Essentially an allegory of Christmas, Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol, is based around the central values associated with Christmas – love, compassion and mercy. Set in Victorian England, during a period of intense change owing to the Industrial Revolution, the novella dramatizes the increasing isolation of those who selfishly guard their prosperity. Through the characterisation of Ebenezer Scrooge who becomes synonymous with miserliness, Dickens shows, often humorously and mostly caustically, that such people are emotionally and spiritually impoverished. According to Dickens, their lack of a social conscience contributes to their isolation and becomes a source of regret to those who search for meaning in life.
By presenting his story as a modern-day fairytale, Dickens entertains and enthralls readers with his own unique Christmas message that has survived throughout the ages. Using the three Christmas spirits and the ghost of Marley and associated emotive tactics such as fear, shame and regret, Scrooge is encouraged to reconsider his values in life.
The dramatization of Scrooge’s awakening to his misery breathes life into the common expression ‘what goes around comes around’. He gradually learns first-hand of the ‘even-handed’ justice in the world, through the horror-stricken story of his business partner, Marley. Specifically, the presence of Marley’s ghost not only frightens Scrooge, but makes him aware that he too faces a similar fate should he not change his ways. Marley warns Scrooge about ‘wearing the chains he forged in life’— the chain that is devoid of love and happiness. The chains metaphorically represent the hardened soul and the “shut-up heart”. Such emotional disengagement is also reflected in Scrooge’s prison-like abode and bleak and melancholic surroundings. The chains also depict through absence the notion of care and concern that Dickens so constantly prioritises throughout the novella. The visitation causes Scrooge to tremble; he clings tightly to his chair; he falls “in a swoon”. He is gripped by a sense of anxiety and “quakes exceedingly” when the phantom takes off the bandage on his jaw. When Marley prods, “is it’s pattern strange to you”, Scrooge cannot ignore the implications. He, too, seems to have a similar knack of turning everything into a business opportunity. Marley reminds Scrooge of the “incessant torture of remorse”, that arises when unable to help another.
Although Scrooge is alarmed, he is also shamed through the constant comparisons to the more generous — in size and in spirit— figure of Fezziwig. Throughout the novella, Dickens criticises the attitude of wealthy industrialists like Scrooge who showed a heartless attitude to the poor.
Dickens depicts Scrooge as a well-to-do industrialist whose miserly and ruthless attitude towards the poor and his fellow workers is presented as shameful and self-defeating. Typically and expediently, Scrooge reflects the Malthusian attitude that population will be determined by economic conditions. Such a theory claims that the principle of natural selection will lead to a natural decrease in the population. Accordingly, his catchcry “if they would rather die … they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” provides industrialists like Scrooge with a convenient excuse to do nothing. Such a heartless attitude is also captured in his response to Christmas, “bah humbug”.
The Ghost of Christmas Past transports Scrooge to moments in his past that he would rather forget. The lonely school boy reminds him of an acute sense of loneliness and the rejection by Father who becomes “kinder than he used to be”, while the encounter with Dick Wilkins the “fellow ‘prentice” reawakens his memories of Fezziwig, who, with his “capacious waistcoat and “rich, fat, jovial voice” lights up Christmas.
Scrooge’s socially irresponsible attitude towards Bob Cratchit is compared with Fezziwig’s treatment of his staff to reinforce Scrooge’s heartlessness. For example, Scrooge begrudges his clerk the day off for Christmas which he believes is just an excuse for the workers to “pick-pocket” their employers. Scrooge sees his old self at Fezziwig’s Christmas party and again learns another lesson that money does not make people merry and joyful. Contrastingly, the Ghost of Christmas Past shows the finer side of Fezziwig who makes his employees happy: “A small matter to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.” The setting also reflects the character’s sensitivities and attitudes to their workers. Scrooge’s counting house is barren and cold; the fog came “pouring in at every chink and keyhole”. The door was open and the fire was small; the clerk’s fire was even smaller. Contrastingly, Fezziwig’s warehouse is transformed into a place of celebration in order to enjoy Christmas. The “warehouse was as snug and warm and dry and bright as a ball room”. The ghost encourages Scrooge to listen to the employees who are “pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig”.
When he is confronted by the two symbolic figures of “Ignorance and Want”, Scrooge becomes shamed for his former attitude that treated the victims as if they were guilty of the “crime” of poverty. The symbolic figures of “Ignorance” and “Want” presented as capitalised abstract concepts personify the plight of those who are suffer the consequences of poverty through no fault of their own. The Spirit points out to Scrooge that he should be especially wary of the boy because the word “Doom” is written on his forehead. An imminent death is likely unless the “writing be erased” which Dickens suggests can only occur if the boy is rescued from his perpetual state of “ignorance” through lack of education. The writer paints a picture of extreme devastation through his typical string of adjectives: the boy is “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish” suggesting that poverty has transformed his character. Antithesis further emphasises their deprivation: “Where graceful youth should have filled their features out … a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them .. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked”. Whilst Scrooge instinctively seeks to excuse them as “fine children”, his shock and horror prevent him.
Evidently, the first-hand experience with Tiny Tim leaves an emotional mark. Tiny Tim is malnourished and according to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he will die. Later, when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present watch the Cratchit family at their meal, the Ghost reminds Scrooge of his earlier Malthusian remark that by dying the poor will help to reduce the surplus population. Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with grief. “Man,” said the Ghost, `if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is.”
Through Scrooge’s gradual redemption from miser to philanthropist, Dickens highlights the fact that money and material wealth do not necessarily guarantee happiness. Rather it is those who express care and compassion towards others who gain the most happiness and fulfilment in life. The description of the Ghost of Christmas Past is enthralling because of its combination of child-like and “old man” features and the wonder of its many transformations from one to 20 legs and then a “pair of legs without a head”. But once again, the ghost focuses our attention on the degree to which an emphasis exclusively on material wealth dooms a person to unhappiness and a life of regret and missed opportunities. As his former fiancé tells him a “golden one (Idol)” has replaced her. He is engrossed by “Gain” and his nobler passions have disappeared. He also witnesses Belle’s happy brood and notices that he is excluded from the incredible warmth radiating from the fire because of his selfish attachment to the “golden idol”.
Typically, Dickens uses fire and food as symbols of warmth and hospitality from which Scrooge is excluded. Feasts, even if they are meager, symbolize the appreciation and joy of Christmas. Although Scrooge is certainly wealthy, his ‘gruel dinner’ is unappetising compared with the ‘great, round, round pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts’ which were present in the local shops. As food becomes a symbol of hospitality and charity, it is not surprising that the Christmas feast becomes a focal point of happiness and warmth in the Cratchit family. They are very poor, they are sensitive and protect each other’s feelings (“nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family”) and show their “universal admiration” for the meal that is “eked out by the apple-sauce and mashed potatoes”. (81) Irrespective of Scrooge’s rebuffs, his nephew, Fred, is always cheerfully inviting Scrooge to share Christmas with him.
The memory of the past awakens Scrooge to a time when he had known gentler and warmer ties. He comes to recognize the extent of his exclusion from all kindness and affection and the tears that he dries with his cuff (“but it’s too late now”) when he witnessed the rejected, lonely schoolboy, signal his emotional awakening. His encounter with Belle, Fan and his nephew, Fred, make him realise that we can influence our legacy by charitable deeds.
Recognising the error of his ways, and the degree to which he has, and would continue, to suffer from his callous self-centredness, Scrooge thaws and exults in his change. Once of his first acts is to give the portly gentleman, whom he had earlier rebuffed with his Malthusian sneer, a charitable donation. Scrooge presents the Cratchits with a turkey. It is “twice the size of Tiny Tim” but most importantly “he shan’t know who sends it”. Scrooge does not expect anything in return, which Dickens suggests is the mark of a socially responsible, compassionate person. Evidently, giving is more important than receiving and the gift is one of profound pleasure to Scrooge. He repeats the word “chuckle” to reinforce the fact that he gladly paid for a cab, for the boy and for the “extra-large Turkey”. Dickens notes, “and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless.” He is keen to share his change of heart with his nephew (“I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred”). He promises, very cheerily, to raise Bob’s salary and to assist “your struggling family”. “And we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit.” Dickens uses the fire as a symbol of warmth throughout the text. “His own heart laughed”.
For once, Scrooge has found some meaning to life and does not care who mocks him.
By Dr Jennifer Minter, Christmas Carol, www.englishworks.com.au