Saturday, December 1, 2012

"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens

Young British author Charles Dickens was noticing problems in England in the early 1840s. The impoverished had little chances of bettering their lives. Children, depending on the financial state of their parents, were sent to lonely schools or had to work at a young age. Dickens himself had experienced the former as a boy, and had witnessed the latter recently, seeing children at work in the Cornish tin mines.

Dickens made up his mind that there needed to be a reform and decided to write a political pamphlet about it. Suddenly, an idea struck him. In his book, The Pickwick Papers, he wrote about a grouchy gravedigger's overnight conversion into a more congenial man after he was shown images of his past and future by goblins. What if he now characterized the upper class as just such a man who is shown the error of his ways? A similar plot, but now much more fleshed out.

Dickens walked through a graveyard and noticed a tombstone bearing the name "Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie," and it noted he was a "meal man." Due to his mild dyslexia and poor light, Dickens was quick to rework it into his main character: Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean man.

Furthermore, why not use the setting of Christmas to better demonstrate the message he wanted to get across? A harmony of goodwill to one another was decidedly lacking in England at the time. Perhaps the story of old Scrooge could teach people to treat their fellow people better.

The book A Christmas Carol in Prose being a Ghost Story of Christmas—most often referred to by its shorter title which appeared on the cover, A Christmas Carol—was published in September 1843. The book sold quickly, though Dickens never made much of a profit on it, having settled for a lump sum from the publishers. It was illustrated by noted artist John Leech.

The book struck a chord with England, however. While some felt Dickens' message was wrong, more often than not, readers picked up on the message and took it to heart. It was also quickly adapted for stage, and readings were performed, some by Dickens himself.

The story is now very familiar.

Opening on Christmas Eve, 1843, we find the firm of Scrooge and Marley under the operation of Ebenezer Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Marley, we are told from the beginning, is dead, and Scrooge is a lot like him: "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner." Dickens does not tell us exactly what Scrooge does. Perhaps he is a banker or moneylender. He is an elderly bachelor and very wealthy, though he has no intention of sharing his wealth.

The office of Scrooge and Marley is visited by Scrooge's jovial nephew Fred, later clarified to be the son of his late sister Fan. Fred invites his uncle to celebrate Christmas with him the next day, which Scrooge declines in a very impolite manner.

It is through Fred that Dickens makes his stance on how to treat your fellow man clear: "I have always thought of Christmas time... as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

Scrooge is solicited for financial aid for the poor by a couple of well-meaning fellows, and it is here that Dickens clearly characterizes the poor opinions held by the upper class in England through Scrooge:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die."

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that."
 Scrooge grudgingly allows Bob to have Christmas Day off work with pay. After closing and having dinner at his "melancholy tavern," he goes home, but when he is about to unlock his front door, he sees Jacob Marley's face instead of the knocker. The vision goes away, but Scrooge is unsettled and makes sure to lock and double-lock his bedroom door.

Going about his usual nightly routine, Scrooge thinks he sees a hearse pass him on the stairs, and seeing illustrated Biblical tiles by the fireplace, Scrooge can't help but think of the images as Marley's face.

Suddenly, every bell in the house begins to ring and when they stop, Scrooge hears a thudding and clanking as footsteps are heard downstairs and they come upstairs. Jacob Marley's ghost enters Scrooge's room, looking exactly as he did when he was buried, with a chain from his waist made of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel."

Marley tells Scrooge that his soul has had no peace since he died seven years ago. “It is required of every man,” he explains, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

Marley explains the chain as representing what he worked on in life, and tells Scrooge that he has one himself, which was equal to Marley's seven years ago, and is now "ponderous." Marley further explains that he has come to warn Scrooge that he may yet avoid Marley's fate. Three spirits will visit Scrooge, Marley warning, "Without their visits you cannot hope to shun the path I tread."

Marley flies out the window, Scrooge seeing many other chained ghosts sobbing that they've missed their chance to do anything good for the world.

Dickens gets to play with time travel a bit. Marley's dialogue makes it sound like the spirits will visit Scrooge on separate nights, but the visits occur in one night. But the time travel begins right off with the first one: Scrooge says he went to bed after two, but the clock strikes midnight when a spirit radiating light identifying itself as the Ghost of Christmas Past opens his bed curtains.

Dickens uses descriptive imagery to depict the ghost. It is like a child, but yet also like an old man. It carries a sprig of holly, but its dress is decorated with summer flowers. It also carries a cap like a snuffer.

The Ghost takes Scrooge to the school where he was a boy, and he sees himself studying. He reflects on spending the holidays alone as a child, accompanied only by the characters he'd read of in books. Then, they go to a later Christmas in the same school, but his sister Fan arrives and tells him that their father has reformed and says he can go home. These stir up some nostalgic memories in Scrooge, and he even resents sending a caroling boy away empty handed recently. It also makes him wish he'd been kinder to Fred, for Fan's sake.

Another later Christmas shows a young Scrooge working as an apprentice for a cheery fat man named Fezziwig. This makes Scrooge reflect on how he's treated Bob. Fezziwig could throw a joyous party, but Scrooge can barely begrudge Bob a day off?

Still a later Christmas shows a young woman named Belle ending her relationship with young Scrooge, claiming he loves money more than her.

The Ghost shows one more vision to Scrooge: Belle and her husband, and her husband saying that he saw Scrooge, and he looked to be very alone in the world. (The husband mentions Marley is dying, placing this at seven years ago.)

Scrooge has seen enough and forces the snuffer cap over the Ghost's head, especially when he realizes he sees faces from the past in its face. He finds himself in his bedroom and returns to bed.

When Scrooge awakes, it is midnight again, and he decides to be ready for the next ghost. It doesn't come to his bed, but he does notice a bright light, so he leaves his bed and enters the adjoining room, finding the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Leech accurately depicts the scene Dickens describes, and Scrooge is much more willing to go with this ghost.

The Ghost shows Scrooge many scenes of joviality and Christmas cheer that will occur, but two stand out specifically. The first is Bob Cratchit's home, where the family prepares Christmas dinner before Bob and his young invalid son Tim come home from church. Scrooge marvels at how the family manages such merriment over such a meager meal. He asks if Tiny Tim will live.
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “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. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
 The second place is that of the home of Fred. He and his wife and their friends are having a merry discussion and play a game, and Scrooge hears himself mentioned. Fred really wants to spend time with his uncle and have him share in the joys of the holiday with him and his friends.

Soon, though, the Ghost announces he is about to leave. But he makes it clear that while many were merry during this Christmas, some went unnoticed. Dickens characterizes this by having two emaciated children crawl out from under the Ghost's robe. The Ghost introduces them as a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want. The Ghost warns Scrooge to beware of both of them, but most of all Ignorance, "for on his brow I see that written which is Doom."

Thus Dickens drives the point home. Ignoring the real issues will be the doom of humanity.

Midnight strikes and the Ghost is gone. Coming to Scrooge is a figure shrouded in black. He identifies it as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. It does not speak but only leads him, nodding and gesturing to where it wants him to look.

Scrooge sees some men he's done business with discussing the recent death of someone they didn't particularly care for. Then, Scrooge is shown a shop where people are selling stolen goods from the dead man's home. Then, Scrooge is shown the body under the sheet. The Ghost seems to ask Scrooge to lift it, but Scrooge doesn't have the nerve to do so. He asks to be taken to see someone who shows emotion for the man's death.

Scrooge is shown a mother and children who are met by the father who went to see if he could get mercy on a debt they owed, only to discover the man they owed money to is dead and thus, they will have time to have the total sum before a new creditor takes the account.

Then, we are shown the Cratchit's home. They are in tears, and Scrooge sees that Tiny Tim is dead. Bob is especially dismal, though we are not told why.

Then, the Ghost shows Scrooge to the churchyard, and Scrooge begins to ask if what he's seen is what will be or what might be. He soon manages to convince himself it is the latter. He begins to connect the pieces. Sure enough, the Ghost has him examine a grave bearing the name EBENEZER SCROOGE. He was the dead man, the father and mother and their children owed him money, and not only has Bob lost a child, he is also unemployed.

Scrooge begs that he may change this horrible view of the future, promising, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

And as Scrooge reaches for the Ghost to beg it for a response, it turns into his bedpost. It is Christmas morning, and Scrooge is at home. He is not dead, and he can change the future and he decides to set about it at once. He sends a boy he sees outside his window to purchase a large turkey that he sends anonymously to the Cratchits by a cab. He attends church, is able to make a late donation to the men who were collecting for charity, and he attends Fred's party.

The next morning, Scrooge catches Bob arriving late and makes a pretense that he is angry at him. Making Bob fear the worst, Scrooge declares he is going to raise his salary, and furthermore, they will have a long overdue talk about Bob's affairs.

Dickens finishes the story by saying that Scrooge had learned his lesson and lived by it to the end of his days. Thanks to his intervention, he saved Tiny Tim's life, and—we may assume—he helped Bob have the child's health seen to. Whether or not Scrooge's life was extended is not addressed, but it is sure he was able put many of his own affairs right as well. was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
I had not noticed how heavy handed Dickens could be at allegory. In fact, I believe the only heavier one I've seen is The Pilgrim's Progress.

Something my father notes is how Dickens suggests all of Scrooge's visions may have been influenced by drinking (perhaps at that melancholy tavern). Scrooge himself suggests that Marley's ghost might be influenced by indigestion. In the final paragraph, Dickens writes, "He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle."
Whether it was liquor or indigestion or divine intervention, Dickens gets his point across that one person's life can touch so many others. Those who have a lot should at least try to help the not so fortunate. We are not told why Scrooge is so rich, nor are we told why Bob is so poor. Using only what Dickens tells us, we can't say Scrooge worked hard for his money, or that it was Bob's fault that he was poor. We don't know, and thus, we should not judge.

The truly inspiring message of Dickens' story resounded with many readers and in a short amount of time, the story was adapted for stage. Later, it was adapted into many silent films. Today, there are countless adaptations in print, audio, film, and television. Scarcely a year goes by without some new production either being based on the story or inspired by it, from the early silent films to a Christmas episode of Doctor Who.

Perhaps, with the message of setting our differences aside and helping one another, A Christmas Carol is now just as relevant and needed in 2012 as it was back in 1843.

Over the next several days, we will be looking at various adaptations of Dickens' story. Did they manage to bring Dickens' message across intact, or was it considerably weakened by translation? We shall see.


dspesert said...

Thanks for the retelling of the tale in your voice. I will be interested to see what else you come up with regarding the story. I know it so well and there seems to be endless variations on the story nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Here are some websites with various versions of CHRISTMAS CAROL and the multi-part series beginning at

There is also the book at by Fred Guida.