He has entered the language as a lower-case noun to describe the hard-hearted miser. The attraction of the villainous Scrooge may derive from the human fascination with evil that makes Satan more interesting than God. It also arises from his complexity. Scrooge can be reduced to a type—a miser, a cruel uncle, an ogre—but his character contains energy and complexity that belie such simplification. The divisions within him make him more even than “two Scrooges.”

Some of the many versions of Scrooge appear in the various Carols of the story's first century. The Carol's first readers were likely to see Scrooge as a representative of moral tradition, an emblem of “the Miser” whose preoccupation with money kills his altruistic impulses. Scrooge also engaged the sympathy of his first readers with a biography linking his experience with that of many city dwellers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Displaced from country into town and cut off from family and tradition, this Scrooge embodied their sense of urban anomie. As later Victorians consecrated the Carol with semireligious authority, Scrooge became a pilgrim, a fourth wise man seeking the “poor man's child” who would restore (and “restory”) Christmas and the Christian message. At the turn of the century in the Carol as children's story, readers repressed the evil in Scrooge to focus on the kindly grandfather of Stave 5. Depression idealism discovered the potentially benevolent businessman whose reformation would break the chains of economic necessity. There is something of Scrooge in all these versions of his character. Defined by complexity and contradiction that make him both villain and hero, Scrooge embodies a tension between judgment and sympathy. Exploring this contradiction, Dickens countered the harsh sentences that hanged Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Ralph Nickleby and redeemed his own fascination with evil.

Postwar readers recognized in Scrooge a soulmate to Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf. In that novel Harry Haller, tormented by the contradiction between man and beast within him, retreats from the world, fearing that his personality has been irreconcilably split. When he enters a visionary “magic theater,” similar to the dream-world of Scrooge's Christmas spirits, he learns that he is not simply two selves, but rather a multitude of complementary and contradictory persons. Scrooge transcends the “two Scrooges,” Edmund Wilson's Jekyll-Hyde characterization of him at the end of the 1930s, in the magic theater of Anglo-American culture during the thirty years after World War II. There he is performed as economic man, as a Freudian case history, as a creature of myth, as a spiritual father to the youth revolution of the late sixties and early seventies. Could Scrooge have worried, like Harry Haller, about the division in his personality, he might have been consoled in this series of transformations with Haller's recognition that “man consists of a multitude of souls, of numerous selves.”10


Occasional Marxists of the thirties like T. A. Jackson had condemned Scrooge as a money-grubbing bourgeois, a capitalist “machine for meanly adding pound to pound, shilling to shilling, and pence to pence.”11 But most Depression readers resisted this cynical view. Choosing to see Scrooge as a misguided businessman who had forgotten his business ethics, they interpreted his reform as the restoration of an enlightened capitalism. They ignored Scrooge's internal contradictions by suppressing the economic principles that formed his character to favor those that transformed it.

The suppressed principles resurfaced after the war, when Scrooge materialized as “a personification of economic man.” Edgar Johnson's best-selling biography of Dickens (1952) epitomized this view when it presented Scrooge as “the embodiment of all that concentration upon material power and callous indifference to the welfare of human beings that the economists had erected into a system.”12 Scarcity, self-interest, and materialism were the underlying assumptions of this capitalist ideology, the structural essentials of its worldview. Scrooge was more than misguided. He was the representative of the power elite, and his ideology systematically promoted his class interests.

David Snowman characterized the postwar period in England and America as one defined by affluence, when “nearly all members of both cultures have all their needs fulfilled.”13 Affluence probably encouraged the radical rereading of the Carol, for with scarcity no longer a daily concern, Scrooge could safely be seen as the representative of a class whose self-serving ideology was no longer necessary to calm fears of displacement and deprivation. In the context of affluence, even this calculated ideology was misguided, for it no longer constituted a rational response to economic reality.

John Kenneth Galbraith, in his classic book The Affluent Society (1958), described America in the mid-fifties as a society living in contradiction. Its social consciousness was grounded in an outmoded “conventional wisdom,” a “tradition of despair” that defined the human condition as a competitive free-for-all in which each individual fought to secure enough scarce goods to survive.14 But in affluent America, scarcity had disappeared. It was no longer necessary to maximize the production of consumer goods; indeed, the demand for these goods had to be artificially created. But as long as the assumption of scarcity held sway, the imbalance in the affluent economy could not be adjusted to allocate more resources to genuine public needs for schools, roads, or hospitals. It continued to produce even more unneeded things for private use. The economic problem was no longer one of scarce resources. It was a problem of a state of mind.

A century earlier, Dickens had challenged the same conventional wisdom from a similar perspective. Even without the abundance of postwar America to bolster his argument, Dickens was able to see the man-made contradictions in his economy. Scrooge was more than a simple miser. He was the monster created by the Frankenstein philosophy of Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo, the inevitable outcome of their laissez-faire principles. He was a theoretical miser. Reasoning from principles of scarcity, he sees the world as a struggle between the industrious and the idle, the producers and the parasites. His relations with others are defined by barter and sale. His only community is the marketplace.

From the opening page of the story, Scrooge's isolation is economically defined. He is described as Marley's “sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner” (CB, 7, italics added). His “relationship” with Marley is one of contract and is really no relationship at all, for it leaves Scrooge alone. In one of his most memorable metaphors, the narrator characterizes Scrooge as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster” (p. 8). To free himself for the market struggle, Scrooge has chosen solitude, bachelorhood, and separation from friends and family. Seven years after Marley's death, he has taken on no new business partner. His competitive position is economically “perfect,” ideally embodying the principle of each man for himself. Alone he produces his world—right to its very weather: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke shrewdly in his grating voice. … He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days, and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas” (p. 8).

As a “manufacturer” of cold, Scrooge is metaphorically linked with the industrialists, the most vocal proponents of political economy, whose machines produced the hardware of the new iron age. “Cold” and “hard” are the adjectives applied both to the products of their industry and the iron laws of their ideology. “As dead as a doornail,” Marley is a fit partner for an “old screw.” He is chained to his life story, and he warns his surviving partner that an “iron cable” also binds him to a life of misdeeds and missed opportunities. A captive caged in a world of hardware—of locks, keys, cashboxes and “heavy purses wrought in steel” (p. 17)—Scrooge is as crippled as Tiny Tim, who bespeaks the crippling power of political economy with the iron cage he wears on his leg.

What Galbraith calls the “tradition of despair,” Carlyle described as “the Dismal Science,” a negative ideology whose central tenet, the vacuous laissez-faire, he translated as “let alone” or “do nothing.” Fred instigates Scrooge's Christmas quest by posing a Carlylean question: “What right have you to be dismal?” he asks his uncle. “What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough” (p. 19). If, as the economists argued, all value was economic, then no rich man should be dismal. But if, as Carlyle contended, men who recognized only economic value were spiritually diseased, then Scrooge was a terminal case of everlasting negativity. Scrooge denies anything that doesn't fit his ideology by “bah, humbugging” it out of existence. When he demands that Fred allow him to “leave [Christmas] alone” (p. 10), or when he tells the charity solicitors that he “wish[es] to be left alone” (p. 12), Scrooge asserts the negative central tenet of political economy. The emptiness of this “philosophy” appears in the countering image of Scrooge as a schoolboy in Christmas Past, “left … alone” (p. 28) by his neglectful father to celebrate Christmas by himself. At his Christmas party, Fred jokingly boasts that he “shook” Scrooge when he asked, “What right have you to be dismal?” Although Scrooge is not consciously aware of pursuing Fred's challenge, his Christmas Eve visions constitute an answer to Fred's question of how he can be rich and dismal at the same time.

Scrooge's most explicit statement of economic doctrine, his assertion that the poor who would rather die than enter the workhouse “had better do it and decrease the surplus population” (p. 12), articulates a callous Malthusianism. In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus mathematically linked population growth with the food supply, contending that as the number of people increased geometrically, the food supply grew only arithmetically. The remainder in this numerical problem was the “surplus population” whose inevitable misery reminded the rich of the necessity to be miserly. Well schooled in Malthusian mathematics, Scrooge automatically links food and sex. When Fred invites him to Christmas dinner, he responds in an apparent non sequitur by asking Fred why he got married. To Scrooge the logic is obvious, for food and fertility are the key factors in his Malthusian equation. The improvident Fred, by marrying, will bear children that he cannot afford to feed. Had he delayed his marriage until he could support a family, Fred could have avoided adding to the surplus population. That Fred's young wife is pregnant, even though their financial position is shaky, presents the nephew as one who wilfully challenges Malthus.

Scrooge is offended by Bob's fertility as well. Bob's large family is the one fact other than his wages by which Scrooge defines his “rampant” clerk. Bob's sexual imprudence confirms the Malthusianism that runs as a subtext in the relations between Scrooge and Cratchit. When he asks Bob, “You'll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” (p. 14), Scrooge is ostensibly challenging Bob's right to a holiday. But his question is also an assertion, suggesting that anyone so sexually imprudent must inevitably “want.” On this score, Bob, like Fred, is a living challenge to Scrooge's ideological rigidity, for although he wants, he is not miserable. Fred and Bob make Scrooge aware of his own rich misery and prompt the Christmas visions that bring Scrooge's subconscious fears to the surface of his mind.

The challenge to the assumptions of the conventional wisdom in the Carol is implicit, playing in puns and paradoxes like “want” and “left alone.” In a way the whole story turns upon an economic pun. When, in the opening paragraph, the narrator declares that “Scrooge's name was good upon ‘Change’” (p. 7), he tells in a single phrase of Scrooge's financial position and of his impending transformation. The Carol is the story of that change.

At the beginning Scrooge defines all relationships in economic terms. He immediately turns Fred's Christmas greeting, for example, into a discussion of the relative economic inequality between them, ignoring Fred's noneconomic value as Fan's son, as “family.” Similarly, in Stave 1 Bob is wholly described as “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week” (p. 11). He is not even named, for he has no value in himself, but only in his function as clerk. He does not become “Bob” until Stave 3, when a softened Scrooge sees him with his family at Christmas dinner. Then we learn his name and some details of his personal life as we share Scrooge's gradual recognition of his clerk's humanity. When the Spirit of Christmas Present blesses Bob's house, Scrooge thinks: “Bob had but fifteen ‘Bob’ a week himself; he pocketed on Saturdays but fifteen copies of his Christian name and yet the Ghost of Christmas Present blessed his four-roomed house!” (p. 43). Scrooge's confusion is ideological, for Bob, poor and yet happy, confutes Scrooge's economic principles. As a human being, Bob is much more than a fifteen-shilling clerk. Gradually Scrooge transcends his reductive view and accepts Bob as a priceless friend with whom to share a bowl of smoking bishop.

Bob's initial namelessness is matched by Scrooge's own. Scrooge has not altered the sign “Scrooge and Marley” in the seven years since Marley's death, and he answers to either name, for he sees himself simply as an economic function. As the charity solicitor suggests, he is “anonymous” (p. 12). The reductive laws of politial economy that turn Bob into a fifteen-shilling clerk turn Scrooge into a man totally defined by his business, which, he tells the solicitors, “occupies [him] constantly” (p. 12). To those caught within the conventional wisdom, the ideology is all-consuming, for its scientific laws purport to explain all social reality.

In “Traffic,” an essay delivered at the dedication of the Bradford Exchange in 1864, John Ruskin asserted that political economy was not a science at all but rather a formulation of class prejudices. It failed to qualify as a science, he argued, because it did not take into account the most important branch of business, “the study of spending.15 In its concentration on production and its total neglect of distribution, Victorian political economy codified the greed of the owners and producers into an apologia for the rich; its bias in favor of saving over spending gave the rich “miser” his theoretical defense. Ruskin challenged this theory from the perspective of affluence: “You gather corn:—will you bury England under a heap of grain, or will you, when you have gathered, finally eat? You gather gold:—will you make your house-roofs of it, or pave your streets with it? That is still one way of spending it. But if you keep it, that you may get more, I'll give you more; I'll give you all the gold you want—all you can imagine—if you can tell me what you'll do with it.”16 Giving the Bradford businessmen all the gold they could imagine, Ruskin challenged them to transcend their hoarding economics of scarcity to learn to live in a world defined by spending rather than production.17

Written twenty years before Ruskin's Bradford speech, the Carol contains a similar affirmation of the economics of affluence. Dickens would have agreed with George Bernard Shaw's comment “Whether you think Jesus was God or not, you must admit that he was a first-rate political economist,” for he based his economic ideas on the New Testament paradox of saving and spending.18 Like the servant who saves his one talent by burying it in the ground, the miser loses the worldly goods he fearfully hangs on to. Yet the servants who spend their talents are rewarded with more. Where “want is keenly felt,” by economists as well as by the poor, there is misery. But where “abundance rejoices” there is an inexhaustible supply of loaves, fishes, and turkeys. The shops in A Christmas Carol are so full that “poulterers' and grocers' trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do” (p. 13). As the narrator tallies the abundance of Christmas, he produces wonderful catalogues of the fruitfulness of the earth and the bounty of the marketplace. Even in a year of Irish potato famine, the Spirit of Christmas Present sits on a throne of plenty, surrounded by a cornucopia of “turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch” (p. 39). And on Christmas morning there are still prize turkeys waiting to be bought.

The abundance of Dickens' Christmas differed from that of affluent America. It was not measured in its ability to stimulate the consumption of gratuitous consumer goods. The reformed Scrooge who buys out the toy store for the Cratchit children is a creation of the twentieth century. The only gift Dickens' Scrooge buys is the prize turkey he sends to the Cratchits. Dickens' Christmas was literally a feast. The markets overflow with an abundance of food, not manufactured goods. Even in a poor household like the Cratchits', “everyone had … enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows” (p. 46). If applesauce and mashed potatoes were required to eke out the goose, it was still “flat heresy” to suggest that the Christmas pudding “was at all a small pudding for a large family” (p. 46). That heresy was left to the dismal Malthusians; the Cratchits chose to rejoice in abundance. More than simply the centerpiece in the story, the Cratchits' Christmas dinner is also the central argument in Dickens' challenge to the conventional wisdom. It celebrates the fecundity and fertility that belie the famine and infertility of the Malthusian tradition of despair.

In a controversial passage in the revised 1803 edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus graphically presented the implications of his theory in the parable of the beggars outside the banquet hall:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents, on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.19

The well-stocked markets, the Spirit of Christmas Present with his horn of plenty, and the Cratchits' Christmas feast are Dickens' graphic answers in the Carol to this well-known passage from Malthus. His polemical answer appears when the spirit reprimands Scrooge for mouthing the platitudes of the economists: “Forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!” (p. 47).

Nevertheless, the arguments for the conventional wisdom were strong in Victorian England. Although the spirit warns Scrooge not to draw his arrogant conclusions on the basis of numbers, the numbers seemed to support the economists. In the parliamentary reports, the newspapers, and the streets, the evidence of scarcity and suffering was everywhere. Dickens himself was the first to acknowledge the omnipresence of Ignorance and Want. Amid so much empirical evidence of scarcity, it was difficult to imagine the world with an infinite supply of gold, and most of Dickens' contemporary readers chose to ignore the questionable economic theory underlying the story. Only one reviewer, the economist Nassau Senior, writing in the Radical Westminster Review, detailed the ways in which the Carol violated the laws of political economy:

In the Christmas Carol, Scrooge the Miser is so drawn as to leave an impression that he cheats the world of its ‘meat, clothes, and fire,’ which he buries in his own chests, whereas in truth he only cheats himself. He is the conventional miser of past times; and, when reformed by his dreams, he gives away half-crowns to boys to run quickly to buy turkeys to give away, and pays cabmen to bring them home quickly, to say nothing of giving bowls of punch to clerks. A great part of the enjoyments of life are summed up in eating and drinking at the cost of munificent patrons of the poor; so that we might almost suppose the feudal times were returned. The processes whereby poor men are to be enabled to earn good wages, wherewith to buy turkeys for themselves, does [sic] not enter into the account; indeed, it would quite spoil the dénouement and all the generosity. Who went without turkey and punch in order that Bob Cratchit might get them—for, unless there were turkey and punch in surplus, some one must go without—is a disagreeable reflection kept wholly out of sight.20

Dickens responded to this critique in The Chimes (1844), where he has Filer, the Scrooge of the second of his Christmas Books, castigate Trotty Veck with the admonition “You snatch your tripe, my friend, out of the mouths of widows and orphans” (CB, 95). The more explicit social message in The Chimes did elicit controversy, and the hard realities in the streets of the 1840s gave some credence to Filer's blunt version of the conventional wisdom. But the gentler social criticism in the Carol allowed its original readers to indulge in the heresy that there “were turkey and punch in surplus.”

In the affluent society of the 1960s it was easier to imagine the world, as Ruskin did, with an infinite supply of gold, and the economics of abundance gained credence as an alternative to the tradition of scarcity. The Carol became the parable of this alternative, but Malthus's parable was not yet passé. It served to express the conventional wisdom. Caught between the two paradigms, sociologist Philip Slater observed that “Americans continually find themselves in the position of having killed someone to avoid sharing a meal which turns out to be too large to eat alone.” Dickens would have shared Slater's analysis of the reasons for this contradiction: “The key flaw in the old culture is, of course, the fact that the scarcity is spurious—man-made in the case of bodily gratifications and man-allowed or man-maintained in the case of material goods.”21 Dickens knew that the person who imagined the world with an infinite supply had to give up the conventional wisdom and change economic priorities from production and saving to consumption and spending. By imagining Christmas from the perspective of affluence, he transformed the feast, in the words of his great-granddaughter, to “a universal jamboree of giving and getting.”22

In his first performance in the postwar magic theater, Scrooge entered as economic man and exited freed from the preoccupations of economic necessity. His business no longer needed to occupy him constantly. Liberated by affluence, he could explore other dimensions of his personality.


Instead of the idealistic Carol of the thirties, the postwar social analysts discovered a dark Carol exposing the contradictions within capitalism. These economic realists often dismissed the supernatural parts of the story as mere machinery. Dickens had no more belief in ghosts, they argued, than the unregenerate Scrooge, and Scrooge's conversion represented nothing more than an exchange of “one set of economic values for another.”23 But since the doctrines of laissez-faire, as Edgar Johnson suggested, were based on a “curiously fragmentary picture of human nature,”24 they prompted a reading of the Carol that “la[id] bare a partial truth at best.”25 Scrooge was more than an illustration of political economy, more than a grasping self-seeker, more than Bob Cratchit's oppressor. He was a sick man, and, as Leslie Conger pointed out, he “was suffering from his scroogianism more than anybody else.”26 In his second performance in the postwar magic theater, Scrooge changed from economic type to psychological case. His conversion was more than an example of economic reform; it was a miraculous redemption emerging “from the recesses of Scrooge's own mind.”27

Economic and psychological readings were not necessarily incompatible. Beginning from the Freudian link between money and feces, for example, Michael Steig found in the Carol an expression of Dickens' “excremental vision,” pitting Scrooge's anal-retentive miserliness—the “moral constipation” of an acquisitive society—against the openness of benevolence.28 Scrooge's defensive anality dismisses the poor as “surplus population,” yet when he sees himself as human waste in the corpse of Stave 4, he is convinced to let go of his corrupt anality. Thus, the paradox of saving and spending at the heart of the story's economic message also becomes its psychological dictum: keeping Christmas depends on spending oneself for others.

Steig's analysis presented the Carol as a precurser to Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. More often, psychological interpreters treated it as a case from The Interpretation of Dreams. The story's abrupt transitions between tableau scenes, its doubling of Scrooge so that he watches himself in the visions, and its recurrent symbolic details cast the story into a dream mode. Dressed in nightgown and cap, Scrooge plays the dreamer. In his waking life he consciously limits his knowledge to his present business, but in the dream he liberates his subconscious repressions, recognizing his losses from the past and his fears of the future.29

In the essay “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older” (1851), Dickens described Christmas as a festival changing with the stages in one's life. To the child Christmas is immediate and complete, and for the youthful lover it is entwined with visions and hopes for the future. But for the adult in midlife, it becomes a time to remember the dead. “Of all the days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City [of the Dead] upon Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us” (CS, 23). The list of those recalled that climaxes the essay includes a Marley figure, “a friend … [whose] destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime,” and a Tiny Tim, “a poor mis-shapen boy on earth, of glorious celestial beauty now” (CS, 23). Scrooge, to celebrate Christmas in midlife, must overcome his fear of death and visit the City of the Dead. When Fred forces him to remember Fan and the holiday itself reminds him of the anniversary of Marley's death, he unwillingly recalls the dead and begins his commemorative Christmas. One of the recesses in Scrooge's mind hides his fear of death. He humbugs the holiday to avoid meeting his memento Marley, but in midlife the confrontation is inevitable. The course of Scrooge's visionary life necessarily leads to the corpse and gravestone of the fourth stave. The television musical The Stingiest Man in Town (1955) and the film Scrooge (1970) even add a vision of Hell to Christmas Future, taking Scrooge literally to the City of the Dead. There, by confronting his fear, he is released from its power. A 1969 animated cartoon caricatured this fear/release reading of the story in a displaced “Steigian” interpretation. After an extra-large dose of the terrors of Christmas Future, its snuff-taking Scrooge overcomes his previous inability to sneeze with an especially therapeutic sneeze in response to a Christmas morning sniff of snuff.30

More than from his fear of death or Hell, Scrooge suffers from his repressed past hidden in another of the recesses of his mind. Although they might not approve of his bald assertiveness, many psychological critics would agree with the president of Screen Gems who claimed that “Dickens is a terrible writer. In the original, Scrooge was mean and stingy, but you never know why. We're giving him a mother and father, an unhappy childhood, a whole background which will motivate him.”31 Although this film never got produced, many other such interpreters have elaborated Scrooge's psychobiography as a way of explaining his denial of Christmas. The text hints that Scrooge was abandoned at school because of his father's dislike, that he cultivated solitude because of this neglect, that he loved his sister and was deeply hurt by her early death, and that his resentment of Fred is linked to his bitterness over this loss. By not providing a full explanation, Dickens may have been trying to avoid the case history. Allowing the specifics to be imaginatively filled in by individual readers, he makes the Carol a vicarious framework on which to fit a multitude of life stories. But psychological interpreters, like the president of Screen Gems, have often preferred detailed case history to suggestive biography.

Perhaps the best example of the psychological Carol is the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim.32 Described by the New York Times as “heavy on the Freudian sauce,”33 it presents Scrooge as neither the money-grubbing miser nor the irascible old curmudgeon. There are no scenes of him dunning his creditors or counting his money. Noel Langley's script also removes many of Scrooge's witticisms. He does not propose that Fred go into Parliament to exercise his oratorical ability, nor does he challenge Marley with the punning suggestion that “there is more of gravy than of grave about you” (p. 18). Sim's Scrooge is fearful rather than witty. He is vulnerable, troubled, and insecure. In the opening scenes the camera watches him from above, diminishing him into a cowering figure, terrified by the world. The stunning visualization of the phantoms outside Scrooge's window at the end of the first stave underscores his weakness, for he is linked with the powerless ghosts who are tormented by their inability to help the hungry mother and child. Unlike Seymour Hicks's hulking, irascible Scrooge, Sim's cringing figure bespeaks a disturbed rather than an angry man.

To explain this troubled man, the film expands the vision of Christmases past. His father's neglect results from bitterness and resentment, for Scrooge's mother died bearing him and his father blames the boy for her death. To accommodate this biographical addition, Fan is made older than Scrooge. When she comes to rescue him from the lonely school, she is not portrayed as a child representing the innocence of Christmas. She is more a substitute mother to Scrooge who has intervened for him to blunt the wrath of his father. Scrooge tells her, “I hardly know you now that you're quite a woman,” and speculates that the mother he has never known must have looked like Fan. When Fan assures him that he is “never to be lonely, as long as I live,” Scrooge's reply reveals his repressed fear: “Then you must live forever, Fan.” But Fan dies giving birth to Fred, and Scrooge, like his father, blames his nephew for the loss of this mother surrogate.

The story of Scrooge's progress as a businessman counterpoints this personal biography. He begins as a clerk to Fezziwig, but when Fezziwig refuses to adopt machines because he sees business as “preserving a way of life” and not simply a way to make money, Scrooge joins one of his competitors. There he meets his fellow clerk and future partner, Jacob Marley. Together they rise in the firm, opportunistically gaining control when they buy out the other stockholders at a time of crisis. They also buy out old Fezziwig, his failure to preserve his way of life signaled as they replace his sign with one that reads “Scrooge and Marley.” At the beginning of his business career, Scrooge's attachment to Fan seems to limit his absorption in the competitive struggle of the marketplace, but after her death, embittered by the loss, Scrooge gives himself totally to the exclusively male cash nexus.

The change is reflected in his relationship with Alice, his fiancée. When he believed that Fan would “live forever,” Scrooge could love Alice and, in a scene added to the film, promise her that he would love her “forever and ever.” But after Fan's death he finds the world a “hard and cruel place,” and he breaks the engagement. He also ignores Fan's dying request that he take care of her boy. Turning his back on the feminine—on the nurturing realm of sister and fiancée—he retreats into his countinghouse.

Regina Barreca has described Scrooge's gradual conversion in this film as representative of the therapeutic process, depicting the “amount of psychological work necessary for his reclamation.”34 Linking the three spirits to the Freudian dimensions of personality—“the Spirit of Christmas Past … with Scrooge's id impulses (the emotional, irrational child), the Spirit of Christmas Present with his ego (the perceptions of the immediate world around him) and the Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come with his super-ego (to imagine the effects of his actions on himself and others; to consider moral implications of actions),”—Barreca points out that this Freudian Scrooge's release comes when he goes to Fred's Christmas dinner and begs forgiveness from Fred's young wife. Though the moment does not make realistic sense, it does complete the psychological pattern of the film: “The film audience understands, through a kind of sublimational pattern of associations, that Scrooge is begging forgiveness of all the women he has wronged. This young woman is a symbol of those others, forgiving Scrooge by proxy.” To restore himself to wholeness, Sim's Scrooge must reunite the male and female halves of himself and allow the nurturing female side that he has repressed in bitterness and resentment to temper his business life.

The “feminization” of Scrooge in the film is apparent in the enlarged role given to Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's cockney housekeeper. Her only scene in the original story is when she sells Scrooge's bed curtains to Old Joe, contending in macabre argument that taking such things from a dead man cannot be considered stealing. In the most effective rendering of this scene in any film, Kathleen Harrison presents Mrs. Dilber's underground logic to project a character as real as Sim's troubled miser. In a scene added to the film, she knocks at Scrooge's door on Christmas morning to awaken him from his redeeming dream and to bring him breakfast and shaving water. In this Christmas confrontation with him, she becomes the foil to reveal his transformation, replacing the boy in the street who usually informs him that it is Christmas Day. Scrooge's exuberance so terrifies her that she thinks she is dealing with a madman and tries to run out of the house to raise an alarm. But Scrooge convinces her of his sanity, raises her wages, and rewards her with a golden guinea and a Christmas kiss. She, too, represents the women that Scrooge has rejected. His reconciliation with her prepares his similar reconciliation with Bob Cratchit, just as his plea for forgiveness from Fred's wife precedes his reconciliation with Fred.

Scrooge's conversion in the film is a more “private” affair than in the book. The boy who fetches the Christmas turkey and the poulterer have smaller roles, and Scrooge does not go into the streets to spread Christmas cheer and make a large gift to charity. His internal change is revealed in his changed relationships with Mrs. Dilber and Fred's wife. In the Sim Carol, Christmas is less a public holiday than a personal state of mind. Scrooge has been internalized.

All the characters in the psychological Carol tend to be seen as fragments of the complex personality of its internalized hero. Projecting Scrooge's hard-hearted selfishness, Marley comes to warn his former partner that he will suffer the same ultimate fate. Scrooge is so like Marley that he will answer to either name. If Marley represents Scrooge's actuality, Fred represents his potentiality. When Scrooge dismisses Fred in Stave 1, he represses that part of himself that will eventually earn him a reputation as a man who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge” (CB, 76). Fred's open-hearted joviality at the beginning matches Scrooge's at the end. Tiny Tim doubles the hero by embodying the child within Scrooge who is crippled by his repression of spontaneity and joy. In the miraculous psychology of the story, Scrooge converts to be “merry as a schoolboy” and cures Tiny Tim, sometimes overnight. The internalized Scrooge learns that the blame he projected on others is part of himself. Knowing this, he can suppress his Marley and liberate his Fezziwig. When the Christmas bells recall Belle, the fiancée he loved when he was “poor and content to be so” (p. 34) like Bob Cratchit, he can choose to be like his clerk, making himself “poor” again by helping others. In the psychological Carol, Scrooge is not the creation of social forces. He creates himself.

Philip Slater described such internalization as characteristic of the 1960s. “We interact largely with extensions of our own egos,” he wrote. “We stumble over the consequences of our past acts. We are drowning in our own excreta. … We rarely come into contact with a force which is clearly and cleanly Not-Us. Every struggle is a struggle with ourselves, because there is a little piece of ourselves in everything we encounter.”35 For Scrooge, this recognition enables his transformation, his choice to live in the past, present, and future and embrace all his many selves. But Slater suggested that such internalization was more often paralytic than therapeutic, for “the capacity to give oneself up completely to emotion is almost altogether lost. … Life is muted, experience filtered, emotion anesthetized, affective discharge incomplete.”36 Paralyzed by his awareness of the contradictory impulses within him, the Steppenwolf is incapable of spontaneous feeling and action. Slater considered the drugs and sensation-retrieval techniques of the sixties attempts to counter these paralyzing effects of internalization. Even more appealing than drugs, he suggested, was “a more authoritarian social structure, which would relieve the individual of the great burden of examining and moderating his own responses. He could become as a child, lighthearted, spontaneous, and passionate, secure in the knowledge that others would prevent his impulses from causing harm.”37 If the therapy of the dream failed to liberate Scrooge from his cold paralysis, he could convert to a flower child and be liberated simultaneously from economic responsibility and psychological debilitation. In the next performance in Scrooge's theater of all possibilities, he seeks such liberation and becomes the flower-child revolutionary.


The economic and psychological Carols drew attention to a discontinuity within the story. A little soft-hearted charity did not appear to go very far in correcting the excesses of hard-headed, laissez-faire individualism. It was also hard to believe that Scrooge could overcome the neglect and psychological distress of a lifetime overnight, no matter how therapeutic the spirits. So many readers noticed this discontinuity in the text that Elliott Gilbert defined it as “the Scrooge Problem.” Caught up in the story, one could be “almost convinced by Scrooge's change of heart, … [but] there is a measure of discontent arising from the obvious disparity between the way in which moral and psychological mechanisms operate in the story and the way in which they seem to the reader to work in the ‘real world,’ a discontent focusing … on the unconvincing ease and apparent permanence of Scrooge's reformation.”38 The more effective the analysis of Scrooge's problem, the less convincing his conversion seemed to be.

Victorian readers were not so likely to feel this discontent, for as a conversion story, the Carol was a cameo treatment of a theme pervasive in the literature of the century from Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus to the novels of George Eliot and Tolstoy. Dickens himself treated conversion in many of his novels, and although Scrooge's change of heart is not described in its stages of natural growth as Martin Chuzzlewit's is in the longer novel Dickens was writing at the same time, most Victorians could accept the story as an allegorical or fabular rendering of the conversion theme. Only the odd rationalist or political economist demanded a more realistic treatment, and a few dour Evangelical Christians found their ideal of conversion demeaned in the carnal revelry of the tale. For most Victorians, the Carol embodied one of the profound desires of the time.

Twentieth-century critics have been less willing to suspend their disbelief, sometimes allowing a modern cynicism about the possibility of conversion to prompt their discontent with the text. Edmund Wilson explained away Scrooge's conversion as mental disease. Humphry House judged it unconvincing because it was “mere pictorial allegory without any pretense of belief in supernatural power, Grace, or anything like that.”39 Even so devout a Dickensian as G. K. Chesteron denied the reality of the conversion when he suggested that Scrooge had “given away turkeys secretly all his life.”

In the late sixties and early seventies, solving the Scrooge Problem became the crucial critical issue. Several critics claimed that it was unreasonable to expect social or psychological realism from a religious allegory or a fairy tale, and argued that within its generic constraints the story successfully depicted Scrooge's conversion. Barbara Hardy showed that the treatment of Scrooge's change of heart was part of a whole tradition of conversion stories.40 In its use of the double, the story resembled many other literary accounts of sudden conversion, while its presentation of Scrooge's life in condensed form related it to the more realistic treatments of George Eliot and Henry James. In the most comprehensive critical interpretation of the story, Robert Patten elaborated the Victorian reading of it as religious allegory.41 With biblical allusion and symbolism, the spirits prompt Scrooge to realize that his denial of Christmas has inverted the biblical story; his journey as a nineteenth-century wise man ends in “the mock Adoration on a future Twelfth Night Epiphany” in Joe's den.42 Although the story is playful, Patten contends that “the conversion it enacts is serious and permanent. To suppose Dickens had anything less at heart … not only mocks Dickens' entire strategy, but also denies the words of the story, and what lies behind them, the Word.”43

The most timely solution to the Scrooge Problem was probably Gilbert's own, for he solved it by challenging rationalistic readings of the book. To classify the stages of Scrooge's developmental psychology or to speculate on the permanence of Scrooge's change, he proposed, was to remain “trapped in a rationalism that both Scrooge and Dickens have been at pains to overcome.”44 The Carol is neither a realistic account of Victorian society nor a psychological case study of Scrooge. The story does not explain his conversion and its causes. Rather, it is the myth of his recovery of “radical innocence.” Realizing that he has lost this innocence when he has fallen out of eternity into time, Scrooge recovers it when he learns to live simultaneously in past, present, and future and falls back into eternity. Scrooge's conversion was the story. To experience that story was, for the reader, to experience conversion as well.

The Scrooge Problem was also solved by a changed attitude toward conversion. Noting that “among today's youth, the phenomenon of ‘conversion’ is increasingly common,” sociologist Philip Slater described the typical converts from the communes and the colleges who gave up bourgeois money grubbing to become flower children: “In a brief span of months, a student, seemingly conventional in every way, changes his haircut, his clothes, his habits, his interests, his political attitudes, his way of relating to other people, in short, his whole way of life. He has ‘converted’ to a new consciousness.”45 Perceived as an extreme shift from one way of life to its opposite, the change was usually not so radical as it appeared. Slater chose a political analogy to describe the process: the student “appears to himself and others to have made a gross change, but actually it involves only a very small shift in the balance of a focal and persistent conflict. Just as only one percent of the voting population is needed to reverse the results of an American election, so only one percent of an individual's internal ‘constituencies’ need shift in order to transform him from voluptuary to ascetic, from policeman to criminal, from Communist to anticommunist, or whatever.”46 The metaphor suggests the connection between the two Scrooges, between the psychological case and the economic type, the inner and outer man, the soltiary miser and the manic celebrant. It also provides a way to comprehend the contradictory complexity of Scrooge's character.

Simultaneously embodying all the possibilities for his character, this complex Scrooge is always himself and his opposite. He might be characterized in the two visualizations of him produced at the beginning and end of the sixties by the British caricaturist Ronald Searle. In the 1960 volume, Searle's Scrooge is hawkish and gaunt, hiding within himself.47 Huddled in a high-collared coat, his glassy stare suggesting inner concentration, this withdrawn Scrooge visually doubles his ghostly ex-partner. Ten years later, in his caricatures for the film Scrooge (1970), Searle depicts a much more public figure than the lean and secretive miser of his earlier work. Rather than hiding within himself, this Scrooge, much better fed than his predecessor, confronts the world with his denial of Christmas and removes his hat to make his denunciation more telling. For while Scrooge is “self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” he also relishes the chance to shock the world with his misanthropy. He clearly enjoys the extravagant invention in his suggestion that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart” (CB, 10). Embodying opposite tendencies, miserly withdrawal and misanthropic confrontation, Searle's Scrooges contain the dialectical contradictions necessary for conversion. Only a slight shift in the constituencies of his personality turns him from his private to his public self, from a keeper to a spender.

As a dialectical character, Scrooge becomes a dynamic everyman. This status is not achieved by bland typicality or by allegory but rather by the contradictory genesis of his personality. He is simultaneously public and private, confrontational and secretive, active and passive, villain and victim. His presence is always doubled, his public appearance always shadowed by his opposite potentiality. Defined by contradiction, Scrooge embodied the consciousness of the sixties, described most tellingly at the time in Charles Reich's dialectic of the three consciousnesses in The Greening of America (1970).

Reich asserted that America was on the verge of a cultural revolution. Based on a historical analysis that described three dialectical stages to modern culture, Reich's revolution would transform America by consciousness raising, beginning with the conversion of the individual and changing “the political structure only as its final act.”48 Consciousness One, the thesis in this dialectical model, was the competitive jungle of economic individualism in nineteenth-century America. The antithesis to this individualistic thesis, Consciousness Two, was the hierarchical corporate state, largely put in place by the New Deal, which substituted the benevolent power of large economic and political institutions for the hegenomy of the individual. The coming synthesis, the revolutionary transcendence to Consciousness Three, would re-empower the individual, but with a new vision of human nature. Instead of the atomistic individual of Consciousness One, committed to pursuit of his economic self-interest in a mechanical system of laissez-faire, Consciousness Three will empower the individual as organic “self” to grow in a nurturing new social garden. In this liberating ecoculture, the flowering of the individual will also be the greening of America.

Although Dickens lived at a time when Britain was in transition from Consciousness One to Consciousness Two, Reich noted that he possessed an awareness “of the deeper ills” of society essential to the emergence of Consciousness Three.49 Following this hint, Warren French described A Christmas Carol as Dickens' fabular version of “the greening of London town.”50 He traced Scrooge's growth from the suspicious economic individualist of Stave One to the statist of Consciousness Two who rejects Belle because of the opinion of the world, and finally to the liberated person of Stave 5 acting from an inner sense of worth. The internalized man of Consciousness Three, French's Scrooge is not changed by political pressure or by supernatural intervention. His greening is prompted “by his own vision.”

The 1970 film musical Scrooge also presented the Carol as a tale of Christmas greening.51 Featuring Albert Finney as Scrooge, Alec Guinness as Marley, and Edith Evans as the Spirit of Christmas Past, the film now appears very much a product of its time, but it incorporated so well the assumptions of its period that the London Times, preserver of British tradition, commended its “close proximity to the original.”52 Although its musical score disappointed the reviewers, most would nonetheless have agreed with Vincent Canby, who found the film “quite acceptable” as a version of the story, and with Christopher Hudson, who described Albert Finney as “the definitive Scrooge of our times.”53

Scrooge sums up the assumptions of the postwar Carol. Transcending its British origin, it is the postmodern Carol of the global village. It melds the British music-hall one-man show with the pizzazz of the Hollywood musical, ending with a high-kicking cockney chorus on the Busby Berkeley model. It adopts the “egalitarianism” of the American Carol: class distinctions between Scrooge and Cratchit are replaced by generational distance, and Bob's wish for Tiny Tim is that he will become a millionaire. It also assumes the interiorization of Scrooge. Without dwelling on his psychobiography, it treats the story as the emergence of his selfhood. The doubling and feminization of the psychological Carol here link Scrooge's death with Tiny Tim's and cast a woman as the spirit of Scrooge's Christmases past. The spirits project Scrooge's inner being. They do not show him the ills of society; they show him himself.

Finney's Scrooge embodies the dialectical contradictions that make his conversion possible. A miser with hands dirtied from handling money, he celebrates his misanthropy in the opening scenes with a rasping recitation of “I Hate People.” The song's Swiftian summary of human corruption lists “scavengers,” “sycophants,” and “flatterers,” and “fools,” “pharisees,” “hypocrites,” “swindlers,” and “frauds.” Scrooge concludes that “people are despicable creatures!” But instead of withdrawing from humanity as a result of this unsettling conclusion, he seeks out opportunities to make life miserable for others. Repressed and withdrawn, he is also aggressively assertive. He is an active, confrontational misanthrope. Even his physical appearance is ambiguous. Neither young nor old, to one critic he appeared “prematurely aged,” while another thought him “too full of face for a man of withered soul.”54 Although he enacts a fantasy of Scrooge, Father Christmas, and Santa Claus all rolled into one, he also fits Pauline Kael's characterization as “glum and realistic.”55 These ambivalences in Finney's character suggest his dialectical complexity.

As a representative of Consciousness One, he recites the litany of laissez-faire. He excuses himself from Christmas charity, pleading that he pays taxes to aid the poor. Then, going a step further than his original, he expresses resentment at being “forced” to pay such taxes. They interfere with his first duty to his own self-interest. To this morose economic individualism, Leslie Bricusse adds an intense puritanism. Scrooge religiously affirms hard work as “the only reality” and attacks the “indolent classes / Sitting on their indolent arses.” Rather than objecting to Bob Cratchit's holiday on economic grounds—that he must pay him a day's wages for no work—he is offended by Bob's hedonism. “The trouble with you, Cratchit,” he says to the clerk, “is that all you think of is pleasure.” Finney's Scrooge has always denied himself pleasure. At Fezziwig's party, he does not dance with his fiancée, because he has refused to learn how to dance, even though “Isabel, who clearly adored Ebenezer, tr[ied] with great love and understanding to bring him out of his shell and introduce him to a world of pleasure and happiness that his many inhibitions made it hard for him to accept.”56

Isabel fails to free him from his puritanism. She later leaves him because he adds to his Consciousness One inhibitions the institutional fears of Consciousness Two. When she tells him that he loves money more than he loves her, his rebuttal—“How shall I ever understand the world? … There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty, and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”—articulates his confused attempt to define himself by the world's expectations. His success in this endeavor over a lifetime makes him an institution. At the beginning of the film the chorus of street urchins, liberated harbingers of Consciousness Three, taunt him as “Father Christmas.” They do not see him as an eccentric iconoclast but as the representative of the established order, a Father Christmas of the old consciousness, a “miser,” a “skinflint,” “the meanest man in the whole wide world.” Rather than promoting the holiday, Scrooge and his repressive society devote all their energy to preventing it from happening. Leave your stocking out for Christmas, the urchins sing, “and he'll steal it.”

The greening of Scrooge begins when he abandons the assumptions of scarcity to adopt the perspective of affluence. His transformation turns on several phrases that articulate the creed of the new consciousness. Countering his puritanical belief that happiness is not something man should strive for, and his Consciousness Two sensibility that allows society to define his reality, Scrooge must learn Isabel's message that “happiness is whatever you want it to be.” The revolution does not begin with a change in the political structure, but rather with a new consciousness that accepts happiness and pleasure as worthy personal goals.

Pleasure is not in expectation or delayed gratification. It is in the “here and now.” This catchphrase of the sixties runs through the film, for as Scrooge is liberated from the fears of scarcity that have driven him to hard work and miserliness, he celebrates living in the present. Christmas Day is any day lived in the here and now. Tiny Tim usually sings one of the traditional Christmas carols, but in Scrooge he wishes that the beautiful day he dreams about will be “here and now.” And Scrooge, when he finally stops hating people and promises to “be better somehow,” learns to “like life here and now!” In the vision of Hell in Christmas Future—when Scrooge sees his eternal destiny as Satan's clerk working in a freezing office, “the only man in Hell who's cold”—Marley expounds the pop theology of the film: “Let's talk about Heaven a minute,” he says to Scrooge. “Heaven—you idiot—you're in it on earth!” Hell may have eternal presence; Heaven exists only in the here and now.

Scrooge's guide to the here and now, the Pablo for this yuletide Steppenwolf, is the Spirit of Christmas Present, his mentor in what Reich calls learning “how to live.” The spirit converts by kindness, on the pleasure principle, abjuring such strong-arm fear techniques as visions of Ignorance and Want. His most potent persuader is the milk of human kindness, a chemical he dispenses liberally to turn on the populace to the spirit of the day. When Scrooge shows signs of backsliding, a few sips of the milk are sufficient to make him ecstatic and to keep him receptive to the philosophy of this tinseled Timothy Leary. “I like pouring the wine,” he sings to tune Scrooge into his version of the Christmas spirit, turn him onto the pleasures of the here and now, and convince him to drop out of the puritanical established culture.

The usual class distance between the miser and his clerk is replaced by generational differences in Scrooge. Instead of being pitted against the surplus population of the poor, Finney's Scrooge wars against youth. His antagonists are a gang of cockney street children who collect pennies from the older generation for not disturbing the peace with their singing. Scrooge's institutional power does not intimidate them. They do not run from him in fear like the caroling boys in other versions of the story. When Scrooge tries to chase them away from his door, they taunt him by calling him “Farver Christmas,” and when Cratchit smiles at their insolence, Scrooge warns him that he has “a dangerous sense of humour.” Scrooge later marks his conversion by joining these youthful revolutionaries. Dressed in a Santa Claus suit that he has borrowed from a shop window, he leads the mob down the street praising the spirits and their youthful allies and singing the secular hymn “Thank You Very Much.” When they meet a church choir singing traditional carols, so envious are the choirboys to see “that those in Scrooge's party [are] having much more fun than they [are, that] they surge down the church steps, almost trampling the choirmaster underfoot in their eagerness to fall in behind Scrooge.”57 Liberating the holiday from its established sacred customs and from its otherworldly theology, the Christmas Revolution is well underway and Scrooge/Santa has become its Lenin. The Consciousness Two “Farver Christmas” has been turned into a secular Santa of the streets, de-institutionalized, and raised to Consciousness Three.

Not all the critics of the period were convinced of Scrooge's liberation. Some thought his change into Santa Claus cheapened the holiday into materialistic indulgence. Gene Shalit complained that the film “ruined the redemptive core of the story” and turned Scrooge into a “tinseled tinkerer who equates Christmas with goods and things.”58 But from a New-Age perspective, Scrooge could be seen as one who had given up the miserly view of money as a means of narcissistic self-aggrandizement to adopt the economics of affluence. Buying toys for all the children of the streets and promising to hire the best doctors to cure Tiny Tim, he uses money for the pleasure it will give.

Yet the materialism of film's ending reveals a residual discontent, for it displaces the biblical subtext of the Carol. The traditional carols sung by Tiny Tim and the waits in most versions of the story are here replaced by the secular, music-hall “carols” of Leslie Bricusse. Rather than Christ's nativity, these songs celebrate “December the 25th,” “Happiness,” and “The Beautiful Day.” Tiny Tim does not return from church “good as gold,” hoping that his handicap has reminded others of the Christ child. Instead he sings in the streets, earning tenpence ha'penny and the commendation from Bob: “Another fantastic coup by young Timothy Cratchit, the financial wizard! At only seven years of age, the youngest millionaire in the vast Cratchit empire!” The banalities of pop culture and the business motifs of the American Carol have supplanted the biblical subtext of the original. The “old theology” of the visit to Hell is included ony to be discredited by the theology of the here and now.

In this Carol for the secular city, the discontent finally centers on the question of whether the Christmas story itself is believable. The Christmas story in question, however, is not the story of Christ's nativity but the mythology of Father Christmas/Santa/Scrooge. A believer, Tiny Tim affirms “that story we've been told [that] Christmas is for children, young and old,” but the street urchins are more cynical. They know that Father Christmas is a skinflint and they distrust the Christmas mythology. When Scrooge reforms, he promises to change their version of his story, “to start anew” and “make quite certain that the story ends on a note of hope.” But the absence of the biblical subtext in Scrooge makes this strong amen difficult. The underlying mythology of the film celebrates Christmas as a festival of pagan recurrence, of the annual cycle of restoration from the depths of winter cold. Without the biblical story there is no escape from this cycle, no possibility for a final amen. Celebrating the here and now, Scrooge fails to fall into eternity and becomes a retelling of the recycling of Scrooge from old Father Christmas into youthful Santa Claus. It is trapped in time, in the problematic cycle that repeats itself every “December the 25th.”


The Scrooge Problem could be reformulated as the Carol Problem. Caught in the contradiction between a one-time conversion story and a retelling of a familiar tale, A Christmas Carol attempts to merge two irreconcilable texts. As conversion story it begins when the anniversary of Marley's death prompts Scrooge's midlife crisis, progresses through the review of Scrooge's life, and ends with his liberated awakening on Christmas morning. That such a Damascus road experience happens only once in a lifetime is implicit in the strong linearity of this tale, with its definite beginning, middle, and end. But as a retelling the text reminds us of the Carol's status as story by starting a second text after the opening paragraphs with a new beginning: “Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting house” (CB, 8). The formula recalls the many similar stories we have heard, but most of all it reminds us that we have heard this story before and that this is a retelling. For the purposes of the retelling, we must forget Scrooge's former conversions to begin the cycle once again with the unredeemed hero, otherwise “nothing wonderful can come of the story.” As retelling, the Carol necessarily contradicts the finality of its conversion theme. The story ends in contradiction, in the paradox of its hero/villain expanded to explain the world. Our tears of joy celebrate simultaneously the conversion and the inevitable human need to retell the tale again next year.

While the counterculture celebrated Scrooge's greening, there were those who did not specially want it to happen. They focused instead on his reversion and the inevitability of the story's retelling. Thomas Meehan's “A Christmas Carol, Revised and Updated for 1969” tells of Scrooge as a soft-headed New York business executive who begins singing carols early in the fall and gives all of his employees disproportionately large Christmas bonuses.59 He reverts to Scroogishness when three very modern Christmas spirits—Holly, Belle, and Carol, in bunnyesque, disaphanous nightgowns—reveal his life to him. They show him his past when his cruel father Adolph gave him only a single lump of blue coal for Christmas, his present as the cynical Cratchit family exult in their employer's naivete, and his future when he becomes a Salvation Army Santa begging in the streets. Retracting the Christmas bonuses, and cutting Bob's salary by 37 percent, he becomes “as mean, miserly, and generally unpleasant as any old skinflint could possibly be, … for Ebenezer Scrooge … had at last learned the modern meaning of Christmas. In short, late in life, he'd become as mean-spirited as those around him. … Or, as Tiny Tim later put it when cringing at the very mention of Scrooge, ‘God help us, Every One!’” Verbally echoing Dickens' text, Meehan's parody casts doubt on the conversion by emphasizing the retelling.

Marion Markham explains away Scrooge's conversion as the result of fraud. His detective story “What Really Happened to Scrooge?” describes the investigation of Inspector Mudrick of Scotland Yard into the case of Scrooge's transformation.60 Although he suspects nearly everyone, even Tiny Tim, whose “pleasant smile and cheerful manner [are] obviously a clever cover for his real feelings,” Mudrick finally arrests Scrooge's housekeeper, Mrs. Potter, who has used her psychic powers as a former medium to “produce” the spirits and terrify Scrooge into an altruism from which she will benefit. Yet when the truth is known, Scrooge refuses to press charges, because help is so hard to get. Instead he decides to pretend that he is a changed man so that he can save on his tavern bill by getting invited out to dinner. Like everyone else in the story, with the possible exception of the detective, Scrooge has become a fraud.

The most interesting of these reversion parodies, Russell Baker's “The Ghost of Christmas Endless,” purports to be an interview with a latter-day Scrooge who has left England in 1931 to escape taxes and settled in a trailer park in Passaic, New Jersey.61 There he complains that he was just a “typical nineteenth-century businessman,” not a misanthrope, and that he was totally misrepresented by that “monstrous hack, Dickens.” But his fundamental complaint is that Dickens misrepresented the truth by telling a story with beginning, middle, and end. “It wasn't that things turned out so badly,” he says, “but that they just didn't turn out at all. Instead they just went on, as things always do. We always expect things to turn out, and they don't. You close the story with Tiny Tim saying ‘God bless us every one,’ and you think it has turned out, but instead it goes right on.” In Baker's version Tim has gone on to become a rich bookmaker, Fred to abandon his wife and take up painting in Samoa, Mrs. Cratchit to open a goose carry-out shop, and Scrooge to become a small-time complainer in a trailer park in Passaic. By reducing the conversion story to ridiculous triviality, Baker's Carol becomes wholly a “retelling.” It doesn't turn out; it goes on. Lacking mythic contradiction, Baker's Scrooge makes us aware of the power of his original by calling attention to his absence in Passaic. Baker's article elicits our desire for the conversion story with beginning, middle, and ecstatic end, to transcend the unrelieved triviality of things just going on.

The Carol is not only about Scrooge's conversion. It is itself a conversion experience. Lesley Conger describes rereading the story for the first time as an adult and being brought to tears at the moment when Scrooge leans out of his window and learns from the boy in the street that he has not missed Christmas Day.62 Following closely on Scrooge's visit to the City of the Dead in Christmas Yet-to-Come, this moment of therapeutic release, for Scrooge and for the reader, becomes the moment of purest joy. Even when rereading the tale, we anticipate this moment of ecstasy.

The therapeutic effect of the story does not derive from the dream itself but from its telling. Some modern versions of the Carol—like the recording made by Ronald Colman (1949)—cast Scrooge as the narrator, for in the telling Scrooge brings to consciousness the story's therapeutic power. But a negative, humbugging Scrooge has difficulty engaging the sympathy of the reader. He is too definite a caricature, too extreme a case. In the original, Dickens' narrator acts as intermediary between Scrooge's dream and the reader. Just as the spirits act as Scrooge's therapists, making the significance of his life apparent to him, so the narrator acts as the therapist-teller of the tale who vicariously engages the reader with its healing power. He has both judgmental distance on the negative Scrooge and a sympathetic desire to share his transformation. He can describe Scrooge's coldness and isolation with irony, but he can also share Scrooge's sense of regret and loss.

Nevertheless, the narrator does not fully understand his subject. Presenting Scrooge as the cold and withdrawn miser in Stave 1, he neglects his energy and wit, his enjoyment of word play, cleverness, and confrontation. When he tells us that “Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes” (p. 18), we question his report, for we have already heard several of Scrooge's witticisms. The narrator's misrepresentation of his subject suggests his reasons for telling the story and heightens its therapeutic effect. Ignoring the complexities in Scrooge's character, he simplifies him into a polarized figure, the ogre transformed into godfather from children's fairy tale. This polarization heightens the conversion story, but it suppresses the narrator's adult knowledge that Scrooge, like himself, lives in contradiction. The narrator's identification with the contradictory Scrooge is most apparent during the vision of Belle's family in Christmas Past. As he watches the younger children chase the older daughter, who resembles her mother at the time of her engagement to Scrooge, the narrator adopts Scrooge's wish as his own: “What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn't for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn't have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn't have done it; I should have expected my arm to have grown round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips, to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value” (p. 36). Our post-Freudian perspective may make it impossible for us to share the innocence of this Victorian wish, but this is the essential desire of the text: to transcend the contradiction of innocence and experience. Christmas itself becomes the metaphor to reconcile age and youth; the Carol, the means to achieve simultaneously a fresh experience and a retelling. To ask whether Scrooge's conversion is permanent or convincing is to view the story from a mortal perspective. To open the window with Scrooge and learn from the boy in the street that we have not missed Christmas Day is, at that moment, to achieve the narrator's wish and see the world from the perspective of eternity.

For Dickens, writing A Christmas Carol was itself a conversion experience. Bogged down in the swamps of the Eden colony in the American sections of Martin Chuzzlewit, he longed to escape the oppressive greed and violence of that text. His account of the inspiration for the Carol, which came in a flash while he was visiting Manchester to speak to a convocation of workingmen, describes a moment of recognition and release similar to Scrooge's awakening. The story's affirmation of the goodness of common humanity offered a dialectical alternative to Chuzzlewit, countering the rapacity of its fallen world. Georgina Hogarth, Dickens' sister-in-law, never remembered seeing him more excited by his writing. He “wept and laughed and wept again” as he worked over the Carol's pages. And when he completed the manuscript, he “broke out like a madman” to celebrate the holiday.63

Biographers have found bits of Dickens' life and character in many details in the Carol.64 Scrooge's lonely childhood and the darkened schoolhouse are reminders of the blacking warehouse where Dickens felt abandoned as a child. Fan, the sister who rescues Scrooge from his scholastic exile, recalls Dickens' own sister Fanny. Fred's enthusiasm for the holiday and the Spirit of Christmas Present's magnanimity as a Christmas host recall Dickens' love of the holiday and his enjoyment of celebration. But Dickens identified himself with the converted Scrooge. In an 1855 letter to his assistant editor, W. H. Wills, he wrote: “Scrooge is delighted to find that Bob Cratchit is enjoying his holiday in such a delightful situation; and he says (with that warmth of nature which has distinguished him since his conversion), ‘Make the most of it, Bob; make the most of it.”65 In writing the Carol, perhaps, Dickens transcended the two Scrooges to make the most of the many contradictory Scrooges within himself.


  1. Dickens and Melville in Their Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 43.

  2. This British-made adaptation aired on ABC-TV on 21 December 1971. It was also “traditional” in using Alastair Sim as the voice for Scrooge. A brief account of its making appeared in TV Guide, 18 December 1971: 19–22.

  3. Clifford Wigram, London Times, 29 December 1969.

  4. Caedmon Records, TCS 5001 (1960).

  5. Britain and America: An Interpretation of Their Culture, 1945–75 (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 158–59.

  6. Charles Dickens: A Biographical and Critical Study (London: A. Dakers, 1950), 245.

  7. Potter's role as substitute father to Bailey follows the formula described in the psychological study of postwar movies by Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Movies: A Psychological Study (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1950); see especially chapter 2. They note a pattern in American films of a natural father whose ineffectuality allows the hero to assert himself and seek his destiny, and a strong, displaced father-figure who embodies the power missing in the natural father and who acts as antagonist to the hero.

  8. The Nation, 15 February 1947: 158.

  9. “Was Scrooge Right?” Catholic World 180 (December 1954): 183–84.

  10. Steppenwolf, ed. Joseph Mileck (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1963), 192.

  11. Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical (New York: International Publishers, 1938), 287.

  12. Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952), 1:485, 489.

  13. Snowman, Britain and America, 158–59.

  14. The Affluent Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958). See especially chapters 2 and 3.

  15. “Traffic,” C. F. Harrold and W. D. Templeman, eds., Victorian Prose (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), 996.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Could Ruskin have read the Carol with the same perspective that produced this economic analysis, he might have become the first of its economic revisionist readers. Instead the story's actualization of the principles of affluence offended his Calvinist religious principles and he criticized it for its lack of spiritual truth. See p. 59 above.

  18. Quoted in John Strachey, The Strangled Cry (New York: William Sloane, 1962), 212.

  19. Quoted in James Bonar, Malthus and His Work (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 305–06.

  20. Philip Collins, ed., Dickens: The Critical Heritage (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971), 152–53.

  21. The Pursuit of Loneliness, 103.

  22. Monica Dickens, Introduction to A Christmas Carol: The Original Manuscript (New York: James H. Heineman, 1967), xi.

  23. Don Richard Cox, “Scrooge's Conversion,” PMLA 90 (1975): 923.

  24. Charles Dickens, 1:485.

  25. Philip McM. Pittman, “A Christmas Carol: Review and Assessment,” VIJ 4 (1975): 25.

  26. “Joy, Joy! And Pull out All the Stops! Scrooge,” Writer 85 (December 1972): 8.

  27. W. E. Morris, “The Conversion of Scrooge,” Studies in Short Fiction 3 (1965): 47.

  28. “Dickens' Excremental Vision,” VS 13 (1970): 339–54.

  29. For a full interpretation of the Carol as dream narrative, see W. E. Morris's “Conversion of Scrooge.”

  30. The animated television Carol (API Studio, 1969) was adapted by Michael Robinson and directed by Zoran Jangic.

  31. The Dickensian 65 (1969): 112–13 noted a report in the Knoxville Journal quoting the president of Screen Gems. He was providing justification for a new film script of the Carol being prepared by Christopher Isherwood.

  32. A Christmas Carol (Great Britain: Renown Pictures, 1951), released by United Artists; produced by Brian Desmond Hurst; directed by Brian Desmond Hurst; screenplay by Noel Langley. Cast: Alastair Sim (Scrooge), Kathleen Harrison (Mrs. Dilber), Jack Warner (Mr. Jorkins), Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley), Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit), Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Cratchit), Glyn Dearman (Tiny Tim), George Cole (Young Scrooge), Roddy Hughes (Fezziwig).

  33. Quoted in Regina Barreca, “The Ghost of an Idea: Freud, Film, and A Christmas Carol,” an unpublished talk at the Dickens Project, Santa Cruz, Calif., 1985.

  34. All citations of Regina Barreca are to the talk cited above and are quoted with permission.

  35. The Pursuit of Loneliness, 18.

  36. Ibid., 25.

  37. Ibid.

  38. “The Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol,PMLA 90 (1975): 22.

  39. The Dickens World (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 53.

  40. The Moral Art of Dickens (London: Athlone Press, 1970), chapter 2.

  41. “Dickens Time and Again,” DSA 2 (1972): 163–96.

  42. Ibid., 187.

  43. Ibid., 196.

  44. Gilbert, “The Ceremony of Innocence,” 29.

  45. Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness, 240.

  46. Ibid., 4.

  47. A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Ronald Searle (Cleveland: World, 1960).

  48. The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1970), 4.

  49. Ibid., 216.

  50. “The Greening of London Town,” Kansas Quarterly 7, no. 4 (1975): 99–102.

  51. Scrooge (Great Britain: Cinema Center Films, 1970), released by National General Pictures. Producer: Robert H. Solo; executive producer: Leslie Bricusse; director: Ronald Neame; screenplay: Leslie Bricusse. Cast: Albert Finney (Scrooge), Alec Guinness (Marley), Edith Evans (Christmas Past), Kenneth More (Christmas Present), Laurence Naismith (Fezziwig), David Collings (Bob Cratchit), Richard Beaumont (Tiny Tim).

  52. London Times, 27 November 1970: 13.

  53. Canby, The New York Times, 20 November 1970; Hudson, “Cashing in on Christmas,” The Spectator, 5 December 1970: 736.

  54. Hudson, “Cashing in on Christmas,” 736; Alex Keneas, Newsweek 76 (14 December 1970): 104–05.

  55. The New Yorker 46 (28 November 1970): 175–76.

  56. Elaine Donaldson, “Scrooge”, adapted from the screenplay by Leslie Bricusse (New York: Cinema Center Films, 1970), 54.

  57. Ibid., 127.

  58. Look 34 (15 December 1970): 26–27.

  59. Mademoiselle 70 (December 1969): 124, 166, 173–74.

  60. Blackwood's Magazine 314 (July 1973): 20–27.

  61. The New York Times, 22 December 1973: 22.

  62. Conger, “Joy, Joy!” 8.

  63. Letter to C. C. Felton, 2 January 1844, in Letters, 4:2.

  64. See, for example, Lindsay, Charles Dickens, 244; Michael Slater, Dickens and Women (London: Dent, 1983), 356–57; and Stone, Dickens and the Invisible World, 124–25.

  65. Quoted in Lindsay, Charles Dickens, 245.

Donald R. Burleson (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Dickens's A Christmas Carol,” in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 211–12.

[In the following essay, Burleson compares the characters of Scrooge and his nephew, Fred.]

It would seem that there could be no clearer or more unambiguously delineated an opposition than that which occurs in Dickens's A Christmas Carol when Scrooge's nephew comes to invite his uncle to Christmas dinner. The nephew delivers his oft-quoted encomium of Christmas as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time,” and Scrooge makes his own distaste for the Yuletide season abundantly plain. The opposition is one universally familiar: the Christmas-loving nephew's outgoing good-heartedness versus Scrooge's Christmas-hating miserliness and meanness of spirit. However, this supposedly stable bipolarity is one that the text itself subtly deconstructs in such a way as not merely to make problematic the logic of the opposition, but to deepen, as well, the textual significance of the famous Christmas eve encounter.

Scrooge's visitation by his nephew creates the impression of being a sort of ritual dance, a double posturing wherein each partner is a complementation-figure to the other. The chorus-like, stichomythic exchanges—“Uncle!” and “Nephew!”—tend to heighten this impression. But it is precisely in this ritualistic exchange that the textual voices unwittingly exchange also something of their roles, as they discuss the question of time (a key concern, of course, throughout).

It is the obdurate and truculently unfestive Scrooge who describes Christmas as “a time for finding yourself a year older”—the nephew's year, reckoned from Yuletide to Yuletide—“and not an hour richer.” Curiously, with this remark he adopts Christmas as his very paradigm for structuring and measuring time, for defining the beginning and the endpoint of an elapsed year in one's life; he thus centralizes that which he purports to dismiss.

On the other hand, the nephew's own express mode of measuring time resides in his reference to Christmas as “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year”—Scrooge's year, the year of ledgers and fiscal legalities—“when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely. …” In the nephew's remark, the calendar year is a structural donnée, an established and standard temporal spectrum on which Christmas (“when it has come round”) is a lone point preceded by and followed by other points. The nephew thus marginalizes what he purports to centralize, in a manner complementary to that in which Scrooge centralizes what he presumably means to marginalize.

The point is that the dichotomy of character is not so sharply drawn as one might suppose, in that the syntactic flirting of each party with notions supposedly characteristic only of the other party allegorically points up the covert presence, in each character, of an essential trace of the other. Textual evidence abounds. The nephew, after all, does mention Scrooge's wealth as a reason why one ought not to be “dismal” and “morose”; he is thus perhaps not so unmaterialistic as he pretends. Conversely, it is obvious that Scrooge could scarcely undergo so radical a metamorphosis as he later does without possessing some seed of redeemability. But it is the language of the two characters' encounter that first allegorizes their mutual complicity with each other's traits and suggests, early on, that the text cannot be taken to support any too simplistic or reductive a view of human nature.

Work Cited

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman and Hall, 1843. 8–9.

Natalie Shainess (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Charles Dickens: The First (Interpersonal) Psychoanalyst or—A Christmas Carol: A Literary Psychoanalysis,” in American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 52, No. 4, December, 1992, pp. 351–62.

[In the following essay, Shainess maintains that A Christmas Carol “is more than a story or satire—it is a literary psychoanalysis, largely of the interpersonal variety though with a hint of the Freudian as well.”]

Charles Dickens appeared on the British scene in 1812, approximately 300 years after Shakespeare. It may seem to some an exaggeration to connect him with the preeminent writer of all time, William Shakespeare, but I think not. Dickens was primarily a storyteller, not a playwright or poet. But in his understanding of character and society, in the variety, richness, and compelling nature of his storytelling, the comparison holds.

In addition to all his writer's gifts—his marvelous storytelling, use of humor, irony, turns of plot—Dickens offered a relentless social commentary on the pitiful plight of the poor and underprivileged of his time, and on the insensitivity and hypocrisy of the privileged. Just as Shakespeare presented hidden depths in his plays, offering the ethics and values of the society—often unnoticed, as they are in life—Charles Dickens did the same. His experience of having to work in a blacking factory at age 12 because his father was sent to debtor's prison, and early observations of London as a young journalist, led to social activism, as well as works such as “Criminal Courts,” “A Visit to Newgate,” Little Dorrit, and Sketches by Boz, the last reflecting the hypocrisies of middle-class life.

His work calls to mind those of a fellow Englishman of roughly a century earlier, William Hogarth, who satirized the London scene in painting and engraving, and also the work of the French artist Daumier. His novels such as Oliver Twist,Pickwick Papers,David Copperfield,Nicholas Nickleby, and Hard Times reflect his observations of society. Yet many of his novels as exemplified by Great Expectations,Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby deal with the young and have a happy ending—perhaps to encourage readers, but also perhaps as a wish-fulfillment to make unbearable suffering endurable, offering hope.

Unfortunately there is little time for further biographical anecdote, except to say that he married Catherine Hogarth, who may have been a descendant of the artist; he was not as good a husband as one might have expected; and he lived a very rich and full life.

Dickens developed the habit of writing Christmas tales. Today, Christmas tends to be synthetic with its major emphasis on drinking and gifts—a recent trend being the extending of lists of preferred gifts, leaving the giver the task of shopping and paying, but eliminating the true meaning of gift giving—and it is a custom dangerously close to a kind of extortion. In Dickens' time, when life was simpler and families were together, surely the joy and warmth he portrayed were more consistent with reality, even though he acknowledged that his Christmas tales were somewhat sentimental. Of course, in A Christmas Carol exaggeration of the joys of Christmas serves as a foil to emphasize Scrooge's character.

So, it is on A Christmas Carol that I base my contention that Dickens had the understanding of a psychoanalyst and was perhaps the first. A Christmas Carol was started between David Copperfield and Oliver Twist in 1843, the idea coming from his participation in a panel on social injustice in Manchester, along with Disraeli and others. It was the first of his series of yearly Christmas stories. It was read by thousands and celebrated repeatedly at Christmas time—perhaps more for its surface pleasure than for its profound insights. A Christmas Carol is more than a story or satire—it is a literary psychoanalysis, largely of the interpersonal variety though with a hint of the Freudian as well.

A Christmas Carol is a story of character disorder and alienation. It is also a story of redemption through insight and willingness to expiate one's sins, which in this case are also the symptoms of cruelties and failings. The organization of this tale offers a deep and touching parallel with psychoanalytic understanding and treatment, with emphasis on the interpersonal, on anxieties aroused by interaction, on lack of self-esteem and character distortion caused by early wounds.

In paraphrasing this tale, Dickens becomes “Dr.” Dickens as the patient “consults” him because his alienation has become intolerable, and because he suffers from unbearable nightmares. As with all patients, Scrooge initially has no or little insight into his own behavior, but due to the skill of his analyst he becomes aware and changes. In this case, insight, change, and reform go hand in hand.

In Dickens' study and development of the principal character, Ebenezer Scrooge, he details the traumata that led to his character distortions, describing the so-called “anal character” explored by Freud (1916), Abraham (1921), Fenichel (1945), Arieti (1974), among others. Early toilet-training problems are only the first causes of an attempt to gain power by holding on to something—what Arieti considered “the problem of volition”—that is, the refusal to give up either feces or the child's own autonomy, later becoming after many “give up—hold on” struggles, a hatred of others (where the insistence on the child yielding has been too great) and a refusal to be generous in any way, which are part of a long line of anxieties and defensive strategies of a particularly damaging type. This is the situation of poor Scrooge, although the novel contains nothing about toilet-training.

Now in paraphrasing the novel into a psychoanalytic situation, there is no doubt that Scrooge is the patient, but Dickens, although frequently “Dr. Dickens,” also takes on other roles that I will mention. The novel starts with the current situation of the patient—Scrooge's “chief complaints” so to speak, and the nightmares, which, unbearable, bring the patient to Dr. Dickens, and of course to the attention of the reader or listener. These are fascinating creative nightmares that present the horrible ghosts or spirits of the past, the present, and the potentially dreadful future that awaits—if Scrooge does not change.

Dickens describes the treatment (though not exactly as we might think of it today in psychoanalytic terms) and the development of “insight” as well as the empowerment that comes with change—life opening up and becoming somewhat more bountiful in spite of all that has been lost. Of course, the damaged life can never be in old age what it might have been if change had come earlier. At the outset, the spirits of the three nightmares are delegates of the psychoanalyst “Dr.” Dickens confronting the patient Scrooge with his unfortunate early experience, his actions in the present, and the painful future that awaits him unless he develops insight and changes. (Let me observe at this point that I have used Dickens' language wherever possible, to convey the flavor of his wonderful writing and his depth of thought.)

The stage is set with the background of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's partner, who was in every way like him (after all, who else would work with him?) and who died seven years before, leaving everything to Scrooge, who was his sole executor, sole administrator, sole assign, sole residual legatee, sole friend, and sole mourner. This was the plight of Marley and it is also that of Scrooge. Dickens appraises him saying: “Oh, but he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner … hard and sharp as flint from which no steel ever struck out generous fire … secret, self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” Thus, Dr. Dickens makes an accurate first appraisal: Scrooge is an alienated man. Before continuing let me acknowledge, as Dickens did himself, that there are exaggerations and sentimental elements in this tale. But these could be related to the exaggerated feelings that the patient has. There are also exaggerated contrasts: Everybody is good/Scrooge is mean. These exaggerations are often found in patients' beliefs and expressions—there is often no room for gray.

Starting out on this psychoanalytic journey, Scrooge, well beyond being able to tolerate his life, shows up at Dr. Dickens' office (his habitat, his mind). Dr. Dickens observes his patient: He is poorly dressed, quick to make sour comments, full of complaints about the allegedly false gaiety or happy demeanor of those around him. Asked about his symptoms or complaints, Ebenezer pours out a story filled with woe about people, but even more about the terrible nightmares he has had lately. Dr. Dickens ignores the latter for the moment, and questions further: Does Mr. Scrooge eat well? The fearfully thin and bony Scrooge replies that it would be absurd and wasteful to eat more than necessary, or consume expensive or fancy food. He launches into a familiar complaint: “This business of a goose for Christmas—what nonsense.” He observes that his assistant Bob Cratchit insists on having one, even though he is as poor as a churchmouse. And he adds gratuitously, “I don't believe in wasting money on a fire, either—who needs a place to be warm—it's just burning up money.”

Dr. Dickens does not question him about his bowel habits, but I think we all know where to place him, because Scrooge is obviously one of those tight, constipated people. In thinking about Scrooge, Dickens comes up with a metaphor, which the patient provides, as is often the case in regard to how patients view their life conditions. Scrooge's house is haunted! Haunted by his early traumata, his alienation, his hatred of people—especially happy people. As writer and psychoanalyst, Dickens is clear that Hell is not “devils and pitchforks” but living with the ugliness of one's own attitudes and actions. And evil is not just what you do but what you don't do—the neglected and omitted kindnesses from which we all suffer, to some degree, on both sides of the equation.

Dr. Dickens “questions” Scrooge now. Ebenezer is annoyed because, as usual, his nephew has come to invite him to Christmas dinner. Scrooge's response was the overworked “Bah, Humbug” (the sour phraseology sums up his views of people) and he complains about all of the demands made on him in the name of Christmas. He threatens to fire his clerk for daring to request Christmas day off; he refuses a request for a contribution to help the poor. A caroler approaches singing, “God rest you merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay …,” leading Scrooge to pick up a ruler to attack him. These are the “annoyances” Scrooge has to contend with.

But there is one further symptom leading Scrooge to consult Dr. Dickens: He is beginning to “see things” (they are perhaps illusions rather than delusions, but troublesome nonetheless): He sees Marley's face in the old door-knocker. He also hears things: echoes from the rooms above and the wine merchants' casks below. He sees a locomotive hearse going before him in the gloom. He feels threatened; he double-locks himself in. Dickens appears to recognize that a certain paranoia is setting in. Sullivan (1956) would have considered this the start of the “malevolent transformation.” A hanging bell long unused begins to peal. The cellar door flies open and a transparent creature appears—it is Marley's ghost. “I won't believe it” Scrooge has insisted to himself, but he cannot continue to deny it, because he saw a figure passing through the heavy closed door of the cellar and into the room. “I know him! Marley's Ghost!” he shouted. It appears that Ebenezer has been hallucinating.

Such was the state of affairs that led him to consult Dr. Dickens. Now, Dr. Dickens turns to the nightmares—the symptoms that finally led Scrooge to seek help. He reports that there were three of them. But before they appeared, he encountered a Ghost. Confronted by the Ghost, Scrooge repeats his shibboleth, “I want to be left alone”—an oft-repeated phrase that contains the crux of his alienation. It is clear that any stranger is viewed by Scrooge as threatening because his response was to pull out a toothpick—the only weapon he had on him. Scrooge had asked the Ghost if he saw it. “Yes,” the Ghost replied. “But you are not looking at it,” Scrooge countered. “But I see it notwithstanding,” replied the ghost. This is fascinating because it is a complaint that patients may make. Dr. Dickens as a good psychoanalyst indicates by this that we do not need to stare at something directly to be quite aware of it. He also offers the recognition that in spite of unconscious processes, or in keeping with Sullivanian language (1956) in spite of selective inattention, we are to some extent aware of things we prefer to ignore. Also the psychoanalyst's gaze takes in many things.

Scrooge continues to report on his encounter with the Ghost, who is really the therapeutic spirit of Dr. Dickens, and who challenges him with, “Do you believe in me?” Scrooge replies, “I must—but why do spirits walk the earth?” “I must” implies that things have gotten out of hand for Scrooge—he has no choice but to believe in him. The Spirit replies that, “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men … and if it goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.” In this sequence Dr. Dickens combines with the unconscious processes of the patient to speak of Scrooge's isolation and alienation: Something that haunts the patient in life is likely to continue into the “afterlife”; his spirit cries out at wandering unconnected to anyone, and is forced to witness what he cannot share, especially the warmth he cannot share. Scrooge wrings his hands in anguish.

Scrooge reports to Dr. Dickens an observation he made at his encounter with the Ghost, when he shouted to him: “You are fettered. Tell me why?” And brilliantly, Dr. Dickens has his Ghost in the guise of Marley reply: “I wear the chain I forged in life. 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? Would you know the length and weight of the strong coil you wear yourself?” He adds: “You now weigh everything by gain,” implying that he did too. In this, the Ghost, a fusion of Marley with Dr. Dickens, is perhaps a bit confrontive. It is his way at the outset of telling the patient he is responsible for his life; he has created it himself. This highlights a problem the psychoanalyst often faces: Patients come for comfort—it is often a major problem to lead them into the recognition of their own role in their difficulties. In fact, Scrooge continues to assume that the Ghost is old Jacob Marley and implores him to “Speak comfort to me!” This request, often unspoken but sought by the patient, is particularly likely to come from those who have no recognition of their own role in what has befallen them. The Ghost replies: “I have none to give,” adding that in life Scrooge's spirit never moved beyond the confines of their money-changing role. Here, Dr. Dickens seems well aware of the danger of being too sympathetic to the patient.

Dr. Dickens, with his questions, seems to be leading Scrooge to assess his own role in his terrifying life. Scrooge ventured the thought that the Ghost must have been very slow in his 7-year travels; he is countered by the statement that the Ghost traveled on the wings of the wind; and the phantom further exclaims: “Oh, Captive, bound and double-ironed; and not to know that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures for this earth, must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Oh, not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere will find its mortal life too short for the vast means of usefulness … yet such was I! Oh, such was I.”

Scrooge protests that Jacob was always a good man for business. “Business!” cried the Ghost. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, Mercy, Forbearance and Benevolence were all my business.” He holds up his arm and flings his chain about. So in this way we learn from Dr. Dickens that Scrooge's worst problem is his mean, uncaring, niggardly character. It reflects Dr. Dickens' recognition that many patients, immersed in their self-preoccupied suffering, feel no concern for others and are sometimes filled with misplaced rage at strangers.

The Specter—at this point mainly Scrooge's altergo—attempts to fling his chains down and observes that this time of year is hardest for him. Why did that blessed Star leading the Wise Men not lead him to a poor home—the implication being that he might have brought comfort. The Ghost then implores Scrooge to “Hear Me” and speaks of the fact that he does not understand why he is now visible to Scrooge, since he has sat beside him invisible for many a day. With this question Dr. Dickens has made the observation that often while symptoms are longstanding, they must reach a certain intensity to become noticeable. Yet where they may then lead is not clear. But through the Apparition we learn that he is there to warn Scrooge that he still has a chance of escaping Marley's fate. Scrooge observes that Marley was always a good friend. And yes, Dr. Dickens is a good friend, as surely all therapists try to be.

But when Scrooge is informed that he will not see the Ghost again but will be haunted by three spirits (delegates of Dr. Dickens), his countenance falls and he demurs. The Ghost prepares him to expect the first Spirit the next day. He will appear “when the bell tolls.” Here one cannot resist the temptation to notice the familiarity of these words. Dickens followed by about three centuries the poet John Donne, whose lines, “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls—it tolls for thee,” are so well known. Perhaps Dickens is expressing the feeling that all individuals are vulnerable, all are summoned to responsibility—and especially patients with character disorders! Scrooge asks if that is the chance and hope mentioned before, and is told that it is. Scrooge is told that he can expect the second spirit the next night, and the third on the next. Scrooge is terrified by the thought of these three visitations, and asks if he cannot take them all at once—he wants to get it over with quickly. Dr. Dickens avoids an answer, as if it is beneath notice. We all know that too much medicine at once can kill, no matter how excellent it is.

The Ghost warns Scrooge that he will see him no more, but that for his own sake he must remember what passed between them. This can be translated in many ways: that the initial consultation is different from the ensuing treatment; but also, that the eruption of the symptoms into first awareness will never be repeated, yet for the Spirits to be understood the symptom cannot be forgotten. The Past, Present, and Future are linked together and must be remembered and understood if the problem is to be overcome. In leaving, the Specter took his wrapper from the table and bound it around his head—a symbolic statement, one might suppose, of where the problem was located. He walked backward, toward the window, presenting his image to Scrooge to the very last, rising a bit with each step and raising his hand in warning that Scrooge should come no closer. All kinds of sounds filled the air—of lamentation and regret, wailings that were sorrowful and accusatory. The Specter listened a moment and then floated out the window.

How ingeniously Dickens arranged to leave mixed sounds of Scrooge's self-recognition and emotional state. And following the sounds the air was filled with phantoms, many of whom were people known to Scrooge in the past—moaning, also chained, and one with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, thus leaving him unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant. Here Dr. Dickens cleverly states that this is one with whom Scrooge is quite familiar (no doubt, Scrooge in an earlier day). Whether these are illusions, hallucinations, or some type of reverie is hard to say—and perhaps it does not matter. But then all faded, and Scrooge closed the window trying unsuccessfully to give voice to his usual comment, “Humbug.” And being fatigued from all he had been through, Scrooge instantly fell asleep. Or perhaps he fell asleep in relief at having taken the step to undertake treatment, and having acknowledged his problems to the doctor.

But as Dickens made clear, ghosts live in haunted houses where there are clanking chains that bind. Scrooge's house is haunted by his ugly actions, and he is chained to them. Indifference to others is seen as perhaps the prime sin. At least so it was with Scrooge.

So, we come to the nightmares—the nightmares relating to early life, current life, and potential future life, the examination of which provides weighty basis for considering Dickens Dr. Dickens. He does not do “dream interpretation”—no. But more in line with current concepts of “dream exploration” he has a ghost—his spirit—introduce Scrooge to three delegates of his, not lesser spirits but spirits divided according to time and phase, and leading the exploration. The purpose is change, the basis of psychoanalytic treatment. Scrooge expresses reluctance to accompany the spirits as Dickens has suggested. But the Ghost (Dr. D.) tells him that without these visits he cannot hope to “shun the path I tread,” the “I” being the Ghost as Marley. So the nightmares begin with the tolling of a bell, “waking” the sleeping Scrooge.


Scrooge is led by a Spirit who seems childlike but has white hair, yet not a wrinkle on his face. Perhaps he suggests the appearance of one who has not matured in life.

  1. Scrooge and the Spirit are on a country road—the place where he was bred. Thousands of odors float in the air, in addition to thoughts, hopes, and joys long forgotten; ponies; farmers; boys. Scrooge experienced a long-forgotten joy.
  2. They are in a school where a boy sits reading alone; his only friends are book characters: Ali Baba, Robinson Crusoe, the Green Parrot. A great sob bursts from Scrooge; he cries in pity for the boy he was. And then treatment appears to begin working, because he wishes he could give something to the Carol Singer he earlier encountered; he wishes he could change.
  3. Scrooge is older. They visit another school—a darker, dirtier place with cracked plaster and broken windows. A boy sits alone. His little sister runs in and tells him that father has relented; he can come home for Christmas. So we learn in this way how cruelly his father treated him, and how lovingly his sister—whose son, his nephew, invites Scrooge to Christmas dinner every year, only to be rejected with “Bah, Humbug!”
  4. They are at the Fezziwig party, where all have a great time. Scrooge is older but enjoys himself. When the Spirit imitates Scrooge and asks how the party can be a good one, since Fezziwig hasn't much money, Scrooge steps beyond himself and says: “He has the power to make us happy—quite as great as if it cost a fortune!” This is the first sign of his relinquishing his greed.
  5. Scrooge is in a room with a young girl in mourning dress, who breaks their engagement, saying, “A golden idol has displaced me, while your nobler aspirations have fallen off one by one.”
  6. In this last scene Scrooge is in a room with a girl, now motherly, very like the last, and a young girl who is obviously her daughter. Scrooge is filled with longing. A man comes in—they rush to greet him and there is much excitement. Belle, the older woman, is told by her husband that he has seen a friend of hers. They laugh—it is obviously Scrooge. Oh, the loss! Scrooge begs to leave the scene, saying, “I cannot bear it!”


When Scrooge questions the Ghost of Christmas Past about what brought him, he replies, “Your welfare.” In this way Dickens indicates the significance of the nightmares. He shows a past time when Scrooge was lightearted, capable of friendship and joy; and then his pitiful boyhood, his isolation, his cruel treatment by his father, and his turning as a young man to money as a source of self-esteem. He shows the turning point in Scrooge's life as his fiancée breaks the engagement because he has found another idol—gold—and because of his subsequent increasing miserliness, devotion to money, and alienation from his society.


  1. Scrooge is called to a nearby room with walls hung with living green and a great feast of Christmas goodies on the floor. A giant sits on a couch and invites Scrooge in. (He is the Ghost of Christmas Present.) A changed Scrooge says: “Conduct me where you will—if you have ought to teach me let me profit by it.”
  2. Scrooge clutches on the Ghost's robe and they appear in the street in early morning, witnessing the good-humored bustle of shops and people; the enticing foods and aromas; the parties starting; the happiness at Bob Cratchit's house in spite of poverty and the concern about Tiny Tim.
  3. Scrooge and the Ghost are on a bleak moor where miners live, yet in the bowels of the earth all are cheerful and gaily decked.
  4. At a lighthouse near thundering water, men are sitting at a table happy and laughing. Scrooge's nephew Fred and his wife are there and drink a toast to him, even as they acknowledge what he is like. The family plays a game: “Guess the wild animal.” Of course, it is Scrooge.
  5. The Spirit is visibly older and bent—his time on earth is nearly over. He pulls a boy and girl from under his robe—two wretched children. They are the ones Scrooge railed at in the past, saying that the world was over-populated, and asking: “Are there no prisons, no workhouses for them?”


In the course of these nightmare visitations Scrooge begins to “see” his ugly behavior and makes beginning efforts within the dream to change. He sees the Ghost of Christmas Present as one who is there to help him and willingly proceeds with him, saying: “Conduct me where you will. Last night I learned a lesson which is working now. Tonight if you have ought to teach me let me profit by it.” He has become a collaborative patient and he is aware of the compassion of his nephew who continues a friendly feeling even as he states that his uncle's offenses carry their own punishment.


  1. The last Spirit is shrouded in a black gown with only one outstretched hand visible. He does not speak (one could say, Death does not speak) and he leads Scrooge to the Exchange where men are talking about someone who has died and will have few, if any, people attending his cheap funeral.
  2. They visit a miserable den where women who have plundered a dead man's room have brought his things to sell.
  3. They are in a plundered man's room with a body on the bed. A couple expresses relief that he had died—it means they will have an extra week to avoid foreclosure on their home.
  4. Scrooge asks the Spirit to show him tenderness in relation to death—and in Bob Cratchit's house, his children comfort him over the death of Tiny Tim.
  5. The Spirit leads Scrooge to a cemetery, where he sees his neglected grave. Scrooge pleads with him and says he is no longer what he was and will be a different man. In agony he catches the Specter's hand, which repulsed him.


Following the dreadful Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge sees the contempt that people have for him, and his unmourned death. He promises to change. He begs for another chance and awakes full of the terror that nightmares bring, and the relief upon finding they were not actual reality.

As the dream ends, Scrooge awakens and is relieved to find himself in his own bed—giddy, frisky, and laughing. For a man out of practice for many years, his laugh was quite splendid. It is clear that Scrooge has been depressed for many years, and he typically overreacts to change, going from depression and a kind of mourning for himself to hypomania.

He does everything he can to make amends for his past behavior. Finding it was Christmas day, he sent a boy to buy the prize turkey that had been hanging in the butcher's window and sent it on to Bob Cratchit. He ran into the man who had requested a contribution for the poor the day before, and stunned him with the size of his contribution. He went to his nephew's and asked if he might be let in (something requiring considerable courage after turning the invitation down so many times and ridiculing the whole idea). He received a hearty welcome. The “reentry” into society is a difficulty patients often have to face with the problem of undeveloped social skills. The next morning he teased Bob Cratchit a bit for being late—and then gave him a substantial raise and offered help for the treatment of Tiny Tim. And as Dr. Dickens observed: “He cared not if people laughed at him—his own heart laughed.” Yes, a sentimental tale, but what a tale!


Dickens recognized that character and emotional and psychological problems are built on the foundations of past experience—a key psychoanalytic principle whether it is attributed to Instinct or Interpersonal Exchanges. He recognized further that it is necessary to develop insight before change can occur. He was aware of the serious problem of alienation, and of variations in mood. It was a principle of this work that guilt be eradicated by changes in behavior rather than simply lip service. His explorations of the metaphoric and symbolic meaning of the nightmares of Scrooge's life were remarkable—the fact that they were devices to create a fascinating story in no way detracts from their brilliance.

Finally, his use of the orality of Christmas, which perhaps has a regressive quality but is at the same time innocent and lovely, served as a wonderful contrast to the anality of a misanthrope—Ebenezer Scrooge.

Dickens' interpersonal approach could stand comfortably beside the work of Harry Stack Sullivan. It deals with the defensive operations caused by anxiety and the character warp from early childhood wounds causing a warped development. He carefully details the damaging interactions that ensue. To be able to offer all this in an endlessly fascinating tale of greed and misanthropy and its consequences and social effects, is truly a noteworthy achievement. Dickens rightfully deserves the title of: the first interpersonal psychoanalyst!

Works Cited

Abraham, Karl (1921). Contributions to the theory of the anal character. Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press, 1942.

Arieti, Sylvano (1974). The cognitive and volitional school. In American Handbook of Psychiatry, 2nd ed., S. Arieti (ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Dickens, Charles (1843). A Christmas Carol. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939.

Fenichel, Otto (1945). Development of instincts and infantile sexuality. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. New York: W. W. Norton

Freud, Sigmund (1916). On the transformation of instincts with special reference to anal erotism. Collected Papers, vol. II. New York: Basic Books, 1959.

Kaplan, Fred (1988). Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow.

Sullivan, H. S. (1956). Collected Works, vol. II. New York: W. W. Norton.

Wilson, Angus (1970). The World of Charles Dickens. New York: Viking Press.

R. D. Butterworth (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A Christmas Carol and the Masque,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1993, pp. 63–9.

[In the following essay, Butterworth probes Dickens's familiarity with the masque form and determines its influence on A Christmas Carol.]

In his Preface to the First Cheap Edition of A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote of his intention in writing his Christmas books of awakening some “loving and forbearing thoughts” by means of “a whimsical kind of masque” (xiv).1 Commentators have not made much of this comment, perhaps on the assumption that Dickens's familiarity with masques could not but be slight. This, however, is an unwarranted assumption. Examination of the contents of Dickens's library, as listed in the inventory of his belongings made when the family went to Italy in 1844 (Letters 4: 711–25) reveals that it was at least possible for the writer to have been thoroughly acquainted with the masque form. He could, for instance, have found full accounts of the court masque and its development in Collier's “Annals of the Stage,” which assiduously follows the form through, starting from a contemporary description of the first masque presented in England, in which Henry VIII and eleven others dressed “in garmentes long and brode, wrought all with golde, with visers and cappes of gold … came in with the sixe gentlemen disguised in silke, beryng staffe torches, and desired the ladies to daunce” (Collier 1: 63).2 With Collier cataloguing and providing the background for them, Dickens could study Ben Jonson's masques for himself, the whole 31 having been printed in the 1838 Barry Cornwall edition of Jonson's works that he possessed (listed in Tillotson 717). Clarification of the nature of the masque form was further available to him in, for example, an analytical essay, “Masques,” written to rectify “false opinions” and “perfect ignorance of the nature of these compositions,” in Isaac D'Israeli's “Curiosities of Literature,” also in Dickens's library (D'Israeli 3: 4; listed in Tillotson 719).

Though the possession of such books proves merely that Dickens had access to detailed information about the masque form, he had, furthermore, witnessed actual performances of at least some versions of masque. During his 1842 visit to America, for instance, a performance was mounted of a masque specially written in his honor, “Boz! A Masque Phrenological,” the characters in which included Boz himself, some characters from his novels, and figures such as Identity, Mirth and Wonder (House 3: 19–20). He had also twice seen presentations of “Comus” in 1843,3 even appending a brief critical comment about the first to a lengthy review for The Examiner of the production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that accompanied it.4

Dickens, then, certainly had some acquaintance with, and was in a position to know a great deal about the masque; and to examine A Christmas Carol is to see that Dickens is making no idle comment in linking the work to the masque tradition. It is necessary, for instance, to look no further than the description of the Spirit of Christmas Past in Scrooge's chambers to detect the relationship:

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge's time, or Marley's, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

‘Come in!’ exclaimed the Ghost. ‘Come in! and know me better, man! … I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,’ said the Spirit. ‘Look upon me!’

Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.


This is a scene with all the spectacle of masque: it has the characteristic elaboration of “set” and costume. The spirit, furthermore, is one of masque: the reader needs no prompting to look for symbolism in the scabbard with its sheath eaten up with rust or the Spirit's free-flowing hair than would the spectators of a masque. In the manner of masque, the scene draws for its symbolism on both the classical tradition (the “glowing torch in shape not unlike Plenty's horn”) and on traditional imagery taken from nature (“the crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy”; the greenness of the Spirit's robe and the holly wreath it wears). Every detail at once adds to the splendor of the scene in being ornamental and is symbolic. The action of the scene, such as it is, consists of symbolic movement (the Spirit lifting up the torch “to shed its light on Scrooge”) and declamatory speeches. There is, furthermore, a heightened quality to the dialogue of the scene, including even Scrooge's dialogue. At the beginning of the book, Scrooge's speech is characterized by features reflecting both normal conversational patterns and his own individual speech habits: his dialogue is full of contractions, interjections, vigorous exclamations, the aggressive use of questions, and a general informality:

‘Don't be cross, uncle!’ said the nephew.

‘What else can I be,’ returned the uncle, ‘when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!’


At times during the visits of the Spirits, when he is excited, Scrooge falls back into such habits (“Why, it's old Fezziwig! Bless his heart; it's Fezziwig alive again!” [30]); but generally his speech is more formal, as in this scene:

‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge submissively, ‘conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.’


This is language of a high order for the man who crisply summed up Christmas as “Humbug!” (40).5

The Spirit, an entity combining the supernatural quality of the gods and goddesses that frequent masques and the embodiment of abstractions such as are another major source of masque characters, takes Scrooge on a journey during which he sees what are essentially a series of tableaux, the movement between which, in at least some cases, takes the form of a magical transformation: thus, having been in the streets of London, “now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor” (49); later, as Scrooge, taken by the Spirit to a ship, is thinking “what a solemn thing it was to move on through the lonely darkness over an unknown abyss,” it comes as a “great surprise” to him “to hear a hearty laugh,” and he finds himself at his nephew's home (51).

Furthermore, the masquers have in the first place arrived, in accordance with tradition, unexpectedly. The appearance of Marley's head, replacing the door-knocker, is in the context that “Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven-years' dead partner that afternoon” (14–15); and following the intimations of an unexpected visit that this incident gives, Scrooge takes every precaution to stop visitors arriving: to be “secured against surprise” he “double-locked himself in, which was not his custom” (16). When they come, they are indeed “from far-away lands … or even from another world” (Welsford 289). If they would normally be accompanied by torch-bearers, the arrival of Marley's Ghost is greeted by a leaping up of the flame in Scrooge's fireplace; the Spirit of Christmas Past has coming “from the crown of its head … a bright clear jet of light, by which all … was visible” about it (25); and the Spirit of Christmas Present carries its own torch. Only the somber, shadowy Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come is not illuminated.

The masque comes complete, too, with its antimasque. As in the traditional masque there are figures of ugly physical appearance: “monsters … horrible and dread,” “abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish”: the figures of Ignorance and Want (56).6 As usual, these figures signify disorder and chaos, the disruption of the way things should rightfully be. As always too, though, such forces are defeatable—if man will “beware.” Though Doom is written on the boy's forehead, it remains possible for the writing to “be erased” (57).

If those common features of masque—music, song and dance—are somewhat incidental presences in A Christmas Carol,7 their general significance as part of the celebratory nature of masque is reflected specifically in the brightness (the “mighty blaze” and “glowing torch”), liveliness and abundance of the setting in which the Spirit of Christmas Present appears, the joyous mood of the Christmas morning street scene, and the “transports” (72) later of the reformed Scrooge who now knows “how to keep Christmas well” (76).

Most importantly, however, writing within the masque tradition allows Dickens to foreshorten character development. As masques do not normally present naturalistic action, Dickens is left with a freedom in the presentation of character, situation and theme that is not usually available to him. The supernatural apparatus enables the writer to present the reclaiming of Scrooge as a process that takes only a night rather than a long time; thus, as Dickens himself says in his Preface, the masque tradition from which “what is peculiar” in the “machinery” of the story is derived enables him to “confine” the story within a “narrow space” (xiv). In the spirit, too, of masque, the process of reclamation is an inexorable one, and one to which the eventual outcome is obvious from the beginning. Scrooge argues, briefly, with Marley's Ghost; afterwards there is no real resistance to the lessons he is being taught, very much in line with the tradition by which the masque “deals, not with the last phase of a conflict, but with a moment of transformation” (Welsford 339).

If Dickens takes up the conventions of masque, however, he also somewhat transforms them. His purposes remain those of a radical reformer and his basic identity as a writer that of a novelist. Thus, his antimasque figures are not mere fascinating grotesques but disturbing characters that are somewhat out of tune with the light, even frivolous, temper of masques. What is more, Dickens presents us, after all, not with the script for a theatrical presentation, but a work of prose fiction, the opening and closing sections of which, at least, follow all the conventions of the novel rather than the masque.

It is, perhaps, the episode of the visit of Marley's Ghost, which constitutes the induction to the masque, that most clearly demonstrates the nature of the hybrid of novel and masque that Dickens is creating. The visit takes place at a significant point, as the narrative begins to modulate from the everyday settings, characters and events of the novel toward those of the masque that are to occupy the central portion of the work. There have been transformations of the knocker into Marley's head and back again, unexplained noises, and the flying open of a cellar door. Finally the figure comes before Scrooge:

Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.


There is the spectacle of masque here, with the elaborate “costume” of Marley. His transparency and the chain are both symbolic, as the narrative later makes clear. At the same time, however, he is Jacob Marley, no allegorical figure, but a particular man with a pigtail and tassels on his boots, which are not symbolic but are merely part of the identity of a specific individual. Moreover, the symbolism in his appearance derives from no mythological or traditional sources. The ledgers and cash-boxes are, on the contrary, the very sorts of mundane accoutrements of everyday life, of “movable objects in the physical world” so important in establishing the “solidity of setting” (Watt 29) characteristic of the novel form. Dickens's purpose is too serious ever to abandon himself totally to the world of masque; and from the symbolism here emerge some of the most serious and urgent points in the book about man's conduct in the real world; later, equally, when the spirits show Scrooge various tableaux, they are not of allegorical figures or scenes, but ones from the real world, miners in their homes, or sailors on board ship. And in the using the elements of masque for such serious ends, Dickens forgets as irrelevant the essentially frivolous foundation of the masque, its complimentary purpose.

The masque as a festive form associated particularly with Christmas provides an apt basis for the sort of work Dickens wants to produce; and the adoption of elements of masque enables him to resolve a number of formal problems in writing this short work. The hybrid of masque and novel that results makes it possible to fulfill his intention of presenting a serious social message in a form in keeping with “the good-humour of the season” (xiv) to which he refers in his Preface.


  1. On the masque genre, see Chambers (1: chs. 5–6), Welford and Orgel.

  2. Tillotson lists the work as in Dickens's library, giving the date of publication wrongly, though, as 1823 (716). The correct date is, however, given by Stonehouse (22).

  3. See letters to Miss Burdett Coutts, 28 February 1843 (Tillotson 447) and to Clarkson Stanfield, 5 May 1843 (Tillotson 483).

  4. The Examiner, 4 March 1843, rpt. in Matz 99–103. Dickens possessed the text of Comus in the critical edition of Milton's works edited by Egerton Brydges (Tillotson 717).

  5. Scrooge's position in relation to the masque is complex. He is at once a spectator and, from the reader's point of view, a participant. In this, Dickens is perhaps taking his cue from the tradition by which spectators of masques eventually became part of it by joining in the dancing at the end, taking further the “intimacy and not … detachment, in the relation between performers and spectators” (Chambers 195) characteristic of the form. See also Orgel's gloss on comments by the theologian John Smith relating to how the masque “attempted from the beginning to breach the barrier between spectators and actors, so that in effect the viewer became part of the spectacle … in a sense what the spectator watched he ultimately became” (Orgel 6–7); and, for instance, his account of a masque presented in 1501 for Katherine of Aragon in which “She does not take part in the disguising itself, but she is the central figure. In a sense she watches herself; she is both actor and spectator, and to a certain extent the boundary between stage and audience has been removed” (Orgel 26).

  6. See Ben Jonson's The Masque of Queens and The Golden Age Restored, in both of which Ignorance appears as a figure in the antimasque.

  7. Though a scene key to Scrooge's development, Fezziwig's ball, features both music and dance, and at the end of the masque, Scrooge dances while shaving.

Works Cited

Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. Oxford: Clarendon, 1923. 4 vols.

Collier, J. P. The History of English Dramatic Poetry To the Time of Shakespeare And Annals of the Stage To the Restoration. London: John Murray, 1831. 3 vols.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Christmas Books. Oxford Illustrated Dickens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1954.

D'Israeli, Isaac. Curiosities of Literature. 1823–24. Ed. B. Disraeli. London: Frederick Warne, 1849. 3 vols.

House, Madeline, Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson, eds. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1974.

Matz, B. W., ed. Miscellaneous Papers from ‘The Morning Chronicle’, ‘The Daily News’, ‘The Examiner’, ‘Household Words’, ‘All the Year Round’, Etc. Vol. 35 of The Works of Charles Dickens. Gadshill Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1914.

Orgel, Stephen. The Jonsonian Masque. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1965.

Welsford, Enid. The Court Masque: A Study in the Relationship between Poetry and the Revels. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1927.

Stonehouse, J. H., ed. Reprints of the Catalogues of the Literature of Charles Dickens and William Thackeray. London: Piccadilly Fountain P, 1935.

Tillotson, Kathleen, ed. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. 1957. Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1983.

J. Hillis Miller (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Genres of A Christmas Carol,” in Dickensian, Vol. 89, No. 3, Winter, 1993, pp. 193–203.

[In the following essay, Miller offers a stylistic analysis of A Christmas Carol.]

I had meant to ask some solemn questions about the genre or genres of A Christmas Carol. Re-reading it has put all that out of my mind. As is always the case for me when I read anything by Dickens, the inordinate linguistic exuberance of A Christmas Carol makes all formal questions seem beside the point. I shall return to the question of genre by way of its relation to this exuberance. First, however, what can be said about Dickens's linguistic virtuosity beyond calling it ‘inimitable’? Perhaps all that can be done is to put ‘Wow!’ in the margin of the text or adjacent to a citation. Such marginal comments, I am told, have formed an important part of Chinese literary commentary through the centuries.

The extraordinary stylistic verve of A Christmas Carol takes four main forms: lists and parataxis, prosopopoeia, facetious paronomasia, and hyperbole. Especially hyperbole. I use the ponderous rhetorical terms in order to show that I have kept my head and can say more than ‘Wow!’ after all. Philip Collins once said that ‘one might as readily undertake a rhetorical analysis of the Lord's prayer as a criticism of the Carol’.1 I hope I shall not be guilty of irreverence in permitting myself to do a little of the latter.

A single adjective, example, or epithet will never do in the Carol. Each thing calls forth another and then another, like the games that follow one another in the Christmas festivities at Scrooge's nephew's house. Scrooge is not just mean. He is ‘a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!’ Scrooge says not just that Jacob Marley's ghost is the result of ‘a slight disorder of the stomach’, but that he ‘may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato’. The throne on which the Ghost of Christmas Present sits is made of ‘turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam’. When the Ghost takes him outdoors to see what is happening on this Christmas day, ‘holly, mistletoe, red berries, ivy, turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, meat, pigs, sausages, oysters, pies, puddings, fruit and punch, all vanished instantly,’ but their vanishing has given Dickens a chance to list them again. Their absence is soon filled with an even more extravagant and detailed list of edibles. The world of A Christmas Carol is filled with a superabundance of good things to eat. Dickens's England is already a consumer culture, in the most literal sense of the word:

The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers' benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.

This admirable passage also exemplifies the personification of inanimate objects that is so important a feature of Dickens's style in all his work. The churchbell, in an early passage of the Carol, has had the habit of ‘always peeping slyly down at Scrooge’. Now it is invisible in the fog and strikes the hours ‘with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there’. Scrooge's ordeal and conversion begin with the transformation of his doorknocker into Marley's face, with ‘a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar’. The personification of doorknockers has a precedent in one of the Sketches by Boz. There Boz affirms, with many examples, that a man's doorknocker looks like himself. Each doorknocker tells you something about the people who live in the house. Here Scrooge's knocker foretells his encounter with Marley's tormented ghost, rising from hell (or perhaps it is purgatory, since he speaks of his ‘penance’), like the ghost of Hamlet's father, to exhort Scrooge to mend his ways. To give a final example, as the Cratchits' Christmas dinner is being prepared, ‘the slow potatoes, bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled’.

What is the function of these ubiquitous personifications in A Christmas Carol? They work along with all the lists of things to eat to reinforce the idea that the inanimate world is not alien or other. It is similar to human beings, friendly to them, continuous with their life and in one way or another ready to serve them. This is so even if it happens in the sinister way it does when the personification of Scrooge's doorknocker expands to inaugurate the whole wonderful dream vision that changes his life. That knocker returns at the end of the Carol. Scrooge's ability to see the knocker as a benign face is a sign that he is a changed man: ‘“I shall love it as long as I live!” cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. “I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face! It's a wonderful knocker!”’ As a man is so are his inanimate surroundings. When he takes the trouble to look at them they yield effortlessly to his projections and reflect back to him his own face, just as so much in the world of the Carol is edible and offers itself cheerfully to be eaten, and just as all the women seem perfectly willing to be seen or touched as sexual objects. About the latter I shall have more to say.

Paratactic abundance and ubiquitous prosopopoeia are related to the less frequent but nevertheless important paronomasia. This trope is important in part because a penchant for puns is ascribed to Scrooge himself. When Marley's ghost corrects Scrooge's use of the present tense (‘Who are you?’ he asks), Scrooge says, somewhat petulantly, ‘“Who were you then? … You're particular—for a shade.” He was going to say “to a shade,” but substituted this, as more appropriate’. A moment or two later when he tells the ghost he is probably the result of ‘an undigested bit of beef,’ he adds a bad pun (but all puns are bad) to culminate his defiance: ‘There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’

Samuel Johnson said that a man who would make a pun would pick a pocket. Puns, however, can also be looked at not as a form of linguistic theft but as a form of linguistic generosity. Puns are a sort of verbal investment that brings compound interest. If almost any word can be used in two or more ways at once, the whole repertoire of language is doubled or tripled in a limitless abundance not entirely unlike the doubling of prosopopoeia that makes those onions also Spanish Friars, those baskets of chestnuts also jolly old gentlemen. Puns also are not unlike the Wellerisms in Pickwick Papers. The latter show how a whole phrase or sentence can be used in two ways at once. No doubt Scrooge's execrable puns actually belong to the inimitable Boz. They are part of his inexhaustible capitalisation of language. Nevertheless, Dickens cannot resist ascribing them, however implausibly, to the pennypinching Scrooge. Scrooge is supposed to be as solitary as an oyster. He might be counted on to be parsimonious with language. Oysters do not talk much. Scrooge's linguistic virtuosity is a presage of his conversion. Since puns show a good-humoured generosity, a man who makes such awful puns cannot be all bad.

As for hyperbole, all the stylistic traits I have exemplified so far are examples of the wonderful verbal and behavioural excess that characterises A Christmas Carol. ‘Hyperbole’: the word means, ‘thrown beyond’, propelled outside all bounds, as a hyperbolic curve careens out to infinity. Hyperbolic superabundance is the distinctive feature of A Christmas Carol. Everything in the Carol is in the superlative, both the good and the bad. Scrooge is the meanest of the mean. Boz exults in showing how mean he was, for example in keeping poor Bob Cratchit's office fire down to one poor coal, or in recommending that ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart’. On the other hand, of the goose the Cratchit family have for Christmas dinner in Scrooge's vision, the narrator says, notoriously, ‘There never was such a goose.’ The turkey the reformed Scrooge buys for their actual Christmas dinner is as big as the boys he sends to get it. It is a hyperbolic turkey: ‘It was a turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped 'em off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax.’ Dickens contrives by a cunning artifice to allow the Cratchits to have both goose and turkey for Christmas, the goose in dream and the turkey in reality. It is a little like a pun in reverse, two for one rather than one for two.

The whole panorama of an English Christmas day the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge is characterised by theatrical hyperbole, as in the description of the grocer's on Christmas morning. I hope I will be forgiven for quoting it at length, with an implicit ‘Wow!’ in the margin, since its superabundance is essential to it. Moreover, it exemplifies in concentrated form all the stylistic traits I have identified, even including a casual pun as the basis of a personification in the way the French plums ‘blushed’:

The Grocers'! oh, the Grocers'! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.

It would be the cawing of a Christmas daw or a remark worthy of the unconverted Scrooge to observe that Dickens says nothing about the money that was clinking down on the grocers' counters. The grocers do not give their goods away, even though fastening their aprons with hearts (a touch that sounds sociologically accurate) might seem to promise that they do. I spoke a moment ago of ‘theatrical hyperbole’. That can be made more precise. The passage just quoted not only describes everything in inexhaustible plurality and in superlatives (e.g. ‘the raisins were so plentiful and rare’), nor is it just an example of the hyperbolically extended lists of particulars so essential in the Carol, nor does it just affirm that ‘everything was good to eat’ and anxious to be eaten in an offering of themselves that is explicitly said to be like a sexual openness (‘the French plums blushed in modest tartness’). An additional essential feature of the passage is the verve of its rapid pace. Phrase follows phrase in a breathless sequence made of parataxis in the more proper sense, that is the repetition of an established syntactical pattern with different nouns and verbs. Examples are the sequence of ‘so’ clauses initiated by ‘the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose’, or in the sequence bound together by an iterated ‘and’ towards the end of the citation above. The paragraph seems written to be read aloud by an accomplished performer, such as Dickens himself when he made a public reading of the Carol. The tempo is definitely presto.

This tempo, however, is manifested in another theatrical way. This is the ‘wild’ behaviour of the customers as they rush in and out, tumbling up against each other, crashing their wicker baskets, hurrying cheerfully to and fro. They behave, in short, like actors in a pantomime, referred to obliquely here in the way ‘the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks’. Pantomime is surely one of the most important generic antecedents for the Carol. It is even a model for crucial features of Dickens's work generally. Baudelaire, in splendid ‘presto’ passages of his own in L'essence du rire, used the word ‘hyperbole’ to characterise English pantomime. Baudelaire had seen a performance of an English pantomime in Paris in 1842. The cast probably included the famous English clown Tom Matthews. Baudelaire's description stresses the violence of the performance. It is as if the performers had been swept away by a sudden gust of extravagant madness that carries them beyond themselves, outside of themselves, beside themselves. Baudelaire's description of English pantomime parallels what he says about Cruikshank's etchings: ‘Tous ses petits personnages [in Cruikshank's work] miment avec fureur et turbulence comme des acteurs de pantomime. (All these little personages mime with frenzy and turbulence, like pantomime actors.)’ Baudelaire's description of English pantomime might, however, have been written as a brilliant characterisation of A Christmas Carol: ‘Il m'a semblé que le signe distinctif de ce genre de comique était la violence. … Le Pierrot anglais arrivait comme la tempête, tombait comme un ballot, et quand it riait, son rire faisait trembler la salle; ce rire ressemblait à un joyeux tonnerre. … Et toutes choses s'exprimaient ainsi dans cette singulière pièce, avec emportement; c'était le vertige de l'hyperbole. (It seemed to me that the distinctive sign of this type of the comic was violence. … The English Pierrot entered like a tempest, fell down like a sack of coals, and when he laughed, his laughter made the auditorium shake; this laugh was like a joyful thunderclap … And all things in this singular work were expressed in the same way, with violence; it was the dizziness of hyperbole.)’2

‘Vertige de l'hyperbole’: this splendid phrase names the result of an extreme behavioural or linguistic violence. It perfectly describes the extravagant excess of A Christmas Carol. ‘Vertige’ is not quite the same thing as dizziness, nor does ‘vertigo’ quite catch its nuance either. ‘Vertige’ names a dizziness caused not merely by a loss of balance and a danger of falling, but by the pulling away of the solid, familiar ground beneath. When this happens one falls into another mode of existence generated by the words on the page as they duplicate the violence of the pantomime actor. The ‘vertige de l'hyperbole’ carries one beyond what Baudelaire calls ‘la frontière du merveilleux (the frontier of the marvellous)’ (725). The pantomime actors, like the characters in the Carol are ‘introduits de force dans une existence nouvelle (introduced by force into a new existence)’ (725), and they take the spectator or reader across all frontiers into a new existence too, at least insofar as the Carol fulfils its goal of converting the reader as Scrooge was converted. Just what that new country is like to which reading A Christmas Carol transports the reader remains to be seen.

Among those boundaries that are broken down by the hyperbole of A Christmas Carol are generic ones. What is the genre of this work? Jacques Derrida's ‘The Law of Genre’ begins with a sentence that can either be a description or a performative command: ‘Ne pas mêler les genres (No mixing of genres).’3 Dickens certainly disobeys this law in A Christmas Carol. In any case it is a false description if applied to this work. It would be possible to argue plausibly that A Christmas Carol is an allegory or a parable, or the text for a pantomime, or a conversion narrative, or a dream vision, or a melodrama, or a ghost story, or a Gothic tale, or the text for a dramatic reading or a monologue, all at once.

An allegory or parable, for example, says one thing and means another. A Christmas Carol uses all the language about eating and edibles (‘everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress’) to speak of another kind of abundance, a spiritual or charitable communion on Christmas day. The Carol is Dickens's version of the New Testament miracle of the loaves and fishes or of Jesus's parable of the sower, where wheat stands for spiritual good and where the meaning is that ‘whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance’ (Matthew 13:12). If everything is good to eat, there is enough for everybody, because on Christmas Day everyone loves his or her neighbour. Just as the parable of the sower is not really about sowing and reaping but about disseminating word of the kingdom of heaven, so A Christmas Carol is not really about eating but about charity and generosity. And in both cases the vehicle of the parable obeys laws of realistic referentiality and verisimilitude. Jesus's account of sowing and reaping is true to life, as is Dickens's description of Christmas shops and Christmas family feasts in Victorian England. This is another version of the two (or more) for one that is the rule in this work, for example in the way the onions are also Spanish Friars.

If A Christmas Carol obeys the generic laws of parable, it is also a wonderfully appropriate Christmas dramatic pantomime text. I myself saw two years ago just such a dramatic Christmas pantomime in the provincial city of Ellsworth, Maine, in the United States. The parts were taken by various citizens and their children. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, for example, was played by a local painting contractor. Dickens, with his lively interest in amateur theatricals, would have been delighted by this performance. It might have formed the basis of another of the Sketches by Boz, joining the other sketches of amateur theatricals there.

A Christmas Carol, however, could just as well be described as obeying the generic laws of the ghost story or the Gothic tale, for example in the irresolvable ambiguity about whether Scrooge's adventures really happened or were a dream. Scrooge meets Marley's ghost when he returns home at night, but when he does go to bed he cannot decide whether the Ghost was real or a dream: ‘Marley's Ghost bothered him exceedingly. Every time he resolved within himself, after mature inquiry, that it was all a dream, his mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, “Was it a dream or not?”’ Nor can the reader decide. The text remains indeterminate on this point.

If it is a dream ghost, that and the fact that the subsequent adventures all happen after Scrooge has fallen asleep would support an argument that A Christmas Carol is not any of the genres I have mentioned but rather a dream vision, like The Divine Comedy or Piers Plowman, or many another medieval text. As in those, so in A Christmas Carol, the hero falls asleep, has many wonderful adventures, and wakes a changed man.

At the same time the basic story line of the Carol would support an argument that it belongs to the venerable genre of the conversion narrative. This goes back again to Biblical precedent in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus into the Apostle Paul, but has many more recent antecedents in seventeenth and eighteenth century Protestant conversion stories.

In short, a plausible argument can be made supporting the claim that A Christmas Carol obeys the conventions of a whole repertoire of not entirely compatible genres. This defiance of the law against mixing genres is another important dimension of A Christmas Carol's hyperbolic generosity. From this point of view the Carol is as unsettling as a mixing of species, such as those fabulous crossings that produce mermaids or winged horses. It is as though Dickens had exuberantly appropriated the conventions available to him of a whole set of different currently viable narrative kinds and had produced a work that defiantly obeys all these conventions at once. This is like the superabundance of things to eat that forms the throne of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

This generosity, however, exacts a price in the vertigo it causes in the reader who keeps his or her head enough to wonder what sort of thing it is. (Probably few readers worry at all about the genre of A Christmas Carol. It is the sort of question a Scrooge-like literary critic asks.) The Carol, in any case, takes the reader beyond the lawful borders of any identifiable genre into a marvellous but somewhat dizzying country where everything changes shape constantly and cannot be encompassed in the sort of sentence that would say ‘A Christmas Carol is a dream vision’ or ‘A Christmas Carol is a conversion narrative.’ This is unsettling to a literary critic because the enterprise of criticism has traditionally depended on establishing firmly the genre of a given piece of literature as a basis for interpreting it. Interpretation, in part at least, measures the worth of a work by how well it fulfils the pre-existing laws of the genre to which the critic has decided the work belongs. With A Christmas Carol the critic cannot do that. You do not know where to have it. In this the Carol is more than a little like the Ghost of Christmas Past: ‘For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness, being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again—distinct and clear as ever.’ A Christmas Carol is, in short, a monster, neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring.

Two more genres the laws of which the Carol might fulfil have not yet been mentioned. Perhaps it can be shown to be really one or the other of those and so be itself again—as distinct and clear as ever. The title, after all, is a generic label. It tells us we are about to read a Christmas carol. This is the most implausible generic possibility of all. In what conceivable way is A Christmas Carol like a Christmas carol? Well, for one thing, the different chapters are labelled, Stave One, Stave Two, and so on. It is not quite clear what Dickens thought a stave is. The word is a variant of ‘staff’. It names a unit of the lines and spaces that make the basis of musical notation. Stave One might then be taken to name the first line of a carol, such as ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen!’ in the carol cited in A Christmas Carol. The young boy sings it through Scrooge's keyhole at the beginning of the story. Stave Two would then be ‘May nothing you dismay!’

There are certainly ways in which A Christmas Carol can be said to be like a Christmas carol, for example in the way it joyously brings the good tidings of Christmas, and in the rapid rhythm of celebration it obeys as it moves rapidly from stave to stave. The point of the generic title, however, may be as much its implausibility and inappropriateness as in any clues it gives the reader as to how to read the Carol. It is as though Dickens were saying, ‘This work so defiantly breaks all the laws of genre, or obeys so many of them at once, in vertiginous hyperbole, that it might as well be called A Christmas Carol as anything else’.

Derrida, in ‘The Law of Genre’ argues that the identifiable mark of genre, the notation that allows you to say, ‘This is a Christmas Carol’ or ‘This is a dream vision’, both lays down the law of genre and at the same time exceeds or explodes it, since the generic mark both belongs and does not belong to the thing it marks. In order to work as a generic label the mark of genre must be outside the work, as a botanical label is outside the flower, bush, or tree it names. But since what is being labelled in this case is made of words the title or other genre-determining mark is also part of the work, inside the work. As Derrida puts this, ‘The re-mark of belonging does not belong. It belongs without belonging … If remarks of belonging belong without belonging, then genre-designations cannot be simply part of the corpus’ (230).

In each case I based my claim that A Christmas Carol belongs to one or another genre by the presence of identifiable traits that are the signal features of the genre in question, those features without which no text would be a parable, a pantomime text, a ghost story, a dream vision, or whatever. The odd thing about A Christmas Carol, perhaps the most salient feature of its hyperbole, is that it has the distinguishing features of so many different genres. But the one genre A Christmas Carol does not belong to, except by the most extravagant and indirect figuration, is the genre of the Christmas Carol, that is, the one genre whose name is overtly used as the title of the work. The last thing A Christmas Carol resembles, at least superficially, is a Christmas Carol. Or, to put this more bluntly, A Christmas Carol is not a Christmas Carol. Perhaps this violent mislabelling indicates that A Christmas Carol belongs in any case to the class of texts called ‘literature’, since some such form of exorbitance may be one of the most important traits of ‘literariness’. The title is the mark of genre that is the sign this work exceeds all genres.

One more candidate for the true generic label for A Christmas Carol remains to be named: the novel. In spite of all these generic possibilities I have named, including the title, few readers doubt that A Christmas Carol is really a short novel, continuous for the most part with the stylistic decorums of Dickens's novels generally, from Oliver Twist through Great Expectations to Our Mutual Friend. Like them A Christmas Carol centres on the redemptive story of its protagonist. Like them it is primarily a ‘realistic’ representation of life in Victorian England, though with some fabulous or allegorical elements. These are present in Dickens's novels proper as well as in A Christmas Carol. They are present also in Victorian novels generally, for example in the allegorical aspects of Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

Two more distinguishing features of the novel as a genre are also admirably fulfilled by A Christmas Carol. As Friedrich Nietzsche said in a fine comic passage in The Birth of Tragedy, Plato invented in his dialogues a new genre: the novel. This assertion has its own outrageous Nietzschean hyperbole, but it also has a kind of plausibility. Plato made this new genre, Nietzsche says, out of the wreckage of the firm generic distinctions of fifth-century Greece. In Sophocles's day an epic was an epic, a tragedy a tragedy, a dithyramb a dithyramb, a lyric a lyric, and nothing but itself. Plato's dialogues, however, appropriate features from each traditional Greek genre and mix them together in a new form that combines them all. Nietzsche's image is of the genres all crowded together with Socrates on a raft, after the sinking of the ship of genre. The novel is what survived in the ancient world as one of its legacies to us after the breakdown of classical genre distinctions:

The Platonic dialogue was, as it were, the barge on which the shipwrecked ancient poetry saved herself with all her children: crowded into a narrow space and timidly submitting to the single pilot, Socrates, they now sailed into a new world, which never tired of looking at the fantastic spectacle (dem phantastischen Bilde) of this procession. Indeed, Plato has given to all posterity the model (Vorbild) of a new art form, the model of the novel—which may be described as an infinitely enhanced (unendlich gesteigerte) Aesopian fable …4

Just as in our genealogy of the modern novel in the West the new genre grew out of medieval fabliau, beast fable, and dream vision, also out of newer forms like picaresque narrative and Protestant autobiography, with its roots in Biblical allegory (so that Pilgrim's Progress is a proto-novel), so for Nietzsche the most salient precursor of the novel Plato invented is an explicitly allegorical form, the Aesopian fable. In the novel, as in parable, allegory, and fable, one thing always stands for another, while still being realistically represented, as I have argued for all the imagery of food and easting in A Christmas Carol.

The other distinguishing feature of the novel present in extravagant form in A Christmas Carol is the use of an omniscient narrator. The word ‘omniscient’ must here be taken in an almost literal sense. The narrator of Dickens's Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, like the narrators of thousands of other Victorian novels, can move at will anywhere in time and space, can enter into the hearts and minds of any of the characters, is ubiquitous and all-knowing. In A Christmas Carol this power is not only attributed to the narrator. It is also emblematically present in the way Scrooge's redemptive dream visions move from Christmas past to Christmas present to Christmas yet to come, as well as in the way the three ghosts transport Scrooge magically from one place to another, just as the narrator of Bleak House, for example, does for the reader in the celebrated opening of that novel. Dickens in the forty-eighth chapter of Dombey and Son obliquely argues for the redemptive power of such narrative procedures when he says people's hearts would be changed if ‘a good spirit would take the housetops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes … bright and blest the morning that should rise on such a night’. Scrooge's visions are a hyperbolic form of the normal procedures of Victorian fiction. Transcending time, space, and the opacity of households or persons is just what novels with omniscient narrators do. They take us into a realm based on the real world but a transformation of it. A Christmas Carol takes us across the frontier of the marvellous, just as Baudelaire said English pantomime does.

Just what is that marvellous new country like? What values and assumptions, what ideology, does A Christmas Carol affirm by all the forms of hyperbole I have described? It is not all that easy to make a decisive and verifiable answer to that question. No one can doubt that A Christmas Carol is a strongly affective work, performative as well as cognitive. It has caused many tears to flow. It has a power to make things happen. Just what reading A Christmas Carol has made happen in all those innumerable readings of it, however, may be difficult to ascertain.

On the one hand, much would support a claim that A Christmas Carol reinforces an essentially conservative ideology. As opposed, for example, to The Communist Manifesto, put forth just a few years later, A Christmas Carol does not advocate major changes in the social system. No suggestion is made that the class and gender arrangements of Victorian England should be fundamentally altered. Scrooge is not supposed to give up his business, nor is he to cease to go daily on 'Change, nor is the capitalist system of getting, spending, production and exchange supposed to be altered in any basic way. Dickens is strongly against the way the ruling classes manage the poor. He is vehemently opposed to the Poor Law, workhouses, the prison system, Malthusian economics and Sunday closings, as in the irony of Scrooge's famous questions: ‘Are there no prisons? … And the Union workhouses? … Are they still in operation? … The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ But the capitalist system itself he does not so much oppose as argue for reforming, in spite of Marley's Ghost's handwringing and chain-rattling lament: ‘Business! … Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence, were all my business’. Scrooge becomes at the end like a little child, thereby obeying one of Christ's injunctions: ‘I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby’. But Scrooge does not obey Christ's injunction to give all he has to the poor and follow Christ in poverty. Dickens seems to believe and to want his readers to believe that the camel may go through the needle's eye after all, a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven, if he is generous enough and loving enough: ‘He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world’.

Nor are women to cease being primarily wives and mothers, even objects of male sexual covetousness. No doubt a certain amount of innocent sexual licence is part of the Christmas spirit, but one passage in A Christmas Carol is more than slightly embarrassing in the way it ascribes to the primary narrator a lasciviousness not entirely unlike that of Quilp as he bends over the bed of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. The passage comes when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge the happy marriage of the woman who had broken her engagement to him when he had become a selfish money-grabber, a young Scrooge. The narrator describes that woman's younger children ‘pillaging’ their older sister, who is the image of what her mother, Scrooge's fiancée, had been:

What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn't for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn't have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life … And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price;—in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value.

Everything in the present class and gender structure, A Christmas Carol implies, can stay pretty much as it is. There is enough to go around for everybody. Everything will be all right if we all live in charity with our neighbours, especially at Christmas, and if the Scrooges of the world can be persuaded to give more, in fact much more, of what they make through speculation and money-dealing to those less rich than they are. A Christmas Carol, in its admirable linguistic exuberance and in its hyperbolic mastery of so many techniques of narration, is a powerful argument for Christian charity, but it does not appear to advocate any substantial changes in the social system of Dickens's time.

On the other hand, A Christmas Carol, as I have said, implicitly makes large claims for the radical transformative power of the novel as a genre. Scrooge is converted by being given the gift to see past, present, and future. He can enter inside the households of Bob Cratchit and his nephew, as well as see his old schoolroom and the grave he will lie in if he does not change his ways. The Spirits take him from high to low in social scale and across great distances in space, showing him the miners' Christmas, that of the lighthouse keepers, and that of the sailors on the high seas, not to speak of the detailed presentation of the Cratchits' Christmas and that of Scrooge's nephew. This is the magic ubiquity, clairvoyance, and transcendence of time Victorian novels granted their readers. It is as though Dickens were obliquely claiming for the reigning genre of his time, the genre that was his métier, the same redemptive and transforming power that Dante's God-given vision had for him in The Divine Comedy. If the Scrooges of the world, A Christmas Carol implies, will just read my novels and those of my fellow novelists they will be saved, saved by the opportunity to escape from their narrow lives in the present and to follow the whole course of fictitious lives as they lead to weal or woe. George Eliot made a similar claim in a different way for the social good her novels could do.

The effect on Scrooge of the transcendence of temporal and spatial limitations in his visions is an oblique argument for the regenerative, converting power of the novel as a genre. This conversion works not just by way of the new knowledge it gives, for example the knowledge Scrooge gets, but by way of an affective break that leads to action. This action cuts the determining chain of cause and effect and so falsifies the apparently irrevocable visions presented by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Tiny Tim does not die after all. The Cratchits have turkey rather than goose for Christmas. Scrooge shows up at his nephew's Christmas celebration. Scrooge is not buried miserably, alone and despised.

Reading, this way of reading A Christmas Carol would argue, can be a performative as well as a cognitive event. Each reading of A Christmas Carol can make possible (though by no means inevitable) a small break in history that allows a new start changing the future. To put this in terms offered by the Carol itself: the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the allegorical children, Ignorance and Want, and says of the boy Ignorance: ‘on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’ Scrooge's visions bring him to contribute his bit to erasing that writing. We as readers are invited to do the same. It would be extremely difficult to verify whether this has really happened. The possibility of reading the Carol as justifying the status quo and reinforcing bourgeois ideology is unquestionable. Nevertheless, a somewhat more equitable distribution of property and privilege has occurred in the hundred and fifty years since A Christmas Carol's first publication. It may be that all those innumerable readings of the Carol have contributed to those changes. It would be in keeping with the Christmas spirit to believe so.


  1. Philip Collins, ‘Carol Philosophy, Cheerful Views’, Études Anglaises (1970), 159. I owe this reference to an interesting unpublished essay on the Carol by John Bowen.

  2. Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes, éd de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), 751, 723–4. I have discussed these passages from Baudelaire from a different perspective in ‘The Fiction of Realism: Sketches by Boz,Oliver Twist and Cruikshank's Illustrations’ (1971), now reprinted in Victorian Subjects (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), 119–177, see esp. 161–163, 171–172.

  3. Jacques Derrida, ‘The Law of Genre’, trans. Avital Ronell, Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 223. Further citations will be identified by page number from this volume.

  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967), 90–91; Sämtliche Werke, Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988; Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1967–77), I, 93–94.

Geoffrey Rowell (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Dickens and the Construction of Christmas,” in History Today, Vol. 43, December, 1993, pp. 17–24.

[In the following essay, Rowell underscores the powerful religious and social overtones of A Christmas Carol, particularly the revival of Christmas traditions.]

One hundred and fifty years ago, in October 1843, Charles Dickens began the writing of one of his most popular and best-loved books, A Christmas Carol. It was written in six weeks and finished by the end of November, being fitted in in the intervals of writing the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, a work which was causing him some financial anxiety because the public did not seem to have taken to it as readily as to his earlier serials. A Christmas Carol would, he hoped, bring a better financial return.

John Forster, Dicken's biographer, noted how the story, once conceived, gripped Dickens. ‘He wept over it, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself to an extraordinary degree’. ‘He walked thinking of it fifteen and twenty miles about the black streets of London’, often at very late hours of the night. He kept Christmas that year with an extraordinary zest; ‘such dinings, such dancings, such conjurings, such blindman's buffings, such theatre-goings, such kissing-out of old years and kissing-in of new ones, never took place in these parts before’. Savouring the atmosphere of Christmas in London became part of Dickens' annual routine. Every Christmas Eve he went to visit the Christmas markets in the East End between Aldgate and Bow, and he liked to wander in poor neighbourhoods on Christmas Day, ‘past the areas of shabby genteel houses in Somers or Kentish Towns, watching the diners preparing or coming in’. A Christmas Carol captures in many places what Dickens so acutely observed:

The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers' and grocers' trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do.

The Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge into the city streets, mired with mud and sooty snow, and the same scene is evoked:

The poulterers shops were still half-open, and the fruiterers were radiant in their glory. There were great, round pot-bellied baskets of chesnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons …

The grocers' shops are redolent with the rich scents of tea and coffee, almonds, cinnamon, figs and candied fruits. And Dickens' skill in conjuring up the richness of Christmas fare is used to good effect in his description of the goose, and stuffing, and gravy of the Cratchits' Christmas dinner, not to mention the sharply observed mingled smells of laundry, eating-house and pastry-cook, as the Christmas pudding is unrolled from its pudding cloth and set alight with its sprig of holly on top.

Dickens does not only give us a vivid portrayal of Christmas feasting, he is also concerned to make his story the vehicle of Christian truths. The theme of A Christmas Carol is not simply Christmas feasting; it is a story of conversion, of release from the imprisoning chains of grasping covetousness worn by Marley's Ghost into the freedom of compassion and generosity. The smog-filled streets of the city in which Scrooge sees the ghosts of avaricious, selfish and grasping contemporaries (‘some few [they might be guilty governments] were linked together’), are suffused on Christmas Day with the light of heaven:

No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!

The Spirit of Christmas Present, Scrooge observed, is able ‘notwithstanding his gigantic size’, ‘to accommodate himself to any place with ease’. ‘He stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall’, just as the Christmas gospel proclaimed the humble stooping down of the Creator to be born at Bethlehem. The Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the crowds hurrying to church and chapel ‘with their gayest faces’, and Dickens links this with the other throng bearing their Christmas dinners to be cooked in the communal bakers' ovens. There is a sharp piece of observation as Dickens notes what he must have seen in his Christmas walks in London, ‘the thawed blotch of wet above each baker's oven; where the pavement smoked as if its stones were cooking too’.

Dickens links the Christmas worship in the churches and the cooking Christmas dinners with their smoking pavements, when he writes of the Spirit taking the covers off the dinners as they are carried to the ovens, and sprinkling incense upon them from his torch—a strange torch for it also sprinkles water (an image of baptism) on quarrelsome dinner-carriers. ‘Their good humour was restored directly. For they said it was a shame to quarrel on Christmas Day. And so it was, God love it, so it was.’ The bells of Christmas move from dream to reality as Scrooge wakes on Christmas Day:

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash. Oh, glorious! Glorious!

The marvellous onomatopoeic evocation of change-ringing, serves as symbol of the grave revealed in the incarnation and now in Scrooge's life. That new reality is summed up in the final sentences of the story, when Dickens writes that Scrooge now knew ‘how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One’.

Scrooge goes to church on Christmas Day, but Dickens simply states the fact and does not describe the service. Like Coleridge's converted Ancient Mariner, Dickens is concerned with the spirit and life of Christianity. The Ancient Mariner ends with the stanza:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Dickens in his will urged his children to ‘try to guide themselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man's narrow construction of its letter here or there’, echoing a letter he wrote to the Reverend R.H. Davies at Christmas, 1856:

There cannot be many men, I believe, who have a more humble veneration for the New Testament, or a more profound conviction of its all-sufficiency, than I have, [but] I discountenance all obtrusive professions and tradings in religion, as one of the main causes why real Christianity has been retarded in this world; and because my observation of life induces me to hold in unspeakable dread and horror, those unseemly squabbles about the letter which drive the spirit out of hundreds of thousands.

There is no doubt that A Christmas Carol is first and foremost a story concerned with the Christian gospel of liberation by the grace of God, and with incarnational religion which refuses to drive a wedge between the world of spirit and the world of matter. Both the Christmas dinners and the Christmas dinner-carriers are blessed; the cornucopia of Christmas food and feasting reflects both the goodness of creation and the joy of heaven. It is a significant sign of a shift in theological emphasis in the nineteenth century from a stress on the Atonement to a stress on the Incarnation, a stress which found outward and visible form in the sacramentalism of the Oxford Movement, the development of richer and more symbolic forms of worship, the building of neo-Gothic churches, and the revival and increasing centrality of the keeping of Christmas itself as a Christian festival.

At the time of the English Reformation the celebration of Christmas was retained, along with other holy days, but a strong Calvinist and Puritan theology argued that only what was explicitly commanded in Scripture was normative for Christian worship. The Christian Passover of Good Friday-Easter was the chief and most ancient of Christian festivals. Christmas only became generally celebrated in the fourth century, with the Constantinian recognition of Christianity, and the date on which it was observed, December 25th, was thought to have been chosen as a Christian counter-blast to the pagan festival of Natali Sol Invicti, the birthday of the unconquered Sun. When the Westminster Directory was substituted for the Prayer Book under the Commonwealth Christmas was abolished. The rubric stated: ‘there is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel, but the Lord's Day, which is the Christian Sabbath’, therefore ‘festival-days, vulgarly called holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued’.

The abolition of Christmas was by no means universally accepted. There was a report, for instance, in 1647 of a disorder at Canterbury:

The Major endeavouring the Execution of the Ordinance for abolishing holy-days was much abused by the rude multitude, had his head broken, and was dragged up and down, till he got into a house for his safety … Like insurrections were in several other places of the Kingdom.

The restoration of Charles II brought with it the restoration of Anglicanism, and so Christmas was restored. Pepys noted that on the first Christmas kept after the Restoration his pew was decked with the traditional rosemary and bay. At the beginning of the eighteenth century an article in the Spectator noted that:

The church, as it is now equipt, looks more like a Greenhouse than a place of Worship: the middle Isle (sic) is a very pretty shady Walk, and the Pews look like so many Arbours of each side of it. The Pulpit itself has such Clusters of Ivy, Holly, and Rosemary about it, that a light Fellow in our Pew took occasion to say, that the Congregation heard the Word out of a Bush, like Moses.

Other witnesses commented that Christmas greenery was far more common in the south than in the north.

Christmas was often the occasion for a general communion; some London churches had two celebrations on Christmas Day in the mid-eighteenth century. Amongst Methodists the custom began of holding watch-night services to mark the New Year. In the Church of England, where Christmas continued to be celebrated, there was also continuing concern about the precedence of secular jollification taking precedence over religious observance. The Non-Juror, Robert Nelson, the author of a well-known Companion to the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England (1704) warned, in his section on Christmas Day, of the abuse of the Christmas season, when:

… instead of making it an instrument of religion, we chiefly employ this holy season in vanity and folly: when our joy evaporates in extravagance, and degenerates into sin and sensuality; when we express it by luxury and intemperance, to the great scandal of our Saviour and his holy religion.

A traveller through England in 1723 noted that the twelve days of Christmas were widely kept:

The Nobility and Gentry retire to their respective Seats in the Country; and there, with their Relations, Neighbours, and Tennants, keep Carnavals in their own Houses, Hospitality, Musick, Balls, and Play as much during this Season all over England, as in any Kingdom whatever.

Perhaps Nelson had reason for his concern.

Although Christmas was a time of festivity its church celebration in the nineteenth century owed much to the Oxford Movement. A significant feature of the concerns of the Tractarians was the revival and enrichment of the Prayer Book forms of service, and a proper observance of the seasons and festivals of the church calendar. It was no accident that John Keble's influential book of poems of 1827 entitled The Christian Year, providing verses and meditations on the Prayer Book services and on the Sundays and holy days observed by the Church of England. At St Saviour's, the church built by Dr Pusey in the slums of Leeds, a midnight Eucharist was celebrated on Christmas Eve in contrast to Leeds Parish Church where W.F. Hook had begun a mid-night Eucharist on New Year's Eve, as an Anglican response to Methodist watch-night services. J.H. Pollen, who served as a curate in the parish, wrote of the St Saviour's Christmas in 1849. The church was decked with boughs, banners and flowers:

Large brass candelabra were placed before the altar full of lights; three tapers were put in the place of one in the sconces of the chancel; red hangings on the walls, a rich carpet on the floor, flowers on the altar screen, a white embroidered altar frontal.

… The Evensong was at nine with a meditative Sermon. At twelve, the Eucharist was celebrated and a Sermon preached on the mystery of the Incarnation. The Church was lighted, and before the Service the whole choir proceeded round the Church two and two, singing the hymn—

Ye faithful, approach ye,
Joyfully triumphing,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.

(The unfamiliar opening of ‘O come, all ye faithful’, is from the translation of Adeste fideles made by Frederick Oakeley in 1841 for use at the Margaret Chapel in London.)

St Saviour's also laid on a Christmas feast:

Here was a vast tree fifteen feet high, all covered with lights, and hung with pictures, lolly-pops, ‘spaice whistles’, [i.e. barley-sugar whistles], & c. & c … On the steps at the end, a rough picture … of a ‘Presepio’ (i.e. a nativity scene) was covered round with green boughs, and lighted up.

Hostile observers were to misinterpret this picture as implying the worship of ‘Adam and Eve’ or ‘Cain and Abel’. The ‘Presepio’, or nativity scene anticipates the Christmas ‘crib’, a custom going back to Francis of Assisi, which began to appear in English churches in the later nineteenth century. So accepted has this become that the word ‘crib’, which originally meant the ‘manger’ or ‘rack’ in a stable, and then a child's bed, is now used simply to refer to the representation in churches at Christmas of the birth of Christ at Bethlehem.

What began as part of the Catholic revival in the Church of England spread to other sections of Anglicanism, and indeed to other churches. In 1887 John Hunter, a notable Church of England minister in Glasgow pioneered the keeping of Christmas Day in the kirk. In 1875 a clerical journalist, the Reverend C.M. Davies, whose collected articles on the London religious scene are invaluable vignettes of church life, noted that Christmas decorations in churches and special Christmas observances were no longer a party badge of High Churchmanship. Davies managed to visit twenty-seven churches on Christmas Day that year and noted a host of fascinating details. At St Paul's, Hammersmith, he found a splendid cross of white feathers on the pulpit, with the word ‘Alleluia’ on a crimson scroll. The texts on the windows were made out of tapioca. St Philip's, Earl's Court, was adorned with Christmas shrubs: ‘holly, laurestina, ivy and box’. St Matthias, West Brompton, boasted ten vases of white flowers and nearly a hundred candles on the Holy Table. ‘Potted hothouse flowers bedecked the altar steps, and the services were of the most ornate description’. White azaleas and camellias all but engulfed the altar at St Peter's, Kennington Park.

The decorations observed by Davies may well have been influenced by Edward Young Cox's The Art of Garnishing Churches, at Christmas and other Festivals. This first appeared in 1868 and had reached a third and much expanded edition by 1871. The book is a catalogue of wreaths, devices in evergreen, everlasting flowers and moss. There are illuminated devices, designs for straw decorations, instructions for making temporary reredoses and wall diapers made of perforated zinc. Peter Anson commented on this work in his Fashions in Church Furnishings 1840–1940 (1960):

[The decorations] are Gothic going mad … Nothing in a church must be left without decorations. Every gas standard must be treated with wreaths of evergreens and everlastings. Not a column or a spandril of an arch must be left bare, so as to show forth the words of the Benedicte: ‘All ye green things upon the earth bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever’.

The ecclesiastical warehouse run by Cox and Sons at 28, Southampton Street, advertised a vast range of designs in zinc, cardboard and linen carton-paper, together with a selection of illuminated banners, texts and complete temporary reredoses.

St Saviour's, Leeds, boasted a Christmas tree. This new addition to the English Christmas was German in origin and Prince Albert has usually been credited with its introduction to England. It provided the title of the first of Dickens' Christmas Stories which appeared in Household Words in 1850. The story begins with a wonderful evocation of the magic of the Christmas Tree:

I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lit by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches … there were French polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping … there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat boxes, peep-show-boxes … there were tee-totums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises.

Dickens uses the Christmas Tree as a kind of medieval memory system tracing the associations of Christmas down the branches of the tree. As the Waits' music sounds from the street, he links the powerful images of the Christmas story, with the presents of childhood. In the light of grace ‘all common things become uncommon, and enchanted to me. All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans. Common flowerpots are full of treasure’. There is the echo of the same theme of transfiguration and conversion that is so central to A Christmas Carol.

That Dickens chose to call his story of Scrooge's Christmas conversion A Christmas CAROL, is a reminder of the musical transformation of Christmas in the nineteenth century. That the story should have ghosts as a central feature is a reminder of the mid-Victorian interest in the paranormal. The most English Christmas service, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, was a nineteenth-century creation, being devised by Archbishop Benson when he was bishop of the newly established see of Truro for use on Christmas Eve 1880. Although the church of the early centuries and the medieval church had employed a rich hymnody, at the Reformation the old Latin hymns were not replaced by English ones. The only hymns commonly sung were metrical versions of the psalms. Carols were originally songs of joy accompanied by a dance. The word itself comes from the Italian, carola, meaning ‘a ring-dance’.

In the Middle Ages carols and ballads had both secular and sacred themes. Both suffered at the time of the Reformation, though Bishop Grindal authorised a book of Chrestenmas carroles in 1562. The place of hymnody in the Methodist revival is well-known, and the Christmas collection of Hymns on the Nativity (1741) composed by Charles Wesley included ‘Hark, how all the welkin rings’—an early version of ‘Hark the herald angels sing’. The nineteenth century saw a veritable explosion of collections of carols, new and old. The Religious Tract Society gathered together carols originally circulated as separate tracts and broadsheets in a book of carols called The Christmas Box. In 1822 Davis Gilbert published some Ancient Christmas Carols, set to the tunes to which he had heard them sung when a child in the West of England:

They used to be practised several weeks beforehand: and on the night of Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day they were sung with great fervour, at home after the 8 pm drawing of the cakes hot from the oven, washed down with ale or cider, and at church instead of the metrical psalms.

The carols include ‘While shepherds watched’, ‘A Virgin most pure’, and ‘The Lord at first did Adam make’. Thomas Helmore and John Mason Neale who produced The Hymnal Noted in two parts (1851 and 1854) under the aegis of the Ecclesiological Society, published in 1853 Carols for Christmastide. They wrote in the preface:

The want of a good and cheap collection of Christmas Carols must have been felt by most parish priests; the present is an attempt to supply the deficiency.

We have felt with regard to these … that it is impossible at one stretch to produce a quantity of new carols, of which words and music shall alike be original. They must be the gradual accumulation of centuries; the offerings of different epochs, of different countries, of different minds, to the same treasury of the Church. None but an empiric would venture to make a set to order.

Neale and Helmore selected twelve ancient melodies and set them to ‘imitations of the original words’, deriving a number of them from the rare Piae Cantiones published in 1582 for the use of the Lutheran Church in Sweden. ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ appears for the first time in Neale's translation, ‘Good Christian men, rejoice’, and the little collection also saw the first appearance of Neale's own composition, ‘Good King Wenceslas’, which has remained popular ever since. Later in the century H.R. Bramley edited Christmas Carols, New and Old, and the 1880s saw the publication of numerous collections of carols, coinciding with Benson's nine lessons and carols at Truro.

Dickens' A Christmas Carol both reflected and contributed to the Victorian revival of Christmas. In 1844 William John Butler, soon to begin a thirty-four year model incumbency at Wantage, wrote to his parishioners near Ware in Hertfordshire:

The people here seem hardly to feel Christmas Day. I observed that they wore their working-day clothes, and a very scanty attendance at church in proportion to that on Sundays. This seems to be the case very generally throughout the country. The people have utterly lost sight of the great Christian feasts, and with them the knowledge of the mighty events they celebrated. The Popish ways may all be very bad, but at least they teach something of the grounds of our faith and salvation. The religion of the English peasant is confined to generalities.

Butler was a keen observer (his Wantage parish diaries provide one of the fullest accounts of parochial ministry in the nineteenth century) and his comments are probably accurate. In the course of the century, under the influence of the Oxford Movement's concern for the better observance of Christian festivals, Christmas became more and more prominent. By the later part of the century cathedrals provided special services and musical events, and might have revived ancient special charities for the poor—though we must not forget the problems for large parish-church cathedrals like Manchester, which on one Christmas Day had no less than eighty couples coming to be married (the signing of the registers lasted until four in the afternoon).

The popularity of Dickens' A Christmas Carol played a significant part in the changing consciousness of Christmas and the way in which it was celebrated. The popularity of his public readings of the story is an indication of how much it resonated with the contemporary mood, and contributed to the increasing place of the Christmas celebration in both secular and religious ways that was firmly established by the end of the nineteenth century.

Audrey Jaffe (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Spectacular Sympathy: Visuality and Ideology in Dickens's A Christmas Carol,” in PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 2, March, 1994, pp. 254–65.

[In the following essay, Jaffe maintains that A Christmas Carol is “arguably Dickens's most visually evocative text” and explores the circular relationship between spectatorship and ideologies of identity in nineteenth-century England.]

In a well-known essay, Sergei Eisenstein describes literature in general and Dickens in particular as cinema's predecessors because of their evocation of visual effects. Literature, Eisenstein writes, provides cinema with “parents and [a] pedigree, … a past”; it is “the art of viewing” (232–33). What Eisenstein construes as aesthetic development, however, may also be regarded as a persistent “regime of perception” in Western culture—one in which appeals to the eye play a significant role in the production and circulation of ideology.1 An emphasis on visuality, whether literary or cinematic, promotes spectatorship as a dominant cultural activity. But such an emphasis also reinforces, and thereby naturalizes, forms of spectatorship already inscribed in the social structures within which particular cultural representations are produced. The idea of a continuity between literature and film may thus be significant less for what it reveals about the genealogy of cinema than for what it tells about the role of visuality and its literary evocations in defining, reinforcing, and disseminating some of Western culture's dominant values.

A Christmas Carol (1843) is arguably Dickens's most visually evocative text. In its detailed attention to and elaboration of surfaces, its reliance on contrasts between darkness and light, its construction as a series of scenes (a structure reproduced in the images the spirits exhibit to Scrooge), and particularly its engagement with a dynamic of spectatorial desire, the story is an artifact of, and an exemplary text for understanding, the commodity culture Guy Debord terms a “society of the spectacle”; the mechanism of Scrooge's conversion is, after all, spectatorship.2 Projecting Scrooge's identity into past and future, associating spectatorial and consumer desire with images of an idealized self, A Christmas Carol elaborates what I wish to argue is the circular relation that obtains between, on the one hand, spectacular forms of cultural representation and, on the other, persons, objects, or scenes invested with ideological value and thus already surrounded in their cultural contexts with an aura of spectacle. Moreover, an understanding of the story's representational effects helps explain spectacle's peculiar power as a vehicle for ideology. For while A Christmas Carol anatomizes the relation between an individual subject and spectacular culture, it also unfolds as an allegory of the subject's relation to culture in general—to the realm Clifford Geertz defines as “an imaginative universe within which … acts are signs” (13).

A recent revision of A Christmas Carol illustrates the story's circularity. At the end of the film Scrooged (1988), the character played by Bill Murray, who is involved in making a television version of Dickens's story, steps out of television space and into cinematic space to address the viewer “directly.” The point of this shift is, of course, to frame television space as fictional by seeming to move into a more “real” space, and the point of his address is to direct spectators to do the same: to become engaged with the world beyond television. Telling viewers not to watch television, Murray's character reinforces, however, the idea that some medium is needed to send them that message. Implicit in the directive to leave fiction behind and move into the world, in this film and the text on which it is based, is the claim that the way to the world lies through representation.

In presenting Scrooge with images of his past, present, and future lives, Dickens's spectacular text seeks to awaken that character's sympathy and direct it to the world beyond representation. As a model of socialization through spectatorship, the narrative posits the visual as a means toward recapturing one's lost or alienated self—and becoming one's best self. If it fails to explain how the process occurs—how sympathy emerges from identification, and identification from spectatorship—it nevertheless asks its readers' assent to this series of effects. And if, as I argue, Scrooge's sympathetic self emerges from his relation to representation, such is also the implied effect of the reader's relation to the scenes of A Christmas Carol, given the text's explicit analogy between Scrooge's activity and the reader's (the narrator notes, for example, that Scrooge is as close to the Spirit of Christmas Past as the narrator is to the reader, “and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow” [68]).

Linking visual representation to the production of individual sympathy and thus, ultimately, to social harmony, Dickens's text both participates in and reinforces the perceptual regime to which Christian Metz refers. For at stake in the story's appeal to visuality is not just the assertion of a connection between spectatorship and sympathy but a definition of spectatorship as a means of access to cultural life. Paul Davis has used the term “culture-text” to describe the way the Carol has been rewritten to reflect particular cultural and historical circumstances. I wish to argue, however, that the story deserves this name because it identifies itself with culture: it projects images of, has come to stand for, and constitutes an exemplary narrative of enculturation into the dominant values of its time.

A Christmas Carol tells the story of a Victorian businessman's interpellation as the subject of a phantasmatic commodity culture in which laissez-faire economics is happily wedded to natural benevolence.3 And, in a manner that would be appropriate for a general definition of culture but is especially suited to a spectacular society, the story articulates the relation between the subject and culture as a relation between the subject and representation. Scrooge gains access to his former, feeling self and to a community with which that self is in harmony—and, not incidentally, he saves his own life—by learning to negotiate the text's field of visual representations. In the pages that follow, I show how cultural “frames” embedded in the story's images invite the spectator's identification, collapsing sympathy into an identification with representation itself, and how, by making participation in its scenes dependent on such identification, the story constitutes both its idealized charitable self and the ideal subject of commodity culture. A Christmas Carol reconciles Christmases Past and Christmases Yet to Come, that is, by conjuring up an illusion of presence.

The story's ideological project—its attempt to link sympathy and business by incorporating a charitable impulse into its (male) readers' self-conceptions—underlies its association of charitable feeling with participation in cultural life.4 A narrative whose ostensible purpose is the production of social sympathy, A Christmas Carol resembles those scenes in eighteenth-century fiction that, depicting encounters between charity givers and receivers, model sympathy for readers positioned as witnesses.5 Although such scenes had an instructional function and were meant to direct readers from the text to the world beyond it, they were also directed toward the production of strictly “literary” feeling; texts intended to “inculcate … humanity and benevolence” provided “a course in the development of emotional response, whose beginning and end are literary” (Todd 91–93; see also Mullan). What I have described as a certain circularity in representations of sympathy is thus not new in the nineteenth century. But from the eighteenth-century novel's scenes of sympathy to the scenes of A Christmas Carol, the sympathetic text has both widened its scope and tightened its grasp on the reader; from a display of virtue meant to incite imitation and teach judgment to a relatively select audience, it has moved to a profound manipulation of the reader's visual sense in what is, in effect, the mass marketing of an ideology about sympathy.

In the Carol, then, the subject is not the man of feeling but the man who has forgotten how to feel; the potential charity giver no less than the beggar requires socialization. Not simply a representation of an act of benevolence or an exhortation about the pleasures of sympathy, Dickens's text situates its readers in the position of the man without feeling in a narrative whose function is to teach him how to feel, and it appeals to them by manipulating visual effects in a manner that mirrors Scrooge's own interpellation through spectacle.

The story opens on a world shrouded in fog that gradually dissolves to reveal Scrooge working in his countinghouse (47). Here, as in numerous other scenes that evoke contrasts between darkness and light or in other ways emphasize appearances, the story draws attention to its surface and its control over visual techniques (what Metz calls “mechanisms of desire”)—its power to let readers, positioned as spectators, see or not see.6 In doing so, it seems to create spectacle out of a grab bag of projective or framing devices that it implicitly describes as the property of literary texts. But while suggesting that literature can transform any reality into spectacle, the story focuses chiefly on objects, persons, and scenes that are already spectacular in Victorian culture: invested with cultural value and desire. As the story seems to spectacularize the real, that is, it in fact reinforces the desirability of a series of culturally valorized images and contributes to a sense that nothing exists—at least, nothing worth looking at—outside those images.

Spectacle depends on a distinction between vision and participation, a distance that produces desire in a spectator. The early parts of Dickens's story dramatize the elder Scrooge's identification with images of his youth and associate the effect of those images with that of literary texts. The scenes of Scrooge's youth possess an immediacy that the Spirit of Christmas Past underscores by warning Scrooge against it: “‘These are but shadows of the things that have been,’ said the Ghost. ‘They have no consciousness of us’” (71). But the text's emphasis is on the reality of these “shadows,” and that emphasis is reinforced by an insistence on the reality of an even more removed level of representation: the characters of Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe, products of the young Scrooge's imagination, not only appear in the first scene but are “wonderfully real and distinct to look at” (72). And their realism seems both to produce and to be evidence of the spectator's ability to identify with representations; exclaiming about the adventures of these fictional characters, Scrooge “expend[s] all the earnestness of his nature … in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying,” his face “heightened and excited” (72). Subsequent scenes produced by the spirit similarly evoke desire and compel identification. The sight of Fezziwig's ball takes Scrooge “out of his wits”: “His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self”; he speaks “unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self” (78). If Scrooge's relation to the scenes from the Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe is analogous to his response to other scenes from his past and both are analogous to the reader's relation to the text of A Christmas Carol, then literature is here imagined as spectacle, and both are defined as compelling identification while precluding participation.

Although temporal distance and fictionality separate observer from observed in these scenes, the story's emphasis on the realism of what is seen blurs the difference between a spectacularity literature finds and one it creates. Similarly, what the spirits choose to represent as “scene” is often, in effect, already one. Davis amply describes the story's construction as a series of scenes, its use of dream and projection, and its allusions to popular Victorian images (65–66). But its scenes are also related to what Mary Ann Doane calls “scenarios”: constellations of objects or persons charged with cultural significance, they are images of images displayed to evoke desire in a spectator who recognizes the values embedded in them (13–14). The scenes of Scrooge's boyhood friends, for instance, compel spectatorial desire through their temporal distance and through Scrooge's evident, immediate pleasure in apprehending them. Indistinct as they are, however, they serve chiefly to signify youth and boyhood fellowship and to gesture toward an idealized preindustrial world in which work resembles play. In the description of Fezziwig's ball, similarly, desire is signaled by absorption, the disappearance of the spirit and Scrooge while the scene is being described. But desire is also inscribed in the display of the dance itself, with its stylized emphasis on couples and courtship. Encoding specific cultural values in visionary scenes, surrounding with a golden or rosy light the images that convey them, the story identifies those values with light—and vision—itself and ultimately, as I argue below, with what it calls “spirit.”7

Encoded in these scenes, then, are some of Victorian culture's dominant values—youth, boyhood fellowship, heterosexual desire, and familial pleasure—their naturalness asserted by means of a strategy that identifies seeing with desiring. For embedded in the scenes are screens of their own, cultural frames that define the contents as desirable. In perhaps the most powerful example, a scene after the ball, the narrator models desire, moving into the spirit's position and, imaginatively, into the scene itself. He supposes himself one of several “young brigands” playing a game at the center of which is a young woman who might in other circumstances, it seems, have been Scrooge's daughter:

As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn't have done it; I should have expected my arm to have grown round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, … in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.


The merging of narrator, spirit, and Scrooge in the speaker's “I” is the narrative's characteristic way of dramatizing the power of its own representations. And the subject of the passage—the impossibility of touching an image whose status as image provokes the desire to touch (and holds out a promise of “value”)—might itself serve as a definition of spectacle. But this seductiveness is a function not only of the image's status as representation but also of what Laura Mulvey calls the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of what is represented.8 What prevents the narrator from touching the woman's skin—the “skin” separating spectator from spectacle—defines both the reality of what is seen and the spectacle's condition as representation; the combination of desire and inaccessibility hints, as well, at woman's status in the real as representation. By framing the scene as fantasy, the text seems to create what it in fact reproduces: the woman's spectacular quality.

Projection also makes the idea of touch—of breaking the skin of representation—seem faintly transgressive here. But what is presented is already transgressive in Victorian culture: the image's desirability and untouchability draw on, and translate into visual terms, the imagined desire of the “father” for his daughter. Spectacle's necessary distance thus echoes and encodes other prohibitions against touch, prohibitions marking gender codes and familial relations. Desire is both barred by these structures and inscribed in them; participating in that desire, readers become complicit in the scene's cultural dynamics.

Along with mode of representation and content, temporal distance gives the images of Scrooge's past an inherent spectacularity. But what the story offers as everyday reality—Christmas Present—possesses the same projective or illusory quality. It is as if, in order to make Scrooge and the story's readers desire the real, the text has to offer not everyday life but rather its image: everyday life polished to a high sheen.

The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by. … There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed. …

Figs are “moist and pulpy,” French plums “blush in modest tartness”; there are “Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner” (90). These objects carry the same erotic charge as did the woman in the game-playing scene (and desire is once again modeled, in the image of watering mouths); they also similarly suggest temporal distance, with the spectator positioned as not yet in possession of what he sees. But they have these qualities not because they are framed as projections, although they appear in the scenes shown by the Spirit of Christmas Present, but because they are behind a screen already in place: the shopwindow. As in the earlier scene, what the text situates within its literary and phantasmatic frames is already, culturally, framed. Indeed, the idea of “framing” Christmas Present has as its premise the proposition that the real is only desirable—in fact, for Scrooge, only visible—when made into representation.9

It makes sense, then, that one of Victorian England's most important sites of value—the home—also appears as image, framed by a perception from without that invests it with longing. There is no difference between the frame imposed by the spirit's presence and what a passerby in the streets would ordinarily see:

[A]s Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cosy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. … Here, again, were shadows on the window-blind of guests assembling. …


The representational frames Dickens uses to set fantasy apart from reality—the dynamics that give A Christmas Carol its mythic or fairy-tale quality—turn out to be fully operative in the “real” world: for Scrooge and the spirit as they walk through the streets, the world is a series of such frames, of windows and projective screens.

The reality Dickens (re)presents is thus already encoded as spectacle; it is “to-be-looked-at.” The text, by emphasizing the “real” quality of its projections and the projective quality of what it offers at the level of the real, dissolves any sustainable difference between the real and the image. Structuring desire through the imposition of “artificial” projections, on the one hand, and showing that desire is already structured by such projective screens as windows and blinds, on the other, the story effectively demonstrates that the real already possesses the quality of image and shadow—if seen from the point of view of someone positioned outside it. And defining the real as spectacle, the text inevitably positions readers outside it. Focusing on objects already fetishized visually (women, home, and food) and framing the already culturally framed, the story defines reality as spectacle—what one watches and remains outside of; investing its representational surface with desirability, the story turns its readers into spectators and positions them outside everything. At Christmas (and perhaps not only at Christmas), the story seems to say, the world is an image; moreover, it is an image in which spectators seek to see themselves.10

This imperative to locate the self within the story's spectacles, associating as it does the representation of the self with the story's other representations, ultimately defines sympathy in the Carol in spectatorial terms, as a relation to representation. Scrooge typically loses himself in the “reality” of what he sees, imitating, for instance, the younger Scrooge's manifest identification. The story presents his watching of these scenes not only as the production, witnessing, and loss of self in spectacle (and, analogously, in reading) but also as the taking on of the image's desire. But the scenes prompt compassion as well: Scrooge's identification with his former self leads to sympathy for that self and, in turn, to sympathy with others, and not only with images. “There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all,” he says after witnessing the first scene of his boyhood self (73). The narrative of the development of fellow feeling offered here makes the two kinds of sympathy (identification and compassion) appear to be continuous, as if the o