Ghost stories are as old as storytelling itself – and the Winter time, specifically the pagan festival Yule (that is now more popularly known as Christmas) is the most iconic time to tell them thanks to the longer nights, darker nights, and colder climes. In this way, the traditional ghost story around the campfire is closely associated with Christmas, and there is one Yuletide ghost story more famous and more iconic than the rest – Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’
All this makes the book the perfect topic for this month’s blog post. Just in time for Christmas!
There are two important things that make this classic ghost story so compelling and so everlasting. The first is its more famous attribute – the unique writing and worldbuilding through which it defines Christmas as a holiday. The second is simply how great of a ghost story it is independent of this fact.
Dickens explores both of these in the same way. He explores them through great character – most importantly of all, the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge.
We’re introduced to this sour old miser almost immediately, and he is introduced to us with great impact. Scrooge at first appears like a force of nature more than a man – a bitterness manifestation – a callousness elemental, so to speak. He hoards money, is disproportionately wealthy, but not even using it to better his own situation, let alone anyone else’s. He is uncaring, and unfriendly. People purposefully avoid him on the streets – and this makes him happy. Or it would if he were capable of the emotion. Perhaps he’s merely… contented.
All this is contrasted through the rest of the characters – primarily the other characters in direct contact with Scrooge. And these comparisons are made clear straight away – Scrooge’s wealth versus his underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit. Scrooge refusing to return his nephew’s merriments and invitations to dinner, before the clerk does return such merriments. A couple of charity workers being turned away by the cruel and uncaring Scrooge.
In this way, not only is Scrooge totally devoid of Christmas spirit, but seemingly humanity as well. And so far, the other characters exist to draw icy-clear comparisons between their own virtues, and Scrooge’s flaws. Thus, the early scenes form a strong idea in our minds of what kind of character Scrooge is, and the elements of Christmas he has rejected. But also, the struggles of working class people associated with Scrooge, and their ability to be merry at Christmas anyway.
By this point, Scrooge is damned completely in the readers’ minds, or at least in this reader’s mind. How could there be any hope for a man like this, at Christmas or at any other time? So far, Scrooge basically appears to be everything wrong with the rich and powerful, with bosses and callous business CEOs, not only in the time Dickens was writing, but arguably more so today. It’s amazing and horrifying in equal measure how timeless such a thing is.
I want to take a little break now to talk about Dickens’s excellent worldbuilding in this book. It’s different to the kind of worldbuilding you’d see in a more typical fantasy novel, but fantastic nonetheless, building an image of the general public, and even mayors and petty criminals. The people, their situation, livelihoods, and especially of our behaviour during Winter and the Christmas season, all depicted vividly. I say ‘our’ despite this taking place 200 years ago because of how marvelously well the writing has aged, with the book’s prose and content both seeming as relevant and modern as ever.
The juxtaposition you would expect to see between different groups of people is not here. Instead there is a universal friendliness and sociability because that’s what the Christmas season is all about. Even Scrooge, horrible as he is, concedes to give poor Cratchit Christmas day off work, implying there is at least some semblance of Christmas spirit inside even him, somewhere.
Perhaps he is not the pure evil being he at first seemed? Is there something else beneath the surface? We’ll have to wait and see.
The, let’s call it, Christmas worldbuilding goes further by also having a real juxtaposition between Scrooge and his clerk as they head home from the office on Christmas Eve – simultaneously working to build these characters more in our minds. Cratchit is jolly, even playing games on his way in celebration of the occasion, while Scrooge himself merely walks drearily back to a bleak, cold lodging. There’s arguably a further juxtaposition here of the poor clerk having warmth, and the rich Scrooge choosing to be cold. It’s ironic, and makes a strong point about their differing character.
Either way, it’s at this point that the supernatural elements begin – most prominently the unsettling arrival of Marley’s ghost. The description here of the spirit’s chains, and bandages around his head to stop the jaw disconnecting is a brilliant and unique commentary on punishment and purgatory – and the kind of thing that is fated for Scrooge if he does not change his ways, which is exactly what Marley warns him about – the three spirits coming to convince him to do just that.
Something else that’s interesting is Scrooge’s inability to believe in ghosts at first, Marley needing to make a demonstration to prove his existence. It’s a subtle commentary on Scrooge’s lack of spirit in a more figurative sense, and his detachment from spirituality. Charity, religion, faith – in humanity as much as gods. But we also get another look at the idea Scrooge is not totally evil, not totally irredeemable, since he feels genuine terror at this series of events, which also implies that he has not totally abandoned ideas of the spiritual. In other words, there is still some hope for the man.
All the excellent things I’ve spoken about thus far are merely in the first chapter. First stave, rather, which is an interesting word choice. The word ‘stave’ has a whole bunch of meanings I could get into, and almost did, providing a lot of depth even in something as simple as that, but I think the most prominent is this idea of music – Dickens clearly sees this book as a song (its title is ‘A Christmas Carol’ after all), and I think this word choice is inspired. Either way, this first stave gives us fantastic set-up of themes and character – the kind of set-up I really appreciate in a classic horror story.
Of course, from here on out, you’re probably familiar with the basic idea – Scrooge is visited by three spirits – the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come – which gradually gives us the readers more insight into Scrooge’s surprisingly layered character, what Christmas could and should mean for the world and humanity and, bit by bit, Scrooge becomes a changed man.
There’s a lot of extra depth put into the next three staves of the book that I would love to go into detail on, but I think, as always, I’m best off not spoiling such things. I recommend really thinking about these spirits on your next read through of this book though, and on the way Scrooge’s present self is interposed with the way the visitations affect his beliefs and values – because every single sentence of Staves 2, 3 and 4 provides new context, new thematic explorations. It’s truly brilliant. Of course, if you don’t know the story at all, I recommend reading it in full before continuing this essay – otherwise, I’m only going spoiler free insofar as making the assumption that everyone reading at least knows the skeleton of this iconic story’s plot.
Now, what I’m going to do is explore this idea of ‘A Christmas Carol’ as a ghost story – how that subgenre functions, and what this individual example means for the subgenre as a whole.
Let’s start by talking a little about the three spirits, and what they represent.
Scrooge’s first haunting comes from the Ghost of Christmas Past. And what is this past?
Well, it primarily functions to show both Scrooge and us the readers the joy, but also the tragedy, regrets and changes that overcame Scrooge throughout his life. It also gives us descriptions of what Christmas used to be, and could have continued to be had bitterness not overtaken Scrooge’s soul. All this adds a lot of depth to Scrooge’s character, adding relatability, empathy and understanding to what was previously a merely detestable character.
Second comes the Ghost of Christmas Present (whose name I unfortunately keep reading in terms of ‘gifts’ instead of ‘the current time…’). What does the present show us?
It’s all about what is happening right now – for Scrooge and the people associated with him, but also for people generally, and Christmas as a holiday. Wealths of delicious food and rich furnishings – as well as how quickly these things are taken away. This is a nice, subtle depiction of how the material things are not the most important part of Christmas. The other side to this depiction is the torch this spirit owns, a torch that can turn fights into friendship since it’s a shame to quarrel on Christmas Day. Because this is what it should be about. Both Christmas and Scrooge’s life generally are not about the material but the spiritual, the emotional, celebrating and coming together no matter how much or how little wealth a person might have. By having these things shown to us in the present, what we’re really being shown is everything Scrooge is missing out on because of the way he is acting, and the way his mind has changed.
Lastly, Scrooge is haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. There is no transition between waking and sleeping like the previous two ghosts. The final spirit arrives simply because it wants to.
This is the darkest, bleakest and most unsettling of them all, which is the most powerful decision the author could have made for this book’s vision of Scrooge’s future. What does the future hold? Well, what do you most associate with spirits? Death. No one cares about Scrooge’s death – there is no emotion at all. And it gets bleaker still. Scrooge doesn’t know it's his death we are observing, and as he asks more and more questions this vision of the future gets darker and darker. But of course, eventually Scrooge does learn whose death we are witnessing, and realises why no one mourns. Scrooge’s questioning continues even now, but the silent spirit reveals nothing, then collapses into a bedpost in the earliest instance of literary surrealism I know of.
Before getting into the fifth and final stave of the book, I want to talk about how ahead of his time Dickens was. First of all, I’ve got to mention disability representation. Dickens writes about blind men and their dogs – I didn’t even know guide dogs existed in the 19th Century! Where disability representation really becomes prominent though, is through the character of Tiny Tim, who walks with crutches and a frame. That’s got to be one of the earliest specific references to a walking disability in fiction.
Actually, it’s not just disability representation Dickens was ahead of his time with. Using the homeless and primarily working class people in this story, as well as making reference to work houses and malnourishment, Dickens shines a light on marginalised groups that don’t get such page presence even today. I imagine it was even rarer to see back then, just based on the classic literature I’ve personally read.
Crucially though, homelessness and disability aren’t just here for the sake of it – they play vital roles in the story.
I tell you, this Dickens guy was ahead of his time. Even today writers aren’t this good at representation, and readers give ‘em hell for doing it, but here are 200 year olds showing us how it’s done.
Going back to the story, Stave 5 is a perfect conclusion for the kind of story Dickens told here. After slowly becoming more and more convinced, the hauntings are over, and it’s down to Scrooge to make a decision. That’s simply great pacing, and as a Christmas story I think a happy ending is important. Also, it’s a welcome change for reader and Scrooge alike after some of the darker moments of the hauntings.
To say that Scrooge is a changed man when he wakes Christmas morning is an understatement. Gone is the cruel and selfish boss, and here is now a man who embodies the essence of Christmas in every sense we have observed thus far – charity, and humour, and compassion.
So, I said at the beginning of the essay that ‘A Christmas Carol’ defines not only Christmas, but also the ghost story. How does it do that?
Well, I think its way of defining Christmas as a holiday is not only obvious, but well documented. Dickens put in the time and the effort to establish what Christmas means, and how it should be spent.
There is vivid descriptive prose describing celebrations, of whole families coming together to dine with a wealth of food being shared, and a pudding being enjoyed at the end of it. Of friends coming together to enjoy games and jokes with one another. But not only this – gift giving, and charity. Taking time off work to be able to enjoy the season with loved ones. And putting differences aside in favour of friendliness and merriment to allow all this to happen.
As for its place as a ghost story, this too ‘A Christmas Carol’ handles perfectly. Even more so than any other subgenre of horror, the ghost story is about symbolism. With the ghost that haunts the main protagonists haunting them in some character-driven, figurative way on top of haunting them as a more literal spirit. In this case, the four main ghosts of the story represent two things simultaneously – some aspect of Scrooge’s life that is either wrong, or has been lost. And some important element of Christmas and what it represents.
An example of this comes from Marley. Who represents not only the punishment and purgatory that could potentially follow Scrooge if he does not change, but as a result the cruelty their business embodies at Christmastime, and how wrong this is.
But the main three ghosts can be split into a list of three – each one maintaining three interconnected meanings at once. Now that’s a hell of a list of three, even if I do say so myself.
Ghost of Christmas Past – Scrooge's lost childhood, both its innocence and its happiness – the pure joy associated with Christmastime.
Ghost of Christmas Present – Scrooge not only wasting his own possible enjoyment of the holiday, but potentially ruining its power for others as well – the celebrations and coming together that Christmas primarily represent, no matter what else might be going wrong in your life the rest of the year.
Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – Scrooge's death, but more importantly, the way this fails to affect people, and the way his life fails to be remembered for anything more than a figurative lump of coal in the stocking – the continuing and persistent power of Christmas and all it can affect and represent, no matter what else may change.
In this way, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a multifaceted example of the ghost story subgenre, not only taking on its primary elements in an excellently well written manner, but adapting those elements to simultaneously explore and define Christmas as a holiday.
I alluded to this point already, but I want to end this analysis by reiterating it. I believe the whole point is that the ghost haunting us the readers (whether it’s Dickens or some other narrator ghost) wants us to change to save Christmas and people, just like the character of Scrooge did. And I think giving horror stories (for that’s what this is, in its way) a greater relevance to/for the readers, is a damn good choice, especially for a Christmas horror.
It is a masterful work of fiction – and it’s no wonder why it’s become so iconic and famous, not only within its genre, but for its focal time of year also.
Thus ends not only my ‘A Christmas Carol’ analysis, but also the year – the first one in which I’ve been working on this blog. I shall have more of these write-ups coming in 2022, probably starting again in February rather than January.
Until then, have a Merry Christmas and/or other Wintry holiday, and a Happy New Year!