A Christmas Carol is a fairly straightforward allegory built on an episodic narrative structure in which each of the main passages has a fixed, obvious symbolic meaning… The three spirit-guides, along with each of their tales, carry out a thematic function — the Ghost of Christmas Past, with his glowing head, represents memory; the Ghost of Christmas Present represents charity, empathy, and the Christmas spirit; and the reaper-like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come represents the fear of death. Scrooge, with his “Bah! Nonsense!” attitude, embodies all that dampens Christmas spirit — greed, selfishness, indifference, and a lack of consideration for one’s fellow man.
With A Christmas Carol, Dickens hopes to illustrate how self-serving, insensitive people can be converted into charitable, caring, and socially conscious members of society through the intercession of moralizing quasi-religious lessons. Warmth, generosity, and overall goodwill, overcome Scrooge’s bitter apathy as he encounters and learns from his memory, the ability to empathize, and his fear of death. Memory serves to remind Scrooge of a time when he still felt emotionally connected to other people, before he closed himself off in an austere state of alienation. Empathy enables Scrooge to sympathize with and understand those less fortunate than himself, people like Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit. The fear of death hints at imminent moral reckoning — the promise of punishment and reward.
With each Ghost’s tale functioning as a parable, A Christmas Carol advances the Christian moral ideals associated with Christmas — generosity, kindness, and universal love for your community — and of Victorian England in general. The book also offers a distinctly modern view of Christmas, less concerned with solemn religious ceremony and defined by more joyous traditions — the sharing of gifts, festive celebrations, displays of prosperity. The book also contains a political edge, most evident in Dickens’ development of the bustling, struggling Cratchit family, who are a compelling, if one-dimensional, representation of the plight of the poor. Dickens, with every intention of tugging on your heartstrings, paints the Cratchits as a destitute family that finds a way to express profound gratitude for its emotional riches. Dickens carries this sentiment even further with the tragic figure of the pure-hearted, crippled Cratchit son, Tiny Tim. Scrooge’s emotive connection to Tiny Tim dramatically underscores his revelatory acceptance of the Christmas ideal. Scrooge begins to break through his emotional barricade in Stave Three as he expresses pity for Tiny Tim. The reader, upon hearing the usually uncaring miser inquire into Tim’s fate, begins to believe Scrooge has a chance at salvation. Scrooge’s path to redemption culminates with his figurative “adoption” of Tiny Tim, acting as “a second father” to the little boy.
A Christmas Carol is an uncharacteristically short work, but it showcases Dickens’ signature themes. In the character of Scrooge, Dickens treats the issues of the proper roles of money and work in life, and, in Bob Cratchit, he provides an instructive counterpart to the Scroogian values of selfishness and money hoarding. Money, class, and rank are unreliable guidelines for determining human worth in Dickens’ fictional world; and true merit is often hidden among the rags and ignorance of the poor and the abandoned.
Tiny Tim is a Dickensian reminder of youthful potential spoiled by poverty. Encumbered by his metal scaffolding, the child is also an unforgettable image of youth in thrall to industry. He is literally trapped in metal parts in a way that summons pictures of children working endlessly at factory machines. The heartlessness of industrial society — which Dickens disliked greatly — broods over the story as a whole, and is effectively personified in the person of Scrooge.
Moreover, A Christmas Carol turns upon the issue of redemption, perhaps the most pervasive of Dickens’ major themes. Scrooge is, after all, a terrible man who is fortunate enough to view the arc of his bleak life in harsh relief. Like many Dickens protagonists, Scrooge seizes the chance to start again, and remakes himself as Dickens undoubtedly believed that he had done.
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