A Christmas Carol in a Nutshell

It may be Eastertide, but Christmas is in the air as Joseph Pearce continues his review series on the classics of Western literature.

Originally published in 1843, Dickens’ ghost story, A Christmas Carol, is one of the most popular works of literature ever written. Its mean-spirited protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, stands out from Dickens’ imaginary menagerie of characters as a cautionary icon of miserly worldliness but also as a beacon of hope and redemption, as powerful parabolically as the Prodigal Son of which he is a type.  

The story begins with the cold hard fact that Jacob Marley is “as dead as a door-nail”: 

There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot…literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.  

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The connection with Hamlet at the very beginning of the novella has a deep significance which the whimsical tone should not obscure. In Shakespeare’s play as in Dickens’ story the ghosts serve to introduce not merely a supernatural dimension to the work but a supernatural perception of reality. The ghosts reveal what is hidden to mortal eyes. They see more. They serve as supernatural messengers who reveal crimes that would otherwise have remained hidden. Their intervention is necessary for reality to be seen and understood and for justice to be done. Thus, in connecting Jacob Marley’s ghost to the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Dickens is indicating the role and purpose of the ghosts that he will introduce to Scrooge, and to us. They will show us not only Scrooge but ourselves in a manner that has the power to surprise us out of our own worldliness and to open us to the spiritual realities that we are prone to forget.

It is, however, not only the ghosts who teach us timely and timeless lessons but our mortal neighbors also. It is, after all, worth remembering that the first visitors that Scrooge receives are not ghosts but men. His nephew waxes lyrical on what might be termed the magic or miracle of Christmas:

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….

There is no need to remind Scrooge’s nephew of the necessity of keeping Christ in Christmas! He knows that it is venerated because of its sacred name, Christ-Mass, and because of its sacred origin in the birth of the Savior. How can anything associated with Christmas be separated from its sacred source and purpose? The very thought, as expressed in the nephew’s afterthought, is plainly absurd. Scrooge, ironically, does not disagree. He has no intention of celebrating the Feast while ignoring its sacred name and origin as do most people in our own hedonistic times. He does not want to celebrate it at all. After complaining that his nephew should let him keep Christmas in his own way, the nephew reminds him that he doesn’t keep it at all. “Let me leave it alone, then,” Scrooge replies.

The other facet of the nephew’s defense of Christmas that should not go unnoticed or unheeded is his reminder to his uncle that the poor and destitute are “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” This is not merely a memento mori, which, for the Christian, should always be a reminder of the Four Last Things—death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell—but is a reminder that we are not homo sapiens, smug in the presumption of our cleverness, but homo viator, creatures or “passengers” on the journey of life, the only purpose of which is to get to Heaven. 

Furthermore, our fellow travelers, sanctified by their being made in God’s image, are our mystical equals, irrespective of their social or economic status, whom we are commanded to love. They are not “another race of creatures bound on other journeys” but are our very kith and kin bound on the same journey of life as we are. The inescapable truth, inextricably bound to the great commandment of Christ that we love the Lord our God and that we love our neighbor, is that we cannot reach the destination that is the very purpose of life’s journey without helping our fellow travelers get there with us. The lesson that A Christmas Carol teaches is that our lives are not owned by us but are owed to another to whom the debt must be paid in the currency of self-sacrifice, which is love’s means of exchange.

A Christmas Carol is, therefore, as might be expected of a meditation on the spirit of Christmas, a literary work that operates most profoundly on the level of theology. This is seen most clearly in the roles played by the various ghosts. 

Marley’s ghost, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is apparently a soul in purgatory and not one of the damned. This is clear from his penitential and avowedly Christian spirit and his desire to save Scrooge from following in his folly-laden footsteps. When Scrooge seeks to console him with the reminder that he had always been “a good man of business,” Marley’s ghost wrings his hands in conscience-driven agitation. “Business!” he cries. “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!”

If Marley’s ghost is the spirit of a mortal man, suffering penitentially and purgatorially for his sins, the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come are best described as angels. They are divine messengers (angelos, in Greek, means “messenger”). More specifically, they might be seen as Scrooge’s own guardian angels, as can be seen from the first Ghost’s description of himself as not being the Ghost of Long Past but of Scrooge’s own past.

The final aspect of A Christmas Carol that warrants mention, especially in light of its poignant pertinence to our own meretricious times, is its celebration of life in general and the lives of large families in particular. The burgeoning family of Bob Cratchit, in spite of its poverty (or dare we say because of it), is the very hearth and home from which the warmth of life and love glows through the pages of Dickens’ story. At the very heart of that hearth and home is the blessed life of the disabled child, Tiny Tim, which shines forth in Tiny Tim’s love for others and in the love that his family has for him. His very presence is the light of caritas that serves catalytically to bring Scrooge to his senses. 

After his conversion, Scrooge no longer sees the poor and disabled as being surplus population who should be allowed to die, as in our own day they are routinely killed or culled in the womb, but as a blessing to be cherished and praised. For this love of life, even of the life of the disabled, especially of the life of the disabled, is at the heart of everyone who knows the true spirit of Christmas as exemplified in the helplessness of the Babe of Bethlehem. “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

Editor’s Note: This is the thirtieth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”


  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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