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A Christmas Carol (originally, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas) is a novella by English author Charles Dickens about a miserly curmudgeon and his secular conversion and redemption after being visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve. The book was first published on 19 December 1843 with illustrations by John Leech, and quickly met with commercial success and critical acclaim. The tale has been viewed as an indictment of nineteenth century industrial capitalism and has been credited with returning 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.


The principal forces that shaped A Christmas Carol were the profoundly humiliating experiences of the author's childhood, his sympathy during the decades of the 1830s and 1840s with the poor, especially children, and Washington Irving's stories of the traditional old English Christmas. While there are other authors before Dickens who celebrated the season, it was Dickens who imposed his secular vision of the holiday upon the public.

In 1824, Dickens's father John Dickens was arrested for debt and imprisoned in the Marshalseamarker. The family moved into the prison but twelve-year-old Charles was forced to take lodgings nearby, pawn his collection of books, leave school, and accept employment in a shoe polish factory. The boy had a deep sense of class and intellectual superiority and was entirely uncomfortable in the presence of the other factory workers who referred to him as "the young gentleman". He developed nervous fits. When his father was released at the end of a three month stint, young Dickens was forced to continue working in the factory which only grieved and humiliated him further. He despaired of ever recovering his former happy life. The devastating impact of the period wounded him psychologically, coloured his work, and haunted his entire life with disturbing memories. It was during this period Dickens observed the lives of the men, women, and children in the most impoverished areas of London and witnessed the social injustices they suffered.

Dickens in 1842

In early 1843, Dickens toured the Cornish tin mines where he saw children working in the most appalling conditions. The suffering he witnessed there was reinforced by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several London schools set up for the education of the capital's half-starved, illiterate street children. Dickens read the Second Report of the Children's Employment Commission dated February 1843, a parliamentary report that exposed the horrifying effects the Industrial Revolution inflicted upon the lives of poor children. In a speech at the Manchester Athenaeum, he urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with education. In May 1843, he planned to publish an inexpensive political pamphlet tentatively titled, "An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child" but changed his mind, deferring the pamphlet's production until the end of the year. He wrote Dr. Southwood Smith, one of four commissioners responsible for the Second Report, about his change in plans: "[Y]ou will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force – twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following out my first idea." The pamphlet would become A Christmas Carol.

The descriptions of long-abandoned English Christmas customs and traditions in Washington Irving's Bracebridge Hall attracted Dickens, and the two authors shared the belief that the staging of a nostalgic English Christmas might restore a social harmony and well-being lost in the modern world. In "A Christmas Dinner" from Sketches by Boz (1833), Dickens had approached the holiday in a manner similar to Irving, and, in the Pickwick Papers (1837), he offered an idealized vision of an 18th century Christmas at Dingley Dell. In the Pickwick episode, Mr. Wardle relates the tale of Gabriel Grub, a lonely and mean-spirited sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion and transformation after being visited by goblins who show him the past and future – the prototype of A Christmas Carol.

Other likely influences were a visit made by Dickens to the Western Pentitentiary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker in April 1842; the decade-long fascination on both sides of the Atlantic with spiritualism; fairy tales and nursery stories (which Dickens regarded as stories of conversion and transformation); contemporary religious tracts about conversion; and the works of Douglas Jerrold in general, but especially "The Beauties of the Police" (1843), a satirical and melodramatic essay about a father and his child forcibly separated in a workhouse, and another satirical essay by Jerrold which may have had a direct influence on Dickens's conception of Scrooge called "How Mr. Chokepear keeps a merry Christmas" (Punch, 1841).

The Chancery Lane offices, formerly Smithson's solicitors in the town of Malton, North Yorkshire were the model for Scrooge’s counting house in Carol, and that the church bells which feature so prominently in the novel were those of St. Leonard’s on Church Hill, Malton. Dickens befriended Smithson whilst he was in London completing his legal training. A lifelong friendship ensued which involved Dickens visiting Malton many times and featuring many of the people and places he met through Smithson in his writings.


In 1837, George Templeton Strong lamented the passing of Christmas in the "glorious antique style" of the rural baronial hall with its merriment, conviviality, and hospitality to high and low. Dickens provided vestiges of the old Christmas style in Carol with family feasts and fun but chose a setting of dreary city streets, unheated offices, and urban homes rather than the countryside manor house.

The tale begins on Christmas Eve seven years after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge's business partner Jacob Marley. That night seven years later, the ghost of Jacob Marley appears before Scrooge and warns him that his soul will be bearing heavy chains for eternity if he does not change his greedy ways, and also predicts that a series of other ghosts will follow. Three Christmas ghosts visit Scrooge during the course of the night, fulfilling Marley's prophecy. The first, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge to the scenes of his boyhood and youth which stir the old skinflint's gentle and tender side. The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to the home of his nephew Fred to observe his game of Yes and No and to the humble dwelling of his clerk Bob Cratchit to observe his Christmas dinner. 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. Crippled Tiny Tim does not die as the ghost foretold and Scrooge becomes a different man, treating his fellow men with kindness, generosity, and compassion, and gaining a reputation as a man who embodies the spirit of Christmas.

Scrooge's redemption underscores the conservative, individualistic, and patriarchal aspects of Dickens's Carol philosophy' which depended on a more fortunate individual willingly looking after a less fortunate one who had demonstrated his worthiness to receive such attention. Government or other agencies were not called upon to effect change in an economy that created extremes of wealth and poverty but personal moral conscience and individual action in a narrow interpretation of the old forms of 'noblesse oblige' were expected to do so.


Dickens began Carol in October 1843, and completed the book in six weeks with the final pages written in the beginning of December. As the result of a feud with his publisher over the meager earnings on Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens declined a lump-sum payment for the tale, chose a percentage of the profits in hopes of making more money thereby, and published the work at his own expense. High production costs however brought him a mere £230 rather than the £1,000 he expected – and needed, as his wife was once again pregnant.

First edition frontispiece and title page

The book was published in London by Chapman and Hall on 19 December 1843, and bound in red cloth with gilt-edged pages. Four expensive, hand-coloured etchings and four black and white wood engravings by John Leech accompanied the text. Production was not without problems. The drab olive endpapers were replaced for the second printing with yellow endpapers, but, once replaced, clashed with the title page which was then redone. Modestly priced at five shillings, the first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve and the book continued to sell well into the New Year. In spite of the disappointing profits for the author, the book was a huge artistic success with most critics in generous and kind moods. The tale gave Dickens's career a much needed boost after the fiasco of his poorly-selling and disappointing previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit.

Critical reception

The book received immediate critical acclaim. The Athenaeum declared it, "A tale to make the reader laugh and cry—to open his hands, and open his heart to charity even toward the uncharitable [...] a dainty dish to set before a King." Poet and editor Thomas Hood wrote, "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 very name of the author predisposes one to the kindlier feelings; and a peep at the Frontispiece sets the animal spirits capering [...]".

William Makepeace Thackeray in Fraser's Magazine pronounced the book, "a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness. The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, 'God bless him!'" About Tiny Tim, Thackeray wrote, "There is not a reader in England but that little creature will be a bond of union between the author and him; and he will say of Charles Dickens, as the woman just now, 'GOD BLESS HIM!' What a feeling this is for a writer to inspire, and what a reward to reap!" (Kelly 18). Dickens was "touched to the quick" by Thackeray's warm-hearted review.

Even the caustic critic Theodore Martin (who was usually virulently hostile to Dickens), spoke well of the book, noting it was "[...] finely felt, and calculated to work much social good". In the spring of 1844, The Gentleman's Magazine attributed a sudden explosion of generosity to the poor to Dickens's novella. Dickens later commented that he received "by every post, all manner of strangers writing all manner of letters about their homes and hearths, and how the Carol is read aloud there, and kept on a very little shelf by itself". After Dickens's death, Margaret Oliphant deplored the turkey and plum pudding aspects of the book but admitted that in the days of its first publication it was regarded as "a new gospel" and noted that the book was unique in that it actually made people behave better.

Americans were less enthusiastic. Dickens had wounded their national pride with American Notes for General Circulation and Martin Chuzzlewit, but Carol was too compelling to be dismissed, and, by the end of the American Civil War, copies of the book were in wide circulation. The New York Times published an enthusiastic review in 1863 noting that the author brought the "old Christmas […] of bygone centuries and remote manor houses, into the living rooms of the poor of today" while the North American Review believed Dickens’s "fellow feeling with the race is his genius"; and John Greenleaf Whittier thought the book charming, "inwardly and outwardly".

For Americans, Scrooge’s redemption may have recalled that of the United States as it recovered from war, and the curmudgeon’s charitable generosity to the poor in the final pages a reflection of a similar generosity practiced by Americans as they sought solutions to poverty. The book's issues are detectable from a slightly different perspective in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Scrooge is likely an influence upon Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957).


A Christmas Carol was pirated in January 1844 by Parley's Illuminated Library, and, though Dickens sued and won his case, the pirates simply declared bankruptcy leaving Dickens to pay £700 in costs. The entanglements of the various suits Dickens brought against the pirates, his resulting financial losses, and the meager profits from the sale of Carol, greatly disappointed Dickens. He felt a very special affection for the book's moral lesson and its message of love and generosity that he wanted to proclaim to all the world. In his tale of a man who is given a second chance to live a good life, he was demonstrating to his readers that they, too, could achieve a similar salvation in a selfish world that had blunted their generosity and compassion.

The novella was adapted for the stage almost immediately. Three productions alone opened on 5 February 1844 with one by Edward Stirling sanctioned by Dickens and running for more than forty nights. By the close of February 1844, eight rival Carol theatrical productions were playing in London. Stirling's version played New York City's Park Theater during the Christmas season of 1844 and was revived in London the same year. Hundreds of newsboys gathered for a musical version of the tale at the Chatham Theater in New York City in 1844 but brawling broke out which was only quashed when offenders were led off by police to The Tombsmarker. Even after order had been restored in the theater, the clamorous cries of one youngster drowned out the bass drum that ushered Marley onto the stage as he rose through a trap door.

In the years following the book's publication, responses to the tale were published by W. M. Swepstone (Christmas Shadows, 1850), Horatio Alger (Job Warner's Christmas, 1863), Louisa May Alcott (A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True, 1882), and others who followed Scrooge's life as a reformed man – or some who thought Dickens had gotten it wrong and needed to be corrected.

Dickens himself returned to the tale time and again during his life to tweak the phrasing and punctuation, and capitalized on the success of the book by annually publishing other Christmas stories in 1844, 1845, 1846, and 1848. The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain were all based on the pattern laid down in Carol—a secular conversion tale laced with social injustice. While the public eagerly bought the later books, the critics bludgeoned them. One described The Battle of Life as "the worst ... the very worst", and Dickens himself questioned the story's worth.

By 1849, Dickens was working on David Copperfield and had neither the time nor the inclination to produce another Christmas book. Disappointed with those that followed Carol, he decided the best way to reach his audience with his 'Carol philosophy' was via public readings. In 1853, Carol was the text chosen for his first public reading with the performance an immense success. Thereafter, he read the tale in an abbreviated version 127 times, until 1870 (the year of his death) when it provided the material for his farewell performance.


Dickens wrote in the wake of British government changes to the welfare system known as the Poor Laws, changes which required among other things, welfare applicants to "work" on treadmills. Dickens asks, in effect, for people to recognise the plight of those whom the Industrial Revolution has displaced and driven into poverty, and the obligation of society to provide for them humanely. Failure to do so, the writer implies through the personification of Ignorance and Want as ghastly children, will result in an unnamed "Doom" for those who, like Scrooge, believe their wealth and status qualifies them to sit in judgement of the poor rather than to assist them.


Since its first publication, A Christmas Carol has had a profound effect upon its audience. A Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston in 1867, for example, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey. Dickens's joyful depiction of Christmas has its roots in the ancient Saturnalia and in the appropriation of pre-Christian customs by the Medieval church. The book redefined the spirit and importance of Christmas and initiated a rebirth of seasonal merriment after Puritan authorities in 17th century England and America suppressed pre-Christian rituals associated with the holiday. The religious and social implications of Carol and its depiction of Christmas traditions have played a significant role in reinventing Christmas with an emphasis on family, goodwill, and compassion. A prominent phrase from the tale, 'Merry Christmas', gained wider usage following the appearance of the story. The name 'Scrooge' has entered the English vocabulary as a synonym for a miser and the phrase 'Bah! Humbug!' has become a rejoinder to anything a listener thinks overly sentimental or ludicrous.


The story has been adapted to other media including films, to opera and ballet, to an all-black Broadway musical, Comin' Uptown (1979), a BBC mime production featuring Marcel Marceau, and Benjamin Britten's 1947 Men of Goodwill: Variations on 'A Christmas Carol'.




Works cited

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