“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
So goes the first sentence of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Although the whole story’s arc of ghostly visitations and exclamations of “Humbug!” is remembered fondly even by those who have never read Dickens, the first line of the classic tale is not well known outside of curious students and Dickens aficionados. Through this simple declaration, Dickens sets up what could easily have remained an uncomplicated-yet-effective ghost story; instead, he takes readers on a time-traveling pilgrimage that reminds them that redemption is always possible, even in those who seem most hopeless. Readers begin with a death, but will not end with one.
Indeed, without Marley’s death there would be no plot to the celebrated allegory. The timeline of A Christmas Carol is deceptively simple. Protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge—whose name has come to mean one who is stingy with money—is visited by the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley. The tone is appropriately menacing and macabre; the ghost’s arrival is heralded by clanking chains in the dark of night. For some time, readers would be forgiven for thinking they had picked up a horror short rather than a heartwarming tale of redemption. Seeking to save Scrooge from a ghastly fate similar to his, Marley sets in motion a series of visitations from spirits, representing three major time periods in Scrooge’s life: Christmases past, present, and future. Through Scrooge’s eyes, readers see what made him into the unpleasant person he is today: an occasionally unhappy childhood tinged with regret for lost love; a present willful ignorance of others’ hardships, including the famously pitiable Tiny Tim; and the natural bleak consequences of his current choices extrapolated into the future. Confronted with the repercussions of his miserly unfriendliness, Scrooge resolves to change his ways permanently, becoming an embodiment of Christmas altruism and congeniality.
That at least is often how the collective memory of A Christmas Carol goes: it serves as a powerful reminder of people’s potential, no matter how far gone, to choose kindness over self-interest, cognizance over ignorance. It is an allegory for the spirit of Christmas generosity, but it is also, at its heart, a ghost story—the ghosts both literal and metaphorical in their haunting. Can Scrooge change? Yes, he can, the text unequivocally suggests by its end—and readers can, too, if they dare to try.
“I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
The appearance of Scrooge’s former business partner is one of the most famous scenes from the story. Marley seeks to spare Scrooge—and the readers of Dickens’s novella—from a terrible fate. Published on December 19, 1843—just in time for the culmination of the Christmas season—Charles Dickens’s classic story of a selfish man’s path to lasting kindness has entranced readers since Victorian times. Its enduring message of personal betterment has been the subject of countless adaptations, from stage to radio to singing Muppets, proving that no one is beyond salvation from themselves—one of the most hopeful messages in all of literature.
Through its original print popularity and consequent multitude of adaptations, its cultural relevance cannot be denied: A Christmas Carol’s contributions to popularizing lasting holiday traditions—a Christmas meal of roast turkey, the exchange of gifts, and taking days off work for celebration—are without literary parallel. Though readers are sure of Scrooge’s commitment to Christmas values by the final page, what made Scrooge so stubborn that he needs visions of his own unmourned death in order to change is a trickier question to answer.
“I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”
The simple reason for Scrooge’s disagreeable nature is an obsession with money, which acts as the text’s main allegorical vice. In writing this and other works, Dickens strove to highlight the disparity between the rich and poor of his time. In the mid-1800s, it was not uncommon for children to work long, exhaustive hours at unsafe jobs just to help keep their families from absolute poverty. Through his sympathetic portrayal of the resilient Cratchits and the heartbreaking death of Tiny Tim, Dickens sought to bring awareness of the poor’s plight to the English upper class. Like the ghost of Christmas Present warns, “on [Ignorance’s] brow I see that is written which is Doom”—a warning of the dangers of obtuseness not just to Scrooge but also to Dickens’s readership.
In his youth, Scrooge was in a relationship with a woman named Belle, who eventually leaves him when his pursuit of wealth displaces his love of her. There is a direct cause-and-effect relation between Scrooge's seeking wealth and Scrooge's finding himself alone; it is easy—if painful—for Scrooge to understand Belle’s decision. After Belle leaves, Scrooge repeats this behavior again and again, choosing money over close personal relationships. Scrooge’s main failure, then, is one of repetition: instead of learning from the examples of kindness that have been shown him, he is selfish in his pursuits. It is easy to see why the story is used as a cautionary tale, for not everyone will have the benefit of being willed to change by supernatural apparitions—readers must stick with literary and personal examples to instruct them on how to live a good life.
But a more subtle shift in Scrooge’s personality from his childhood provides the basis of his actions toward Tiny Tim. In Scrooge’s memories of youth, it is hinted that Scrooge’s father is a callous and vicious man, leading to troubled memories of past Christmases and perhaps a more understated reason for his greed. If his family gave him no help or care, why should he provide for anyone else? His decision to become a “second father”—one who is doting, supportive, and kind—to Tiny Tim is a reversal of his previous familial experience. In a way, Scrooge becomes the father figure he never had, rectifying the mistakes of the past through change in the present. Scrooge’s haunting, then, is lifted.
“His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”
What begins as an eerie, matter-of-fact ghost story, then, ends as a tale about what “Christmas spirit” actually entails: trying to be better despite obstacles and serving as an example of the type of person all should strive to be. A Christmas Carol shifts quickly from a cautionary tale of terror to celebration of one man’s transformation, but in Dickens’s skillful hands, shadowy atmospheres make readers tremble just as much as the jubilant Scrooge shows how flawed people can move beyond past mistakes. Dickens’s literature is inspiring and instructive: he seeks a better world by exposing readers to the struggles of their fellows and by telling a truly moving story.