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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Discussion Topic

The theme and presentation of supernatural elements in A Christmas Carol and their effect on the reader

Summary:

The supernatural elements in A Christmas Carol serve to highlight themes of redemption and moral awakening. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come guide Scrooge through his life, illustrating the consequences of his actions. This supernatural intervention engages readers, prompting them to reflect on their own lives and the possibility of change and redemption.

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What is the theme of supernatural elements in A Christmas Carol?

Using the supernatural Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present allows Dickens to show us Scrooge's youth and his present day without descending into simple exposition or having to use the first person.  Because the Ghost of Christmas Past can physically transport Scrooge into his childhood and young adulthood, readers get to see firsthand what he was like then and how he changed into the person he is at present.  We get the unvarnished truth of Scrooge's childhood—being abandoned at a boarding school, left alone for much of the time—without the character himself vying for our sympathy.  Similarly, we see the end of his relationship with Belle, a crucial element in his development: something that could only be told to us without the ghost.  With the ghost, however, we get to see for ourselves. 

It is the same with the Ghost of Christmas Present: without him, Scrooge would not know what is going on in all the different locales in the country (where everyone is celebrating joyously except for him), including his nephew's house.  If there were no ghost to show him (and us), the narrator would have to simply tell us, and telling is much less compelling than showing.

On a different note, Marley's ghost helps to present one of the most important themes of the book: our duty as human beings is to help one another as best we can.  When Marley's ghost leaves Scrooge at the end of stave 1, Scrooge follows him to the window and sees the following:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. . . . [One] old ghost. . . cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep.  The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

In other words, what tortures these restless spirits is the knowledge that they are helpless to assist living persons in need of aid, like the poor woman and her baby.  The ghosts desperately want to help and they cannot.  We can see, then, the importance of generosity and compassion; failing to exhibit these characteristics will torture us in death.  Without some inclusion of the supernatural in the book, it would be more difficult to impress upon readers this important and (still) relevant theme.

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What is the theme of supernatural elements in A Christmas Carol?

The supernatural is one of the strongest and most prevalent themes in A Christmas Carol. In fact, in his preface to the book, Dickens calls the story "this Ghostly little book" to empathize the theme's importance. 

Beginning with some examples, we find evidence of the supernatural from the very first stave. Scrooge's door knocker, for example, comes hideously to life in the form of his dead associate: "...with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless." 

Scrooge's ghostly visitors possess many supernatural qualities, too. Take the Ghost of Christmas Past in stave two, for example: "He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it."

These supernatural elements have many important purposes in the book. They help Dickens to create strong, often grotesque, characters, and an even stronger sense of atmosphere. They also serve to drive the plot: we know, for example, that every time the clock chimes, Scrooge will receive another ghostly visitor. These elements also engineer Scrooge's transformation. Without seeing the visions of the past, present and future, Scrooge would never have the impetus to change and reform his character. 

The supernatural elements also illustrate Dickens' interests, outside of writing. He was intrigued by ghosts and this "other" world. He practiced spiritualism, performed magic tricks for his family and friends and wrote many articles on the supernatural for his journal, Household Worlds. A Christmas Carol, thus, enabled him to explore these interests in another way and its success would inspire him to continue this trend in many of his later works. 

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How is the supernatural theme presented in A Christmas Carol and what is its effect on the reader?

The theme of the supernatural is presented in A Christmas Carol in the spirits that come to visit Scrooge, including the ghost of his deceased partner Jacob Marley.

When the first spirit, Marley’s ghost, arrives, the effect on the reader is chilling and haunting. He rattles the chains he produced while he walked the earth. These chains bind him and he frightens not only Scrooge, but the reader as well.

He tells Scrooge that the chain Scrooge is forging was as long as his own chain was while they were in partnership. Scrooge’s chain has only gotten longer now with each passing year since Marley’s death.

He warns Scrooge that if he does not amend his ways and begin to take a greater interest in his fellow man and keep Christmas, he will die as Marley died—doomed to walk eternity bound with the chains he created by living as a selfish, unfeeling being. He cries out, and the reader sees vividly the image of an anguished spirit. Marley says,

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!

The reader takes heed of this because it is delivered by a supernatural, frightening being. Moreover, during Dickens’s time, people might have been more superstitious than today’s modern society, implying that it might have made an even greater impression when it was published.

When the subsequent spirits arrive to show Scrooge how past, present, and future Christmases are celebrated, the spirits are also frightening. One will not speak and wears a death-like cowl and only points in response to Scrooge’s questions.

Even the spirit that appears jolly is horrifying when he reveals the “children” hidden in his voluminous robe. In all, Dickens achieves a frightening message in the form of the supernatural spirits.

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What are scenes which present the theme of the "supernatural" in A Christmas Carol. What is Dickens's purpose or message in doing so?

A Christmas Carol has intimations of the supernatural from its very first line, where Dickens informs the reader that Jacob Marley is dead and that knowledge of this makes the events to come more fantastic. This hints to the reader that this will likely be a ghost story. The majority of the novel features the supernatural in the form of the phantom of Jacob Marley and the three spirits who visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve. All of these figures have fantastic qualities: Jacob is fettered with massive chains and has his slack jaw tied with a napkin, and the Ghost of Christmas Past can fly and is described as resembling a flame.

Dickens chooses to use the supernatural largely because A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. Traditionally, ghost stories were associated with Christmas. However, he uses the supernatural for greater effect; he is not merely interested in spooking the audience. Instead, the ghosts are a catalyst for Scrooge's ultimate redemption. By having the intercession of spirits prompt Scrooge's arc, Dickens is suggesting that only outside powers ould inspire Scrooge to re-examine his life. His inner transformation thus becomes miraculous.

Ghosts and the supernatural also take on metaphorical meaning: ghosts are associated with the past and many ghost stories feature figures who cannot rest due to unresolved problems in the world of the living. Scrooge is metaphorically haunted by his past: his cold father, the death of his sister, and his own bad choices. Only by coming to terms with his past and facing the possible horror of his future should he not change does Scrooge become a better man, freed of bitterness.

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