Part of the charm of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is its shortness and its structure, divided very neatly into five “staves”. The main character, Mr. Scrooge, is tightfisted and reclusive. He shows no compassion for anyone, his entire life revolves around the pursuit of wealth, and he likes nothing so well as to be left to himself. He treats his sole employee (of the firm Scrooge and Marley) meanly and shabbily.
Approached by two benevolent gentlemen, Scrooge refuses to make any donation to their charity. Of course, no one has to donate to every charity that comes along. It is Scrooge’s manner of refusing that shows what kind of man he is. He inquires whether there are no prisons, workhouses, Treadmill, or Poor Law.
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “… 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. … It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!” (Stave 1, “Marley’s Ghost”)
Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, has been dead a long time, but on this Christmas Eve, he comes back as a ghost to warn Scrooge of where his ways will take him if he doesn’t change — into chains and regret, as Marley’s equivalent ways have done him. Thus it is that Scrooge, despite his great reluctance, gets visits from three Spirits — the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. “Without their visits,” Marley’s Ghost tells him, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread.”
The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a few scenes from his childhood and youth. Scrooge is softened by observing his neglected self as a child and then the kindnesses shown him by various persons. One scene is a jovial ball given by Mr. Fezziwig1 to whom Scrooge was apprenticed.
“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices [Dick Wilkins and Scrooge], who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost. …
“I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now. That’s all.” (Stave 2, “The First of the Three Spirits”)
Scrooge has realized how much power one person has to make others happy or unhappy. Kindness doesn’t cost money. When Scrooge remembers how his life was touched by Mr. Fezziwig’s kindness, he understands the unkindness of his manner toward his own clerk, Bob Cratchit, and regrets it.
In another scene the ghost shows him, Scrooge returns to the point in time when he consciously chose money over love. He chose to devote himself to the pursuit of wealth instead of marrying the young woman, Belle, whom he had loved. The ghost shows Scrooge the home Belle went on to make with another man, and thus what Scrooge might have had himself, and Scrooge is further softened.
When the Ghost of Christmas Present comes, he shows Scrooge what he is missing and could be enjoying in the Present — his nephew’s company, the respect of his clerk, the chance to do good to those like his clerk’s crippled son, Tiny Tim. Twice the Spirit quotes Scrooge’s own words to his shame. Scrooge feels for Tiny Tim “an interest he had never felt before”. He pleads with the Spirit to say that the child will not die.
“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. … 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. …”
Scrooge bent before the Ghost’s rebuke, and trembling cast his eyes upon the ground. (Stave 3, “The Second of the Three Spirits”)
At the end of his time, the Ghost shows Scrooge two children, Ignorance and Want — “Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.” Scrooge is appalled.
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?” (Stave 3)
The second Ghost has taught Scrooge a lesson in personal responsibility. Charity and compassion should not be left up to the government, or to others. “[W]e should remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10). Just an encouraging or kind word can help someone.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge how his death will be unmourned, even rejoiced in, if he doesn’t change his ways. Without saying a word, the last ghost teaches Scrooge to fear his Future past and unchangeable, to fear regrets that cannot be altered. He sees his unloved state brought to its logical conclusion and is horrified.
Scrooge awakens Christmas morning a changed and humble man. The ghosts have given him a very real chance to, as Victor E. Frankl put it, “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” 2 Scrooge gets a “second chance” at life. While there was nothing wrong with Scrooge driving a good bargain or paying his employees competitive prices, he should have treated people better (instead of ignoring “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” — Matt. 23:23), and this he determines to do.
Scrooge’s first acts are done to help others and bind to himself every tie of affection that he can. Naturally, he now regards the Christmas season with great affection.
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew …. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them …. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but … it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. (Stave 5, “The End of It”)
A Christmas Carol is an enjoyable little tale, but all the same there were a few particulars that I really did not like about it. I think that Dickens spends too much time creating an “alternate reality” for Jacob Marley and his fellow ghosts to inhabit. This is a “fairy tale” and all, but I think that that was a bit much. Scrooge’s nephew Fred, while a cheerful, friendly character, spends too much time wittingly annoying his uncle and afterwards making fun of him to fully convince us of the jovial, kindly disposition he is supposed to have. Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s poor clerk, is a bit too pathetic. He is a good a husband and father despite his poverty, but then he has to go and toast Scrooge as “the Founder of the Feast” (Stave 3). Pathetic! (Or, as Scrooge might have said, “Bah! Humbug!”) Also, although some of the descriptions in the story are amusing, such as the paragraphs insisting that Marley is dead and those describing Scrooge’s miserliness, A Christmas Carol suffers from Dickens’s liking for going on at great length about anything, however uninteresting. This is especially apparent during the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Present.
However, A Christmas Carol is a charming story. The book is short enough to be quite enjoyable. Scrooge is a likable main character. The Ghost of Christmas Past is my favorite of the ghosts. A Christmas Carol is not my favorite of Dickens’s works, but I think it was a worthwhile read.
I read A Christmas Carol from January 31 – February 3, 2013.
1 Just for the record, despite what popular culture would have us believe, nowhere in A Christmas Carol does Dickens state that Mr. Fezziwig is fat. It is stated that he had a “capacious waistcoat” and “a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice” (Stave 2). In no other way is it suggested that Mr. Fezziwig is any heavier for his size than the average man. He is, in fact, quite a spry man. He is shown “skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility” and is a match for any dancer.
A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn’t have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next. And when old Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, both hands to your partner, bow and curtsey, corkscrew, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Fezziwig “cut”—cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger. (Stave 2)
2 Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl (New York: Washington Square Press, 1985), p. 175.
Frontispiece and title page of the first edition (1843) of A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
Movie screencaps of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are (left to right of each graphic) from “A Christmas Carol” 1984 (played by Angela Pleasence, Edward Woodward, and Michael Carter respectively), “The Muppet Christmas Carol” 1992 (Jessica Fox, Jerry Nelson, Don Austen, and Robert Tygner — performers and voices), 1999 (Joel Grey, Desmond Barrit, &c.), and 2009 (Jim Carrey).
Illustration of Scrooge’s door knocker by Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939).