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Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Shows Us Our Deepest Fears

"File:Dickens - Christmas Carol editions - 2020-01-03 - Andy Mabbett - 01.png" by Andy Mabbett is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Published December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol explores themes related to the holiday season: gratitude, charity, generosity, and forgiveness. Dickens’ story also depicts one of our greatest fears—facing our demons, learning from them, and using them to progress. Miserly, greedy, and miserable Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits who force him to take a look at himself. 

Not usually described as a horror tale, Dickens effectively uses elements of supernatural lore (the afterlife) to illustrate his message. It’s basically a ghost story, and like any other classic ghost story, the supernatural elements are symbolic. Each spirit is a manifestation of part of his consciousness. 

The Ghost of Christmas Past reaches in and pulls out the person Scrooge was—and still is deep down. Christmas Present forces him to face the current consequences of his actions. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him what his future could be if he doesn’t change his behavior.

Dickens’ Christmas ghosts and the character of Ebenezer Scrooge is an allegorical tale that’s thought-provoking. Dickens wants us to take a journey with Scrooge. He points out society’s failures in ignoring issues such as poverty. He suggests that materialism can cause a person to shun their humanity and build up a wall of false security around them.

The supernatural horror element begins on Christmas Eve. Scrooge’s deceased partner, Jacob Marley, visits him with a warning—change your ways or be doomed to wander the earth forever in the afterlife. Jacob Marley’s appearance is a frightening manifestation of how a person’s conscience can torture them.

Like Scrooge, Marley chose to value materialism instead of humanity. After death, he wanders the material world in spectral form. He wears a chain weighed down with cash boxes and purses, which symbolize his materialistic nature. This symbol represents the self-imposed weight those who occupy themselves with mainly materialistic concerns carry. 

In death, Marley realizes his mistakes but can’t change them. He warns that those who don’t progress in life must witness (and learn from) what they missed the first time. The worst part is having this realization after death and lacking the ability to make things right. He regrets his life choices and is completely powerless in death to change them.

A silver star hangs against a back drop of greenery and small twinkling white lights.
“Christmas Decoration” by oatsy40 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Marley tells Scrooge, “It is required of every man […] that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!” [1]

Scrooge points out how successful in business Marley was. Marley corrects Scrooge. A person’s success is not financial gain but in how they treat others. Financial success means nothing if a person doesn’t do anything for others. Being able to help others in a time of need is making an active contribution to the community. In the long run, helping those in need could have long-term positive effects. The point of life is to be present in it, not to greedily guard wealth and shut the door in everyone’s faces. Finance and material gain are empty, useless pursuits, especially if not used for the betterment of the community.

‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing his hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’ [2] 

Through the Ghost of Christmas Past, Dickens shows us Scrooge’s youth. Dickens illustrates that there are two sides to every story. This perspective isn’t meant to excuse the actions of a miserable, cruel, and greedy person, but it provides a reason for Scrooge’s behavior.

Scrooge had a financially privileged but lonely existence. Sent away to private school, he was ignored by his family—except his sister, Fan. This also drives home the point that material success doesn’t mean anything. Scrooge’s family could afford to educate him and provide material comforts but failed to provide emotional support. 

Fan showed Scrooge unconditional love and acceptance. She also died young, leaving behind her son, Fred, who Scrooge inexplicably treats coldly. Perhaps Fred is a reminder of the warmth that was extinguished from Scrooge’s life with his sister’s death. Fred extends Scrooge the same love and acceptance as Fan did. In return, Scrooge mocks and rejects him. Fred also represents the kindness, generosity, and love that the Christmas season is supposed to be about. Fred represents charity and virtue in contrast to cold, miserly Scrooge.

Dickens clearly illustrates this contrast in the beginning. Fred stops by to wish Scrooge a Merry Christmas which sets Scrooge off on his famous anti-Christmas tirade. Scrooge verbally slams the door in Fred’s face. However, Fred responds and expresses his perspective on the Christmas season and love and gratitude as strongly as Scrooge expresses his bitter cynicism.

A copy of A Christmas Carol open to a festive illustration on the right hand page and text on the left.
“‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens – This Edition Published by Macy’s; Illustrated by Daub’s Studio” by Jim, the Photographer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Scrooge mocks Fred when he says that he married for love. Scrooge wonders how someone could be happy without money. Fred points out that Scrooge has plenty of money and is far from happy and that there’s more in life to appreciate.

Dickens writes, “‘Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas-time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books, and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!'” [3] 

Fred responds with, “There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say […] Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” [4] 

Dickens’ ghost story symbolizes stages of introspection. Scrooge’s first visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Reflecting on the past leads to evaluating the present, and, in turn, contemplating the future.

Each spirit has an appearance symbolic of the stage of what they represent.  The Ghost of Christmas Past symbolizes youth, strength, and vitality. They are described as having a muscular build, and they hold a sprig of holly and summer flowers which represent life in bloom.

Dickens describes the Ghost of Christmas Past: “Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white, as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. […] It held a branch of fresh, green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction to that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright, clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.” [5] 

Light emanates from the spirit’s head, symbolizing how thinking about the past or past actions can bring certain things to light about ourselves. Scrooge pleads with the spirit to put a cap on to block it. The blinding light of the Ghost of Christmas past represents the wisdom that can be gained from introspection. Scrooge’s need to shut it out is an attempt to continue to block out both the pain he experienced in the past and the realization it’s causing. The Ghost of Christmas Past points out that Scrooge forced them to wear a cap for many years, meaning he has shut out light and warmth for many years. He shuts out his past and his youth. 

The light is symbolic of knowledge—the idea that by looking into the past we can learn a lot about ourselves. Learning about past mistakes is difficult. Realizing we’ve done something wrong indicates the need for change. Scrooge’s established pattern of behavior, horrible as it is, gives him a sense of security. Opening himself up to others means taking down the safe, secure wall around him that he’s built with bitterness and anger. Human beings are creatures of habit that thrive on security. The unknown makes many feel insecure, and being miserable makes Scrooge feel safer.

A close up of a green holiday wreath with multi-colored decorations.
“christmas tree ornament” by zaimoku_woodpile is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The spirit says, “What! […] would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow?” [6] 

During his travels back in time, Scrooge’s cold demeanor warms quickly when he sees people from his past. This indicates that Scrooge’s demeanor is a carefully constructed facade. Scrooge buried his warmth beneath his icy exterior as a way to protect himself.

Scrooge enjoys seeing his first boss, Fezziwig. In contrast to Scrooge, Fezziwig is warm, upbeat, and generous with his employees. He closes up shop on Christmas Eve and treats them to a party with food, drink, and dancing.

Instead of being critical of Fezziwig, Scrooge happily recalls this period of time. Scrooge was young and struggling. Fezziwig wasn’t cold, dismissive, and cruel, which is how Scrooge treats his current employee, Bob Cratchit. Fezziwig provided a nice and festive Christmas for everyone. 

Dickens writes, “During the whole of this time, Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. It was not until now when the bright faces of his former self and Dick were turned from them, that he remembered the Ghost, and became conscious that it was looking full upon him, while the light upon its head burned very clear.” [7]

To challenge Scrooge, the spirit questions the significance of Fezziwig’s generosity.  Surprisingly, Scrooge counters with an argument that echoes Fred’s sentiments. Caught up in the memory, he feels joy and warmth which melts his cold facade. The spirit makes no attempt to lecture but reiterates Scrooge’s current outlook. When Scrooge sees his past before him, his immediate reaction is to argue with his own perspective.

Dickens expertly paints a perfect picture of Scrooge from the beginning of the story that suggests Scrooge has built a facade. Scrooge is described as “self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” [8]

Dickens uses the weather to further elaborate on this idea of Scrooge’s fortification. He paints a clear picture of a person so cold inside that freezing temperatures don’t affect him. His container/oyster shell is so fortified that the harshest weather has no effect on him. He writes, “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.” [9]

A fully decorated Christmas tree lit up with white lights is framed by a decorative holiday wreath with a large bright red bow and white lights.
“Only 41 More Shopping Days Till Christmas!” by Sister72 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The cheerful Ghost of Christmas Present arrives dressed in festive green and surrounded by a Christmas feast—food as far as Scrooge’s eye can see. Christmas Present represents the joy and abundance associated with the holiday—feasting and generosity. They’re described as having a  rusty sword scabbard, which symbolizes Christmas Present’s peaceful nature. The scabbard holds no weapon and is rusty because it hasn’t been used in a long time.

Dickens writes, “Its dark-brown curls were long and free, free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanor, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard, but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.” [10] 

Christmas Present brings Scrooge into his employee Bob Cratchit’s house to witness their Christmas dinner. Bob Cratchit and his wife struggle as they try to raise their children on Bob’s meager salary. Bob’s son, Tiny Tim, has a disability. Scrooge expresses concern about Tiny Tim’s future. The spirit tells him that if the Cratchits’ situation isn’t altered in some way (better financial compensation), Tiny Tim won’t survive. He has a chance, and Scrooge has the power to alter it. Not only that, the spirit throws Scrooge’s own words regarding impoverished people back at him. Like with Christmas Past, Scrooge is offended by his own words.

Earlier in the story, Cratchit lets two men into the office who are collecting donations for charity. Scrooge refuses to make a donation.  

Scrooge makes the convenient assumption that impoverished people are “idle,” lazy, or unintelligent. His employee, Bob Cratchit, lives in poverty. He works every day under horrible conditions without complaint. Yet, he’s in the same predicament as the people for whom the charity collects donations. Cratchit is far from “idle,” lazy, or stupid.

He says that prisons and workhouses are the appropriate places for those who are impoverished. The two men say that many would rather die than go there, Scrooge has no problem with them dying as it would thin out the “surplus population.”

When faced with the Cratchit’s impoverished state, Scrooge acknowledges his responsibility. Reflecting on the past gave him insight. Christmas Present shows him the consequences created by his behavior. Coupled with Marley’s words, this further drives home a sense of responsibility. Scrooge’s financial success places him in a position where he has an employee dependent on him. Scrooge can change the Cratchits’ living situation. Scrooge’s financial success, if applied generously, could possibly save the Cratchits. If he increases Bob’s salary, he can help save Tiny Tim’s life.

When faced with the consequences of his actions, Scrooge realizes his responsibility. The spirit harshly drives this point home when he mocks Scrooge with his own words. The Ghost says, “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race […] will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the population.” Dickens writes, “Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.” [11] 

Overall, the family shows nothing but appreciation and gratitude as they enjoy Christmas dinner. They live in poverty but enjoy the day. They are deprived of wealth but see the bigger picture. This further reinforces the deeper meaning of the holiday season. It’s not about money and gifts. It’s not about acquiring more material possessions but gratitude for the simple things in life. The Cratchit family shows appreciation for something many take for granted—having each other. Something as simple as a good meal is enough to make them happy.

Dickens writes, “There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family, they were not well dressed, their shoes were far from being waterproof, their clothes were scanty, and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.” [12]

A colorful painting of a Victorian dinner party..
“Lantern Slide – A Christmas Carol, ‘Bob Cratchit’s Christmas Dinner’, 1843-1880” is marked with CC PDM 1.0

As his journey with Christmas Present comes to an end, Scrooge notices two children—a boy and girl standing on each side of the spirit. They have a haggard appearance and a dark feeling about them. When Scrooge asks who these children are, the spirit tells him that they are humanity’s children. 

“’This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of 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. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand toward the City. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!’ 

“’Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge. 

“’Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’” [13]

The spirit of Christmas Present mocks Scrooge by repeating what he said earlier to the charity workers.

Society creates ignorance and want. Dickens portrays them as children—siblings. Scrooge is appalled by their appearance and wants to look away. Their appearance is appalling since they come from the darkest side of humanity. 

Ignorance in all of its forms creates want. Ignorance can come from a deprivation, lack, or denial of knowledge. Without an education, a person can’t provide for themselves. This creates want, poverty, and a need for basic necessities. 

Another way of looking at it is that the ignorance of the upper classes in denying the lower classes resources creates want. Scrooge’s urge to look away is a refusal to see a physical embodiment of what he and others who share his laissez-faire perspective help create. He’s frightened by the sight of these children. They represent humanity’s darkest flaws and biggest failures. Most people don’t want to face their demons or failures. They want to grasp at straws, pass the buck, and blame impoverished people for their own situation. 

The personification of ignorance and want as children symbolizes the childlike state of an ignorant mind. Ignorance is a denial or refusal to see the larger picture. It’s a two-dimensional perspective of extremes. Ignorance is also in accepting without question what you’re told regardless of evidence to the contrary like a child who believes in fairy tales. Want is being reduced to a childlike state of being unable to meet basic needs. Ignorance is not physical poverty but intellectual or emotional poverty that leads to actual poverty.

The spirit tells Scrooge to beware especially of ignorance. Scrooge wallows in ignorance. It allows him to go about his daily business. Ignorance allows a person to free themselves from accountability. In this way, he protects himself and his money. Scrooge’s money gives him false security. 

Doom is written on the brow of ignorance. As long as people enjoy the false security blanket that ignorance provides, they remain blind to the real problems in society. Relying on quick-fix solutions (i.e. prisons and workhouses,) based on ignorant, uninformed, and unfair judgments of impoverished people spells doom for society.

Dolls illustrate the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come with Ebenezer Scrooge.
“Ghost of Christmas Future with Ebenezer Scrooge in the Graveyard” by Jim, the Photographer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come symbolizes the uncertainty of all of our futures. It’s the most frightening of all of the spirits with its grim reaper-like appearance. The spirit is shrouded in darkness, faceless, and formless. Dickens describes the spirit: “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. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.” [14] 

This spirit’s lack of physical form symbolizes the uncertainty of the future. It suggests that the future is open to interpretation and formed by our own choices. The phantom shows Scrooge a frightening possibility. Throughout his journey, he’s had important insights into his flaws. He’s made his existence what it is but the future is his to shape. 

The spirit is silent and communicates through gestures. As the spirit of the future, they can provide no definite answers. Only Scrooge can take what he’s learned about himself and apply it to make positive changes. The spirit is dark and featureless personifying the unknown. Like most, Scrooge fears the unknown but is ready to face it.

Scrooge says, “I fear you more than any specter I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.” [15] 

He’s shown the person he is and the legacy he will leave. Scrooge sees the purpose of the three spectral visitations. Why else would he be shown these things if they lead to one fate set in stone?

The spirits are meant to show him the bigger picture. Where his behavior came from and, if unaltered, the sad legacy he’ll leave behind. Before the spirit leaves him, Scrooge vows: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, 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!” [16]

A figure of Ebenezer Scrooge opens his window to a new day
“Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Morning” by Jim, the Photographer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

He saw the lesson in each journey. The spirit showed him the bitterness his childhood created. His father rejected Scrooge. His sister was the only unconditional love and acceptance that he knew. She died young. He shut her son out. Fred was a reminder of the only kindness he knew that was taken from him. But, instead of seeing his sister’s good nature in her son, he chose to shut it out. Being on a very weak foundation, Scrooge put his trust in money. His finances were his only success. 

It isn’t until his journey with the three spirits that he gets to observe his behavior with more clarity as a removed third party. He’s given the opportunity to step outside of himself and to literally face his demons. The journey is emotional, but not in vain. For a reader, the lesson is to consider the consequences of your actions—to try and see yourself as others do. Would you dare to take a journey with the spirits? Or does the thought fill you with fear and dread?

Works cited

[1] Dickens, Charles, Ill: Hildebrandt, Greg. A Christmas Carol, New York: Little Simon. 1983, p. 28

[2] Dickens, p. 30

[3] Dickens, p. 12

[4] Dickens, p. 14

[5] Dickens, p. 35

[6] Dickens, p. 36

[7] Dickens, pp. 47-49

[8] Dickens, p. 10

[9] Dickens, p. 10

[10] Dickens, p. 59

[11] Dickens, p. 71

[12] Dickens, p. 74

[13] Dickens, p. 86

[14] Dickens, p. 89

[15] Dickens, p. 91

[16] Dickens, p. 109

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Written by MD Bastek

Just a person who loves horror and writes about unusual things

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