The following entry presents criticism on Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol (1843). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Little Dorrit Criticism, Our Mutual Friend Criticism, and Hard Times Criticism.
A Christmas Carol (1843) is one of the most recognizable stories in English literature. With its numerous literary, stage, television, radio, and cinematic adaptations, the tale has become a holiday classic, and the character Ebenezer Scrooge has become a cultural icon. First published in 1843, the novella garnered immediate critical and commercial attention and is credited with reviving interest in charitable endeavors, the possible perils of economic success, and festive traditions of the Christmas season. It is the first work in Dickens's series of Christmas stories known collectively as the Christmas Books, as well as the most popular and enduring.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in the 1840s on Christmas Eve, A Christmas Carol chronicles the personal transformation of the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, the proprietor of a London counting house. A wealthy, elderly man, Scrooge is considered miserly and misanthropic: he has no wife or children; he throws out two men collecting for charity; he bullies and underpays his loyal clerk, Bob Cratchit; and he dismisses the Christmas dinner invitation of his kind nephew, Fred. Moreover, Scrooge is a strong supporter of the Poor Law of 1834, which allowed the poor to be interned in workhouses. As he prepares for bed on Christmas Eve in his solitary, dark chambers, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. In life Marley was very similar in attitude and temperament to Scrooge: remote, cruel, and parsimonious. In death he has learned the value of compassion and warns Scrooge to reform his ways before it is too late. Marley announces that Scrooge will be visited by three more specters: the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his unhappy childhood, revealing that the young boy's experiences with poverty and abandonment inspired a desire to succeed and gain material advantage. Unfortunately, Scrooge's burgeoning ambition and greed destroyed his relationship with his fiancée and his friends. The Ghost of Christmas Present is represented by a hearty, genial man who reminds Scrooge of the joy of human companionship, which he has rejected in favor of his misanthropic existence. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears in a dark robe and shrouded in mystery. Silently, the ghost reveals the ambivalent reaction to news of Scrooge's own death. Scrooge realizes that he will die alone and without love, and that he has the power and money to help those around him—especially Bob Cratchit's ailing son, Tiny Tim. Scrooge begs the ghost for another chance and wakes in his bed on Christmas morning, resolved to changing his life by being generous and loving to his family, employees, and the poor.
A Christmas Carol has been deemed a biting piece of social commentary by some. Critics have underscored the scathing criticism of 1840s London, an economically and socially stratified city that Dickens believed imprisoned its poor and oppressed its lower classes. The prevailing socio-economic theory of that time held that anyone who was in debt should be put in a poorhouse. In his story, Dickens contended that the reformation of such a materialistic, shallow society can be achieved gradually through the spiritual transformation of each individual. The story is well regarded for its expression of a fundamental faith in humanity and its unflagging censure of social injustice, which was inspired by Dickens's troubled background and his visit to the Cornish tin mines where he observed young children laboring under appalling conditions. As Scrooge transforms from a cruel, embittered miser to a kindly philanthropist, Dickens advocates a more forgiving, generous society that values spiritual growth, not material wealth. Other major thematic concerns in A Christmas Carol include the role of memory, the importance of family, and the soul-deadening effect of greed on the human spirit.
Upon its initial publication, A Christmas Carol was greeted with mixed reviews. Some commentators derided the tale as too sentimental and laden with exaggeration; other critics maintained that A Christmas Carollacked the complexity of Dickens's later work. Yet the novella remains a Christmas favorite. Commentators praise Dickens's evocative portrayal of 1840s London and his passionate exploration of social and political issues. Dickens's fervent belief in social justice as depicted through A Christmas Carol is credited with inspiring an outpouring of charitable endeavors during his time and a revival of Christmas spirit and traditional celebrations. Critics have also explored the fairy-tale and gothic elements in A Christmas Carol, and many praise Dickens's use of wry humor in the story. The relevance and power of Scrooge's transformation from forlorn old niggard to benignant philanthropist is regarded as the key to the novella's unflagging popular appeal. Several scholars have debated the nature of Scrooge's conversion, which is known as “the Scrooge problem.” Some critics, including Edmund Wilson, conclude that the transformation is a temporary one; others have maintained that it is total and irrevocable. Scrooge's metanoia has also been placed within its historical and literary context, and critics have related it to the religious revival then fervent in nineteenth-century England. A few full-length studies of the novella have traced the impact of the story on English and American culture and have discussed the copious imitations, adaptations, and modernized versions of the tale.
Jacob Marley, the business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge, died seven years ago. On a dingy Christmas Eve, Scrooge, a cold, unfriendly miser, works in his counting-house while keeping an eye on his clerk, a small man named Bob Cratchit. Scrooge's nephew wishes Scrooge a merry Christmas, but Scrooge answers him with a disdainful "Bah! Humbug!" He believes Christmas is the same as any day of the year, a day in which one must still pay bills. His nephew, Fred, thinks of Christmas as a "kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time." He invites Scrooge to dine with him tomorrow, but his uncle rejects the offer.
Two portly gentlemen enter and ask Scrooge for charity for the poor. Scrooge believes that prisons and workhouses are sufficient, and he dismisses them. Outside, it gets colder. A Christmas caroler tries to sing at Scrooge's door, but the old man scares him away. Scrooge closes up the counting-house and tells Cratchit he expects him to work on Christmas day. Cratchit goes home.
Scrooge goes through his dreary routine of dinner in a tavern, then goes to his gloomy home. Scrooge sees the dead Marley's face in the knocker of his door until it turns back into a knocker. It gives Scrooge pause, but he resolves not to be frightened. He thinks he sees a locomotive hearse going up the stairs before him. He walks through his rooms to make sure no one is there. After, he warms himself by a small fire. A bell in the room starts to ring, and soon all the other bells in the house do. After some time, the bells stop, and Scrooge hears the cellar-door open.
Marley's ghost‹transparent and bound in a long chain made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses‹enters the room. Scrooge claims he does not believe the ghost exists, but soon he admits he does. Marley says his spirit has been wandering since he died as punishment for being consumed with business and not with people while alive. He has come to warn Scrooge and perhaps save him from the same fate. He tells him Three Spirits will come to him over the next three nights. Marley makes incoherent, sorrowful sounds, then leaves. Scrooge looks out the window and sees the sky filled with other chained spirits, some familiar to him, who cry about their inability to connect with others. He goes to sleep.
A Christmas Carol is foremost a Christian allegory of redemption about, as Fred says, the "kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time" of Christmas. Scrooge is a skinflint businessman who represents the greediest impulses of Victorian England's rich. He subscribes to the guidelines of the Poor Laws, which oppress the underclass, and has no warmth in his spirit for anything but money. Cratchit is the underclass's representative, a humble, powerless man who has no choice but to kowtow to his employer's demands.
Yet underneath the simple Christian allegory, Dickens investigates the complicated nature of time in a capitalist system. The references to signifiers of time are numerous in the chapter; the bells ring to herald Marley's arrival, and even the repetitive discussion of Marley's death at the beginning emphasizes the present tense in which Scrooge is stuck.
Why the present tense? Capitalism functions in the now. Always aware of the clock, of how much time has passed and how much is left, capitalism is foremost concerned with what can be done at the present to accumulate money. Scrooge believes Christmas time is simply "capitalist time," to coin a phrase, whereas Fred believes it constitutes a departure from capitalist time.
Scrooge's temporal problem, then, is his inability to hold a more humane version of the present tense. Moreover, he is unable to combine the three tenses‹past, present, and future‹into a singular redemptive vision of humanity. Scrooge foreshadows the concept of the epiphany when he asks for all three ghosts at once; perhaps the epiphany somehow depends on time in such a universal way.
Dickens also structures A Christmas Carol with the musical notation of five "staves." Dickens's choice to call his story a song emphasizes the communal theme‹carolers rarely sing alone, after all‹and perhaps to underscore the temporal theme at play, since songs are temporal forms that rely on repetition of the chorus.