The Christmas classic that everyone knows – even if they haven’t read it. Plot
It is a simple tale of how a normal man turns cold-hearted and mean and how, when confronted with memories of his past and the possible outcomes of his actions and inactions, he is redeemed by making positive changes to his life and thus that of others.Typical Victoriana or not?
The book opens with wonderful bathos, “Marley was dead, to begin with.” So right from the outset it is clear it is not a straightforward factual tale. Apart from the famous ghosts (of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come), which were not unusual in literature of the time, it has time travel and parallel worlds, where each significant choice leads to a branching of reality, which is a staple of much great sci fi. Not such a typical Victorian novel after all.
Whilst it is a book whose unhurried and detailed descriptions of Christmas are the epitome of the season (“apoplectic opulence”), it is a book of great contrasts: humbug/festivities, hot/cold, company/solitude, poverty/wealth, worthy poor/wastrels, past/future etc. Corruption and redemption
Scrooge’s name has become synonymous with meanness and sociopathy, which is unfair. Quite apart from the fact that the whole point of the book is that he changes for the better, right from the start there are hints that he wasn’t and isn’t irredeemably bad. For example, he never removed Marley’s name from the sign above his office. I don’t think the reason was solely parsimony because during and after the ghostly encounters, we see different aspects of Scrooge, surely exposed by the ghosts, not actually created by them. So maybe part of the reason for leaving the name was a fondness for the memory of his partner - a link to happier times. Certainly Scrooge had sunk to nasty depths, and maybe "It was all the same to him" reflects Scrooge's conscious and observable attitude, rather than the deeper, painful mix of happy and sad memories that he tried so hard to suppress, even though Scrooge would have denied it and believed his denial.
Charity is shown to be not merely financial, but personal too (being pleasant, complimentary, thinking creatively about what to do). A counterpoint to that is that regret is pointless and self-indulgent: the way to overcome it is through reparation – which takes us back to charity.Ghostly significance
The ghostly visitors are not of the Christian kind, but ghost stories were popular in Victorian England. Each ghost is very distinctive in appearance and manner. The first is pale, shadowy (long forgotten?) and “like a child; yet not so like a child as an old man” (the child is father of the man?); the second is a convivial festive spirit wanting to share joy and the third is dark, solemn and scary, reflecting Scrooge’s fears of death and also the sadness that will emanate from him if he does not change, but also with an indistinct face and shape, perhaps suggesting the potential malleability of the future.Christian or Secular?
It has been suggested that it is a surprisingly secular book, but we live in a less religious society and so don’t always notice religious symbolism and allegories unless they’re spelt out. The whole story is a parallel of the Christian gospel, and the fact it’s set at Christmas emphasises that. The main message of Christianity is that no sinner is beyond salvation if they genuinely repent, and that is also the story of Scrooge.
There are other links too: three people profiting from the spoils of the dead man (like the Roman soldiers at the cross, albeit they cast lots to decide who got what) and Peter Cratchit reading from the Bible in Christmas yet to come.
In those days, religion was so much part of quotidian life for most people that it almost fades into the background at times, like having a wash. Dickens had no need say the quotation is from the Bible or to talk about baby Jesus being part of Christmas because all his readers would know that and most of them would believe it. In our secular times, perhaps that makes the story more powerful now than when it was written?