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

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

A Christmas Carol has never been considered Dickens' finest work by literary critics, but from its first publication it was a popular favorite. It sold an impressive six thousand copies at its first printing in 1843 and was quickly reprinted in numerous authorized and unauthorized editions.

Today, critics seldom discuss A Christmas Carol in part because of its universal popularity. Also this short novel is considered not emblematic of Dickens' work in general. Although critical reaction to his novels has been favorable, commentators tend to deride the length of the books he produced. David Cecil, for example, was critical of Dickens' novels when he commented in his book The Victorian Novelists: Essays in Reevaluation: "He cannot construct, for one thing. His books have no organic unity; they are full of detachable episodes, characters who serve no purpose in furthering the plot."

It is a criticism that did not apply to the development of ideas in this short novel. Cecil went on to point to Dickens' finest quality: his ability to fill every scene he wrote with exact, convincing details. Famed novelist Anthony Trollope had it wrong, according to Cecil, when he charged that Dickens' writing was "exaggerated." He emphasized that what might seem excessive was actually Dickens' strength: "Scott's imagination and Emily Bronte's were of a finer quality, Jane Austen's was more exactly articulated, but none of them had an imagination at once so forceful, so varied and so self-dependent as Dickens."

In addition, commentators often focus on the characters in Dickens' work. Some critics quickly dismiss them as being broadly written in order to play upon readers' emotions; moreover, it has been charged that they are designed more as sentimental caricatures than well-rounded psychological portraits. On the opposing side are those critics who concede that his characters are drawn broadly, but then go on to point out that even a character with one exaggerated trait can be real. On this point, Julian Symons asserts: "It would be nearer to the truth to say that they are pathological distortions of human egoism, in which a thwarted radical enacts forbidden scenes of violence through the mouths and bodies of characters labeled wicked."

Scrooge is not violent, but that is only because he is old and decrepit. His attempts to threaten Bob Cratchit for wanting coal for warmth, or his harsh treatment of the little caroler at his door, are done with the spirit of evil that Symons says audiences identify with as "forbidden scenes." It is clear to any new reader of Dickens that he is trying to manipulate his audience's emotions, and the critical debate hovers around whether or not he has a right to do that.

One of the great writers of the twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton, summed up the effectiveness of Dickens' manipulations this way: "A Dickens character hits you first on the nose and then in the waistcoat, and then in the eye and then in the waistcoat again, with the blinding rapidity of some battering engine.… " While other critics consider Dickens' emotional manipulation as dishonest and even cheap, Chesterton believed that this was the business of the novelist.

Dickens was often called a sentimentalist. In one sense he sometimes was a sentimentalist. But if sentimentalism be held to mean something artificial or theatrical, then in the core and reality of his character Dickens was the very reverse of a sentimentalist. He seriously and definitely loved goodness. To see sincerity and charity satisfied him like a meal. What some critics call his love of sweet stuff is really his love of plain beef and bread.

It makes sense that critics are usually suspicious of a novel that the general public likes too much, especially one that uses such emotion-wringing devices as Christmas and a physically-challenged child. However, despite critical condemnation, the short novel has remained a well-loved Christmas classic for people around the world.

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Critical Evaluation


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