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A Christmas Carol:
The Spirit of Christmas
From "Bah! Humbug!" to "God bless us, every one," Dickens's holiday classic, its characters, and even their dialogue embody the spirit of Christmas. A Christmas Carol has become such a part of modern American and British culture that it would be difficult to find anyone unfamiliar with its story or with the characters of Tiny Tim and Scrooge. The Carol is practically a manual for Christmas, with its depictions of playing games, adorning rooms with festive decorations, and enjoying a turkey feast. Not only does the tale inform certain traditions but it is also a tradition in itself. Indeed, many people would not find their Christmas complete without watching performances of the Carol on stage, on television, or at the cinema.
Little did Dickens know when he finished A Christmas Carol after just six weeks of feverish writing that this brief story would become one of his most famous works. Though the story was successful as soon as it was published on December 19, 1843, Dickens bolstered its renown further by choosing to perform it aloud when he began touring in 1853. His name became synonymous with Christmas in England to the extent that, after his death in 1870, some feared the holiday would become culturally obsolete. Nothing could have been further from the truth the story itself spawned an endless parade of adaptations and interpretations, from musicals to cartoons to comedies, and the holiday it celebrates has never been more popular.
Charles Dickens is perhaps best remembered for his efforts to draw attention to the plight of the poor at the dawn of the modern era. His Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, two masterpieces of English literature, led to the coinage of a new word, Dickensian, to describe something particularly harsh, bleak, or wretched. But as large as that literary legacy may be, Dickens is most beloved for this book, his gift to the poor and affluent alike: a template for a warm, loving, charitable, and thankful family holiday.
The Life and Work of Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens was one of the nineteenth century's most prolific and respected novelists. The second child of John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow, he was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England. When he was five years old, the family moved to Chatham on the southern coast of England, where they would spend the next six years. In 1823, the Dickens family moved again, to London. When Charles was twelve, his father was imprisoned for debt, remaining incarcerated for three months. During that time, Charles's family lived in debtors' prison with his father, leaving Charles largely on his own. He worked at Warren's Blacking factory, gluing labels to bottles of shoe polish, finding himself very poor and often hungry. Young Charles was tormented by the thought that his parents had abandoned him to this hard life. Dickens's time as a child laborer left a permanent, traumatic impression on him; he did not discuss this ordeal publicly, but it surfaced in his fiction. His sympathetic descriptions of Tiny Tim and of Scrooge as a boy spurned by his father in A Christmas Carol reveal his deep compassion for poor, abandoned, or neglected children.
Dickens attended school at the Wellington House Academy in London until he was fifteen, but primarily he educated himself at the library of the British Museum in London. Before becoming a writer he worked as a law clerk, a shorthand reporter, and a news reporter; his fictional writing drew extensively from these experiences. His first published novel, The Pickwick Papers (serialized starting in 1836), a lighthearted and popular work, established the young writer's reputation and raised readers' expectations. He went on to serialize what would become some of his lengthier novels: Oliver Twist (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1838), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), and Barnaby Rudge (1841). In 1842, he traveled with his wife, Catherine, to America, where he enjoyed immense popularity. He wrote a partially critical account of his observations on his trip, American Notes for General Circulation (1842), which offended many readers and critics, who became defensive about their country.
When a report exposing exploitive child labor practices in England was released in 1842, Dickens made a special trip to Cornwall, where he could see for himself the horrible environment child mine workers endured. His wealthy friend and philanthropist Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts requested his opinion of her sponsoring the Ragged Schools of Field Lane, Holborn free schools for the poor so he visited them and wrote to her, "I have very seldom seen...anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children." His sympathy for the poor and outrage at public indifference toward poor children inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in Prose, which he published at his own expense on December 19, 1843. It became so popular that he followed with other Christmas stories such as The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848).
Dickens would next write his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield (starting in 1849). With the publication of Bleak House (1852), he entered what many call his "late period," writing a series of darkly pessimistic novels such as Little Dorrit (1857) and what would become his most popular novel, Great Expectations (1860). In 1858, just as he was separating from Catherine, he began an extensive tour of public readings in London and would eventually travel to Paris, Scotland, Ireland, and America for appearances and readings. His health declined seriously in the next decade, partly as a result of his busy work schedule. In 1870, he collapsed during a public reading in England, just after an American lecture tour. Dickens died from a stroke shortly thereafter. His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was in serialization at the time and remained unfinished.
Historical and Literary Context of A Christmas Carol
Christmas in Victorian England
Just a few decades before A Christmas Carol was written, the celebration of Christmas in England had become almost obsolete. Christmas was once a lavishly celebrated holiday, with festivals that combined pagan customs and Christian symbolism in masques (a dramatic performance usually by actors in masks), plays, and other traditions. After Puritans took control of England during the seventeenth century, celebrations of Christmas were outlawed. The holiday was revived when the monarchy was restored in the eighteenth century, but it was not as elaborate as it had been in the past.
During the years leading up to the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843, however, the holiday was enjoying a renaissance in England. Ten years earlier, William Sandys published Selection of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833), a collection of Christmas songs that would become extremely popular and incite a tradition of caroling in England. Thomas K. Hervey published a scholarly history of Christmas in The Book of Christmas three years later. Britain's young Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert in 1840, who popularized many Christmas traditions of his native country, such as the Christmas tree, in his wife's homeland. In 1843, the same year A Christmas Carol was published, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first Christmas card from John C. Horsley. It was a three-paneled drawing with a simple Christmas scene in which a family enjoys a dinner celebration in the center with the caption "A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to you" with a small space for the name of the sender. Dickens's short novel would further promote and solidify these and other Christmas traditions in both English and American culture.
Poverty: The Poor Laws and the Workhouse
At the time of the publication of A Christmas Carol, England was still coming to terms with the Industrial Revolution. Technological innovations had shifted the basis of England's economy from agriculture to industry between 1750 and 1850. The development of steam power and a boom in the cotton textiles industry caused a population shift from rural to urban areas. New steam-powered railroads and ships broadened the market for England's output. Laborers were more at the mercy of their employers than ever before, and working conditions in factories, mines, and mills were often brutal. Children and adults alike commonly worked as much as sixteen hours a day, six days a week in dangerous conditions for very small wages. England went through particularly severe growing pains during the 1830s and 1840s. An economic depression in the early 1840s led to widespread unemployment and riots.
In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act completely overturned previous methods of aiding the poor that had been in place for over two centuries. Before the poor laws were amended, parishes were required to feed, clothe, or otherwise financially support the poor in what was called "outdoor relief." The poor laws replaced outdoor relief with mandatory rules that the poor who received aid must receive "indoor relief," and to live in workhouses, or government-run shelters provided in exchange for work. The conditions in these workhouses were so grim and at times so unbearable that some preferred to starve on the streets.
Dickens, having spent a few months in a workhouse with his family when his father was sent to one, fiercely opposed the practice. His fiction, essays, and letters often reflect this view. Clearly Dickens's critical attitudes about both the poor laws and the workhouse show transparently in the narrative, as does his belief that a person's wealth is not a reflection of his character.
Supplementary materials copyright © 2007 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.