The first of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Books, A Christmas Carol in Prose; Being a Ghost Story of Christmas is a fairy-tale-like ghost story that has contributed much to the formation of the Christmas story as a genre. Written in October and November 1843, it was specifically produced for the Christmas season, which began to be transformed into and was increasingly commercialized as a family celebration during the mid-Victorian era. A Christmas Carol was followed by The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848).
The story recounts the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge’s spiritual transformation through four ghostly visitations. “[A] squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner . . . secret, and selfcontained, and solitary as an oyster,” he is “an excellent man of business on the very day of [his partner’s] funeral,” which he “solemnised . . . with an undoubted bargain” (7–8). As the opening thus assures the reader of Jacob Marley’s death seven years earlier, it moreover emphasizes Scrooge’s spiritual death-in-life. Scrooge then ridicules his nephew’s seasonal greetings, begrudges his clerk his half-holiday, and repulses charitable organizations, which he regards as interference with the natural “decrease [of] the surplus population” (12). He has little patience with the trappings or the spirit of Christmas: “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” (10).
At home in his “gloomy suite of rooms” (14), he finds them haunted, as the knocker is transformed into Marley’s face. Scrooge soon hears an ominous clinking of chains, and Marley’s ghost appears through the door, dragging, like a tail, a chain made of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel” (17). The ghost’s gothic paraphernalia have been updated to suit the Victorian businessman. Marley has come to warn Scrooge that his dead partner’s fate might become his own, yet he promises hope of escape. Scrooge is to be haunted by three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The first ghost takes Scrooge on a journey back in time, which reflects the Victorians’ growing fascination with time travel. Scrooge sees “his poor forgotten self as he used to be” (27) at school and then working at a warehouse, increasingly eaten up by “the master-passion, Gain” (34). Vicariously reliving the past, he weeps over his childhood self, remembers his nephew as he sees his now-dead sister, and compares the joyful family Christmas of his old love with his own loneliness.
His sympathy with humankind reawakened, he welcomes the Ghost of Christmas Present to teach him another “lesson” (40). He is led to see the festive joy in the suburban dwelling of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, overshadowed by Tiny Tim’s declining health, and with horror, he notices two wretched children, Ignorance and Want, the outgrowths of human indifference, attached to the ghost. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come proceeds to show him his own death, his corpse “plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for” (64). As Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, he rejoices in a new “glorious” day (72). Feeling reborn, he goes forth to send a prize turkey to the Cratchits, donates money, and becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” (76).
As its full title, A Christmas Carol in Prose; Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, promises, the story experiments with different genres (Miller, passim). The preface announces it as a “Ghostly little book” aimed to “raise the Ghost of an Idea” to “haunt [the readers’] houses pleasantly.” While Ebenezer Scrooge is clearly meant to be frightened into compliance with the spirit of Christmas, the description of his encounters with the ghosts remains intently humorous, at times verging on the comical. Thus, when alerted to the “ponderous chain” that will fetter him after his death, “Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable” (19). Haunted by the ghost of his former bunsiness partner Jacob Marley, he likewise attempts to exorcise the vision by blaming it on a “disorder of the stomach”: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” (18). Yet his jokes, as his reliance on a commonsense rejection of the supernatural, quickly wear thin. If Scrooge dismissed the Christmas spirit with his famous exclamation, “Bah! [. . .] Humbug!” (9), in the opening chapter, after the first visitation, he “tried to say ’Humbug!’ but stopped at the first syllable” (22).
The story’s popularity has rested as much in the brilliant simplicity of the tale as in its evocation of 19th-century London and Victorian Christmas festivities. Peter Ackroyd speaks of “the poor, the ignorant, the diseased, the wretched” beyond the hearth, who induce us to “enjoy the flames of the Christmas fire more because of the very shadows which it casts” (414). Yet its themes have also been seen as peculiarly modern and ultimately contemporary. The 1988 film Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, recast Dickens’s tight-fisted businessman as a successful yuppie; a 2000 film version more directly turned him into a loan shark. The countless adaptations also include a Disney production in 1983, with Scrooge McDuck appropriately playing Scrooge; The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992); and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988), evincing the extent to which Scrooge’s story (Davis, passim) has entered popular culture.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990. Collins, Philip. “The Reception and Status of the Carol,” Dickensian 89 (1993): 170–172.
Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books. Edited by Eleanor Farjeon. 1954. Reprint, London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Miller, J. Hillis. “The Genres of A Christmas Carol,” Dickensian 89 (1993): 193–206.