I’m sure most English speaking people know the plot of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There have been dozens of filmed versions of it, but I highly recommend reading the novella, for that is the best version of all.
Throughout his adult life Dickens wrote and lectured on the plight of the poor – a topic he had first-hand knowledge of. As a child he’d lived a comfortable life and attended good schools, but only because his father spent more than he earned as a Navy Pay Office clerk. When Dickens was twelve years old his father was sent to debtors prison and the boy left school to begin working at a rat-infested boot blacking factory.
Nineteen years later, after he’d become a successful novelist, Dickens planned to write a political pamphlet on the subject of poverty, but then decided a story would reach a larger audience. In December of 1843 Dickens published A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas.. The novella was not an immediate financial success, but it has remained in print for more than 170 years.
One Christmas Eve, on an afternoon so dark “fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole,” miserly money-lender Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by two gentlemen collecting funds to help poor families. Scrooge did not approve of their endeavor and asked if the prisons, workhouses and treadmills were still in operation.
Treadmills? Was Scrooge wondering if the poor had access to exercise equipment? No, the treadmills in question were massive wooden wheels with steps built into the perimeter. Men trod those steps for ten hours a day, and the turning wheel pumped water or crushed grain.
Once used as a punishment in English prisons, treadmills may have been used in some workhouses, where conditions were purposely kept so harsh that the destitute usually refused to apply for help through the 1834 Poor Law.
When Scrooge asked his visitors about the prisons and workhouses he was told: “Many can’t go there; many would rather die.” Scrooge then declared: “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
After the gentlemen left, and Scrooge reluctantly allowed his clerk, Bob Cratchit, to have Christmas off, the miser went home and began his encounter with ghosts. He first met up with the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and when Scrooge told him he’d always been a good man of business Marley informed him that charity and mercy were a man’s business, and those who neglect those duties during their life suffer the consequences after death.
Marley then stated he had come to try and save him from an eternity of torment, and said Scrooge would be haunted by three spirits. Scrooge did not like the idea of being haunted and said he’d rather not be saved. Fortunately Marley ignored Scrooge’s wishes and proceeded to tell him the timetable that had been set up for visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.
In Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past the reader learns of his neglected childhood, when he was left alone at a boarding school during holidays, about his apprenticeship with a benevolent employer, and his engagement to a young woman who broke the marriage contract when his single-minded pursuit of material gains changed the man she had once admired.
A much subdued Scrooge met the Ghost of Christmas Present, who showed him the home life of many people, including his clerk, Bob Cratchit, The Cratchit family had many children, but the most memorable one was Tiny Tim, a frail boy who used a crutch, and had his limbs encased in an iron frame.
Dickens doesn’t state the reason for Tiny Tim’s poor health, but one modern-day guess is he suffered from a combination of rickets (which causes soft bones) and tuberculosis. Poor nutrition and cramped living conditions, with little chance to be in sunlight, would have brought on the diseases. Poverty was killing Tiny Tim.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was an unseen spirit, shrouded in a black garment. He communicated by means of extending a robed arm to point out what Scrooge should observe. He would not answer whether the scenes shown were what would happen, or merely what might take place.
Scrooge was shown the home of the bereaved Cratchit family, preparing for Tiny Tim’s burial. And he learned of the death of a man who is not mourned, and whose belongings were looted and sold at a back-alley pawn shop. Who was that friendless man? Even the few who haven’t read the story or watched a movie version of A Christmas Carol shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out which possible death would push Ebenezer Scrooge on to total repentance.
In the end Scrooge had a merry Christmas, but then on December 26th he took rather feisty delight in rushing to work, hoping to catch Bob Cartchit showing up late. His clerk did arrive late, and Scrooge growled at him and demanded that he step into his office, where he was told: “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore I am about to raise your salary!”
Poor Bob was not the brightest of fellows, plus he’d spent years taking verbal abuse from the most miserly of misers. His reaction was to move closer to a ruler. “He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a straight-waistcoat.”
Scrooge had taken heed of what the ghost of Jacob Marley had said – that charity and mercy were a man’s business. His change for the better was permanent, and Tiny Tim did not die, no doubt due to a higher family income that could afford better quality groceries and needed medical care.
I have a friend who likes stories “with a bow at the end” – her way of saying she likes happy endings. A Christmas Carol ends with a quote from Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one!”
Charles Dickens is considered one of the greatest English writers of all time. I must admit that I’ve never read my way through any of his long novels, but I’ve read A Christmas Carol several times, and can attest that it is well written. It takes up 52 pages of my paperback anthology of favorite Christmas poems and stories, so it can be read in one afternoon or evening.
If you’d like to read A Christmas Carol it can be downloaded free of charge at: