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Charles Dickens And A Christmas Carol And Critical Essays

Among the millions of stories that have been published since the invention of the printing press, there are just a few dozen that seem necessary. A text may be superbly written, exquisitely subtle, deeply meaningful, but still seem like a luxury extra, something we add to the already well-stocked store of our reading experience. Very few stories embody a human truth so definitively that we cannot think of the truth without remembering the story, and cannot imagine how people ever got by without it.

A Christmas Carol is such a tale.

Charles Dickens invented Ebenezer Scrooge in 1843, which is quite recent as essential narratives go. Fables like that of Cain and Abel, the Tortoise and the Hare, Prometheus, and the Prodigal Son are thousands of years old. Myths and holy scriptures contain most of our primal scenarios. A few of Shakespeare's plays, written in the late 16th century, have embedded their characters in the dictionaries of our language: we may refer to a modern-day Romeo or Shylock just as we may call someone a Scrooge. But Shakespeare's plots and characters were adapted from older sources. By recycling pre-existing material, Shakespeare seemed to endorse a view common in his time, which has become even more entrenched in the 400 years since: that all the truly essential stories are already in the bag.

And yet, on rare occasions, in defiance of the odds, writers have delivered surprise gifts that are both new and indispensable. Mary Shelley managed it with Frankenstein; Robert Louis Stevenson gave us Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; George Orwell succeeded twice with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Dickens, popular though he has always been, almost didn't gain admission to this select company. His big, "major" novels - the ones admired by critics, analysed by academics and adored by his fans - don't quite qualify as essential; they are merely great. But A Christmas Carol, a novella that Dickens knocked off in a few weeks while wrestling with the gargantuan Martin Chuzzlewit, struck a chord so resounding that it's still instantly recognised by millions of people who will never read his magnum opuses.

The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge was first published in an affordably priced, luxurious edition bound in red cloth, with gilded edges and hand-coloured illustrations. Dickens, who had fallen out with his old publisher and was in financial trouble, paid all the printing costs himself, hoping to pocket a fortune in sales. The book was indeed a hit, but its extravagant production values meant that Dickens made very little profit from it, and the market was soon infested with pirated editions, which Dickens fought expensively to suppress. Despite the bitter taste of this experience, Dickens was gratified by the book's popularity and wrote many more Christmas stories and meditations, principally in the magazines he edited, Household Words and All The Year Round. Eventually, the pressure drove him to grumble, whenever the festive deadline approached, about having to "clear the Christmas stone out of the road", but there is no taint of drudgery on the tale of Scrooge. It was brought into the world by a spark of inspiration, and its fire has gone on burning long after the others have turned to embers and ashes.

The novella's full title is A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. The fact that Dickens chose to celebrate Christmas with that most un-Christian of things, a ghost story, is typical of him. Religious piety was not his forté. In A Christmas Carol, there's one rather self-conscious aside about how we should "venerate" the festival's "sacred name and origin", and also a far-fetched assertion that it's good to be a child at Christmas because that's "when its mighty Founder was a child himself". Aside from these perfunctory gestures, Dickens leaves Jesus alone and concentrates on what excites his imagination most: death, grotesquery, poverty, indignity, death, clownish pranks, death, dancing and food. Oh, and did I mention death?

The novella's famous first line, "Marley was dead, to begin with", establishes many things at once. It avoids the grandiloquent rhetoric many people might expect of the opening paragraph of a Victorian novel, in favour of a terse, muscular address. It allows Dickens to indulge his love of topsy-turvyness, insisting that what sounds like a story's end is in fact the beginning. It delivers a gentle shock to those readers who might have expected a Christmas story to begin in a festive spirit. It promises supernatural fun, because it comes straight after the chapter title "Marley's Ghost", a tip-off that Marley can't be quite as dead as the narrator claims. And, although Ebenezer Scrooge has not yet spoken, it chimes in with what we'll soon recognise as the miser's characteristic tone: over-emphatic insistence that he's right about everything, when we know that he's lamentably mistaken. So, in that one line - six short words! - Dickens encapsulates the philosophical tension of the entire story: the tension between blinkered certitude and open-eyed humility.

Most of all, though, the opening line allows Dickens to put death prominently on the menu. Despite his status - in his own time, and in ours - as the ultimate family entertainer, Dickens was energised by all things grim and gruesome. Foulness got his creative juices flowing. A Christmas Carol is an unevenly written work, creaky in places, and showing signs of haste, but there's no mistaking Dickens's full engagement when he accompanies Scrooge into a filthy slum crowded with garbage and offal, where dark secrets are "bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones". Note, too, the macabre hilarity of the moment when Marley's ghost takes off the bandage wrapped round his head "as if it were too warm to wear indoors" and his whole lower jaw drops down on to his chest (a horror-movie "special effect" that wouldn't be out of place in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films.) Also, while Dickens is doubtless sincere in his disapproval of Scrooge's misanthropy, we can sense his wicked glee at Scrooge's declaration that "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart".

Of course, it's easier to write thrillingly about badness than it is to write inspiringly about goodness. Scrooge's sarcastic sparring with the charity collectors ("What, are there no prisons?") is delightful, whereas the virtuous oratory of Ebenezer's ex- fiancée ("Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve") is rather a bore. When Dickens wants to evoke wretchedness and malignancy, his literary invention never tires, but when he must evoke the ultra-pleasant Fezziwig family, he so exhausts himself on Mr Fezziwig that there's nothing left for Mrs Fezziwig to be but "one vast substantial smile". As for the three Fezziwig daughters who trot in afterwards, they are collectively - and feebly - stamped "beaming and lovable". Marley's ghost, with his gory jaw, seems much more interesting company - not because we would truly prefer to be terrorised by a ghost, but because the ghosts get the best lines and the juiciest imagery.

Judged strictly as a piece of propaganda for universal charity, A Christmas Carol perspires under the strain. The story's implicit claim that rich, nasty people have no friends or fun, while poor, nice people are blessed with warm companionship and entertainment, is somewhat shaky. In Scrooge, Dickens concocts a wealthy man who doesn't allow himself to enjoy any of the manifest benefits of wealth, and in the Cratchits he concocts a poor family who are almost wholly untouched by the degrading effects of poverty. This doesn't mean that Dickens lacked insight into the poisonous effects of deprivation; he understood very well. Indeed, there is a part in A Christmas Carol where one of the Spirits shows Scrooge a boy and a girl - Ignorance and Want - whose "scowling, wolfish" features radiate the resentment bred in the underclasses. "Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing," muses Dickens. But overall his tale is buoyed up by the belief (which he largely lost in later years) that a gesture of kindness can rescue all but the most grievously damaged souls. And, at this stage of his life (he was 31), Dickens was inclined to think that even a thoroughly unpleasant miser might be full of suppressed generosity and profound sentiment. Hence Ebenezer Scrooge.

Modern readers may have trouble with the suddenness of Scrooge's conversion, the readiness with which he gets affectionate and tearful over visions of his younger self. Certainly, his change of heart is not handled with the minutely gradated subtlety we might expect from a modern literary writer, or even from other Victorian novelists such as George Eliot. Determined apologists for Dickens's craftsmanship might argue that we shouldn't underestimate how dramatic an impact it would have on a person to be transported physically back into the past, rather than merely recalling it at a distance. But such a defence would miss the point. Scrooge's conversion is unconvincing, if we subject him to rigorous psychological analysis. However, like many of Dickens's characters, Scrooge refuses to behave according to the rules of literary taste - and that's part of his appeal.

A Christmas Carol is an extravagantly symbolic thing - as rich in symbols as Christmas pudding is rich in raisins. Dickens misses no opportunity to cram his thematic concerns into the bodies and utterances of his characters. We are not in the world of Henry James or Alice Munro here, we are in the world of John Bunyan and medieval passion plays, and the sooner we accept this, the better we will enjoy the ride. A Christmas Carol is not a study of one person's emotional and intellectual development, it's a knockabout battle between absolute qualities, dressed up in bizarre forms for maximum thrills. Indeed, when we first meet Ebenezer, he seems an almost supernatural force: "External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose . . ." With such paranormal credentials, Scrooge plainly needs to be taught the lesson that he's human after all.

Just as moralist writers in the Middle Ages were unselfconscious about bringing on a skeleton wielding a scythe, Dickens is bold enough to devise outrageously obvious - yet poignantly effective - visual metaphors for the way avarice weighs down the soul. Marley's ghost drags a chain made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and steel purses. The sky outside is filled with phantoms, all similarly chained, some linked in groups ("they might be guilty governments", proposes Dickens). All are tortured by A Christmas Carol's highly idiosyncratic interpretation of hell: no longer having the power to aid one's fellow mortals. We are shown the old ghost in the white waistcoat, "with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep". We swallow the idea that the cap which obscures the divine light streaming from the Ghost of Christmas Past is made of ignoble human passions. We hear the Ghost of Christmas Present proclaiming that he has more than 1,800 brothers, and understand that these represent the years since Christ's birth. In today's literary climate, the symbolism of a writer like DH Lawrence can seem tiresomely heavy-handed, yet Dickens's symbolism, which is a good deal less subtle, somehow gets away with it. Its deranged, fabulous confidence pulls it through.

Although some readers may dismiss Scrooge's adventures as a dream, the narrative argues against this interpretation. Scrooge's visit to the Cratchits' home, where he encounters Tiny Tim - an experience crucial to his consequent behaviour - is something he could not have imagined himself. It is made possible only by his ghostly guide. In any case, Scrooge's cool imperviousness makes him an unlikely prospect for nightmares of conscience, and Dickens is careful not to resort to convenient fevers, indigestion or other staples of "it-was-all-a-dream" stories. While the ghosts are clearly visions in the grand tradition of Dante's Divine Comedy or the Biblical book of Revelation, the texture of the story is as fleshly and real as a saucepan of gruel. Particularly significant is how little the supernatural entities in the story have to do with the change in Scrooge; there is no force used, magical or otherwise. Scrooge is humbled not by goblins, (as was Gabriel Grubb, Dickens's first attempt at a Scrooge-like figure in Pickwick Papers), but by the pathos of his own lost chances.

A Christmas Carol's fusion of phantasmagoria and high-Victorian realism makes the novella a peculiar creature indeed. References to Union workhouses, income tax and the Poor Law are intermingled with metaphysical rhetoric and the sight of allegorical figures posed beneath the cloak of a phantom. Sometimes, as in the scene with Ebenezer's ex-fiancée, our confidence in the mixture is tested. But mostly we are borne along, as if swooping through the air holding hands with a ghost, happy to go wherever we're taken. Magnificent prose helps, of course. A Christmas Carol allows Dickens to show off his full repertoire of skills. The master of Gothic atmosphere is here, describing an ancient clocktower so thickly wreathed in winter fog that it strikes "the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there". Elsewhere, we are in Oliver Twist territory, as three shabby scavengers - a laundress, a charwoman and an undertaker's assistant - exchange mordant witticisms with a dealer in stolen goods. Elsewhere still, Dickens unleashes his most Miltonic oratory, as though Marley's ghost were auditioning for a role in Paradise Lost: "I wear the chain I forged in life . . . I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

And, throughout the tale, we never know when Dickens will make one of his exhilarating perceptual shifts from the benign to the macabre. For example, when the Cratchit family has said grace in preparation for their roast goose dinner, there is "a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife . . ." Even non-vegetarians may be startled by such borderline bloodthirstiness in Dickens's descriptions of feasting. But A Christmas Carol is typical of his work in that enjoyment tends to be fortified with a generous slug of the grotesque.

Indeed, it is important for Dickens that Christmas should not be predictable and rational. Instead, he sees the festival as inextricably linked with imagination - "fancy". For him, Christmas is a time when "Everything is capable, with the greatest ease, of being changed into Anything". Modern readers, who may associate Christmas with adherence to long-established, commercialised rituals, may find this emphasis on adventure and caprice a bit overdone. But we need to understand that at the time when A Christmas Carol was published, Christmas had not yet succumbed to the formulas that rule it today. Presents were often home-made, decorations were improvised. Shop-bought Christmas cards had only just been invented and would not become common until the 1880s. Queen Victoria's husband Albert tried to introduce the Christmas tree ("that pretty German toy", as Dickens calls it in an 1850 essay), but the idea was slow to catch on. A strange new American import - the turkey - was muscling in on the traditional goose. Santa Claus did not yet exist (he has a complicated derivation, in part from A Christmas Carol's Ghost of Christmas Present). Basically, the early Victorians were unsure how a rural festival like Yuletide could be celebrated by busy city-folk in the industrial age - and Dickens took it upon himself to tell them.

A Christmas Carol celebrates Christmas as though it were an immutable cornerstone of civilised society, as though the customs of the Cratchit household were eternal and universal, but this was far from the case. "Christ's Mass", a medieval church service associated with feasting, was long lost, suppressed by religious hardliners throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. (In a splendidly Scrooge-like gesture, Oliver Cromwell actually abolished Christmas by an act of Parliament.) The festival adapted to survive, but industrial capitalism eventually achieved what religious suppression hadn't: the erosion of rural tradition. Urban wage slaves (like Scrooge's hapless clerk) did not have the leisure to feast on partridges and pheasants for 12 days of feudal Solstice. By 1843, English-speaking people were ripe for a reinvented Christmas, a neat one-day holiday infused with sentimental philanthropic values, sold to them by their favourite author.

This is not to cast aspersions on Dickens's sincerity, nor the value of his message. Dickens was ideally positioned, in history and in personal circumstances, to perceive the best and the worst that capitalism had to offer. He adored the bustling profusion of the modern city, the endless variety of modern manufacture, the excitement of its innovations. A Christmas Carol is in some ways the ultimate ode to consumption: the jolly green ghost proudly displays a "throne" of assorted meats; plump fruits can be seen "urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten"; the happy revellers bask in self-indulgence. But Dickens was aware that capitalism was fuelled by the labour of poor people, and he was passionate in his belief that society owed them a share in the plenty.

The heartless exploitation of the underprivileged enraged him. In all his work, he argues not only that we as individuals have a duty to care for our less fortunate neighbours, but also that governments and institutions must be exposed and shamed whenever they fail to show adequate compassion. In our own era, when the arrogant behaviour of global empire-builders and corporations is causing ever-mounting distress among the world's poor, we need to pay attention when Scrooge compliments Marley on having been "a good man of business". The ghost, shackled to the useless baggage of his own greed, bemoans his failure to understand that the whole of humanity should have been his concern. "The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

Yet, these philosophies, important and wise though they may be, are not the whole reason why A Christmas Carol has been loved by so many for so long. There are thousands of novels that tell us that we should be kinder and more moral. Most of them gather dust, unread. The real secret of A Christmas Carol's essentialness lies not in solemn preaching but in the dark, joyous energy that drove Dickens to create. It lies in the weird magic of Scrooge's adventures, the awesome visions of the Spirits, the gruesome hinge of Marley's jaw. And, most of all, it lies in the real truth about Scrooge's change of heart - a truth much deeper than the conventional explanation, that he learned he must be a nicer, "better" person. Yes, Scrooge does change in this way. But that doesn't explain why he ends the novel cavorting in impish glee, giggling and playing pranks. He could, after all, have remained the same gloomy old man, except more generous with money. The real miracle of his transformation is that, at long last, he's capable of having fun.

Dickens valued morality, but what he really worshipped was merriment - the buzz of making other people happy, of making a moment glow, of dancing a jig for no particular reason. The greatest tragedy he could imagine was an existence devoid of excitement or playfulness, a biding of time on the way to the grave. Fun, for him, was the only compensation for death, the dismal inevitability of which preyed constantly on his mind. Scrooge's triumph is that he stares his own corpse in the face, and, instead of despairing, defiantly resolves to enjoy the gift of life to the full. He is galvanised by a thousand volts of goodwill. Witnessing his transformation, we realise with a pang of regret that we are hard-hearted too, and that it might take a thousand volts to transform us likewise. We cling, miser-like, to our self-protective anxieties, our emotional meanness, our pointless inhibitions. Perhaps we're all waiting for the Ghosts of our own Past, Present and Future to burst through our defences, seize us by the hand and shock us into joy. Until that day, we revisit A Christmas Carol and watch this alarming miracle happen to someone else.

· This an edited version of the foreword to the Chamberlain Bros edition of A Christmas Carol published this year in the US and Canada.

A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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 Carol lacked 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.