A Christmas Carol: Theme Analysis
Scholar Michael Patrick Hearn, in The Annotated Christmas Carol (1976; New York: Norton, 2004), notes that Dickens was a Unitarian. Unitarian Christianity, in Dickens' day, focused more on morality and ethics than on traditional theology. Dickens wrote in one of his letters, "I have always striven in my writings to express the veneration for the life and lessons of our Savior . . ." (Hearn, p. 143). While silent here regarding the traditional claim of Jesus' full divinity, Dickens clearly feels passionately about Jesus' full humanity. For Dickens, Jesus is the perfect example of a godly, loving life. Jesus, in Dickens' mind, teaches us what it is to be human. Given this background, readers may consider A Christmas Carol to be an extended meditation on and illustration of one of Jesus' central moral teachings, as recorded in the New Testament: "For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?" (Luke 9:25, KJV). Scrooge has pursued the wealth of "the whole world" for his whole life-but, as his ghostly encounters prove, Scrooge's real life is in grave danger. And while details surrounding Marley's Ghost (e.g., the hot breeze stirring his hair) suggest that Scrooge's eternal life is jeopardized, the whole of A Christmas Carol emphasizes the importance and urgency of a life-giving, life-changing engagement with our fellow human beings (not, one notes, the adherence or lack thereof to "orthodox" religious doctrine!). The book leaves its readers with the understanding that Scrooge-and, by extension, we ourselves-ought to be more concerned with the quality of our lives here and now. The narrative often touches on these questions: What constitutes a real life? What does it mean to be human? Its answer: to be human is to love-and to love, as Dickens knew the Scriptures taught, not with mere words, but in concrete actions (see, e.g., 1 John 3:18). As Marley's Ghost tells Scrooge, our spirits must "walk abroad," among our fellow human beings, doing what acts of love we can.
Generosity of Spirit
Scrooge's nephew Fred first sounds this theme when he praises Christmas as "the only time . . . when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely . . . ." Fred's language indicates that, for Dickens, generosity involves more than the giving of money. It requires the giving of one's goodwill and compassion. Throughout A Christmas Carol, the examples we see of generosity are more about the spirit in which something is given than the thing itself-from the schoolmaster's offer of food and wine to young Scrooge and Fan, or the modest but joyful celebration sponsored by Mr. And Mrs. Fezziwig, or even Fred's offer of assistance to a bereaved Bob Cratchit in a future that does not come to pass: as Bob says, "Now it wasn't for the sake of anything [Fred] might be able to do for us, so much as for his kind way, that this was quite delightful" (Stave Four, emphasis added). And, of course, the Ghost of Christmas Present, with his cornucopia-like torch, is generosity personified. Generosity of spirit defines Christmas for Dickens, and goes a large way toward defining true humanity for him as well (see above).
The Importance of Memory
A Christmas Carol is a largely nostalgic work: as discussed in comments on Stave One, Dickens is not so much recording the "traditional Victorian Christmas" as he is restoring ancient practices which became associated with the holiday thanks in large part to this book. Unsurprisingly, then, memory is honored throughout the book, and is even ascribed a salvific quality. The Ghost of Christmas Past is memory personified; the light from its head allows Scrooge to see and learn from both the good things and the bad things in his past. The task of keeping alive Tiny Tim's memory, in the future of Stave Four that does not transpire, allows the Cratchit family to move on in life: in Bob's own words, "[H]owever and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim-shall we? . . . ." Dickens structures his story to show how memory of one's past affects and-if but allowed to do so-can even transform one's present and future.
Readers must remember that, as A Christmas Carol begins, Scrooge is not condemned for his miserly ways alone. If he were simply a stingy man, whose penny-pinching ways hurt no one but himself, he might be a pitiable character, but one about whom readers do not overly concern themselves. Scrooge's miserliness, however, is symptomatic for Dickens of the way in which his society ignored, exploited, and abused its poorest and most vulnerable members. Remember Scrooge's objection to charitable donations ("Are there no prisons," etc.) and his dismissal of the poor as "surplus population" (a phrase coined by laissez-faire economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who represented a "hands- off" school of thought to which Dickens objected [Hearn 24]). Such cynical and calloused refusal to share (see also comments on generosity, above) is, for Dickens, an outrage. The clearest call for social justice in the book occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge to beware of Ignorance and Want, forces which, if left unchecked, can spell doom not only for the poor but for the whole of society. Dickens stresses the humanity common to all people, and demands that those who "have" act accordingly towards those who "have not."
Make it a good day!