A Christmas Carol is a novella by English author Charles Dickens first published by Chapman & Hall on 19 December 1843. The story tells of sour and stingy Ebenezer Scrooge’s ideological, ethical, and emotional transformation after the supernatural visits of Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The novella met with instant success and critical acclaim.
The book was written and published in early Victorian era Britain when it was experiencing a nostalgic interest in its forgotten Christmas traditions, and at the time when new customs such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards were being introduced. Dickens’ sources for the tale appear to be many and varied but are principally the humiliating experiences of his childhood, his sympathy for the poor, and various Christmas stories and fairy tales.
The tale has been viewed by critics like T.A. Jackson and Paul Benjamin Davis as an indictment of 19th-century industrial capitalism, and was adapted several times to the stage. It has been credited with restoring the holiday to one of merriment and festivity in Britain and America after a period of sobriety and sombreness. A Christmas Carol remains popular, has never been out of print, and has been adapted to film, opera, and other media.
In the middle 19th century, a nostalgic interest in pre-Cromwell Christmas traditions swept Victorian England following the publications of Davies Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1822), William B. Sandys’s Selection of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833), and Thomas K. Hervey’s The Book of Christmas (1837). That interest was further stimulated by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, who popularized the German Christmas tree in Britain after their marriage in 1841, the first Christmas card in 1843, and a revival in carol singing. Hervey’s study of Christmas customs attributed their passing to regrettable social change and the urbanization of England.
Dickens’ Carol was one of the greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England, but, while it brings to the reader images of light, joy, warmth and life, it also brings strong and unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, sadness and death. Scrooge himself is the embodiment of winter, and, just as winter is followed by spring and the renewal of life, so too is Scrooge’s cold, pinched heart restored to the innocent goodwill he had known in his childhood and youth.
Dickens divides the book into five chapters, which he labels “staves”, that is, “(song) stanzas” in keeping with the title of the book. (He uses a similar device in his next two Christmas books, titling the four divisions of The Chimes, “quarters”, after the quarter-hour tolling of clock chimes, and naming the parts of The Cricket on the Hearth “chirps”.)
The tale begins on a Christmas Eve in 1843 exactly seven years after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is established within the first stave as a greedy and stingy businessman who has no place in his life for kindness, compassion, charity or benevolence, rudely turning away two gentlemen who seek a donation from him. He hates Christmas, calling it “humbug”, and refuses his nephew Fred’s dinner invitation; his only “Christmas gift” is allowing his overworked, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off with pay (which he does only to keep with social custom, Scrooge considering it like being pickpocketed annually).
Returning home, Scrooge is visited by Marley’s ghost, who warns him to change his ways (lest he undergo the same miserable afterlife as himself). Scrooge is then visited by three additional ghosts – each in its turn, and each visit detailed in a separate stave – who accompany him to various scenes with the hope of achieving his transformation.
The first of the spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge to Christmas scenes of his boyhood and youth, which stir the old miser’s gentle and tender side by reminding him of a time when he was more innocent. They also show what made Scrooge the miser that he is, and why he dislikes Christmas.
The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to several radically differing scenes (a joy-filled market of people buying the makings of Christmas dinner, the family feast of Scrooge’s near-impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit including his youngest son, Tiny Tim, who is seriously ill but cannot receive treatment due to Scrooge’s unwillingness to pay Cratchit a decent wage, a miner’s cottage, and a lighthouse, among other sites) in order to evince from the miser a sense of responsibility for his fellow man.
The third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, harrows Scrooge with dire visions of the future if he does not learn and act upon what he has witnessed (including Tiny Tim’s death). Scrooge’s own neglected and untended grave is revealed, prompting the miser to aver that he will change his ways in hopes of changing these “shadows of what may be.”
In the fifth and final stave, Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning with joy and love in his heart, then spends the day with his nephew’s family after anonymously sending a prize turkey to the Cratchit home for Christmas dinner. Scrooge has become a different man overnight and now treats his fellow men with kindness, generosity and compassion, gaining a reputation as a man who embodies the spirit of Christmas. The story closes with the narrator confirming the validity, completeness and permanence of Scrooge’s transformation.
Sources: My knowledge of the book.