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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The role and significance of the Ghost of Christmas Past in Dickens' A Christmas Carol


The Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol plays a crucial role in Scrooge's transformation by showing him scenes from his own past. These memories highlight moments of joy and sorrow, helping him realize how his actions and choices have shaped his current life and encouraging him to change his ways.

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How does the Ghost of Christmas Past reflect on Scrooge's childhood in Dickens' A Christmas Carol?

Dickens does a masterful job of showing the extreme loneliness and isolation that haunted Scrooge's childhood. As Scrooge is taken back to his much younger years, Dickens continues to bend the laws of reality to show just how lonely young Scrooge was.

The first scene that Scrooge is taken to involves his childhood self spending the holiday alone in a schoolhouse after all the other pupils have left for the holiday. Scrooge sees his younger self "lonely" and "reading near a feeble fire." When the spirit touches Scrooge's arm, "[s]uddenly 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 by the brindle an ass laden with wood." When Scrooge sees this man, he exclaims "it's Ali Baba!" Scrooge goes on to name other entities that he sees, such as "Valentine . . . his wild brother, Orson," "the Sultan's Groom turned upside down by the Genii," and even "Robinson Crusoe." These are not real people that Scrooge knew; rather, they characters from the books he would read. However, because of his severe loneliness, the characters became real to him, to the point where he is as happy to see them again as he is to see Fan or Fezziwig. Not only does this scene remind Scrooge of his own sad childhood and the comfort he took in connections, even if they were imaginary. The experience also causes him to begin to empathize with others and feel bad about how his own actions have been the cause of loneliness and isolation. Shortly after he sees these old characters, Scrooge reflects on the boy that he chased away from his doorstep the night before. He then begins to cry and says, "[t]here was a boy singing a Christmas carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something."

The memories that the Ghost of Christmas Past take Scrooge into allow the reader to become more sympathetic toward Scrooge. Further, the memories not only remind Scrooge of his childhood but cause him to begin to rethink the way that he treats people in the present. This pattern continues throughout the story, as the other spirits build on the framework established by the Ghost of Christmas Past.

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How does the Ghost of Christmas Past reflect on Scrooge's childhood in Dickens' A Christmas Carol?

Charles Dickens writes that the Ghost of Christmas Past first takes Scrooge to his boyhood where he lives at a residential school.  He finds his young self alone at Christmastime in the schoolroom and is absorbed in books while his schoolmates are out and about.  We find out that Scrooge's childhood has been difficult.  His schoolmaster is very stern and his father is not a kind person.  The spirit describes young Scrooge as "a solitary child, neglected by his friends, [who] is left there still."  Scrooge is impacted by the spirit's description of his boyhood self and he sobs.  The spirit takes Scrooge to another time in the same place.  A young Ebenezer Scrooge is once again alone at Christmastime.  His younger sister, Fran, enters.  She begs him to come home with her, telling him that their father has changed and has become a kinder, gentler person.  Scrooge, speaking to the spirit, reflects sadly that his sister died young.  Scrooge's childhood is overall sad and lonely, which he reflects upon during his conversations with the Ghost of Christmas Past.  

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How does the Ghost of Christmas Past reflect on Scrooge's childhood in Dickens' A Christmas Carol?

In stave 3 of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge, the protagonist, encounters the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Ghost takes him through the city, where he sees festive preparations taking place. Throughout much of this section, Scrooge gradually learns to reject the harsh, miserly insensitivity that he expresses at the beginning of the novella—itself a Dickensian criticism of the extreme forms of Victorian capitalism that mostly align with the ideas of contemporaries Friedrich Engels and Thomas Carlyle.

Scrooge is lifted out of his antagonism towards the holiday, going so far as to blame the Ghost—whom he mistakenly assumes to be the spirit of Christianity—for stinginess towards the poor and hatred of mirth on the Sabbath. This is where Dickens censures the Victorian perversion of Christianity, one that has informed Scrooge’s own attitudes towards life:

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

This vein of social criticism continues as the Ghost brings him to the family gathering hosted by his clerk, Bob Cratchit, as we are told that the “good Spirit had in showing off this power of his, or else it was his own kind, generous, hearty nature, and his sympathy with all poor men,” led him straight to Cratchit’s home. Though poor, the Cratchits are happy. Here, Scrooge is especially struck by the young, crippled Tiny Tim such that he inquires of the Ghost if he will live. The Ghost answers him by replying, “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” This is a reference to Thomas Malthus’s then controversial tract, Essay on the Principle of Population, where he urged the necessity of curbing population growth among the poor. This is an idea that Scrooge himself mentions to the two gentlemen requesting donations for the poor when he is leaving his office, expressing contempt for the “surplus population.” Scrooge begins to feel guilty for his resentful reaction to Cratchit ‘s request for a day off on Christmas, especially when he is upbraided by the Ghost. This criticism would have been aimed at those unsympathetic to the plight of the poor in the wake of the Chartist movement and oblivious to the working conditions of ordinary laborers (such as examined by Fredrick Engels in his Condition of the Working Class in England in the same year):

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.

His reproach to Scrooge is reinforced by Mrs. Cratchit, who reluctantly raises a toast to her husband’s employer, whom she deems “odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling.” In fact, “The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes.” Feeling ashamed, Scrooge’s pities Tiny Tim all the more in light of his earlier harshness towards his father the previous night.

After leaving, the Ghost takes Scrooge through a variety of locales, including a miner’s cottage and a ship. He also takes him to the home of his nephew, where he hears himself mocked as he stands there invisibly. Again there is a criticism of his miserly spirit: “His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it.” This is not surprising given the criticism of stark inequalities then. Nonetheless, Scrooge begins to find himself enjoying the games played after the meal, discovering the value of holiday pleasures.

As the Ghost whisks him away, they visit sick beds, almshouses, and jails, where they find hope: Scrooge learns that holidays are important for lifting the spirits, something which he had famously dismissed as humbug at the beginning of narrative.

But on their final destination, the vision of happiness is shattered by the sight of two impoverished children, a boy and a girl:

Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

As the Ghost explains, the boy is Ignorance and the girl Want, two problems which ail the children of the poor (and mentioned by Engels, no less, as he deplored their insufficient schooling and nourishment). Scrooge is frightened, asking if they have any refuge or resource. The Ghost answers him mockingly, throwing his earlier response to the gentlemen soliciting donations for the poor in his face: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” (This would have been recognized by readers as a rephrasing from Carlyle’s Chartism.)

In short, the Ghost of Christmas Present teaches Scrooge the errors of his avarice and profit-centered ethos—one that Marley, his deceased partner, tried to teach him, in itself a criticism that reflects contemporary social criticism of the 1840s.

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In A Christmas Carol, how does Dickens use the Ghost of Christmas Past to enhance the story?

Dickens uses the Ghost of Christmas Past to give the reader an insight into Scrooge's early life. On their journey together, the reader learns about Scrooge's childhood, for instance, in which he led an isolated existence at boarding school. The only love and kindness he received came from his sister, Fanny, but she died in her youth. Moreover, the reader also learns about Scrooge's failed engagement to Belle, the memory of which evokes much pain.

These memories are significant because they enable the reader to understand why Scrooge became such a cold-hearted man. In addition, by confronting these experiences, Scrooge takes the first steps on the path to redemption. The Ghost of Christmas, therefore, is instrumental in bringing Scrooge's past to the forefront of the story so that he might understand the importance of love and of Christmas, more generally. 

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In A Christmas Carol, how does Dickens use the Ghost of Christmas Past to enhance the story?

First, Dickens makes the Ghost of Christmas Past part of an effective story by making him a vivid character. For one thing, the Ghost's appearance is quite distinctive and memorable. He wears a white tunic decorated with flowers, holds a sprig of holly, and a jet of light emanates from his head. Further, while he is the size of a child and unwrinkled, he has long white hair. Most curious of all, he fluctuates: sometimes he is whole and sometimes all Scrooge can see is an arm or a leg.

The Ghost also has a distinctive personality. He is authoritative and won't let Scrooge, who is unwilling to travel with him, off the hook. Second, he interacts with Scrooge in ways that encourage Scrooge to question his own assumptions. For example, when the Ghost sees how much Scrooge longs for Christmases past, he mocks him using Scrooge' own speech patterns:

A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.

Although that's exactly what Scrooge might have said a few hours before, now he realizes it is not such a small matter to be kind and generous to people. 

The Ghost's interaction with Scrooge helps him to change into a better person, contributing to an effective story. Just like Scrooge, we are not likely to quickly forget this ghost. 

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Why is the Ghost of Christmas Past the most effective ghost on Scrooge in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens?

The Ghost of Christmas Past is most effective on Scrooge because he reminds him of the person he used to be.

More than any of the other ghosts, the Ghost of Christmas Past makes a huge impression on Scrooge.  Marley’s ghost makes Scrooge thoughtful, and helps prepare him by making him more receptive to the emotional onslaught of the three ghosts of time.

The very first thing the Ghost of Christmas Past does is shock Scrooge and get him off balance.  He does this by making him fly and then taking him to his childhood school.  Scrooge is not ready for this, and the effect is immediate and telling.  Seeing his childhood makes him as giddy as the schoolboy he once was, and allows him to more easily accept the lessons that the ghost is trying to give him.

When Scrooge first wakes, he is preoccupied with the time.  He sees the ghost and asks him who he is, and is reluctant to listen to him.  The ghost forces him to go with him, and Scrooge’s attitude immediately changes.

They walked along the road; Scrooge recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. …. All these boys were in great spirits …. (Stave 2)

When Scrooge sees himself as a little boy all alone at school, he feels pity.  This pity is a monumental occasion, because up until this point he has not felt pity for anyone else.  Once he feels sorry for the little boy he was, he remembers the little boy who sung carols.

“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.” (Stave 2)

This sympathy, and the regret that comes with it, prepares Scrooge for the rest of the events the ghost shows him.  As he joyously experiences Fezziwig’s Christmas party and feels the sting of his fiancé Belle dumping him, he starts to feel feelings that he had locked away for years.  Scrooge is one step closer to being human, and ready for the lessons the other ghosts have for him. 

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