A Christmas Carol
The Timelessness of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Story Classic
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A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (commonly known as A Christmas Carol) is what Charles Dickens described as his “little Christmas Book” and was first published on December 19, 1843 with illustrations by John Leech. The first of the author’s five “Christmas books”, the story was instantly successful, selling over six thousand copies in one week. Although originally written under financial duress to help Dickens to pay off a debt, the tale has become one of the most popular and enduring Christmas stories of all time.
Contemporaries noted that the story’s popularity played a critical role in redefining the importance of Christmas and the major sentiments associated with the holiday. A Christmas Carol was written during a time of decline in the old Christmas traditions. “If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease”, said English poet Thomas Hood.
A Christmas Carol is a Victorian morality tale of an old and bitter miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who undergoes a profound experience of redemption over the course of one night. If the experience doesn’t change Scrooge’s ways, he will end up walking the Earth forever being nothing but invisible and lonely, like his friend Jacob Marley. Mr. Scrooge is a financier/money-changer who has devoted his life to the accumulation of wealth. He holds anything other than money in contempt, including friendship, love and the Christmas season.
Stave I: Marley’s Ghost
Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after the death of his business partner Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge and his downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit are at work in Scrooge’s counting-house. Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, arrives with seasonal greetings and an invitation to Christmas dinner, but Scrooge dismisses him with “Bah! Humbug!”, declaring that Christmas is a fraud. Two gentlemen collecting charitable donations for the poor are likewise rebuffed by Scrooge, who insists that the poor laws and workhouses are sufficient to care for the poor, and that “If they would rather die [than go there], they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population”. As he and his clerk prepare to leave, he grudgingly permits Cratchit one day’s paid holiday the following day, but the morning after Christmas he must be there on time, otherwise there will be a deduction from his wages.
Scrooge returns home to his cheerless rooms in an otherwise deserted building, and a series of supernatural experiences begins. His doorknocker appears to transform into Marley’s face; a “locomotive hearse” seems to mount the dark stairs ahead of him; the pictures on the tiles in his fireplace transform into images of Marley’s face. Finally all the bells in the house ring loudly, there is a clanking of chains in the bed and on the floor, and the ghost of Marley passes through the closed door into the room.
The ghost warns Scrooge that if he does not change his ways, he will suffer Marley’s fate, but Scrooge’s fate would be even worse. He will walk the earth eternally after death, invisible among his fellow men, burdened with chains, seeing the misery and suffering he could have alleviated in his life but now powerless to intervene. Marley has arranged Scrooge’s only chance of redemption: three spirits will visit him on successive hours that night, and they may help change him and save him from his fate. As Marley leaves, Scrooge gets a nightmare glimpse of the tormented spectres who drift unseen among the living, and now shattered, he falls into bed.
Stave II: The First of the Three Spirits
The Ghost of Christmas Past, a strange mixture of young and old, male and female, with a light shining from the crown of its head, appears at the stroke of one. It leads Scrooge on a journey to some of his past Christmases, where events shaped his life and character. He sees his late sister Fan, who intervened to rescue him from lonely exile at boarding school, and, recalling his recent treatment of Fan’s son Fred, Scrooge feels the first stirrings of regret. They revisit a merry Christmas party given by Fezziwig, Scrooge’s kind apprentice-master, and Scrooge thinks guiltily of his own behaviour toward Bob Cratchit. Finally, he is reminded how his love of money lost him the love of his life, Belle, and the happiness this cost him. Furious, Scrooge turns on the spirit, snuffs it like a candle with its cap, and finds himself crumpling up in his bed sheets and wakes up and feels remorseful.
Stave III: The Second of the Three Spirits
Scrooge wakes at the stroke of one, confused to find it is still night. After a time he rises and finds the second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, in an adjoining room, on a throne made of Christmas food and drink. This spirit, a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur, takes him through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace. They observe the meagre but happy Christmas celebrations of the Cratchit family and the sweet nature of their “forgotten” son Tiny Tim, and when the Spirit foretells an early death for the child if things remain unchanged, Scrooge is distraught. He is shown what others think of him: the Cratchits toast him, but reluctantly, and “a shadow was cast over the party for a full five minutes”. Scrooge’s nephew and his friends gently mock his miserly behaviour at their Christmas party, but Fred maintains his uncle’s potential for change, and Scrooge demonstrates a childlike enjoyment of the celebrations.
They travel far and wide, and see how even the most wretched of people mark Christmas in some way, whatever their circumstances. The Ghost, however, grows visibly older, and explains he must die that night. He shows Scrooge two pitiful children huddled under his robes who personify the major causes of suffering in the world, “Ignorance” and “Want”, with a grim warning that the former is especially harmful. At the end of the visitation, the bell strikes twelve. The Ghost of Christmas Present vanishes and the third spirit appears to Scrooge.
Stave IV: The Last of the Three Spirits
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes the form of a grim spectre, robed in black, who does not speak and whose body is entirely hidden except for one pointing hand. This spirit frightens Scrooge more than the others, and harrows him with a vision of a future Christmas with the Cratchit family bereft of Tiny Tim. A rich miser, whose death saddens nobody and whose home and corpse have been robbed by ghoulish attendants, is revealed to be Scrooge himself: this is the fate that awaits him. Without it explicitly being said, Scrooge learns that he can avoid the future he has been shown and alter the fate of Tiny Tim, but only if he changes. Weeping, he swears to do so, and awakes to find that all three spirits have visited in just one night, and that it is the Christmas morning.
Stave V: The End of It
Scrooge changes his life and reverts to the generous, kind-hearted soul he was in his youth before the death of Fan. He anonymously sends the Cratchits the biggest turkey in the butcher shop, meets the charity workers to pledge an unspecified but impressive amount of money, and spends Christmas Day with Fred and his wife.
The next day Scrooge catches his clerk arriving late and pretends to be his old miserly self, before revealing his new person to an astonished Cratchit. He assists Bob and his family, becomes an adopted uncle to Tiny Tim, and gains a reputation as a kind and generous man who embodies the spirit of Christmas in his life.