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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A Christmas Carol Analysis

  • In presenting poor families as hardworking and kind in A Christmas Carol, Dickens emphasizes that they are not poor because of any personal failings. Rather, they have been failed by an economic system that fosters systemic inequality and inhumanity.
  • The novella can be seen as a rewritten fable that revises the common trope of punishing the antagonist. Instead, Scrooge changes as a person and is able to redeem himself.
  • Major symbols in A Christmas Carol include ghosts and light.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Charles Dickens, a man who had risen to a position of fame and success from an extremely impoverished background, was as much a dedicated social reformer as he was a writer. Indeed, the two professions were, for him, deeply intertwined: he regularly used his platform as a successful novelist to advocate for the social causes in which he passionately believed. A Christmas Carol, to the modern reader, can often seem heavy-handed and somewhat lacking in subtlety in the message it seeks to convey, so it is useful to set it in its context and understand what exactly Dickens sought to achieve with this story.

The tone of the novella is, by turns, satirical, critical, and sentimental. Scrooge is hyperbolically, unrealistically mean and dismissive; Dickens paints him as a caricature, but he is an extreme form of the middle-class businessman Dickens knew to exist. When Scrooge espouses his beliefs that the poor should not expect to receive charity, he is expressing an opinion that was not unusual in businessmen of his class at the time of writing. Interaction between people of different classes was not common during the Victorian period, and many wealthy people believed that the poor deserved to be poor, and that the needy simply constituted “surplus population,” in Scrooge’s phrasing.

It is for these reasons that Dickens places so much emphasis on depicting poor families, such as the Cratchits, as being loving, Christian, hardworking, and grateful for what they have. Dickens wishes to drive home to the reader the fact that the Cratchits—and many families like them—are not poor because they do not work, nor because they are morally bankrupt. On the contrary, many poor families are poor because of the callous behavior of their employers, who do not treat them with humanity or believe that they deserve to be seen as people on an equal level.

Essentially, A Christmas Carol is a straightforward fable whose ending could be readily predicted. It is the story of a man who has behaved badly towards society, who is shown the error of his ways, and who subsequently turns his life around. To the modern reader, its setting makes it appear almost as distant as any other fable, but to the reader of Dickens’s time, its setting in Victorian London would have given it an immediacy which is now difficult to perceive. This story, for Dickens’s original readers, would have reflected a modern update of a traditional moral fable, reinforcing the fact that poverty in Victorian London was deeply entrenched and that everybody has a responsibility to those around them.

Dickens’s often teasing and humorous tone serves to underline this, reminding the reader that while the events of the story are themselves fantastical, the setting—and the meaning—are very real. Interestingly, furthermore, there is no element of punishment for the antagonist at the end of this novel, because the antagonist—Scrooge—has been reformed. Whereas Marley represents the unreformed villain who is now confined to an afterlife in chains, Scrooge presents a story of redemption, and he offers a glimpse of hope for those who might see some element of themselves reflected in Scrooge’s beliefs. Dickens is also utilizing one of the key elements of the Victorian Christmas: ghost stories. The use of ghost stories adds to the populist nature of the story and means that it will fit into the Christmas entertainments of many families among Dickens’s target audience, ensuring a wide readership.

The symbolism in this story, while quite heavy-handed, is effective. When Marley’s ghost appears, he is not some terrifying phantom; on the contrary, he appears exactly as Scrooge knew him in life, wearing the same clothes, the same pigtail, and the same face. However, what is most terrifying about him is the way that he is “fettered” by the chain he forged in life. The ghost explains to Scrooge that the chain of cashboxes, deeds, padlocks, and ledgers binds him because it is a reflection of the things that interested Marley when he was alive—and which ultimately caused him to be a detrimental force in society. Where once he loved money, that love now shackles him and forces him to pursue a thankless existence beyond the grave, trying to improve the world he worsened before his death.

Light is another important symbol in the novel. The glow that emerges from parties, familial scenes, and other sources of Christmas cheer is one that, as the Ghost of Christmas Past explains, Scrooge has tried to “bonnet” all his life. Because of his own history as a lonely and miserable child, he has repressed not only his own imagination, pressing himself more and more deeply into a form in which joy is “extinguished,” but also the light of joy all around him. He has shielded himself from happiness and love, in which he declares he does not believe. The narrative forces readers to ask why Scrooge has done this—does he feel that he does not deserve love? But the story also makes it clear that this choice, however prolonged, need not be a permanent one. Scrooge has been a negative force on society, but there is never a point at which things have gone too far. Until we are dead, there is always the opportunity to change our ways.

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