Arguably Dickens’ most famous work, “A Christmas Carol” packs a stunning archetypal power – a relatability without expiration date – that transcends culture and time. Its heavyweight power to charm, chill, and awe has made it one of the most adapted pieces of literature: in over 200 films, audio dramas, and stage plays, a dozen unique musicals, countless cartoons, four operas, three ballets, and plenty of cheeky commercials. What is it about Scrooge’s cathartic redemption that has made this seasonal novella surpass “David Copperfield,” “Great Expectations,” and “Bleak House” in popularity?
High-brow critics may cringe at the mention of its supremacy among Dickens’ works, but it is not his most adored story for nothing: it speaks to universal urges and illustrates the Jungian “Hero’s Journey” in an almost biblical manner. We see a ruined, damned sinner summoned forth by supernatural powers, cross the barriers of space and time, return to the touchstone of his emotional retardation, experience the healing balm of memory, feel emotions unfelt for decades, be broken down through self-awareness, be cast into the darkness of despair, repent of his past behavior, plead for unmerited mercy, receive it, be resurrected from despair and made anew, return to the beginning of his journey empowered with a new perspective, and transform the world around him with his newfound heart.
It is as archetypal as “The Odyssey” or “The Inferno,” and its seasonal nature causes its recitation to be a yearly ritual for much of the human race. Every December, people religiously watch George C. Scott, Alistair Simms, Michael Caine, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, Scrooge McDuck, and Mr. Magoo undergo the grueling transformation from nihilistic cynic to grateful humanitarian. While it may strike some readers as sentimental (it is Dickens, after all), it clearly accomplishes what good art is intended to: trigger a deep, personal reaction in the hearts and minds of its consumers.
D I C K E N S' I N F L U E N C E S
The story itself is built on a variety of Dickens’ greatest literary influences – Washington Irving and E. T. A. Hoffmann chief among them – and acts as an apotheosis of some of his own lesser, earlier stories. Irving’s “Old Christmas” sequence from “The Sketch Book” depicted an old fashioned English Yuletide festival hosted by the rotund, charitable Squire Bracebridge (whose boisterous love of fellowship is borrowed in Fezziwig). Irving’s outdated appreciation for this campy, rambunctious type of Christmas celebration – which hadn’t been fashionable since the English Civil War – touched Dickens’ sensibilities with its displays of community and charity. Working together on opposite sides of the Atlantic, both Dickens and Irving would ultimately be responsible for the creation of the modern Christmas celebration.
Hoffmann’s holiday stories (including the unforgettably creepy “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King” and the psychedelic, erotic “New Year’s Eve Adventure”) often involved a character stepping out of the ordinary world of self-deception and entering into one of supernatural clarity, led by strange guides, grotesque spirits, or eccentric outsiders. One of his best tales, “The Golden Flower Pot,” even provided Dickens with one of the “Carol’s” most memorable scenes when Hoffmann’s bumbling protagonist is knocked off his feet after watching a doorknocker morph into the glowing face of an evil witch. Marley’s manifestation, likewise, provides a very intentional herald of the many Hoffmannesque (viz. weirdly bizarre, mind-opening, and spiritually transformative) adventures to come.
Marley’s Ghost is the culmination of his early ghost stories – merging the visitation of Baron Koeldwethout’s weary, iron-clad phantom with the plot of “The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” (wherein goblins kidnap an old miser on Christmas Eve, shock him with visions of families in poverty, and transform his heart), with the whimsy and caustic social conscience of “The Lawyer and the Ghost,” with the charming characterizations and adventure of “The Ghosts of the Mail.” All four stories use supernatural experiences to force delusional characters to wake up and face reality.
G O T H I C S Y M B O L I S M
“A Christmas Carol” is most accurately cataloged as a moral parable, but within its richly symbolic prose lurk all the hallmarks of a classic English ghost story (in the unsettling style of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Margaret Oliphant, and Amelia B. Edwards). It has a brooding, living, natural atmosphere that reflects the moral condition of the characters that inhabit it; a visceral sense of approaching comeuppance on the part of its protagonist; a slow-burning journey from arrogance to confusion to denial to dread to horror; and a Gothic house, Gothic atmosphere, and Gothic ghost which are each truly original yet beholden to the conventions of English Gothic literature.
As you revisit the story – which suffers from oversaturation and familiarity – I recommend that you try to pay attention to Dickens’ mastery of mood and atmosphere. It is a ghostly story from the first scene, with brown smog darkening the streets and smothering the streetlamps (as with any story of Irving or Hoffmann, we sense the imminent approach of some iconoclastic supernatural power).
T H E F O U R C R U C I A L M O T I F S
As you read through Dickens' prose, look out for four recurring symbols: Light (Awareness) and Warmth (Charity) versus Dark (Ignorance) and Cold (Want/Neediness). Whenever Scrooge’s vision is obscured by fog, darkness, or soot, we should be reminded of his unwillingness to confront the needs of others – which Dickens symbolizes with ice, frost, and bitter cold. Scenes of bright light, warm fires, and strong liquor do their best to offer Scrooge a vision of charitable awareness, just as scenes of feeble light, low fires, and cheap alcohol represent Hope holding on for dear life. The novella is one which deftly exposes many ghosts which we all find at our bedsides – the ghosts of shame and regret, which sear the heart and trouble the conscience.
Scrooge’s whole universe is haunted. The streets of London are invaded and obscured by the genius of Ignorance – the thick-boiling brown smog – and pinched bitterly by the genius of Want – the icy brine of frost that nips everything within sight. Dickens warns us well in advance that the supernatural and natural worlds are due to clash, both with his memorable opening line and with his personified elements ruling the city streets like a monopoly: the ignorant smog which hides light, creates anonymity, and prevents perspective, and the avaricious frost which squelches life, proliferates misery, and is felt universally regardless of class.
Marley’s appearance is the culmination of a haunting that has been occurring since the book’s first pages: London is haunted by Scrooge and Scrooges. We know of course that three spirits do follow – the Ghost of the Past who re-familiarizes Scrooge with his origins and innocence, the Ghost of the Present who acquaints Scrooge with the joys and tenderness of the common man, and the Ghost of the Future who haunts Scrooge with a promise of a miserable death and an infamous legacy – but we often forget that there are two more spirits.
At the conclusion of his visitation, the Ghost of Christmas Present pulls back his robe to reveal two animallike children – Scrooge’s – the taloned geniuses of Ignorance, upon whose forehead is written “doom,” and Want.
Scrooge in that moment understands that he has been the cause of far more haunting than he has experienced in the past three hours, and he understands to a degree, the shame and misery suffered by the damned Marley, whose heart is broken by his inability to intercede in the events of mankind, and who is ironically more of a man after becoming a ghost, having been more of a ghost than a man when alive (truly a crossbreeding of “Goblins” and “Lawyer and the Ghost”). A Christmas Carol, like most of its predecessors, was made to generate understanding and conversation around the dreadful conditions of the industrial and urban poor, and to plead for humanitarianism and universal goodwill.
T H E G H O S T O F C H R I S T M A S P A S T
The First Ghost is rarely depicted as Dickens’ described (it ranges from a ghostly CGI doll to an anthropomorphic candle; from a fussy, fashionable grandmother, to a female newsboy), but Dickens’ Spirit – with morphing, multiplying limbs, a jet of light atop its head, and an uncanny blending of age and youth – is meant to represent the shifting nature of memory. Visually, it is modelled after the German tradition of the Christkindl: the Christ Child who brings gifts to children on Christmas Eve (under the paternal supervision of Father Christmas) and who is usually depicted as a beautiful youth in a white robe.
Like this gift-giver of children, the Spirit of the Past comes to rouse and revive the child in Scrooge, using his light to expose the Scrooge’s latent memories. Remember that one of the two principle motifs in “A Christmas Carol” is the battle between Dark/Ignorance (represented in the novel by fog, smog, darkness, duskiness, lack of light) and Light/Awareness (represented by light from fires, candles, streetlamps, and the Spirit’s flaming crown).
This clearing out of Ignorance by the light of Awareness is the principle task of the spirits, and one executed primarily by the first of the three. Its assignment is to shine light on the repressed emotions and denied misery of Scrooge’s life. As they are about to step out of Scrooge’s window, the Spirit makes a comment that is usually left out by adaptations (they usually have the Spirit simply claim that by holding hands, they will fly): the Spirit asks Scrooge to let him – the Spirit – touch Scrooge’s heart, with the promise that if he allow the Past to touch his emotional center, he will “be upheld in more than this!”
This is the thesis of the First Ghost: allow the memories of the Past to inform (not to direct, but to influence) the choices of the Present – remember how you felt when you were vulnerable and poor – and sympathy will help you navigate life’s ethical conundrums.
T H E G H O S T O F C H R I S T M A S P R E S E N T
The Second Ghost is the most consistently depicted of all three (even the Third Ghost is sometimes tweaked from Dickens’ tremendously straightforward descriptions) and this is probably because his charisma is so effective. Like the First Ghost, who is modelled after the Gift-Bringing Christkindl (and who has arrived to bring light into Scrooge’s ignorant life), the Spirit of the Present is undeniably patterned after Father Christmas himself: robed in fur, crowned in holly, bearded, and magnanimous, his open-hearted, open-handed personality teaches Scrooge about warmth.
The second of the two principle motifs in “A Christmas Carol” is the battle between Cold/Want (represented in the novel by ice, frost, frigid air, and sleet) and Warmth/Charity (represented by roaring fires, cozy rooms, chubbiness (e.g. paunchy Fezziwig, and the two hefty men collecting charity), and alcohol (punches, smoking bishop, etc.)). The Second Ghost teaches Scrooge to value warmth (and by proxy, Charity) about which he had earlier been stingy.
From his famous first words (almost always included in even the most irresponsible of adaptations: “Come in! Come in and no me better man!”), the Spirit is teaching Scrooge to value fellowship, community, and the common welfare. For twelve nights in a row (from Christmas Day to the last stroke of Epiphany – or Twelfth Night, January 6th) Scrooge and the Spirit travel the world watching almost two weeks’ worth of Christmas celebrations.
Confronted with scenes of fellowship from all over the world, Scrooge is forced to acknowledge what Fred extolled earlier: the inherent, immaterial value of the humanitarian Christmas Spirit. When they first meet, the Second Ghost urges Scrooge to look him in the eye, because – like the First Ghost – his mission is to cause the miser to see the Truth: to confront reality and accept it.
When told by the charity collectors that many of the poor would rather die than be in government welfare systems, Scrooge follows up his famous comment on “the surplus population” with a telling excuse: “Besides – excuse me – I don’t know that.”
His ignorance and lack of charity are fulling revealed to him by the Second Ghost, both by forcing him to countenance Tiny Tim’s wretched condition, and by introducing him to the personifications of Ignorance and Want – a horrifying revelation that presages the approaching Third Ghost.
T H E G H O S T O F C H R I S T M A S Y E T T O C O M E
This shrouded spectre is often rightfully associated with the Grim Reaper, and his task is to make Scrooge feel the brutal consequences of Ignorance and Want: he is horrified by how little his death means to others (Ignorance) and how his material possessions are greedily pawned off by strangers (Want). Throughout their encounter, he never sees the face of or hears the voice of the Third Ghost, and while I cannot prove my theory, it is my belief that under that black cloak and hood is the corpse of Scrooge’s future self – a cadaverous Doppelgänger. All we see of this ghost, beyond its funereal robes, is his pale, cold hand – pointing the way forward as if symbolizing how the decisions made by that hand have directed it to this fate. When Scrooge is forced to confront his mortality, the lesson is cemented in his heart: he has learned to face reality and accept the responsibilities of Awareness (Light/The First Ghost) and to feel emotion and compassion and goodwill towards his fellow man in the form of Charity (Warmth/The Second Ghost).
Y O N D E R B R E A K S A
N E W & G L O R I O U S M O R N
By the time he wakes up, Christmas Day looks radically different from Christmas Eve. The Night before had been strangled by brown smog (which had rendered the buildings across from Scrooge’s office mere “phantoms” and prevented him from seeing any of the pedestrians outside as three dimensional human beings), but Christmas Morning is blindingly bright, with sunlight gleaming on the snow and a clear sky revealing the faces of the people walking past him. Scrooge’s transformation is one that puts a premium on individual responsibility for one’s fellows.
While many claim the story is anti-capitalist – with good reason – it is not, however advocating an impersonal welfare state that offers government waiting rooms and call centers in place of socially responsible human fellowship and connection. Scrooge doesn’t go on to lobby for more treadmills and more workhouses; instead, he stewards his wealth charitably, using it to help others. Scrooge doesn’t quit his job, give away all of his wealth, and become a monk; he continues to run his business, but does so with mercy towards his debtors, uses its income to fund charities, and makes sure that his employees have a high quality of life.
This mirrors the historical impact that “A Christmas Carol” made on industrialists at the time: after reading the novella, there are dozens of documented accounts of businessmen being shocked into improving the working conditions of their factories, raising their workers’ wages, and taking interest in their employees’ quality of life. Dickens’ novel wasn’t just a charming parable: it literally saved hundreds of lives and improved the welfare of tens of thousands.
In his assessment of “A Christmas Carol,” Richard Kelly declares Scrooge “one of the great characters of English literature,” noting that as “a complex version of the stage villain of Victorian melodrama, he arouses a curious ambiguity in the reader’s attitude toward him. How is it that this cruel, selfish old man has such an appeal to one’s sympathy? Is it simply that he is transformed into a generous man at the story’s end?
Dickens manages the daunting task of presenting his hero in a manner that allows the reader to hiss the villain and relish his presence at the same time. He accomplishes this through the multi-nuanced voice of the narrator. As Michael Slater has observed, ‘”A Christmas Carol” is first and foremost a triumph of tone.’”
Indeed, the story’s tone is most likely the reason for its enduring success. Dickens crafts his universe like a finely crafted sword – made hard and sharp but flexible and light by the balanced applications of spiritual heat and material cold.
He tempers Scrooge’s world of dull, industrial realism with the Spirits’ world of magic, wonder, and possibility: starting with the promise of the miraculous (“Marley was dead as a doornail … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate”), and concluding with a wrenching, emotional crucible variously enflamed by regret and despair (“Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”) and soothed by euphoria and gratitude (“Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this!”).
These delicately balanced emotions – and its refreshing ethos of spiritual redemption through behavioral adaptation – have ensured its enduring popularity across three centuries.