Dickens began writing his "little carol" in October, 1843 finishing it by the end of November in time to be published for Christmas with illustrations by John Leech. Feuding with his publishers, Dickens financed the publishing of the book himself, ordering lavish binding, gilt edging, and hand-colored illustrations and then setting the price at 5 shillings so that everyone could afford it. This combination resulted in disappointingly low profits despite high sales. In the first few days of its release the book sold six thousand copies and its popularity continued to grow. The first and best of his Christmas Books, A Christmas Carol has become a Christmas tradition and easily Dickens' best known book.
Plot (contains spoilers)
Ebenezer Scrooge is a penny-pinching miser in the first degree. He cares nothing for the people around him and mankind exists only for the money that can be made through exploitation and intimidation. He particularly detests Christmas which he views as 'a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer'. Scrooge is visited, on Christmas Eve, by the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley who died seven Christmas Eves ago.
Marley, a miser from the same mold as Scrooge, is suffering the consequences in the afterlife and hopes to help Scrooge avoid his fate. He tells Scrooge that he will be haunted by three spirits. These three spirits, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, succeed in showing Scrooge the error of his ways. His glorious reformation complete, Christmas morning finds Scrooge sending a Christmas turkey to his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, and spending Christmas day in the company of his nephew, Fred, whom he had earlier spurned.
Scrooge's new-found benevolence continues as he raises Cratchit's salary and vows to assist his family, which includes Bob's crippled son, Tiny Tim. In the end Dickens reports that Scrooge became ' as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew'.
John Leech provided eight illustrations for A Christmas Carol. Four woodcuts and four hand colored etchings:
Fifteen Bob a Week
The miserly Scrooge paid his clerk, Bob Cratchit, a weekly salary of fifteen shillings (cockney slang for shilling was "bob"). Bob "pocketed on Saturdays but fifteen copies of his Christian name."
According to C. Z. Barnett in his play A Christmas Carol or The Miser's Warning (1844) Cratchit would have spent a week's wages to buy the ingredients for the Christmas feast: seven shillings for the goose, five for the pudding, and three for the onions, sage and oranges.
Ignorance and Want
One major theme in A Christmas Carol was rooted in Dickens' observations of the plight of the children of London's poor. It has been said of the times that sex was the only affordable pleasure for the poor; the result was thousands of children living in unimaginable poverty, filth, and disease. In 1839 it was estimated that nearly half of all funerals in London were for children under the age of ten. Those who survived grew up without education or resource and virtually no chance to escape the cycle of poverty. Dickens felt that this cycle of poverty could only be broken through education and became interested in the Ragged Schools in London.
Ragged Schools were free schools, run through charity, in which the poorest children received religious instruction and a rudimentary education. Dickens generally applauded the work of these schools although he disapproved of introducing religious doctrine at the expense of a practical education which would help the pupil become a self-sufficient member of society. Despite the availability of these schools, most poor children remained uneducated due to the demand for child labor and the apathy of parents, wretchedly poor and uneducated themselves.
Dickens introduces these children in A Christmas Carol through the allegorical twins, Ignorance and Want. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows them, wretched and almost animal in appearance, to Scrooge with the warning: "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."
Dickens continued to support education for the poor through his works but compulsory education for all did not come about until 1870, the year of Dickens' death.
The Death of Tiny Tim
Of all the affecting scenes from A Christmas Carol none touches the heart more than the death of the crippled Tiny Tim, foreshadowed to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, especially to Victorian readers. Large families and child mortality were common in the 19th century and many readers may have suffered firsthand the loss of a child.
Michael Patrick Hearn, in his book The Annotated Christmas Carol, reports that one observer of a public reading by Dickens of A Christmas Carol in Boston in 1867 noted that the passage of Tiny Tim's death "brought out so many pocket handkerchiefs that it looked as if a snow-storm had somehow gotten into the hall without tickets."
Dead as a Doornail
Dickens begins A Christmas Carol by impressing upon the reader that Jacob Marley was dead. In fact, he was "dead as a doornail." He goes on to question this well-known simile:
"Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail."
The phrase "dead as a doornail" appears as early as the fourteenth-century in The Vision of Piers Plowman and later in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. However, the origin of the phrase is unknown. One possible explanation is that doors were built using only wood boards and hand forged nails, the nails were long enough to dead nail the (vertical) wooden panels and (horizontal) stretcher boards securely together, so they would not easily pull apart. This was done by pounding the protruding point of the nail over and down into the wood. A nail that was bent in this fashion (and thus not easily pulled out) was said to be "dead", thus "dead as a doornail." [Wiktionary]
Sabbatarianism, the Christian doctrine of strict observance of Sunday as a holy day reserved for worship, was attacked by Dickens throughout his life. In 1836 he published the pamphlet Sunday Under Three Heads in opposition to a Bill that would have extended already strict limitations to Sunday recreation. Dickens felt that these Bills were an attempt by the upper classes to control the lives of the lower classes disguised as religious piety. He argued that Sunday was the only day that the poor and working classes could enjoy simple pleasures that the upper and middle classes enjoyed all week. In A Christmas Carol Dickens again voices these concerns through this exchange between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present:
"Spirit," said Scrooge, after a moment's thought, "I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people's opportunities of innocent enjoyment."
"I!" cried the Spirit.
"You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all," said Scrooge. "Wouldn't you?"
"I!" cried the Spirit.
"You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day," said Scrooge. "And it comes to the same thing."
"I seek!" exclaimed the Spirit.
"Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family," said Scrooge.
"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."
A Christmas Carol Stave 3
Cooking the Cratchit's Christmas Goose
The homes of the poor were equipped with open fireplaces for heat and cooking but not with ovens. Thus many, like the Cratchits, took their Christmas goose or turkey to the baker's shop. Bakers were forbidden to sell on Sundays and holidays but would open their shops on these days to the poor and bake their dinners for a small fee. Dickens tells of Master Peter Cratchit and the two younger Cratchits going to fetch their Christmas goose from the bakers.
Condensed from A Christmas Carol - Stave 3.
| Principal Characters:
Ghost of Christmas Past
Ghost of Christmas Present
Ghost of Christmas Future
| A Christmas Carol Links:|
Dickens and Christmas
Dickens' Christmas Books
Dickens A Christmas Carol reading text
The Dickens Page
Thackeray on A Christmas Carol
Download A Christmas Carol in a text file
Hunt for Charles Dickens - An Internet Treasure Hunt by Joy Erwin, Santa Fe School
A Christmas Carol and Scrooge - Synopsis and screenshots from all film adaptations
The Second Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told - By Thomas J. Burns (Originally published in Reader's Digest, December 1989)
SparkNotes - A Christmas Carol
Wikipedia - A Christmas Carol
Preface to the Original Edition
A Christmas Carol
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.
Their faithful Friend and Servant,
The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. MA 97.