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Originally published in 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol defined and popularized quintessential Christmas tropes while condemning Victorian England’s harsh social division between the rich and poor. The Poor Laws (referenced by Scrooge in Stave 1) were England’s response to pervasive poverty; the workhouses associated with these laws subjected the desperate and destitute to demeaning conditions, and people who could not pay debts were sent to debtors’ prison—a circumstance that Dickens deals with in detail in his later novel Little Dorrit. Dickens’s own family was sent to debtors’ prison when he was 12, and the experience shaped his social and political views.
A Christmas Carol has been adapted for film 135 times and has never been out of print. The term “Scrooge” has become synonymous with a parsimonious and misanthropic individual, and the exclamation “Bah! Humbug!” remains a facetious commentary on any person who fails to embrace the “true spirit of Christmas.” Page numbers in this study guide reference the KTHTK Kindle e-book edition (July 26, 2022).
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It is Christmas Eve, but Ebenezer Scrooge—a businessman of some sort at a London warehouse—stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the holiday. His clerk, Bob Cratchit, huddles in the outer office, trying to warm himself with only a candle. Scrooge won’t allow him to add coal to the fire. Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, drops by the office full of cheer and invites Scrooge to join him and his new wife for Christmas dinner. Scrooge rebuffs the invitation, but Fred refuses to be offended.
A pair of prosperous gentlemen call at the office soliciting donations for those who cannot afford food or warmth over the holiday, but Scrooge refuses to contribute, blaming the poor for their supposed laziness; if they have no money, he says, they should go to the workhouses or debtors’ prisons, and if they won’t do that, they should die and “reduce the surplus population” (6). At the end of the working day, he grumbles resentfully that his clerk will probably want Christmas off and tells him to be at the office all the earlier the day after.
Scrooge goes home, and as he sits up late by his fire, he hears the sound of rattling chains as the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, appears. Marley is bound by “the chain[s] [he] forged in life” and warns Scrooge that his own chains are longer and heavier (13). Marley has arranged for Scrooge to have one chance to escape his fate; three spirits will come to him over the next three nights, and Scrooge must heed them if he hopes to save his soul.
Scrooge goes to bed and wakes to the first specter, the Ghost of Christmas Past: a simultaneously young and old figure from whose head burns the flame of memory. The ghost transports Scrooge back to his childhood, showing him his younger self—lonely but with the potential for joy. They see Scrooge’s first apprenticeship under a good man who made his employees’ lives happy and comfortable. The spirit shows Scrooge the first indications of the greed that would drive away the love of his life, ultimately dooming him to loneliness. The scenes of his younger self awake in Scrooge feelings he has not experienced since money took over his life.
The Ghost of Christmas Past returns Scrooge to his bed. Scrooge is next awakened by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who takes the form of Father Christmas mounted on a throne of abundance. The ghost shows Scrooge scenes of Christmas happiness and charity before bringing him to the Cratchit household. The youngest son, Tiny Tim, is small and frail. He wears braces on his legs and walks with a crutch, and the ghost tells Scrooge that unless the future is changed, Tiny Tim will die within the year. He then shows Scrooge the dinner party at his nephew’s house. Fred is making merry with his friends. The guests make some jokes about Scrooge, and Fred’s wife is quite scathing about him, but Fred is more sympathetic. Afterward, the spirit carries Scrooge around the world, showing him how even the poorest people celebrate the holiday with joy. By the end of their journey, the ghost has aged; his lifespan is only one day.
The second ghost disappears, and Scrooge sees the final ghost approaching in the shape of death. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him a series of scenes in which he sees people talking about someone who has died. No one seems to regret the man’s passing. At the Cratchits’ little house, Tiny Tim has indeed died, but the Cratchits are resolved to hold his memory in their hearts and to follow the example he gave them. The specter finally takes Scrooge to a graveyard and shows Scrooge his own headstone. Scrooge realizes it is he who has died and that his death matters to no one. He begs the specter to tell him that he might change his fate, promising to put all the lessons from the past, the present, and the future into practice and to always “honour Christmas in [his] heart” (62).
Scrooge wakes and finds that his entire adventure took only one night and that he hasn’t missed Christmas Day. Scrooge sends an enormous turkey to the Cratchit family for their dinner. Encountering one of the benevolent gentlemen he rebuffed the previous day, he promises an enormous donation in aid of the poor. He attends his nephew’s dinner party and has a wonderful time. The next day, he gives Bob Cratchit a raise. He becomes a benefactor to the Cratchit family and a second father to Tiny Tim, allowing the boy to survive. For the rest of Scrooge’s life, he makes it his business to keep Christmas in his heart all year long.
By Charles Dickens