A Christmas Carol

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A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), is perhaps the best-known and best-loved Christmas story of all time. Some writers even credit the tale with changing the way nineteenth-century Britons and Americans celebrated Christmas. A Christmas Carol tells the story of a greedy, rich, Christmas-hating old man named Ebenezer Scrooge. One Christmas Eve Scrooge receives a visit from three spirits. These spirits - the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come - show him scenes from his past, present, and future. This supernatural experience transforms him into a joyous, generous soul who cherishes Christmas above all other times of year.

Life and Times of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, just outside Portsmouth, England. The second of seven children, Charles was brought up in a lower-middle-class household plagued by his father's tendency to fall into debt. In 1821 the Dickens family moved to London where the young Charles witnessed firsthand the poverty and despair of the city's slums. In 1824, Charles's father was sent to Marshalsea Prison for failure to pay off a debt. The entire family moved into the prison, except Charles who, at the age of twelve, went to work in a blacking (shoe polish) factory. Although he was not treated cruelly, the young Charles worked twelve hours a day and felt deeply shamed by his family's situation. Several months later Charles's father inherited a small sum of money, which permitted him to pay the debt and leave prison. Although Charles's mother wanted her son to continue working at the blacking factory, Charles's father insisted that he receive some kind of education. Even after he became a successful novelist, Dickens's resented his mother for her willingness to send him back to a life of drudgery.

In 1827 Charles began his adult career as a solicitor's clerk. Shortly thereafter, he mastered shorthand and became a reporter. In 1833 he began to submit sketches and stories to newspapers and magazines under his pen name, "Boz." In a few years he acquired a wide readership. By 1837 Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers, both published serially, had brought him fame and financial security. He went on to become one of Victorian England's most prolific and bestloved authors. Dickens never forgot his early brushes with poverty, however, and throughout his life he wielded both his voice and his pen against his society's harsh treatment of the poor. His works of fiction offered middle-class readers disturbing glimpses inside nineteenth-century workhouses (prison-like institutions meting out hard labor to the destitute), painted moving portraits of those confined to debtors' prisons, and sketched the often-desperate plight of the working poor.

The Writing of A Christmas Carol

In an indirect way Dickens's concern for the poor brought him the inspiration needed to write A Christmas Carol. In September of 1843, at the invitation of Miss Angela Burdett Coutts, a wealthy philanthropist and a friend of Dickens, he toured one of London's Ragged Schools. Funded by private charity, these schools sought to educate some of the city's poorest children. The visit moved him deeply. Several weeks later he traveled to Manchester to speak at a fundraising event for the Athenaeum, an organization dedicated to educating workers, where he addressed the link between poverty and ignorance. While in Manchester, the idea of transforming his impressions of the Ragged School into a work of fiction planted itself in his imagination. In October he plunged into a new story called AChristmas Carol. To be sure, financial as well as social concerns motivated Dickens to undertake this new project. Sales of his latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, were floundering. Dickens felt sure that a story like the Carol would appeal to readers at Christmas time and thus generate needed cash.

Dickens blazed through the writing of the Carol, completing the manuscript in only six weeks. The project seized hold of him, inspiring him to work from morning until late at night. He passed some of these nights striding as many as fifteen or twenty miles through the shadowy, still London streets, meditating on the story. In a letter to a friend he confessed that the work so charged his emotions, he found himself alternately laughing and weeping.

Dickens financed the publication of the slim little book himself, insisting on illustrations and a quality binding. It arrived in bookstores on December 19, 1843. Dickens complained that booksellers seemed uninterested in promoting the story. Nevertheless, the entire first printing, 6,000 copies, sold out in five days. After subtracting what it had cost him to produce the book, though, Dickens earned very little from its first printing. Still, Dickens celebrated Christmas merrily that year, exclaiming in a letter to a friend that he had rarely experienced a Christmas season so full of dining, dancing, theatergoing, party games, and good cheer. He even attended a children's party where he entertained the assembled company with magic tricks, to all appearances dumping the raw ingredients of a plum pudding into a friend's hat and pulling out the finished product.

Public Readings

By March of 1844, three months after its first printing, A ChristmasCarol was in its sixth edition. Enthusiastic letters poured in from an appreciative public. Some readers told Dickens that they kept the book on a little shelf all by itself, others that they read it aloud to their families. In 1853 Dickens himself began a series of public readings of the work that would last the rest of his life.

As the public readings became more frequent, Dickens developed them into polished performances. It took him three hours to read through A Christmas Carol as printed, so he began to edit his own little copy of the book, eliminating dialogue and description that he felt could be cut without damaging the tale. He reduced the story to two hours, added some stage directions, and memorized the entire text. The public readings thus became recitations. Just in case his memory failed him, he kept a copy of the book with him on stage.

Dickens performed his first public reading of the Carol in December of 1853 as a benefit for the Birmingham and Midland Institute. More than two thousand people attended. Charities soon besieged the author with requests that he perform a reading on their behalf. Dickens complied with some of these requests, but also began a series of public readings for which he sold tickets. These readings generated a tidy second income for the author. Dickens incorporated parts of his other works in these public readings as well. A ChristmasCarol, however, remained one of the most popular and most often requested works in his repertoire.

In 1865 Dickens performed a series of public readings in the United States. He opened in Boston with a reading of A Christmas Carol. The ticket line stretched half a mile in length on the night before the box office opened. Although the tickets sold for $2 apiece, scalpers priced tickets to the sold-out performance as high as $26 each. Many prominent American literary figures attended this reading. Dickens continued on to Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. In New York five thousand people stood in line on a bitterly cold night waiting for the chance to buy a ticket in the morning. In Washington Dickens received an invitation to meet President Andrew Johnson.

In the spring of 1870 Dickens struggled to complete a series of scheduled readings. During intermissions he staggered backstage to lie on a sofa while concerned doctors checked his vital signs. After completing the March 15 reading of A Christmas Carol, he returned to the stage for a final round of applause and announced, with tears on his face, that the audience had just witnessed his last public performance. He died three months later, on June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside the composer George Frideric Handel, another great contributor to the artistic legacy of Christmas (seealso Messiah).

The Carol as a Ghost Story

Contemporary readers tend to approach A Christmas Carol as a tale about the holiday, thus overlooking the fact that it is also a ghost story. In Dickens's day, English tradition called for the telling of ghost stories at Christmas time. Dickens conceived A ChristmasCarol as an exemplary addition to this genre. He draws our attention to the ghostly aspect of the tale in its full title, which reads AChristmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. The preface continues the ghost theme in a humorous vein: "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it." Dickens urged his readers to approach the tale as a classic English ghost story. In fact, he advised the public to read the Carol out loud, in a cold room by candlelight.

The Carol as Personal History

Dickens's Carol is more than a simple ghost story, however. It contains a clear moral message about the perils of selfishness, both for the individual and for society. Readers familiar with Dickens's consistent admiration of humility, simplicity, and familial warmth, as expressed in his many works of fiction, may be surprised to learn that in a letter to a friend Dickens admitted that he based the character of Scrooge on the worst aspects of his own personality. Perhaps because of his own childhood hardships, Dickens sometimes obsessed about the benefits of wealth and the need to make money. In addition, unlike Scrooge's clerk, the poor but noble Bob Cratchit, Dickens was neither affectionate nor attentive as a husband and father.

Dickens plucked several other elements of the Carol story out of his own life experience. The Cratchit home resembled the house that Dickens lived in when his family first moved to London. Like Scrooge, Dickens had an elder sister named Frances, whom he called Fanny. Dickens's own younger brother, known to the family as "Tiny Fred," and his nephew, a sickly, disabled boy, inspired the creation of Tiny Tim. Dickens's experience at the Ragged Schools and the Manchester Athenaeum materialized as Ignorance and Want, the two starving children who cling to the legs of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Spirit cautions Scrooge, and by extension his Victorian audience, to "Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy [Ignorance], for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

The Carol as Christmas Philosophy

In A Christmas Carol Dickens insists that the Christmas holiday offers a solution to the problems of selfishness and greed. As the story closes, the narrator assures us that Scrooge became a kind, humble, and generous person as a result of his experience with the Spirits. AChristmas Carol suggests that Christmas has the potential to awaken all our hearts and thus to transform society. Scrooge's young nephew understands the power of Christmas to renew and transform, and early in the story explains that Christmas time is

a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only 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 fellowpassengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, . . . though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that is has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Dickens himself was not an overtly religious man. Nevertheless, the Christmas philosophy outlined in A Christmas Carol promotes a secular observance of the festival in keeping with the religious spirit of the holiday. Given Dickens's indifference towards religion, it is somewhat ironic that this approach to the holiday helped to heal the centuries-old breach between those religious sects that celebrated Christmas and those that condemned it (see America, Christmas in Colonial; Puritans). In its day, however, some critics condemned the Carol for purporting to discuss the subject of Christmas with few references to the birth of Jesus. This omission may well reflect Dickens's dislike of the Church, which he found sadly out of touch with the social problems of his day.

Other Christmas Works

Although A Christmas Carol became Dickens's best-known treatise on the subject of Christmas, the holiday figures prominently in other writings as well. He wrote a number of short stories concerning Christmas, including "The Chimes," "The Cricket on the Hearth," "The Battle of Life," "The Haunted Man," "The Holly Tree," "The Seven Poor Travellers," "The Poor Relation's Story," and "The Haunted House." In addition, The Pickwick Papers contains a delightful depiction of Christmas festivities at a large house in the country. American author Washington Irving's (1783-1859) earlier depiction of Christmas celebrations in an English manor house may well have inspired this passage. Indeed, regarding his love of Irving's books, Dickens once confessed, "I don't go upstairs two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm." The PickwickPapers also contains the story of a grumpy, old sexton (church custodian) visited by ghosts on Christmas Eve. Dickens expanded and improved upon this plot idea in A Christmas Carol.

Dickens's portrayal of Christmas as a season of good cheer among family and friends and good will towards the less fortunate came to represent the ideal version of the holiday for many nineteenth-century Britons and Americans (see also America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century; Victorian England, Christmas in). These ideals still color contemporary Christmas celebrations, perhaps explaining the Carol's enduring popularity. Indeed, public readings, stage adaptations, and screen versions of this classic Christmas tale continue to delight audiences each year at Christmas time.

Further Reading

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens, A to Z. New York: Facts on File, 1998. Dickens, Charles. The Christmas Books. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1960. Hallinan, Tim. A Christmas Carol Christmas Book. New York: International Business Machines Corporation, 1984. MacKenzie, Norman, and Jeanne MacKenzie. Dickens, A Life. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Priestly, J. B. Charles Dickens and His World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961. Sammon, Paul. The Christmas Carol Trivia Book. New York: Citadel Press, 1994. Stapleton, Michael, comp. The Cambridge Guide to English Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the Dickens Project at the University of California contains information about A Christmas Carol: dickens/dea/ACC/ACC.index.html
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