It’s one of the most famous stories in the English-speaking world, and it is a fantasy. A Gothic fantasy of Christmas, and the meaning thereof: the story of the miser and the three spirits. It’s been retold any number of times, parodied, set in America, updated to the modern day, acted out with mice and ducks, with frogs and pigs. It’s easy to overlook how powerful the original work really is.
For myself, I cannot remember how old I was when I first encountered some version of A Christmas Carol. Very young, and possibly pre-literate. The story’s often presented, I think, as a children’s story; but as I read it now, it seems far from that. Indeed it seems like a story that can only be understood with age. When I was a child I didn’t believe in Scrooge’s conversion, and didn’t see how simply revisiting his past could start such a change in his personality. Now that I’ve lived long enough to have distant memories of my own, I understand it. And rereading the story now, I see that while it’s true Dickens was unashamed of being sentimental and broad, he was also in many ways very subtle in the way he described Scrooge. To me, now, Scrooge and the change in his character seem only one reflection of the book’s central theme and of its vision: a vision of the human soul, both alone and as part of society.
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. He was thirty-one, and already famous. Made to work as a child in a blacking-warehouse while his father was imprisoned for debt, the adult Dickens had a fierce drive to succeed, and a horror of the developing industrial capitalism around him; he worked as a journalist and editor, then had a massive popular success with the serially-published The Pickwick Papers. Oliver Twist followed, then Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, and A Christmas Carol. On the one hand, that’s already an incredible body of work. On the other, Dickens was a very young man to so powerfully capture the elderly Scrooge. But capture Scrooge he did; if A Christmas Carol works — and given that it hasn’t been out of print in a hundred and seventy years, we can say it does — it’s because Dickens gets at something in memory, and in how people age.
When I was a child, and I suspect for some of the adapters of the tale, the Carol was a story of a man made sad and then scared straight. If that were true, the story’d be nonsense. You can’t be frightened into being a good person, much less be frightened into celebrating Christmas. In fact all the fear in the book comes at the beginning. Scrooge himself is set up as fearsome, yes, but then he is terrified by the spectral visitation of dead Jacob Marley. What then follows is much more complicated, and surely one of the wonderful things about the book is its virtuoso play with tone and register, following fear with joy, joy with melancholy, melancholy with humour (for this is a very funny book), and on through to the ecstatic, feverish end. It’s tempting to see Scrooge as a fierce man broken by the events of the story. But if he is broken, it’s only to be rebuilt; he is as fierce in his joy as he was in his miserliness.
Structurally, it’s Dantesque: a man is led by supernatural guides through three distinct realms, as a guide to his future behaviour. That’s almost surprising, in that the story’s otherwise fairly secular. There is religious matter in the book, but it is on the whole, if not subtle, at least indirect. And used perhaps unexpectedly. As I read the book, Dickens was writing about Christmas not as a specifically religious festival but as a kind of social holiday, a uniting of the people.
Scrooge the miser sets himself apart from the people. A convinced capitalist, he refuses to acknowledge any fellow-feeling. He’ll have nothing to do with family, give nothing to charity. This, Dickens implies, is the way of life that creates class divisions, that builds workhouses, that sends children like Tim to an early grave. The burden of the book is to show how inhuman Scrooge’s attitude is; how it’s a refusal of himself as well a pain to others. It’s a story about how common human ties cannot be refused.
It begins, after telling us that Marley was dead as a door-nail, with a discussion about the sense of that proverb: “the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.” Right at the start there is an image of tradition, of lore handed down from the distant past — and, by implication, one of the tale’s few images of the sacred, as ‘unhallowed’ hands cannot disturb the phrase. As the story goes on we see Christmas traditions, foods and games and greenery (and though church services are mentioned, no direct description of worship); those traditions unite the people into a society, as in the image of London at Christmas that the Ghost of Christmas Present first shows Scrooge. It is an image opposed to the selfishness and meanness of Scrooge and the other capitalists in the tale.
Scrooge himself is described with remarkable power, as the incarnation of winter:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
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, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.
He’s like a harsher version of C.S. Lewis’ Jadis, always winter and never Christmas. He’s cut himself off from his fellow-man, being “self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” but principally he is in everything cold. The first thing he actually does in the story is prevent his clerk from throwing a coal on the fire. By contrast, when he’s visited by his nephew, whose name we will eventually learn is Fred, we see that Fred glows and his breath smokes. Scrooge is darkness and cold, as imaged by a fog which falls over the city that night; Fred and the other festive spirits in the book are associated with fire, warmth, and light.
I note that ‘Ebenezer’ is an Old Testament name, a battlefield where the Israelites lost the Ark of the Covenant to the Philistines, and then later won another battle and raised a monument. ‘Ebenezer,’ or ‘stone of help,’ literally the monument raised on the battlefield, was used in an eighteenth-century hymn, and thus became a rare first name into the nineteenth century. It’s an interesting set of associations. Scrooge’s happy past is lost, like the Ark; but he comes to win his life back.
At any rate, Scrooge rejects his nephew’s overture of friendship and defence of Christmas “as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Then he rejects the appeals of the men collecting for charity, telling them “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.” Immediately after which, the weather takes a turn and among other things we are told:
The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers’ and grocers’ trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do.
So again solitariness is equated with misanthropy. Shops are bright and warm specifically insofar as they seem to have nothing to do with “such dull principles as bargain and sale.” More: opposed to bargain and sale, they’re the scene of a “glorious pageant.” So pageantry, drama, spectacle, storytelling, is opposed to capitalism. It’s worth remembering at this point that practically the first thing the Spirit of Christmas Past shows Scrooge is Scrooge’s childhood self conjuring up images from the Arabian Nights (which powerfully affected Dickens himself in childhood) and other romances. And worth remembering too that the story proper of the Carol, once the introductory paragraphs about Marley and Scrooge were done, begins “Once upon a time”. The Carol is consciously a told story; the narrator makes himself obvious, and is in a literal sense a fifth spirit in the book — for at the start of the second Stave, the narrator tells us “I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.” After all, the Carol, being a Christmas tale, is in the tradition of a winter’s tale.
Scrooge returns home to encounter Marley’s ghost, who tells him that as his soul never left the counting-house in life, now he must wander the world, seeing evil and wishing to do good but unable. It’s a fascinating inversion of the typical idea of Hell: the evil spirit at death realises the good it could have done, and mourns for it, and is punished by seeing wrongdoing elsewhere in the world. Scrooge himself is about to see both good and bad, and be unable to directly affect either. Marley’s further punished by wearing chains, but these aren’t typical iron fetters, being made “of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” It’s a chain of pure capitalism; and it represents what Scrooge must cast off. As we see in the next chapter, happiness, the happiness of the kind master Fezziwig at the Christmas festivities he hosts, is beyond price. Scrooge makes the point himself: “Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
This is an interesting point about Scrooge; he doesn’t change all at once near the end of his story, but changes almost at once near the start. The mere sight of his past acts on him like Proust’s madeleines: it all rushes back upon him. This is what I couldn’t understand as a child — how a man could be so distanced from his own memories. But when you have the experience of aging, of having the early days of your life recede from you unnoticed, you come to understand how powerful this scene is. By cutting himself off from the world, he’s also cut himself off from his own past: he has no children to whom he might retell tales of his youth, and even if he were to have had grand-nephews or grand-nieces he would not have been stirred by them. But here, made to experience again what he once knew, Scrooge is clearly affected at once, drawn back into his childhood of reading Romances. Intriguingly, Dickens hints at problems in Scrooge’s family; he and his sister love each other, but there seems to have been some quarrel between Scrooge and his father, who is never shown. Instead Fezziwig, Scrooge’s master, stands as his paternal figure.
Then we see Scrooge rejected by the woman he loved. We may remember from the scene with his nephew that Scrooge has no use for love; when his nephew says he married simply “Because I fell in love,” Scrooge repeats the words “as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas.” Here we see why. He has grown away from his love, who sorrowfully breaks off their engagement, stating that Scrooge has fallen in love with another, a “golden idol.” It’s one of the few direct Biblical references in the book, and correspondingly powerful, uniting the image of money-worship with sheer idolatry. This scene is followed with a scene from several years later, of this woman’s eventual husband mentioning that he saw Scrooge on the night Marley was dying. It’s a masterful storytelling choice, contrasting the life of the children-filled household with the solitary life (and death) Scrooge chose for himself — and so anticipating what the future Scrooge will see.
The five visions of the past Scrooge saw were fairly distinct, and each clearly affected him in slightly different ways emotionally. The images of the present have a greater tendency to blur into each other, and Scrooge himself is much less, as it were, present. The book is in general a corrective to the wrong-headed idea that a story’s protagonist must be constantly involved in the action, but in this part in particular Scrooge is hardly mentioned until the Spirit brings him to his nephew’s home. At which point his nephew’s wife plays a song once known to Scrooge’s own sister, and Scrooge is deeply moved; the past in the present, tradition recurring. It is also at this point, incidentally, that we get Scrooge’s nephew’s name, as though Scrooge couldn’t bring himself to name the man during their earlier scene; but here, surrounded by warmth and family, he gets to be called ‘Fred.’ At any rate Scrooge himself wants to take part in the festivity, and (inaudibly and insubstantially) takes place in the guessing-games. It’s a mark of how far he’s already changed that he laughs when he’s made the butt of a joke. You can’t imagine the Scrooge of the start of the story reacting the same way.
It’s worth noting here, perhaps, that time is handled in very strange ways in the story. The Spirits of Past and Present are to visit Scrooge on successive nights at 1 AM, then the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come will arrive at midnight. In fact, Present follows right on Past, as Scrooge sleeps to wake at 1. Then midnight strikes during the vision of Present, and Scrooge is given at once to Yet To Come. It’s also notable that Present seems to show scrooge the present of all the twelve days of Christmas — the twelve days starting on Christmas Day, and ending on Twelfth Night. Scrooge wonders if it’s all fitting into one night, but then sees “a children’s Twelfth Night party,” suggesting the answer is no. At any rate, it’s just after seeing the party that the Spirit announces he will die at midnight, and shows Scrooge two devilish children, Ignorance and Want.
It’s an odd and atypical use of allegory, but the point is made. Ignorance and Want are the opposite of the Christmas Spirits — where the Spirits (at least Past and Present) look like old men given eternal youth, Ignorance and Want are children prematurely aged. And they only appear as Christmas ends, as Christmas Present fades away. The world of prisons and workhouses reasserts itself, shifting tone and register to prepare us for Christmas Yet To Come.
Here in the future Scrooge must again take a more active role, as his guide doesn’t talk. There’s something fearsome in this spirit, though one of the few descriptors applied to him notes his “kind hand.” The future he has to show Scrooge is necessarily bleak: what will happen if Scrooge doesn’t mend his ways. It goes past tragedy into bitter irony. The great miser who sat on his wealth ends with his bed-clothes and shirt stolen by unscrupulous, hard-hearted servants. He has taught them well; they’re paying him in his own kind, the lack of any sense of human attachment. Capitalism, the need for money, has led the sexton to steal his grave goods as well. So two servants and the sexton meet at a pawnbroker’s shop in a grim parody of good cheer; and, as this is a parody of heartwarming Christmas scenes, it’s worth remembering that the patron of pawnbrokers is Saint Nicholas.
This is what too great a consciousness of money leads to: a society fractured along class lines, rather than united as the Spirit of Christmas Present showed us. But it’s not as though the upper classes are any less brutalised than the lower. Scrooge’s peers mock him at his death, or are entirely unaffected, mentioning his death with as little concern as they talk about the weather. And along with Scrooge, Tiny Tim is dead; he’s a kind of counterpoint to Scrooge here, a sort of Christ-figure ignored by society. It’s no surprise that Tim doesn’t die when Scrooge changes his heart: if you celebrate Christmas, you’re celebrating the living Christ, the infant Christ, not the Christ of the cross.
So Scrooge is returned to reality, on what turns out to be Christmas Day after all, a kind of eternal ongoing Christmas. Now Scrooge is no figure of darkness; he is “glowing,” his laughs are “brilliant.” It’s still cold out, but this is “clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to”. It’s cold redeemed, as it were, by the joy of the season. And Scrooge himself? He seems to be in shock, after his vision of the future. He’s weeping, and shouting, and manic. But that subsides — and the change in him does not go away. He’s gained an increased ability to feel joy. He can laugh with Bob Cratchit. He’s more human, and able to enjoy the society of others: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” And more than that, he’s still able to accept himself as a figure of fun:
Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.
So Scrooge’s redemption mirrors the redemption of society. He becomes open to others as society rejects greed and capitalism in favour of organic unity and joy. The memories that return Scrooge to himself are the equivalent of traditions — Christmas traditions, storytelling traditions, Christmas stories — that are the framework for society. They are how the people remember, not who they are, but how they feel, and what they feel for each other. And, as it turned out, Dickens’ own attempt to make that point became itself the touchstone for future traditions: for it has surely become one of the most traditional tales of Christmas.
To end it, then, to conclude this wild fantasy of ghosts and time travel, there can be but one inevitable benediction. A reminder that we’re all in it together, a good-hearted wish for the whole of the world. It’s simple, spoken simply by a simple child; but what else is to be said? What other closing words could the tale have?
And so, and so, there is only this:
“God bless Us Every One!”
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.