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A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol (1843) is one of Charles Dickens's most famous texts. Already a great success upon publication, with the first edition selling out before Christmas Eve, the novella has become a Christmas classic.

A Christmas Carol: summary

We meet the main character, a miserable old man named Ebenezer Scrooge. He is a rich moneylender who, on Christmas Eve, is visited by his nephew Fred and two gentlemen collecting money for charity. Scrooge dismisses all of the visitors stating that he doesn't care about Christmas and that the poor don't deserve his charity since they only have themselves to blame. He is unkind to his overworked and underpaid employee Bob Cratchit; he only begrudgingly offers Bob Christmas Day off with pay. Then, Scrooge goes home where he is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns Scrooge of the fate he will suffer if he doesn't change his ways. Before disappearing, Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three other ghosts.

Scrooge falls asleep but is soon awoken by the elderly yet youthful Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes Scrooge to times when he was more innocent. After Scrooge's loneliness at school and his close relationship with his sister Fan are revealed, they revisit his old employer Fezziwig's Christmas party. Scrooge rewatches how his fiance Belle ends their relationship as Scrooge has been neglecting her in favour of money. She laments that he will never love anything more than money. The Ghost then takes Scrooge to the present, where Belle is happily married, celebrating Christmas Eve with her big family. Scrooge cannot listen to the terrible description Belle gives of him and demands to be taken back to his house.

Again, Scrooge is awakened by a spirit, this time the joyful Ghost of Christmas Present. After showing scenes of the Christmas spirit, they watch the meagre but happy Christmas that Bob Cratchit celebrates. The Ghost warns that Bob's kind, crippled son Tiny Tim will soon die if nothing is changed. After observing more Christmas celebrations, such as at Fred's house, two ragged children crawl out from the Ghost. The Ghost of Christmas Present introduces them as Ignorance and Want and warns Scrooge to be wary of them, especially of the first. Scrooge is concerned by their emancipated appearance, which the Ghost mocks by quoting Scrooge's heartless remarks about the poor from earlier.

The final spirit visits Scrooge, the silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This spirit shows Scrooge scenes of people discussing an unnamed man who died alone. Many are disinterested, only toying with the idea of attending the funeral for a free lunch. Some take the opportunity to steal possessions, even the clothes the dead man should have been wearing in the coffin. Shocked, Scrooge realises he is the dead man and demands the Ghost to take him to someone who cares that he died. Scrooge visits a poor couple who are happy about the delay in their debt repayments, only made possible by Scrooge's death. Wanting to see some tenderness connected with death, Scrooge is then taken to Tiny Tim's funeral. After seeing his own neglected grave, Scrooge pledges to become more generous and kind.

Scrooge wakes up as a changed man on Christmas Day. Joyous, he buys a huge turkey for the Cratchit family and donates a considerable sum of money to the gentlemen he had previously turned away. After spending Christmas with Fred's family, he supports Bob Cratchit and his family, making sure that Tiny Tim survives.

A Christmas Carol: structure and form

A Christmas Carol is a novella written in five staves.

A novella is a form that is longer than a short story but shorter than the average novel.

A stave refers to the five parallel lines on which musical notes are written.

A Christmas Carol, Stave and musical notes, StudySmarterStave.

The use of staves is unusual, as traditionally, novellas are split into chapters. The staves link back to the title A Christmas Carol, which refers to the music staves on which carols are written.

Carols are traditional songs of joyous Christmas tales that are sung communally.

By placing the narrative in the framework of a carol, both in terms of the title and structure, Dickens suggests that the story too should be spoken aloud and listened to by groups of people. This matches the content of the novella. Throughout Scrooge's journey, he not only visits his past, present and future mistakes, but he also witnesses multiple scenes of happy Christmas gatherings and singing. Ultimately, the lonely and cold-hearted Scrooge changes his character to also join the festive cheer at his nephew's house. Dickens connects the moral lessons of the story with joyous Christmas festivities and songs. His structure, therefore, encourages the audience to replicate the Christmas festivities in reality, and through this, implicitly, the moral too.

Analysis of the structure

Dickens divides the novella into five distinct staves.

Stave One: Scrooge's money-obsessed and stingy character is introduced. The inciting incident is the appearance of Marley's ghost, setting up the chain of events.

Stave Two: Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past and watches his former self.

Stave Three: The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge what people in his life think of him in the present moment.

Stave Four: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to Scrooge's own abandoned grave.

Stave Five: In the denouement, Scrooge learns from his past mistakes and changes to become a better, kinder man.

A Christmas Carol: themes

A Christmas Carol has four main themes that we will explore briefly now: music, social injustice, greed, and Christmas.

Music

Music is present throughout the novella, and Dickens takes great care to include it during all the joyous Christmas celebrations. Music is also associated with the present, as the most references to music and song are in Stave Three when Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present:

they [the Cratchit family] had a song, about a lost child travelling in the snow, from Tiny Tim, who had a plaintive little voice and sang it very well indeed.

(Stave Three)

[The miners' families] all joined in the chorus. (Stave Three)

[The workers at the lighthouse] struck up a sturdy song. (Stave Three)

Every man among them [on the ship] hummed a Christmas tune. (Stave Three)

Before the characters start to sing, Dickens first describes the terrible settings enforced on them by their poverty, such as the 'desolation' of the miners' village. Yet, despite the horrible landscapes of the workers, music brings everyone together and uplifts their spirits. Singing becomes a communal activity that invites all generations to join as all voices are necessary to create a song. Music also goes beyond class boundaries, as both the miners and Fred's family sing merrily. Perhaps Dickens attempts to use the unifying force of music to bring humanity together beyond social hierarchies.

Music also facilitates Scrooge's redemptive arc. Through free indirect speech, the narrator traces how music at Fred's Christmas gathering changes Scrooge's thoughts.

Free indirect speech is a narrative technique where a third-person narrator enters the mind of a character to reveal their inner thoughts.

When this strain of music sounded, all the things that ghost had shown him came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands. (Stave Three)

Crucially, it is not simply the scenes shown by the ghosts that change Scrooge's mind. - music also plays a part in this. Music has the power to sing through Scrooge's mean and closed mind, to 'soften' and warm him. The sentence structure matches Scrooge's chain of thoughts, tracing how 'this strain of music' leads to 'kindness' and ultimately 'his own happiness'. Scrooge wonders that if music were more present in his life, maybe he would become a kinder and happier person.

Through music, Dickens shows that it is never too late to find redemption and start being kind to other people. While the stories of the past, present and future force Scrooge to reflect on his ways, it is ultimately music that is the tool to achieve this change.

So what is the significance of this? If Scrooge's redemption is through the power of art, what does this mean for the art of Dickens's work? Just as music is used as a bridge between humanity, Dickens's musical structure suggests that the novella's moral message can also redeem the audience. Redemption through the power of art extends to the power of this text to invite kinder and more generous behaviour in the readers too.

Social injustice

Dickens wrote at a time when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.

The Industrial Revolution began in 18th-century Britain. Increased industrialisation, the mass movement of people to the cities, and lack of regulation brought a sharp rise in inequalities.

Factory owners and businessmen became exceedingly rich at the expense of their workers, who were underpaid and worked in terrible conditions. Dickens witnessed first-hand these inequalities, which are greatly criticised in his texts. A Christmas Carol is no exception, with a moral that all should be more generous, donate to the poor, and provide better working conditions for workers.

The lack of adequate regulation during the Industrial Revolution allowed employers to exploit their workers to maximise profits. Whereas before work was seasonal and dependent on natural sunlight, now workers were forced to work up to 16 hours a day 6 days a week. Children, too, had to work; their small bodies and hands were seen as ideal for fixing machines. Machines were kept running to ensure constant production, resulting in many workplace accidents.

Dickens portrays a variety of lives in the novella, sympathetically presenting the lives of Britain's struggling working class. There are scenes of the miners in a 'bleak and desert moor', the weathered workers at the lighthouse, tired sailors, and the poor couple in debt to Scrooge. Dickens contrasts Scrooge's past, present and future Christmases with the struggles of Bob Cratchit's family.

By highlighting the social injustice, Dickens reminds the audience of our social responsibility. It is the responsibility of the wealthy to share their good fortunes with the needy.

Greed

Scrooge's greed is his character flaw. Through each stave, the reader witnesses Scrooge's arc of redemption, where he relinquishes his material obsessions to realise the power of kindness and generosity. By being kind to others, Scrooge can finally achieve happiness.

From the opening description of Scrooge, his greed is already made clear:

Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! (Stave One)

The continuous present tense coupled with the multiple adjectives and exclamation marks emphasises how he is continuously searching for ways to 'grasp' more money. It appears that his greed has taken over all his thoughts and actions. Yet, the next description reveals how greed freezes him alive: 'the cold within him froze his old features'. Scrooge's greed does not bring him any happiness. Instead, it ices over his heart and wipes out any potential for human warmth. His nephew, Fred, sums this up nicely during his Christmas party in Stave Three:

His wealth is of no use to him. He don't do any good with it. (Stave Three)

Material fortune does not equate to happiness. Instead, greed pushes others away, as shown when Belle breaks off the engagement when she realises that Scrooge puts his love for money above his love for her. Those who are not greedy are the happiest characters in the novella. Despite their terrible situations, the poor characters have close and loving families. Their happiness is not found in material possessions but instead in human relationships such as family. This is what Scrooge – and ultimately society – must learn.

Christmas

Clear from the title of the novella, Christmas is an important part of the text. Dickens threads it throughout, with Christmas gatherings and traditions acting as a running motif. Through his novella, Dickens helped to solidify many Christmas traditions.

We can see the theme of Christmas in most of the novella, especially at Fezziwig's party and the Cratchits household. Dickens shows that people should be generous, kind, considerate, and helpful to others at Christmas and all year round.

Many British Christmas traditions celebrated today were popularised during Victorian times. Decorating Christmas trees was a tradition brought by the royal family from Germany. Eating Turkey (for the wealthy) or a Christmas bird like a goose (for the poor) was also solidified when Dickens was writing.

How many Christmas traditions can you notice in A Christmas Carol?

A Christmas Carol: characters

Now that we have considered the themes of A Christmas Carol, let's have a look at the main characters within the novella.

Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is the main character of A Christmas Carol, who undergoes a positive character arc. In the beginning, he is presented as a greedy and cruel man who refuses to donate to the poor and who exploits his workers. He is selfish and only cares for himself and the money that he earns. Yet, through the interventions of the spirits, Scrooge reflects on his actions with each progressive stave. Realising his mistakes, Scrooge changes his ways to become kind and generous. This also brings him closer to those around him, as he is accepted into Fred's Christmas dinner and becomes a second father to Tiny Tim.

Fred

Fred is Scrooge's nephew, the son of Scrooge's once-beloved late sister Fan. Fred is presented as the opposite of Scrooge. As the first character with direct speech, Fred's positive attitude to life is clear through his cheerful Christmas greetings. This contrasts Scrooge who rejects the Christmas spirit with a now-famous 'Bah Hamburg!'. Fred is Scrooge's only living family and is used by Dickens to show how Scrooge acts towards others.

A character that is presented as the opposite of another is called a foil character.

Bob Cratchit

Bob Cratchit is Scrooge's clerk who is overworked and underpaid. His opening description in Stave One presents him trapped in a 'dismal little cell, a sort of tank' of poverty and exploitation due to Scrooge's treatment. Despite his terrible living and working conditions, Bob Crachit is hard-working and kind. However, regardless of his long hours, he cannot support his family. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge one possible future in which Tiny Tim dies because of the Crachits' bad living conditions.

The ghosts repeatedly take Scrooge to visit the Cratchit family, who present the struggles of the working class.

Jacob Marley

Jacob Marley is Scrooge's deceased business partner and is the first spirit to appear to Scrooge on Christmas Eve. He tells Scrooge that he should change his attitude towards others. Otherwise, he will meet an awful fate after death.

Jacob Marley's character is much like Scrooge's at the start of the novella. He was greedy and selfish during his life, and Dickens shows that he has been punished for this after death.

The Christmas Spirits

In turn, three Christmas spirits visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve:

  • The Ghost of Christmas Past is seen as both young and old, glowing brightly.

  • The Ghost of Christmas Present is seen as a 'Father Christmas' figure wearing a green robe. The giant figure is kind and hearty.

  • The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is cloaked in darkness and mystery. Wearing a hooded dark robe obscuring their face, the Ghost is silent and doesn't speak during the encounter with Scrooge.

Dickens's physical descriptions of the ghosts are very distinct. What do you think Dickens is suggesting about time here?

A Christmas Carol: quotes

Let's take a look at some notable quotes!

The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then? (Stave One)

The direct speech is Scrooge replying to the portly gentlemen who ask for donations for the poor. The gentlemen outline how many cannot experience joy on Christmas as they are so destitute and wanting. Scrooge not only refuses to donate but asks whether the Victorian systems to punish the poor are still working: the treadmill and the Poor Law.

Dickens satirises Victorian treatment of the poor, the idea that poverty is a choice and a result of laziness and lack of character. By presenting Scrooge as a negative character at the beginning, Dickens encourages the reader to sympathise with the poor and to think about social injustice.

The Poor Law of 1834 reduced government spending to support the poor. Those who were in need were forced to move into workhouses to receive any support. The deliberately terrible working and living conditions were an attempt to limit those asking for support. Families were split up, and insufficient portions led to the starvation of many people. The Poor Law ultimately punished those who were poor.

The treadmill is much like today's gym equipment, yet it has a much darker past. The treadmill was initially invented by William Cubitt, who felt that inmates should do hard labour to reform. Inspired by the Victorian idea that hard work brings atonement and better character, prisoners were forced to repeatedly climb up steps turning on a large wheel. The punishment was deliberately exhausting as many thought that experiencing the pain of the treadmill would prevent inmates from committing more crimes.

I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you. (Stave Two)

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to when his fiance Belle broke off their engagement. Belle's direct speech here reveals how Scrooge has lost his former self in his pursuit of material wealth. His obsession with 'Gain' has made him a worse person. This is because his need to 'Gain' has overridden all his values and aspirations. Only when Scrooge becomes more generous in the later staves can he learn to become a better person.

They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker's. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time. (Stave Three)

Dickens describes the Cratchit family in Stave Three, as they are celebrating Christmas. Dickens begins with their meagre physical descriptions, emphasising what they lack. Yet, despite their clear poverty and struggles, Dickens shows their happiness through the four adjectives: 'happy', 'grateful', 'pleased' and 'contented'. Dickens reveals that material fortune does not equate to inner fortune. The Cratchit family are the opposite of Scrooge, whose great wealth does not bring him inner satisfaction or happiness. Through the Cratchit family, Scrooge and also the reader must learn that life is not about collecting money but it is rather about spending quality time with other human beings.

A Christmas Carol: contribution to English literature

A Christmas Carol teaches the importance of being kind and supporting other people. The lessons that Dickens teaches in the novella are equally important today as they were when it was written in 1843. This is because the moral is universal: the importance of human values of generosity and kindness; the negative repercussions of greed and selfishness.

The novel has also become a traditional Christmas tale, with multiple film and stage adaptations telling the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol has become a favourite for screen adaptions, such as The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Disney's A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey, and the BBC miniseries A Christmas Carol (2019).

A Christmas Carol - Key takeaways

  • Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843) tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a greedy and cruel old man who learns the value of kindness, generosity and caring for others.
  • The novella is divided into 5 staves, with each stave presenting a distinct section in Scrooge's positive character arc.
  • The main themes in A Christmas Carol are music, social injustice, greed, and Christmas.
  • The main characters in the novella are Scrooge, Fred, Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and the three spirits.
  • The novella has become a widely recognised Christmas tale, still influencing readers today.

Frequently Asked Questions about A Christmas Carol

While the narrative is not based on one particular story, Dickens drew from real historical events of greedy businessmen exploiting the poor, starving working class. 

Through the redemption arc of Scrooge, Dickens encouraged social justice and responsibility. 

Music, greed and happiness, social Injustice, and Christmas.

Greed should be replaced with compassion and kindness to create a better society.

Ebenezer Scrooge must face the cruel character he has become. With the help of three Christmas spirits,  he becomes a kinder, more generous man. 

Final A Christmas Carol Quiz

Question

Who wrote A Christmas Carol (1843)?

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Answer

Charles Dickens.

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When was A Christmas Carol published?

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1843.

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True or false: Edgar Scrooge is the main character of A Christmas Carol.


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Answer

False. The main character is called Ebenezer Scrooge.

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Is Ebenezer Scrooge kind and generous at the start of the novella?


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Answer

No. He is cruel and greedy. 

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What is the name of Scrooge’s clerk?


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Bob Cratchit.

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Which of the following is a main theme in A Christmas Carol?

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Answer

Social injustice.

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How many ghosts visit Scrooge in total?

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Answer

Four. Jacob Marley, The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

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What does Scrooge buy and send to the Cratchits at the end of the novella?


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A Christmas turkey.

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Which spirit visits in Stave Four?


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The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

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How does Scrooge react to the charity collectors in Stave One?


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He turns them away.

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What are the four main themes in A Christmas Carol?


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Answer

Music, greed and happiness, Christmas, and social injustice.

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What is a stave?


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A stave refers to the five parallel lines on which musical notes are written.

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Who is the unnamed dead man in Stave Four?


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Ebenezer Scrooge.

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How does Scrooge change by the end of the novella?


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At the start, he only cares about money, so he is greedy and cruel to others. In the end, he becomes kind, compassionate, and generous.

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Which spirit visits in Stave Three?


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The Ghost of Christmas Present.

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Why did Dickens unconventionally name the chapters as staves?

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Answer

Dickens suggests the text should be listened to communally like a carol.

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