Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The original plan was to review Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in December, when it’s seasonally appropriate. But I’m reviewing it now when people feel less sentimental about it because I have a quibble over the ending. It seems silly to summarize a story that has been told or satirized in every medium, but just in case: Ebenezer Scrooge, a tight-fisted curmudgeon, is visited on Christmas Eve by a series of ghosts to shock him into becoming better. Can he be saved?? (Spoilers abound, because it’s the ending that rankles.)

When I was a kid, I wrote with too many adjectives and my teachers told me to clean things up. When I happened upon this description of Scrooge, it seemed to prove that people can write in whatever style they please. Just look at that list of adjectives!

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire: secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas. (2-3)

This has long been one of my favorite character descriptions for how vivid it is. With few exceptions, the whole story is told in this over-the-top, bombastic way, which makes it one of my favorite Dickens stories to read. It’s fun to read aloud, too.

Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, who wears a heavy chain and cautions Scrooge that his is heavier still. Scrooge is frightened, and begs for comfort.

“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied. “It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!” (21)

Marley’s ghost has been travelling for seven years, tortured by remorse, but it tells Scrooge that there’s still hope for him to escape a similar fate. Though Scrooge is unsettled by Marley’s apparition, it’s not until Scrooge is visited by the final ghost and given a dire warning that he pledges to no longer be the same tight-fisted old sinner.

In a sense, Scrooge’s lack of generosity is the ideal vice for this particular story. It allows him to wake up on Christmas morning, splash money around, and become fast friends with everyone. This is contrary to other vices—addicts have to demonstrate continued sobriety, liars can’t redeem themselves with one truth, and so on. Change is hard, and part of what makes it hard is that it requires consistent effort to (re)build relationships. Not so for Scrooge. There’s not even a period of distrust between him and Bob Cratchit, his overworked and underpaid employee.

While Scrooge’s hoarding is portrayed as wrong, it gave him such a pile of cash that he can redeem himself and change the lives of the Cratchits with no hardship to himself. His redemption costs him little, while his cheapness cost those around him plenty. Which brings me to my quibble: What about Marley???

Marley’s ghost clanked around for seven years until showing up as a see-through PSA. There may still be hope for him—there’s debate over whether he’s in hell or purgatory. But Scrooge, his partner, who did all that Marley did and for longer, has an opportunity, through Marley, to sidestep his suffering. I’m not saying everyone has to suffer, or that people shouldn’t be allowed to learn from the mistakes of others, but everyone in this story is just a prop to Scrooge and his redemption—especially Marley. No wonder he acts like no one else matters—it IS all about him. Scrooge is the main character, and poor Marley is little better than an NPC.

None of this is the point of the story. The point is that Scrooge greets Christmas morning with a glad heart and a newly generous spirit and that’s so nice. But what about Marley? This is as awful as seeing Virgil get thrown back to Limbo after thanklessly dragging Dante through hell AND purgatory.

And one last point: In the final chapter, when Scrooge makes things up to the Cratchits, his newfound friendship with the family is glossed over in a swift paragraph. The interaction with Bob Cratchit that is detailed is that Scrooge hides in his office to catch him arriving late, feigns gruffness to make Bob think his job is on the line, then he wishes him a Merry Christmas and gives him a raise. Nothing says Scrooge is a changed man like one final heart attack for Bob Cratchit.

All that said, there’s a lot about this story that I genuinely enjoy. The writing is simultaneously vivid and soothing. Since it’s meant to be read aloud, there are a number of audiobooks available. This year, I listened to Tim Curry’s performance, which no doubt lifted this book in my estimation. Patrick Stewart reads it too, so I imagine I’ll listen to it next year.

Overall: 4.0 (out of 5.0) I understand why this story is a classic, but the very rapid denouement always feels hollow to me, because Scrooge’s nature costs everyone but himself. Yes, Scrooge suffers because he wasn’t happy before his redemption, but I don’t think he would have described himself as unhappy. And “doesn’t know what he’s missing” is small potatoes compared to what he puts everyone else through. And what about Marley??

Image credit: Goodreads

One thought on “Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens”

  1. I read your review of A Christmas Carol, (one of my favorite stories,) and I’d like to make a few points.
    First, I think it’s important to keep in mind a primary reason Dickens was writing this story was to open the eyes of those reading it who were in a position to use their resources to help those less fortunate, and so the ‘instant’ gratification of this act of benevolence is stressed.
    Secondly, I cannot agree with you regarding Scrooge’s suffering. He has most definitely suffered his whole life. His mother dead at a young age, he was thrown away by his father, and shown very little love. (He weeps more than once when confronted with these visions by the Ghost of Christmas Past.)
    He then loses his dear sister, another devastating blow. Dickens is revealing to the reader the fact that the events in young Scrooge’s life are in many way responsible for the cold-hearted man he becomes. (There are juxtapositions, however, with tiny Tim, Fred, etc., who show that one can choose another path in the face of a troubled life.)
    In fact, Fred, who lost his own mother at a young age, decides to embrace humanity and love life. Dickens wanted to offer to the reader an alternative to becoming bitter and hating the world in the face of adversity.
    Fred’s explanation of why he feels sorry for Scrooge is the key to understanding the ending. He tells his friends and family that it is Scrooge who is actually the one suffering for his refusal to engage with humanity. Yes, he causes other people pain, but he is the primary collector of the misery from his lifestyle.
    Contrary to what many people think, Scrooge does not live a lavish life with his hoarded money. In fact, he barely lives above the lifestyle of the Cratchit family. (A lonely, old set of rooms rented out in a warehouse far from other people which is used otherwise for offices and storage.)
    Scrooge’s ‘immediate’ state of happiness and ability to be accepted into society is because he was the only person keeping himself ‘out in the cold.’ People were more than happy to have him and not force him to suffer further because they already understood what Scrooge had to learn through the intervention of the Spirits: That we are all ‘fellow travelers to the grave’ in this life.

    As to Marley, I am of the very strong opinion, that he is in Purgatory. The common belief in Dickens’ England was that a soul was judged at death and either sent to heaven or hell. When someone was sent to hell, there was no possibility of redemption. Marley, however, mentions he is serving out a ‘penance.’ This is far more in line with the Catholic, (and some other Christian denominations view,) of Purgatory, where a soul can ‘make amends’ for sins and still end up in heaven.
    Marley also mentions that his meeting with Scrooge was of his ‘own procuring,’ something not at all compatible with the common Christian idea of hell. Marley is both saving Scrooge and himself.

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