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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Christian Themes

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Last Updated on June 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279

“A Christmas Carol” is deeply rooted in the important nineteenth-century question of how Christian morality would survive in the face of an increasingly utilitarian and capitalistic world brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The financial success that Scrooge enjoyed is precisely the goal of capitalism, but a fixation on the accumulation of wealth seduced Scrooge into seeing every aspect of life in such terms. Not only Christmas, but his fiancé, his dying friend and business partner, his reputation, his office staff, and his only living family member are all weighed against their financial cost and found unworthy. The costs of such selfishness and bitterness are not borne by Scrooge alone, however. Dickens’s portrayal of the social costs—prisons, workhouses, increased mortality, the creation of ghettos and slums, the miserable state of both wealthy and poor alike—clearly makes a case for morality and social justice on a larger scale.

On the other hand, the solution to social injustice in “A Christmas Carol” is not a social movement but individual redemption. The world becomes a better place almost immediately following Scrooge’s conversion. In fact, the story implies that a renewed connection to humanity is, in fact, the very essence of redemption. Though the Christmas setting invites a traditional Christian interpretation of Scrooge’s redemption, his change is rooted not in a commitment to deeper spirituality or orthodoxy but in an authentic connection to and investment in the lives of other human beings. This “conversion” is not introspective and personal; it is outward-looking and social. While the results seem to change nothing about the social structure itself, the compassion shown by individual people changes the social relationships they share.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on April 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

Victorian Christmas

At the time when Dickens was writing, the Christmas tradition was not nearly as important as it is today. Celebrating Christmas started in the fourth century, incorporating many of the symbols, such as holly and wreaths, of pagan holidays, such as the Roman Saturnalia and the Saxon Yule holiday. The date of December 25th was borrowed from pagan cultures—it was the date of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.

For centuries Christmas grew in importance slowly, but treating it as a celebration was looked upon suspiciously because of its pagan origins and because it made a festive celebration out of one of the most solemn days on the Christian calendar, the birth of Jesus. During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century that sought to turn the church away from worldly and materialistic concerns, celebrating Christmas was actually outlawed for a short time. Yet it wasn't long before the symbolic, festive aspects of the holiday started showing up again as people carried on the traditions they had been taught.

During the reign of Queen Victoria in England, the Christmas tradition gained popularity. One reason for this was that the monarchy supported it: Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, brought the German tradition of decorating the Christmas tree when he came to England. Another reason was economic, as the Industrial Revolution was creating a population shift from rural areas to cities, where new manufacturing techniques required workers. This growing urban population found comfort in the Christmas traditions. As the city became more crowded and dirty, the citizens looked forward to celebrations, especially Christmas.

Urban Life

In the mid-nineteenth century, London was a crowded, dirty place, a fact that no one did more to publicize than Dickens himself. Industries were not regulated, and widespread pollution and exploitation of the work force resulted. Laborers, many of them children, were required to work fourteen-hour days in order to help their families...

(This entire section contains 401 words.)

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pay bills; if a family was unable to make ends meet, they might end up in Debtor's Prison—as Dickens' family did when he was twelve.

Dickens described the squalid, dirty condition of London in vivid detail. Yet, some historians believe that the actual conditions of Victorian London might not have been as gruesome as described. Because the reign of Victoria was a time of increased social concern in England, there probably is much exaggeration in the reports of squalid poverty.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

  • 1843: The world's first Christmas cards are sent out by Henry Cole, a director of a London museum.

    Today: Millions of Christmas cards are sent out each year by families and business, but many people are replacing paper cards with animated Internet cards.

  • 1843: The squalid courts and cheap food shops of a London area dubbed "Porridge Island" are cleared away for a development area called Trafalgar Square, in honor of Lord Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

    Today: Trafalgar Square is one of London's main tourist attractions; unfortunately, it is also famous for its enormous pigeon population. 1843: Samuel B. Morse begins construction of a telegraph wire between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore using money appropriated by Congress.

  • 1843: Samuel B. Morse begins construction of a telegraph wire between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, using money appropriated by Congress.

    Today: Telephone communication is instantaneous, but millions of miles of wires are being replaced with fiber-optic cables for even quicker Internet transmission.

  • 1843: Documents are copied by hand. The first prototype of a typewriter is invented, but is not very practical.

    Today: Computers can accurately turn printing or spoken words into typed documents and then alter their appearance in countless ways before they are printed.

  • 1843: A new child labor law in Britain prohibits employment of boys or girls under the age of ten in coalmines. In Massachusetts, a new law limits children under twelve to working no more than ten hours a day.

    Today: Developed countries pressure third-world countries to enforce child labor laws, while at the same time taking advantage of their cheap production costs.

  • 1843: Cologne authorities suppress the newspaper published by socialist Karl Marx which decries the exploitation of the working class. The following year Marx meets Friedrich Engels, with whom he was to write The Communist Manifesto in 1847.

    Today: Many of the Marxist governments of the twentieth century, based on communist ideas from Marx and Engels, have moderated their views and adapted some capitalistic practices.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 137

Like most of his works, A Christmas Carol reflects Dickens's indignation at the treatment of the poor in Victorian England. His satiric portrait of the greedy Scrooge reflects his disgust with utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the most important institution in modern society was business and that everything should be subordinated to commerce. Rather than advocating a specific political vehicle for social change, Dickens uses Scrooge's conversion and newfound generosity toward the Cratchit family to illustrate how the individual can make a difference in alleviating the suffering of the poor. Just as he does not espouse a particular political philosophy, Dickens does not espouse specific religious beliefs. A Christmas Carol incorporates some of the Christian symbolism inherent in the Christmas holiday, but its themes remain secular. Scrooge's conversion is not religious but humanitarian.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading