|A Christmas Carol|
First edition frontispiece and title page (1843)
|Original title||A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas|
|Publisher||Chapman & Hall|
|Publication date||19 December 1843|
|Preceded by||Martin Chuzzlewit|
|Followed by||The Chimes|
A Christmas Carol is a novella by English author Charles Dickens first published by Chapman & Hall on 19 December 1843. The story tells of sour and stingy Ebenezer Scrooge's ideological, ethical, and emotional transformation after the supernatural visitations of Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The novella met with instant success and critical acclaim.
The book was written and published in early Victorian era Britain when it was experiencing a nostalgic interest in its forgotten Christmas traditions, and at the time when new customs such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards were being introduced. Dickens's sources for the tale appear to be many and varied but are principally the humiliating experiences of his childhood, his sympathy for the poor, and the Christmas stories of Washington Irving.
The tale was immediately copied without authorization, was adapted several times to the stage, and has been credited with restoring 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.
In the middle 19th century, a nostalgic interest in pre-Cromwell Christmas traditions swept Victorian England following the publications of Davies Gilbert's Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1822), William B. Sandys's Selection of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833), and Thomas K. Hervey's The Book of Christmas (1837). That interest was further stimulated by Prince Albert's introduction of the Christmas tree in 1841, the first Christmas card in 1843, and a revival in carol singing. Hervey's study on Christmas customs attributed their passing to social change and the urbanization of England.
Dickens's Carol was one of the single greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England, but, while it brings to the reader images of light, joy, warmth, and life it also brings strong and unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, sadness and death. Scrooge himself is the embodiment of winter, and, just as winter is followed by spring and the renewal of life, so too is Scrooge's cold, pinched heart restored to the innocent goodwill he had known in his childhood and youth.
Dickens was not the first author to celebrate the Christmas season in literature, but it was he who superimposed his secular vision of the holiday upon the public. The forces that impelled Dickens to create a powerful, impressive, and enduring tale were the profoundly humiliating experiences of his childhood, the plight of the poor and their children during the boom decades of the 1830s and 1840s, and Washington Irving's stories of the traditional old English Christmas.
Whilst Dickens's humiliating childhood experiences are not directly limned in Carol, his conflicting feelings for his father as a result of those experiences are principally responsible for the dual personality of the tale's protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge. In 1824, Dickens's father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea and twelve-year-old Charles was forced to take lodgings nearby, pawn his collection of books, leave school, and accept employment in a blacking factory. The boy had a deep sense of class and intellectual superiority and was entirely uncomfortable in the presence of 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. Dickens both loved and demonized his father, and it was this psychological conflict that was responsible for the two radically different Scrooges in the tale – one Scrooge, a cold, stingy, and greedy semi-recluse, and the other Scrooge, a benevolent, sociable man whose generosity and goodwill toward all men earn for him a near-saintly reputation. It was during this terrible period in Dickens's childhood that he 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,
Dickens was keenly touched by the lot of poor children in the middle decades of the 19th century. In early 1843, he toured the Cornish tin mines where he saw children working in 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. Inspired by the February 1843 parliamentary report exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon poor children called Second Report of the Children's Employment Commission, Dickens planned in May 1843 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 to Dr. Southwood Smith, one of four commissioners responsible for the Second Report, about his change in plans: "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.
In a fund-raising speech on 5 October 1843 at the Manchester Athenæum (a charitable institution serving the poor), Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform, and realized in the days following that the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his social concerns about poverty and injustice was to write a deeply-felt Christmas narrative rather than polemical pamphlets and essays. It was during his three days in Manchester, he conceived the plot of Carol.
Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, depicting the harmonious warm-hearted English Christmas festivities he experienced while staying at Aston Hall, Birmingham, England, that had largely been abandoned, 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, a Mr. Wardle relates the tale of Gabriel Grub, a lonely and mean-spirited sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion 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 Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 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 Ghost of Christmas Present,
Dickens divides the book into five chapters, which he labels "staves", that is, "(song)stanzas" in keeping with the title of the book. (He uses a similar device in his next two Christmas books, titling the four divisions of The Chimes, "quarters", after the quarter-hour tolling of clock chimes, and naming the parts of The Cricket on the Hearth "chirps".)
The tale begins on Christmas Eve seven years after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge's business partner Jacob Marley. Scrooge is established within the first stave as a greedy and stingy businessman who has no place in his life for kindness, compassion, charity, or benevolence. After being warned by Marley's ghost to change his ways, Scrooge is visited by three additional ghosts – each in its turn, and each visitation detailed in a separate stave – who accompany him to various scenes with the hope of achieving his transformation.
The first of the spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge to the scenes of his boyhood and youth which stir the old miser's gentle and tender side by reminding him of a time when he was more innocent. The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to several radically differing scenes (a joy-filled market of people buying the makings of Christmas dinner, the family feast of Scrooge's near-impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit, a miner's cottage, and a lighthouse among other sites) in order to evince from the miser a sense of responsibility for his fellow man. 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's own neglected and untended grave is revealed, prompting the miser to aver that he will change his ways in hopes of changing these "shadows of what may be."
In the fifth and final stave, Scrooge awakens Christmas morning with joy and love in his heart, then spends the day with his nephew's family after anonymously sending a prize turkey to the Cratchit home for Christmas dinner. Scrooge has become a different man overnight, and now treats his fellow men with kindness, generosity, and compassion, gaining a reputation as a man who embodies the spirit of Christmas. The story closes with the narrator confirming the validity, completeness, and permanence of Scrooge's transformation.
Dickens began to write A Christmas 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 meagre earnings on previous novel, 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 (equal to £19,128 today) rather than the £1,000 (equal to £83,164 today) he expected and needed, as his wife was once again pregnant..
First edition cover,
Bound in red cloth with gilt-edged pages,[ the book was published in London by Chapman and Hall, and released on 19 December 1843. 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 (equal to £20.79 today), the first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve and the book continued to sell well into the New Year. By May 1844, a seventh edition had sold out. In all, twenty-four editions ran in its original form. In spite of the disappointing profits for the author, the book was a huge artistic success with most critics responding positively.
The book received immediate critical acclaim. The London literary magazine 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 (February 1844) 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!'" Thackeray wrote about Tiny Tim, "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!".
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". A few critics registered their complaints. The New Monthly Magazine, for example, thought the book's physical magnificence kept it from being available to the poor and recommended the tale be printed on cheap paper and priced accordingly. The religious press generally ignored the tale but, in January 1884, Christian Rembrancer thought the tale's old and hackneyed subject was treated in an original way and praised the author's sense of humour and pathos. Dickens later noted 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).
Parley's Illuminated Library pirated the tale in January 1844, and, though Dickens sued and won his case, the literary pirates simply declared bankruptcy. Dickens was left to pay £700 in costs, equal to £56,364 today. The entanglements of the various suits Dickens brought against the publishers, his resulting financial losses, and the slim 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. 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 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 Tombs. 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. Dickens himself questioned The Battle of Life's worth.
By 1849, Dickens was engaged with 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.
Some critics like Restad have suggested that Scrooge's redemption underscores what they see as the conservative, individualistic, and patriarchal aspects of Dickens's 'Carol philosophy', which propounded the idea of a more fortunate individual willingly looking after a less fortunate one. Personal moral conscience and individual action led in effect to a form of 'noblesse oblige' which was expected of those individuals of means.
Whilst the phrase 'Merry Christmas' was popularized following the appearance of the story, and the name 'Scrooge' and exclamation 'Bah! Humbug!' have entered the English language, Ruth Glancy argues the book's singular achievement is the powerful influence it has exerted upon its readers. In the spring of 1844, The Gentleman's Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens's novella; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson waxed enthusiastic after reading Dickens's Christmas books and vowed to give generously; and Thomas Carlyle expressed a generous hospitality by staging two Christmas dinners after reading the book. In America, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, Massachusetts in 1867, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey. In the early years of the 20th century, the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London's crippled children signed "With Tiny Tim's Love"; Sir Squire Bancroft raised £20,000 for the poor by reading the tale aloud publicly; and Captain Corbett-Smith read the tale to the troops in the trenches of World War I.
According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol. Hutton argues that Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In superimposing his secular vision of the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
WPA poster, 1936-1941
Main article: List of A Christmas Carol adaptations
The story has been adapted to other media including film, opera, ballet, a Broadway musical (1979's Comin' Uptown, which featured an all African-American cast), a BBC mime production starring Marcel Marceau, and Benjamin Britten's 1947 chamber orchestra composition Men of Goodwill: Variations on 'A Christmas Carol.