Learn English Network
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol (originally, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas) is a novella by English author Charles Dickens. It's 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 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. Marley also warns Scrooge that a series of other ghosts will follow him.
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.
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.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
The Ghost of Christmas Past is the first of the three spirits (after the visitation by Jacob Marley) that haunted the miser Ebenezer Scrooge in order to prompt him to repent. He showed him scenes from his past that occurred on or around Christmas, in order to demonstrate to him the necessity of changing his ways, as well as to show the reader how Scrooge came to be the person he was and his particular dislike for Christmas – most of the events which negatively affected Scrooge occurred around the Christmas holiday season.
According to Dickens' novel, the Ghost of Christmas Past appears to Scrooge as a white-robed, androgynous figure of indeterminate age. He had on his head a blazing light, reminiscent of a candle flame. He carried with him a metal cap, made in the shape of a candle extinguisher. While the ghost is often portrayed as a woman in most dramatic adaptations, Dickens describes the Ghost of Christmas Past only as “it”.
The Ghost of Christmas Past first showed Scrooge his old boarding school where he was deserted by family and friends. Then he was shown the day when his beloved, younger sister Fan picked him up from there after repeatedly asking their father if he could come back home. Next, Scrooge was shown an episode from his time as an apprentice to Mr. Fezziwig. The spirit also showed Scrooge the day when, as a young man, he let Belle, his fiancée, leave him, as he had developed more interest in money than in her. Finally, the Ghost showed him how she married and found true happiness with another man. After this vision, Scrooge, out of anger, extinguished the Ghost of Christmas Past with his cap and found himself back in his bedroom.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
he Ghost of Christmas Present is the second of the three spirits (after the visitation by Jacob Marley) that haunted the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, in order to prompt him to repent. According to Dickens' novel, the Ghost of Christmas Present appears to Scrooge as "a jolly giant" with dark brown curls. He wears a fur-lined green robe and on his head a holly wreath set with shining icicles. He carries a large torch, made to resemble a Cornucopia, and appears accompanied by a great feast. He states that he has had "more than eighteen hundred" brothers (in fact eighteen hundred and forty two) and later reveals the ability to change his size to fit into any space.
The spirit transports Scrooge around the city, showing him scenes of festivity and also deprivation that were happening as they watched, sprinkling a little warmth from his torch as he travels. Amongst the visits are Scrooge's nephew, and the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit.
The spirit also shares a vision of Tiny Tim's crutch, carefully preserved by the fireplace. Scrooge asks if Tim will die. The Ghost first states that "If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die" (i.e., Tim's illness is not inherently fatal, but the Cratchits lack the funds for Tim to receive proper treatment; - courtesy of Scrooge's miserliness), then – quick to use Scrooge's past unkind comments toward two charitable solicitors against him – suggests he "had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Scrooge is disgusted at his own words and is concerned for Tiny Tim and his family.
The spirit finally reveals to Scrooge two emaciated children, subhuman in appearance and loathsome to behold, clinging to his robes, and names the boy as Ignorance and the girl as Want. The spirit warns Scrooge, "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.", underscoring the book's social message. The spirit once again quotes Scrooge, who asks if the grotesque children have "no refuge, no resource," and the spirit retorts with Scrooge's same words, "Are there no prisons, no workhouses?" filling Scrooge with self-loathing.
The Ghost of Christmas Present, having already aged, reveals that he will only exist on Earth for a single year's Christmas holiday. (As the nature of the present is to only exist in the now, this is why this ghost can only exist for one Christmas, and why he has 1842 brothers. Note the year that Charles Dickens' story was published. This would be the 1843rd Ghost of Christmas Present.) He finally disappears at the stroke of midnight on Twelfth Night, and leaves Scrooge to face the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, as it approaches "like a mist along the ground".
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come / Christmas Future
This spirit is the last of the three (after the visitation by Jacob Marley) that haunt the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, in order to prompt him to adopt a more caring attitude in life and avoid the horrid afterlife of Marley. Scrooge finds the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come the most fearsome of the spirits; he appears to Scrooge as a figure entirely muffled in a black hooded robe, except for a single gaunt hand with which he points. Although the character never speaks in the story, Scrooge understands him, usually through assumptions from his previous experiences and rhetorical questions. The Ghost's general appearance suggests that he may be associated with the Grim Reaper. The Ghost's muteness and undefined features (being always covered by his robe) may also have been intended to represent the uncertainty of the future. He is notable that even in satires and parodies of the tale, this spirit nonetheless retains his original look.
"The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. ... It thrilled him [Scrooge] with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black."
When the Ghost makes his appearance, the first thing he shows Scrooge is three wealthy gentlemen making light of a recent death, who remark that it will be a cheap funeral, and they would only go if lunch is provided. Next, Scrooge is shown the same dead person's belongings being stolen and sold to a receiver of stolen goods called Old Joe. He also sees a shrouded corpse, which he implores the ghost not to unmask, and a poor, debtor family rejoicing that someone to whom they owed money is dead. After pleading to the ghost to see some tenderness connected with death, Scrooge is shown Bob Cratchit and his family mourning the passing of Tiny Tim. (In the prior visitation, the Ghost of Christmas Present states that Tim's illness was not inherently fatal, but implies that the meager income Scrooge provided to Bob Cratchit did not provide funds for proper treatment.) Scrooge is then taken to an unkempt graveyard, where he is shown his own grave, and realizes that the dead man of whom the others spoke ill was himself.
This visit sets up the climax of the novella at the end of this stave. Moved to an emotional connection to humanity and chastened by his own avarice and isolation by the visits of the first two spirits, Scrooge is horrified by the prospect of a lonely death and by implication a subsequent damnation. In desperation, he queries the ghost:
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
And in an epiphany in which he understands the changes that the visits of the three spirits have wrought in him, Scrooge exclaims:
"I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!...I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
His transformation complete, Scrooge is ready to re-enter the world of humanity, which is what he does in the story's denouement in the final stage.
Why Did Dickens Call It A Carol?