In A Christmas Carol (1843) Dickens employs Ebenezer Scrooge’s supernatural visitors as the catalysts for Scrooge ’s spiritual metamorphosis. Scrooge’s personal wealth and callous disrespect for the lower classes highlight the desperate situation of the poor in early 19thC and Victorian England. The amended Poor Law Act of 1834 meant that the unemployed could only obtain ‘help’ if they entered the workhouse where conditions were harsh and punitive. Families were separated, husbands and wives segregated: little wonder that workhouses were referred to as ‘prisons’ or ‘bastilles’ for the Poor. Being working class and unemployed were thus stigmatised and the aim of the workhouse system was purposely to discourage the poor seeking ‘aid.’
Dickens’ earlier novel, Oliver Twist (1837-39) explored the hideous abuses of the workhouse system and the callous indifference of those in power. In his later novella, A Christmas Carol, Dickens again explores the abject plight of the poor. In his Christmas story, however, Dickens uses the intervention of the supernatural and the unsettling experience of being variously ‘haunted’, in order to generate compassionate change in his protagonist, Scrooge. A Christmas Carol took only six weeks to complete and was published on 19th December 1843. Writing the novella alongside Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-1844) seems to have worked creatively, for both texts explore avarice and apparent redemption, specifically through the characters of Scrooge and Old Martin Chuzzlewit. In both texts too, Dickens’ predilection for ‘chiaroscuro’ (artistic play between light and shade) is evident.
As I stated earlier, the Ghosts in A Christmas Carol, provide the dramatic means by which his readers can witness the process of Scrooge’s radical transformation from miser to philanthropist. This supernatural process also reveals the reasons for his original degeneration into spiritual aridity. For the young Scrooge is presented as a lonely, neglected boy, who knows all too well the horrors of poverty and unkindness. The figure of the abandoned child recurs throughout Dickens’ fiction and reveals Dickens’ own, very personal knowledge of abject neglect. Thus, we recognise that Scrooge’s meanness can be read as a destructive reaction to the deprivations of his early life. If so, Scrooge has compensated horribly for his fears around impoverishment; his carefulness has become pathological. His meanness is like a disease. The old Scrooge at the beginning of the novel is a monstrous version of the sensitive young boy whom we see in the lonely schoolroom under the guidance of the Ghost of Christmas past. In A Christmas Carol, we can witness the way that Scrooge’s identity has been reshaped to the point of psychological disfigurement, by his traumatic early experience.
As I said at the beginning, the Ghosts are the agents of change in A Christmas Carol; without their intervention, Scrooge would remain unredeemed and lost; he would follow his old partner Marley into purgatory. I enjoyed the way that Scrooge’s enlightenment and illumination emanate from Ghosts who in two instances, are surrounded by light. It feels as if Scrooge is being given the opportunity to reflect again upon the circumstances that have brought him to his Light is associated with spiritual progress and truth. The final Ghost is associated with a darkness representing death in both physical and spiritual terms. The horrors of the Final Ghost’s journey with Scrooge, make it clear that Scrooge must resurrect his childhood innocence or face an ultimate darkness, where God’s light has finally been extinguished.
It is interesting that Dickens is often accused of being a caricaturist and as such, unrealistic, but I think we only need to count the number of ghosts needed to change Scrooge, to remember how truly knowing and psychologically truthful, Dickens could be. Old Scrooge is pathologically miserly at the beginning of the novel. He is sick with greed. His miserliness is so entrenched that only the intervention of something truly ‘wonderful’ could precipitate any lasting change. One or two Ghosts would not suffice. Remember- Scrooge needs FOUR Ghosts to transform him!
In writing the synopsis of A Christmas Carol, I was also made intensely aware of Scrooge’s spiritual journey through Dickens’ brilliant inter-weaving of comedy and horror. Revisiting and visiting one’s past/present/ future through the active intervention and moral guidance of the Ghosts proves utterly transformative for Scrooge. And it is a transformation that requires Scrooge to use his imagination again. He has to re-enter a world of others, including himself. Scrooge reimagines his own character and is resurrected and healed.
The power of A Christmas Carol stems from the brilliance of Scrooge’s characterisation. In fact, the name ‘Scrooge’ has become a synonym in the English Language for meanness. And in the simile ‘solitary like an oyster’ we understand the predicament of Scrooge immediately. His self-imposed exile from society has estranged his from all compassionate feeling: he has no sense of the ‘other’ at all. His life is literally and metaphorically, a very dark, death-driven place.
The narrative’s heady combination of light and dark, of elation and fear, prove irresistible: little wonder it remains one of the most popular stories ever written.
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