Summary of A Christmas Carol

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A Christmas Carol book summary

Literary Classic

  • Parable
  • Victorian literature

What It’s About

Haunting Holiday Cheer

Many people think they know Charles Dickens’s classic tale of a bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who, thanks to a series of ghostly encounters, learns to embrace the spirit of Christmas. But while the story of Scrooge’s redemption has been retold countless times over the years, A Christmas Carol retains its ability to surprise and provoke. It’s not just that Dickens shaped popular notions of the celebration of Christmas – though his narrative certainly left its mark on the holiday. The novella’s definition of the “spirit” of the season as a blend of earthly pleasures and selfless benevolence offers a heartwarming picture of how kindness and care for others can save an individual soul and, at the same time, a haunting warning. Alternately comical, sentimental and horrifying, Dickens’s creation entertains without shying away from its larger message about the dangers – both personal and societal – of ignoring Want and Ignorance and otherwise eschewing responsibility for those in need.

Take-Aways

  • Dickens’s Christmas fairytale offers a message of hope and redemption.
  • Rich miser Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas and all it entails. On Christmas Eve, spirits appear and take Scrooge to see poignant scenes from his past, joyful holiday celebrations in the present, and horrifying future events. In response, Scrooge changes his life to embody the holiday spirit all year round. 
  • Each of the novella’s sections focuses on a specific step in Scrooge’s spiritual transformation. 
  • Scrooge’s reformation shows how people can save themselves by helping others.
  • A Christmas Carol paints the holiday as a time to celebrate earthly pleasures and to give, joyfully, to those in need.
  • Dickens aimed to open readers’ hearts toward the poor and serve as a stern warning of the consequences of ignoring the lower classes.
  • A Christmas Carol helped shape modern holiday traditions and crystalized Western understandings of the “spirit” of the season.  
  • Scrooge’s views in society reflect economist Thomas Robert Malthus’s arguments that the poor deserve their lot in life.
  • Writer William Makepeace Thackeray described the story as “a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.”
  • “God bless us, every one!”

Summary

Scrooge and Marley

On a dark and dreary Christmas Eve, a hard-hearted, solitary, old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge sits working in his counting house. Though the name over the accounting firm’s door reads, “Scrooge and Marley,” Jacob Marley is long dead. The weather outside is bitterly cold, and inside, is little better. Suddenly, the door opens, and Scrooge’s cheerful young nephew, Fred, enters and wishes his uncle a Merry Christmas. Christmas, Scrooge retorts, is a “humbug.” He asks Fred what he has to be so happy about; after all, he’s not rich. Well, if wealth is the determinant of happiness, Fred replies, what cause has Scrooge to be so glum? Celebrating Christmas, Fred continues, may not make people rich, but it is worthwhile. It reminds people of Christ’s birth and encourages charity, forgiveness and consideration of others. At these words, Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, breaks into spontaneous applause. Scrooge tells Bob if he makes another sound, he’ll be out of a job, and Bob quickly returns to work.

Fred invites Scrooge to spend Christmas Day with him and his wife. When Scrooge declines, Fred wishes his uncle, and Bob, a Merry Christmas again, and leaves. Hearing the clerk reply in kind, Scrooge muses on the man’s stupidity: Like Fred, Bob makes little money, and has a wife and children to support — yet he speaks of a Merry Christmas! Scrooge’s ill-feelings intensify as two men enter his establishment seeking donations for the poor. Scrooge scoffs at the idea. After all, he says, aren’t there plenty of debtors’ prisons and workhouses for the destitute to go to? When the men protest that such places do nothing to bring joy during the holiday season, Scrooge orders the men to leave. He adds that if the poor would rather perish than go to the workhouse, then good! Their deaths will solve the problem of overpopulation.

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”

The darkness and cold worsen as the day continues. A boy stops at Scrooge’s door to sing a Christmas carol and Scrooge threatens to beat him with a ruler. At last, the end of the workday comes. As Bob puts on his scarf and hat, Scrooge complains how unfair it is that he has to pay Bob on Christmas Day, even though the clerk won’t be working. He warns Bob that he’d better appear at work early on the morning of the 26th, then lets him leave.

Scrooge eats his dinner alone at a tavern and then walks back to his melancholy, broken-down home. As Scrooge goes to open his door, he notices something strange: The ghostly face of Marley appears on the door knocker. Scrooge is startled, but quickly brushes the moment aside. Once in his rooms, Scrooge locks his door securely and sits down by the fire with some gruel. As he sits, he again fancies he sees Marley’s face, this time in the fireplace tiles. Suddenly, bells begin to ring. When they cease, Scrooge hears someone climbing the stairs, dragging what sounds like a thick chain. He tries to convince himself he is imagining things, but then, a figure walks through the door and into the room. It’s Marley’s ghost!

Marley looks the same in death as he did in life. Still, Scrooge refuses to believe his eyes. The ghost, he reasons aloud, is probably just a hallucination brought on by indigestion. Marley’s ghost gives a shout which brings Scrooge to his knees. Okay, Scrooge admits, the ghost is real. He asks Marley what he wants. Marley replies that he is doomed to wander the earth because of his sins. The chain he wears — comprised of cash boxes, accounting books and deeds — is the one he wrought during his life. Scrooge protests that Marley was a good businessman. Marley retorts that the interests of mankind, not the accounting trade, were his true business — and that, he neglected. He tells Scrooge he has come to try to save his former partner from sharing this terrible fate. Three spirits will visit Scrooge over the next three nights. They’re Scrooge’s only hope. Marley’s ghost floats out of the window joining legions of other phantoms. Slowly, the vision fades, and Scrooge, exhausted, climbs into bed and falls instantly asleep.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Scrooge awakens and hears the clock strike midnight. Knowing that he fell asleep after 2 a.m., he becomes confused: Is it possible he’s been asleep for a full day? He suddenly remembers something: Marley said the first ghost would visit at 1 a.m. Scrooge lays awake until the appointed hour. As the clock strikes one, a light appears in his room. A hand pulls the curtains that hang around his bed aside, and Scrooge finds himself face to face with a strange being. The figure looks at once like a child and an old man; its hair is white, but its face is unlined. It has muscular arms and hands, but dainty legs and feet, and its form is constantly shifting. The creature is cloaked in white, and a stream of light springs from the top of its head. In its hand, it holds a cap that looks like a candle-extinguisher.

Scrooge asks the figure if it is the spirit Marley promised. It replies in the affirmative and introduces itself as the Ghost of Christmas Past – specifically, Scrooge’s past. The ghost commands Scrooge come with him. They leave Scrooge’s rooms and reappear on a country road. Scrooge recognizes the place instantly: It’s where he grew up. A rush of memories fills Scrooge’s thoughts and he begins to weep a little. As they walk, Scrooge recognizes landmarks and boys he once knew shouting Merry Christmas to one another. At last, they come to Scrooge’s school: a dismal, old place. Inside the school, they see a young Ebenezer Scrooge, left all alone on the holiday. Scrooge recalls the boy who came to his door yesterday and finds himself wishing he had offered the child some kindness.

“‘I wish,’ Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: ‘but it’s too late now.’”

Scrooge and the ghost travel a bit further into the future. The school looks even more grim; the boy appears older. He is still alone until suddenly the door opens and a girl appears. She rushes to Scrooge, kisses him, and tells him she has come to bring him home for Christmas and that he won’t have to return to the school afterward either. The girl is his sister, Fan. Scrooge tells the ghost that Fan died as a young woman, leaving a child behind: his nephew, Fred.

They leave the school and travel to the place where Scrooge learned his trade. Inside, they see his old master, Fezziwig. They watch as the young Ebenezer and his fellow apprentice, Dick, prepare the warehouse for a Christmas party. Soon the guests begin arriving. Some are Fezziwig’s employees, others are working-class people from the neighborhood: servants and cooks; the baker and the milkman. Everyone dances and enjoys themselves, and, at the end of the night, Fezziwig and his wife wish everyone a Merry Christmas. The elderly Scrooge and the ghost listen as Ebenezer and Dick praise Fezziwig’s generosity. The ghost questions the worthiness of their feelings; after all, it’s not like Fezziwig spent much money on the evening. Scrooge protests: They don’t love Fezziwig because of the money he spent; they love him because he is a kind employer who does all he can to make his underlings’ lives pleasant rather than burdensome. Suddenly realizing what he is saying, Scrooge wishes he had the chance to say a few words to his own employee, Bob Cratchit.

The ghost takes Scrooge to another scene from his past. Ebenezer is still relatively young, but something in his demeanor gives a hint as to the greedy old man he will one day become. He is speaking to a beautiful woman, Belle. She tells him that he no longer loves her: His only real desire, now, is for making money. Belle realizes that Ebenezer would never pick her – a penniless girl – as his bride if he had a choice today and releases him from his obligation to marry her. When Ebenezer fails to protest, Belle tells him that she wishes him happiness in his chosen life path.

“You may – the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will – have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!” (Belle to a young Scrooge)

Scrooge is shown one final scene: He sees his ex-fiancée sitting with her daughter as other young children play nearby. A man enters and passes out Christmas presents to his progeny. Scrooge thinks about how, if he had chosen otherwise, he himself might have enjoyed that life: sitting with his wife and children around the fire. He listens as the man tells Belle he saw her old friend Ebenezer that day, and comments how alone he seems. Scrooge begs the ghost to take him away, and, in his desperation, grabs the ghost’s extinguisher-like cap and pushes it onto the apparition’s head. The figure disappears, but its light continues to burn. Suddenly back in his rooms, Scrooge tumbles onto his bed and falls into a deep sleep.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Scrooge awakens once more. As the clock strikes one, he sees a light coming from the next room. Scrooge climbs out of bed to investigate, and finds the adjoining room transformed into a Christmas wonderland. Seated on a throne comprised of holiday foods is another spirit: the Ghost of Christmas Present. This ghost is a large, bare-chested, cheery figure, cloaked in green. His hair is curling, and he is crowned with holly. He commands Scrooge to touch his robe, and conducts him onto the streets of London. It’s Christmas morning. Passersby engage in snowball fights and enjoy the sights and smells of the beautiful shop windows. The church bells ring and people line up at the baker’s shops to have their Christmas dinners cooked.

The ghost takes Scrooge to the home of Bob Cratchit. Inside, Scrooge and the ghost watch as Mrs. Cratchit and two of her children, Belinda and Peter, prepare their holiday meal. Bob’s oldest daughter, Martha, arrives home first for Christmas. Next, comes Bob himself, carrying his youngest child, Tiny Tim. When Mrs. Cratchit asks about their time in church, Bob tells his wife that Tim, who is crippled, said he hoped that when people see him, they’re reminded of Jesus’s miracles — particularly, of Christ’s healing of the blind and lame. The family enjoy their small feast then, afterward, sit together around the fire. Scrooge, gazing at the feeble Tiny Tim, asks the ghost if he will survive. The ghost tells Scrooge that unless the Cratchits’ circumstances change, Tim will die. When Scrooge protests, the ghost quotes Scrooge’s own words back to him: If Tim dies, won’t it help solve the problem of overpopulation? At this, a guilt-ridden Scrooge hangs his head in shame. Bob proposes a toast to Scrooge in honor of the day, and the family reluctantly drinks his health. Scrooge realizes that, for these people, he is an odious figure.

The ghost then shows Scrooge Christmas celebrations all over the world. Scrooge watches as even the poorest take cheer from the holiday. Next, Scrooge and the ghosts appear in Fred’s house. Fred is telling the company about his Uncle Scrooge’s feelings about Christmas. Fred says he pities his uncle: Money doesn’t make the old man happy, and his dislike of Fred and his wife hurts no one but himself.

“The consequence of his taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm.” (Fred talking about Scrooge)

Fred, his wife, and their friends laugh, enjoy food, and play music and games together. Scrooge enjoys himself immensely, despite the fact that none of the company can see or hear him. Afterward, Scrooge and the spirit visit more places: jails, hospitals, workhouses, sickbeds. Everywhere they travel, the joy of Christmas is apparent.

Scrooge notices the Ghost of Christmas Present is aging. The apparition explains his time is almost finished, but before he leaves, he shows Scrooge two monstrous-looking children. He introduces them as Want and Ignorance: They are the result of mankind’s determination to close their eyes to those who need a helping hand. When Scrooge asks if there is any aid for them, the ghost once more quotes his own words back at him: Isn’t that what prisons and workhouses are for?

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

The clock strikes midnight and the Ghost of Christmas Present vanishes. A silent, black-cloaked figure now appears. Scrooge asks if he is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but the ghost does not reply. The figure fills Scrooge with fear and horror, but, nevertheless, he bids the ghost show him what he will. The ghost takes him into the heart of London’s financial district, where Scrooge spies many of his colleagues. A group of men stop and talk about the death of a rich man. The men agree they will attend the funeral – but only if lunch is provided.

Next, the ghost takes Scrooge to a less reputable part of town. Inside a grimy shop, a laundress, a charwoman and an undertaker’s helper gather to sell some stolen goods. They show the buyer the articles they have taken from a dead man who had no one with him when he died. Scrooge listens in disgust as the items are sold off.

“‘Spirit!’ said Scrooge, shuddering from head to foot. ‘I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now. Merciful Heaven, what is this!’”

He recognizes the lonely corpse’s fate might easily be his own. Suddenly, the scene shifts: They’re in a room with a corpse which is covered by a sheet. As he looks at the body, Scrooge hears a voice in his head remarking on how, though death is immutable, when a generous, well-loved person dies, their good deeds live on.

Scrooge asks the ghost to take him to any person in town who truly feels something about this man’s death. The ghost transports him to the home of a poor family who express thankfulness that the person who held a debt over their heads has perished. Next, the ghost takes them back to Bob Cratchit’s house. There, Scrooge observes the family in mourning – not for the dead man, but for Tiny Tim. Scrooge finally asks the ghost to tell him the identity of the dead man. The ghost takes him to a cemetery and points him toward a grave. Scrooge begs the ghost to tell him if the things he has seen are fated, or if they are only what might occur. The ghost remains silent.

Approaching the grave, Scrooge reads his own name on the headstone. Falling to his knees, he implores the ghost to give him the chance to prevent the events he has witnessed from occurring. Scrooge promises he will not forget the lessons the three ghosts have taught him and will honor the spirit of Christmas every day of the year. As he speaks, the ghost disappears and, in its place, Scrooge sees his own bedpost.

Living the Spirit of Christmas

Overjoyed to find himself alive and well, Scrooge dances and thanks God, the ghosts, Marley and the Christmas season. He throws open the window, and sees a boy outside. When Scrooge asks what day it is, the boy replies that it’s Christmas Day. Giddy at this news, Scrooge offers the boy a large sum of money if he will deliver the prize turkey hanging in the butcher shop window to the Cratchits. After shaving and dressing, Scrooge wanders the streets, smiling at one and all. He is delighted when people wish him a Merry Christmas. Suddenly, Scrooge sees one of the two men who came into his firm yesterday. He immediately offers the man a large donation. Afterward, he walks to his nephew’s house. Fred is both surprised and gratified to see his uncle and Scrooge enjoys a wonderful Christmas with his family.

The next morning, Scrooge arrives at work extra early, hoping he can catch Bob arriving late. Bob does indeed come a few minutes past the hour and Scrooge pretends to be angry. He tells Bob he refuses to allow this kind of thing to happen anymore… which is why he plans to give Bob a raise! Bob is so astonished he momentarily wonders if his boss has gone mad. But Scrooge carries on, assuring Bob that he means what he says, and intends not only to increase his salary, but to otherwise help his family – and Merry Christmas!

Scrooge not only keeps his promises to Bob, he becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim – who lives. More than that, he becomes a good friend and an excellent boss. He never sees ghosts again, but all who know him agree that he understands and lives the spirit of Christmas to the fullest. May the same be said of the rest of humanity. “God bless us, every one!”

About the Text

Structure and Style

A Christmas Carol is an allegorical fairytale: Characters embody qualities – such as avarice, poverty and Christmas cheer – and symbolism plays a primary role in the narrative. The novella has a straightforward, linear plot structure. Each of the five sections focuses on a specific step in Ebenezer Scrooge’s spiritual transformation. Charles Dickens’s decision to refer to these sections as “staves” – another word for the staffs on which musical notes are written – alludes to the story’s title: Each chapter is one part of the song. While the concept of seasonally-themed stories wasn’t new at the time of A Christmas Carol’s publication, Dickens, arguably, created a new sub-genre – melding a ghost story with a holiday tale, by means of his social justice message. 

The novella’s tone and narrative voice reflects its genre-mixing. The narration is in the third person, limited omniscient: Readers are privy to Scrooge’s private thoughts and feelings, but not to those of other characters. The narration is, at times, informal and chatty, and, at other moments, more literary. The tone, likewise, often shifts wildly from scene to scene, moving quickly between comedy, horror and sentimentality. When focused on Scrooge himself, the narrative voice generally becomes more cold, critical and sarcastic, underscoring the character’s unlikable traits. By contrast, when speaking of Fred or of the Cratchit family, the narrator speaks warmly, encouraging readers’ sympathy with the characters and their actions.

Interpretation

  • A Christmas Carol is, fundamentally, a redemption tale. Thanks to the spirits’ interventions, Scrooge is saved, both from a lonely life and from damnation after death. But while the ghosts themselves are otherworldly, Dickens roots the means to salvation less in the realm of the divine, than in humanity itself: Scrooge’s story shows that people redeem themselves by saving others. 
  • While Dickens does not ignore the holiday’s Christian origins, Dickens’s definition of the “Spirit of Christmas,” like his understanding of salvation, is decidedly humanistic in its bent. Rather than portray Christmas as a solemn, religious occasion, A Christmas Carol paints the day as a time to celebrate earthly pleasures – including good food and quality time with friends and family – and to give, joyfully, to the less fortunate.
  • Though an overruling desire for wealth is framed as Scrooge’s primary moral stumbling block, the novella doesn’t equate riches with immorality. Wealth becomes sinful when you fail to use what you have to help others or begin to view the poor as less human than yourself.
  • Dickens’s portrayal of the Cratchit family underscores his determination to sway public opinion of and concern for the lower classes. The Cratchits’ noble sensibilities rebuke those who view poverty solely as an economic problem. Too, their plight highlights how upper-class indifference to poverty, coupled with Victorian Poor Laws, which criminalized poverty, punish the most vulnerable – like Tiny Tim. 
  • Much of the plot of A Christmas Carol centers around Scrooge’s choices and their consequences. But the story doesn’t focus solely on the ways Scrooge’s choices shape his fate; it also emphasizes how they affect others. Scrooge’s selfishness and determination to keep apart from the rest of the world not only puts his own soul in chains – as Marley asserts — but endangers society as a whole — as the two monstrous children, Want and Ignorance, illustrate. 
  • A Christmas Carol’s primary concern isn’t with what happens after death, but with how the knowledge of your own mortality ought to affect your life. In the story’s opening, Scrooge is trapped in a kind of living death: He is alone, and spends his days in dark, cold, coffin-like rooms. But after his transformation, he does all he can to bind himself to others, not in the hope of cheating death or of gaining some kind of heavenly reward, but, rather, because he now understands that a person’s good deeds give them a kind of immortality on earth.

Historical Background

Christmas Cheer and Social Welfare

Charles Dickens is sometimes credited with creating Christmas, as it’s celebrated today, with his publication of A Christmas Carol (1843). But, in fact, at the time of the novella’s publication, Britain was already in the midst of a Christmas revival. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularized the German tradition of Christmas trees, beginning in the early 1840s, and Davies Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols: With the Tunes to Which They Were Formerly Sung in the West of England (1823) and William Sandys’s Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833) renewed public interest in holiday music. Even the idea of Christmas-focused writing was not new: Almanacs such as Forget Me Not and The Keepsake first began publishing seasonal pieces in the 1820s; Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–20) included four essays on old English Christmas traditions; and Dickens himself wrote a holiday-themed essay, titled “A Christmas Dinner,” in 1835. Still, A Christmas Carol played a fundamental role in shaping modern holiday traditions and crystalizing Western understandings of the true “spirit” of the season – particularly, as historian Ronald Hutton argues, in terms of “link[ing] worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation.” 

British interest in holiday celebration blossomed in tandem with a far less cheerful phenomenon: a growing underclass. Though the Industrial Revolution began in earnest in the later part of the 1700s, its full effects weren’t felt, by many, until decades later. In the early 1800s, urban populations skyrocketed as people migrated from rural locales in search of employment. Living and working conditions in places like London were often appalling. Disease and overcrowding were rampant in slum housing. Children as young as four labored alongside their parents for 16 hours per day in factories, for starvation wages. Rather than provide relief, Britain’s government responded to the underclass influx by passing increasingly draconian laws that, effectively, criminalized poverty. Debtors, like Dickens’s father, John, went to prison. Meanwhile, the Poor Law Act of 1834, which established the workhouse system, disbanded traditional aid societies in favor of a forced labor system: The ill, disabled, elderly, orphaned, or unemployed could only get assistance if they agreed to live in a workhouse. There, they would be segregated by age and gender (families were split up), and labor for subsistence-level room and board. Authors like Dickens and Frances Trollope, together with a number of religious leaders and political reformers, responded to the Poor Law by highlighting its ills and working to engender sympathy for the working class.

Development

Dickens’s direct inspiration for A Christmas Carol came from a number of events which occurred in 1843. In February of that year, the British government published its Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, focused on child labor. The commission’s findings shocked Dickens, who immediately began brainstorming a response, tentatively titled “An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” Then, in May, the author attended a fundraising dinner for the Charterhouse Square infirmary. There, the attitudes of the wealthy patrons, whom Dickens described as “sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle,” disgusted him. But it was Dickens’s September visit to the Field Lane Ragged and Industrial School in London, and his trip to Manchester in October which most influenced the form that Dickens’s attack on society’s treatment of poverty ultimately took. The “sickening atmosphere … of taint and dirt and pestilence” in the school and the extreme want he witnessed in Manchester’s streets disgusted Dickens. In Manchester, he spent time with his sister Fanny’s disabled son, Harry. Dickens found himself pondering how much more difficult his nephew’s life would be if he had been born into poverty – a train of thought which would, ultimately, result in the creation of the fictional character, Tiny Tim.

By the time Dickens returned to London, he felt certain that neither essays nor speeches nor political tracts were the answer to rallying the middle and upper classes in favor of reform. Narrative, he decided, was the way: something which would open readers’ hearts toward the poor and serve as a stern warning of the consequences of ignoring the well-being of the lower classes. As Louisa Price, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum notes, Dickens loved Christmas, which he saw as a season of hope and benevolence. In crafting A Christmas Carol, Dickens drew on his familial holiday traditions, on the distressing scenes he had witnessed over the course of 1843, and on his own experience of enforced child labor during the year that his father was imprisoned for debt. He also made pointed allusions to the writings of economist Thomas Robert Malthus whose ideas influenced the Poor Law Amendment of 1834. Scrooge’s remarks on overpopulation and his support of prisons and workhouses reflect Malthus’s arguments that the poor deserve their lot in life and to try to ameliorate their condition is to go against nature. Dickens completed his story in a mere six weeks and, when his publishers balked at paying the full publishing costs – which were higher than normal due to Dickens’s insistence on color illustrations and a gilt-lettered cover – Dickens covered the balance himself.    

Reviews and Legacy

A Christmas Carol received near-unanimous positive reviews upon its publication in December 1843. The Illustrated London News noted the story’s “impressive eloquence” and The Athenaeum praised its ability “to make the reader laugh and cry – to open his hands, and open his heart to charity even toward the uncharitable.” Famed novelist William Makepeace Thackeray described the narrative as “a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” The poet Thomas Hood noted in his diary that “If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were ever in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease.” The public agreed: The novella’s first edition of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve and 13 successive editions were printed by the end of 1844. Dickens himself performed live readings of his story (in abbreviated form) a total of 127 times. To date, A Christmas Carol has never gone out of print. 

Dickens’s tale inspired a number of related works over the years, including Louisa May Alcott’s children’s story, “A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True” (1882) and Horatio Alger’s “Job Warner’s Christmas” (1863) which borrow character and thematic elements from A Christmas Carol. The novella brought the phrase, “Bah! Humbug!” into popular parlance and, in 1982, the Oxford English Dictionary added the adjective, “Scrooge-like” to describe miserly people or behavior. A Christmas Carol has been adapted numerous times. It became a stage play in London for the first time in February, 1844. Since then, the story has formed the basis of a number of dramatic and musical theatre productions around the world. A Christmas Carol appeared onscreen, initially, in 1901, and has inspired many live-action and animated movies, including a Bill Murray comedy, Scrooged (1988), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and the 3D motion-capture film, A Christmas Carol (2009), which featured Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge.

About the Author

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England, to John Dickens – a clerk in the Navy Pay Office – and Elizabeth Dickens. The second eldest of eight children, Dickens enjoyed a happy childhood and was a voracious reader from a young age. The family moved to London in 1822. Two years later, the Dickens’ habits of living beyond their means caught up with them: John Dickens was forced into a debtors’ prison, and the 12-year-old Charles was made to leave school and go to work in a boot blacking factory. The poor working conditions he suffered informed his later fiction-writing. Upon his father’s release, Dickens briefly returned to school. At age 15, he became a clerk in a solicitor’s office, but soon left to become a freelance reporter covering court proceedings. Dickens began writing stories in 1833. The success of his collection of journalistic pieces, Sketches by Boz (1836) garnered the attention of the publishers, Chapman and Hall, who invited him to write text to accompany the works of a well-known artist. That serial, titled The Pickwick Papers, proved popular, and helped prompt Charles’s decision to quit newspaper work in favor of editing a monthly magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany. That same year, Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth with whom he had 10 children. Dickens published one of his most popular works, Oliver Twist, as a serial in Bentley’s from 1837 to 1839. Other novels were, likewise, serialized between 1838 and 1841, and many were adapted into plays. A trip to America helped cement Dickens’s growing sense of himself as a public figure, with an obligation to try to influence society for the better. A Christmas Carol (1843) underscored his determination that his art serve to both entertain and do good. The years between 1849 and 1856 saw the publication of some of Dickens’s most accomplished fictions, including the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield (1850). In 1857, Dickens fell in love and began an affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. After separating from his wife, he embarked on a series of well-received public reading tours, and published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). Dickens suffered a stroke while working on his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and died on June 9, 1870. He was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. 


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