The tone of this novella really, really shifts from scene to scene, and it is never subtle. As tones go, this one's a bull in a china shop. Mostly, the tone we get depends on whose story we are hearing.
If it's to do with Scrooge, there's usually a vicious tongue-lashing somewhere in the mix. For example, check out the scene when the charity collectors come to ask Scrooge to chip in some money and he wonders how come the poor don't just go to jail or the workhouse or something and leave him alone:
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don't know that."
"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.
"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him. (1.62-66)
Whew! Now there's a whirlwind of tone shifts if we ever saw one.
The men talking to Scrooge are completely calm and reasonable, pointing out without too much drama that the poor don't want to be in horrible conditions just like everyone else, and that it's a little weird that Scrooge has no sympathy for them at all. Their tone is characterized as being an "observation."
Meanwhile, Scrooge is bitter and nasty and thoroughly snappish, yelling all his answers and generally being a jerk. Not to get all fancy on you, but we have to point out that he switches out the milder subjunctive mood verbs "would" and "might" for the dismissive and brusque indicative: if the poor "would rather" die, well, they must "do it"; he "might" know about them, but chooses to think that "it's not" for him, and that he is otherwise "occupied." Well, fine, Scroogey. Be that way.
Finally, when the dialogue ends and the narrator steps in, the tone is immediately mocking Scrooge, who finishes being a total Grinch and yet somehow obliviously develops an "improved opinion of himself" when any reasonable person would be cringing at such a display of selfishness.
If it's to do with any other character, the tone falls into Hallmark card territory, all sugar and spice and everything nice. The best examples of this tend to come in scenes with the Cratchits, the most idealized family ever. Check them out at the end of their Christmas meal:
Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. […] The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle […] the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily. Then Bob proposed:
"A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!"
Which all the family re-echoed.
"God bless us every one!" said Tiny Tim, the last of all. (3.63-68)
This has more sticky-sweet treacle in it than the end of every Full House episode ever. Everyone behaves with ultimate perfection. Everyone is completely aware at every moment of the feelings of all the other family members, and of the importance of the holiday, and is constantly on best terms with everyone else. The kids don't fight. Fight, heck, they don't even yell or talk too loudly.
It's a hoary cliché, but a really powerful one at the time. Reformers like Dickens thought that the only way to overcome the idea that the poor were responsible for being poor was to show just how wonderful they were as people to rustle up a little sympathy. Nowadays, the sentimentality reads as fake and really laid on, but back in the day, it was one of only a few ways to reach those who didn't have regular contact with the working poor.
Back in the day, when the two Grimm brothers set out to collect and write down the folk tales that peasants told in the German countryside, they were kind of shocked at the for-adults-only nature of what they were finding (a fun Shmoop aside: did you know that in the original Sleeping Beauty story, she doesn't wake up when the prince kisses her? Or when he then rapes her? Or even when she gets pregnant with twins? And that she only finally wakes up when the babies are born and crawl up her body and start nursing? Yeah. Try to make a movie out of that, Disney.). Um, anyway, so the Grimms edited here and edited there, and eventually ended up with the safe, sentimental, and moralizing children's fairy tales we all know and love today.
Well, A Christmas Carol feels like an un-Grimmed fairy tale—a story with magical creatures and fantastical events, but one that is strictly for grown-ups, what with its main feature being a really strong sense of existential dread and a fear of other people. But hey, at least there's a happy ending.
You guys, just look at this thing.
This title just piles contradiction on top of contradiction! How? Let us count the ways.
First of all, we've got the paradox that Dickens claims that the story is a "Christmas Carol" but one that is "in prose." Now, a carol is what we think it is—a song with metered and rhyming lyrics that is delivered live and out loud, usually on just one night of the year. That's why the chapters in this thing are called "staves"—that's another word for verses.
And prose? Well, prose is pretty much the exact opposite of that. It's written, unmetered and unrhymed, and usually meant to be read rather than listened to (and probably, Dickens hopes, read over and over again rather than just the one time).
And on the other side of the colon, we've got another bit of weirdness: it's a "story of Christmas" that is actually a "ghost story."
Well, Charlie—which is it? Okay, stories about Christmas are usually stories about, you know, the whole no-room-at-the-inn-baby-Jesus-in-the-manger thing. Or else at least something to do with Christianity and the religious underpinnings of the holiday. They definitely don't usually include ghosts, which are strictly for Halloween.
So why all this mixing and matching? Why have a title that muddles and confuses readers about what they are about to read? What would be different if this were simply titled "Ebenezer Scrooge"? Would the story then be as universal as it seems now, or would readers be too fixated on just this one guy to get the larger message about the whole season?
Here's a theory. For one thing, this title plays up the more surprising elements of the story. Sure, nowadays the story of Scrooge is as entrenched in the Christmas tradition as trees, Santa, and even the Grinch. But back then, ghosts and curmudgeons were not exactly rolling in on the Yuletide. Dickens is telling us, right off the bat, that this ain't your mama's Christmas story. It's something entirely new.
You know what's great about the endings of Victorian novels? They are usually just a total exercise in wish fulfillment. However much some authors grumble about the predictability of the presents-and-coal approach, and the annoyingness of having to create a whole happily-ever-after to resolve pretty complex stuff, all of them eventually deliver on the promise of a tying everything up in a shiny neat bow. The good characters get prizes and rewards, and the bad ones get their just desserts and comeuppances.
But A Christmas Carol is different.
Sure, you still get the mega-happy ending—Tiny Tim lives, everyone gets to eat a giant turkey, and Scrooge is made over into the nice grandfather that he should have been all along. But… where are the punishments? Where is the narrator with the proverbial punch in the face for all those bad guys that we've been hating?
Yup, that's right—we don't have any of that. Instead, because our protagonist and antagonist are one and the same person (check out Shmoop's "Character Roles" section for the story behind that phenomenon), we have a really rare case of a plot in which the bad guy is quickly rehabbed into a good one, and an ending that rewards him for his timely transformation, conveniently ignoring the bad that came before.
Whatever we make of the Christmas ghosts and the adventures Scrooge has with them (Is he hallucinating them because guilt has finally gotten to him? Are they actually there?), it is clear that there is a big difference between the real life that he experiences and watches others experience, and the fantastical and chaotic stuff that goes down when he is ghosting around.
Some of the best moments play on the weird moments between the two states, where fantasy gives way to reality, or vice versa, and we can see the rules of the physical world and the ghost world meld together.
For a good example, check out the Scrooge's first encounter with the other world:
Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, […] that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London [however] Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change—not a knocker, but Marley's face.
Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look […]
As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again. (1.81-83)
What's great about this is how much effort the narration puts into shoring up reality and rationality in the face of this totally surreal, out-of-this world thing.
Not only do we get some background info (the door knocker has "nothing particular" about it, and Scrooge has the least amount of "fancy" of anyone), but also even the transformation itself tries to be as rational as possible, what with Marley not doing any of the usual scary ghost shtick and instead looking just "as Marley used to look."
The cherry on top of the rationality sundae comes from Scrooge's reaction. Does he freak out? Scream? Call for help? No, he just "looks fixedly" at the face until it goes away. The fantastic has been beaten back by the mundane.
Okay, so the point of the fix-Scrooge project is basically to convince an old man who has walled himself off from human contact to rejoin people, right? Right. So it definitely stands to reason that we get a bunch of compare and contrast scenes of what life is like for those who are isolated and those who seek out the company of others.
On the isolation side, we get the miserable sight of how Scrooge lives today—serving himself some crappy porridge by a too small fire, alone in a building that has no other tenants. Yikes.
We also get a far sadder glimpse into his childhood Christmases, stuck by himself at boarding school with only his imagination for company (and it's not much of an imagination to begin with).
And finally, of course, there is the macabre lonely Christmas of the future, where Scrooge is completely alone even after death. Bummer.
Meanwhile, on the yay-humans! side, we see the equally awesome parties held by Fred in the present and Fezziwig in the past. We also see the dinner thrown by the Cratchits, all full of love, and not so full of food.
But these comparisons are constant and so pointedly blatant that it feels like the narrator is reading over our shoulder, constantly poking us with his finger, and yelling, "Get it? Get it? Huh, huh, do ya?" Um, yes, calm down, dude, we totally get it. Christmas with people is the bee's knees.
So let's do something a bit more interesting, shall we? It's cool to check out the few scenes where people are balanced between isolation and being in the world. For one thing, they're less finger-pointy because they are so much more anonymous than the scenes of people from Scrooge's life. We never really find out who the people in them are, beyond a very generic description from the Ghost of Christmas Present.
First, we meet the miners:
[Scrooge and the Ghost] stood upon a bleak and desert moor […] "A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth" […] Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children's children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song […] (3.88)
Then, there are those lighthouse-keepers:
Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. […] But even here, two men […] Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song. […] (3.93)
And just in case we didn't get the picture, meet these sailors, who seem to be having a grander time than poor Mr. Clooney:
Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea—on, on—until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day. (3.95)
As the ghost pulls Scrooge further and further away from civilization, we see that no matter where they are people crave each other's company. Seriously, he stops just short of traveling to Tristan da Cunha, or even the moon, just to prove that all folks need to have some fun is a partner (or two) in crime.
This of course only makes Scrooge's self-isolation seem more and more crazy and unnatural. What is the common thread linking these brief scenes? That the environment around each place is totally barren—the moor is like a "desert", the lighthouse is "solitary", the ship is "far away from any shore"—but that the people are always experiencing togetherness nonetheless. So why can't Scrooge get his act together and get a partner in crime (or two) when he's surrounded by folks in a crowded city?
Oh, and here's a question: Why do you think there are songs being sung in each of these mini-scenes? What's up with that?
Sure, there's a little bit of old timey language, and it's probably helpful to have a sense that without the charitable donations of Scrooge and other rich folks the poor people of the time would have no other means of financial support, but honestly, it's an uplifting, non-scary ghost story that we already all know and love. Easy to read, easy to get through, easy to understand, so sit back with a glass of eggnog and enjoy.
It's kind of funny that in a novella about the journey of the protagonist from point A (hating people, being a miser) to point B (wanting human companionship, being generous), the narrator spends the whole time tapping his foot impatiently, as if totally annoyed that has Scrooge hasn't gotten there already.
Even when Scrooge seems to be doing the right thing, the narrator sounds like he's really reluctant to say so:
To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and lighted his candle.
He did pause, with a moment's irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley's pigtail sticking out into the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said "Pooh, pooh!" and closed it with a bang. (1.84-85)
Check out how much the narration stretches out and twists Scrooge's perfectly reasonable reaction here: "okay, yes, fine," the narrator's tone seems to be saying, "you got me, he did obviously get kind of freaked out by the whole face-on-the-knocker thing."
But then the narrator goes on to gleefully make fun of the fact that Scrooge overpowers his fears and turns the handle "sturdily" and then even says "Pooh, pooh" to himself.
Can you find another moment of the narrator fighting it out with his protagonist?
You know what's interesting about all the movie and TV versions of this novella they make? They usually get Marley's ghost totally wrong.
Oh, sure, he's usually a totally creepy special effect, and the makeup tends to be ghoulish enough, and they even tend to recreate the jangling rattle noise that his chains make as he walks… but the chains themselves?
In every version Shmoop can remember, Marley's chains are shown to be just really big heavy metal chains, which is fine as it goes, we guess. Except that in the original, Marley actually looks pretty much the same as he did in life, but—and it's a huge but—he's bound and tied by something that is much more sinister and scary:
The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.
"You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?"
"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?" (1.98-132)
What's the chain made out of? Not out of standard links at all, but instead out of the things that were most important to Marley before he died—money, debt, interest, profit. Why is this scarier, you ask? Well, maybe not scarier in a horror-movie kind of way, but certainly the idea that you will be manacled by the very things that you held up as important has a nice terror about it.
Think about it: this is specifically not a chain that's been made by some external force, some higher power that judges you after you die and that you can complain about not being fair or whatever. No, this is all your own doing—"I made it link by link of my own free will," says Marley in the above quotation, pointing out that the choice to what to value in life has endless ramifications, even beyond the grave.
So… yeah. Maybe the symbolism of this one isn't so very hard to dig out. But still, the gravestone is a very important element in the whole let's-turn-Scrooge-back-into-a-human-being project.
However invested Scrooge eventually becomes in his own spiritual life, and however bad he feels about the kind of man he has allowed himself to become, nothing really gets through to him quite like the gravestone with his name on it that confirms that the terrible, unmourned death he has been observing with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is in fact his own.
It's this final discovery that really makes him desperate to change—to "sponge away the writing on this stone" (4.164). In a pretty powerful scene, the unemotional, angry Scrooge that we've seen so far suddenly gives way to a guy who bursts into straight up pleading. He doesn't know whether the phantom actually has any powers to change stuff, but he can't help screaming, "hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse" (4.160).
Just imagine a really good actor sink his teeth into that one—a showstopper for sure.
You know what's kind of crazy (okay, one of the many things that are kind of crazy) about the way Scrooge gets his groove back? It's very, very invasive. Now, Shmoop isn't a psychiatrist and doesn't even play one on TV, but there's something about the fact that everyone who tries to reform Scrooge-the-loner keeps on breaking into his bedroom that smacks to us of the traditional treatment for phobia.
What's that you ask? It's constant exposure to the thing you're scared of.
And the object that seems to register highest on Scrooge's invasiveness scale is none other than his bed—arguably the most private and isolated place in his house, or anyone's house for that matter. Think about how many times Scrooge is pulled into and out of his bed. The Ghost of Christmas Past opens up his bed curtains to reveal a terrified Scrooge. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come turns into one of the bedposts when it melts away, and each time a ghostly adventure is over, Scrooge finds himself plopped back into his four-poster.
But the real kicker comes from the possible future that Scrooge sees while traipsing about with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. You know, those three thieves who have made off with his stuff after his death? The most appalling of these is the charwoman, who makes off with… well, let's let her tell it:
"You don't mean to say you took 'em down, rings and all, with him lying there?" said Joe.
"Yes I do," replied the woman. "Why not?"
[Scrooge] recoiled in terror, for the scene had changed, and now he almost touched a bed: a bare, uncurtained bed: on which, beneath a ragged sheet, there lay a something covered up, which, though it was dumb, announced itself in awful language. (4.64-78)
Even the pawnshop guy, who apparently is used to this kind of thievery, is floored by the idea that this corpse was so unattended that the woman could have actually removed the curtains from the bed without anyone giving a hoot.
Also, check out how the fact that the bed is "uncurtained" and "bare" makes the scene with Scrooge's corpse look even more chilling and horrifying. In the novella, this violation of the bed is pretty much the ultimate invasion—since Dickens isn't willing to have Scrooge's actual body be harmed in some way.
And finally, what's the first thing Scrooge turns to in his immense relief that he gets to Mulligan his life? You guessed it—the bed:
Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in! (5.1)
There's something a little bit screwy with the narrative voice of this novella.
No, really. Usually, when you have a third person limited omniscient narrator, readers are dealing with a voice that lets them really get into the head of the protagonist. Only hearing the thoughts of this one character, and at the same time getting the kind of background info that only a third-person narrator can supply—well, that's just the kind of unbeatable combination that makes readers deeply and strongly identify with and understand the protagonist.
Here, however, we have a third person narrator who is definitely limited to only Scrooge's thoughts, but who absolutely just hates the guy.
So instead of a sympathetic portrait, we get vicious mockery and a strange distance between the narrator and the dude he is describing:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, "My dear Scrooge, how are you?" […]
But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance. (1.7-10)
The narrator can't get enough insults in describing this guy! We are definitely in his head—for example, we learn that he doesn't care… wait, he even likes it that no one has anything nice to say to him. But instead of giving us the inside dope about why Scrooge got that way, the narrator just points fingers, laughs, and shakes his head disapprovingly. Think about it—we only find out how Scrooge got this way because we see his childhood during the Ghost of Christmas Past section.
What's that about? Well, it's a surefire way that we both detest Scrooge to begin with, and root for him in the end. Sure, he's a mean old curmudgeon at the start, but by the end, we kind of like the guy, because we've gotten to know him so well.
In his old age, Scrooge has become a reclusive, hoarding miser—he hates paying his clerk, he refuses to socialize with the only family member he has left, and he lives in an isolated non-residential building where he scrimps on his own food and heating. This finally comes to a head when his dead partner's ghost shows up to shake him up by threatening him with a terrible afterlife.
Mostly because Scrooge is a practical guy, he dismisses the ghost as indigestion. He is so committed to his purely rationalist worldview—no charity for those who cannot work, because that would be clouding economics with emotion; no pay for days off, because that should be considered straight-up theft; no donations to charity because the poor are themselves to blame for their own poverty—that he even manages to dismiss the ghost as a figment of his own imagination.
Ah, but dismissing the first ghost only leads to some bad mojo. Reversing the old parental chestnut about bullies—that ignoring them will make them go away—Scrooge is harassed further by other ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past dredges up some scenes of a once normal Scrooge as a reminder. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him how awful life is for the Cratchit family, and how much he is missing out on by ignoring his nephew's invitations to dinner.
The last and final spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, scares the daylights out of Scrooge. It shows up to demonstrate that if Scrooge continues his miserable life the same way, he will end up dead, unmourned, and unremembered. In fact, Scrooge thinks he might be doomed from the start. Maybe it's too late to save himself…
… Not so. Scrooge wakes up and realizes there is still time to fix things. In the real present, it turns out that the predictions of the future were not set in stone, and so Scrooge spends the rest of his life changing his ways and becoming a better man.
Scrooge lives an angry and miserly existence, hoarding his money and rejecting the positive emotions of the Christmas season. He's a big ol' bummer.
Scrooge's bitterness isolates him from anyone he ever comes across. On Christmas Eve, we see him get into a fight with his nephew Fred who just wants to invite him over for dinner, accuse his clerk Cratchit of theft because Christmas is a paid vacation day, and yell at a neighbor collecting money for the poor. Nice attitude, buddy.
Since none of the living can get through to him, the dead take over, and Scrooge gets a visit from the ghost of his partner Marley, who tells him to shape up or ship out.
One by one, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come show up to remind Scrooge that he was once a normal person, that his wealth could do a world of good to those suffering right near him—like the youngest son of the Cratchit family—and that if he doesn't mend his ways he's going to end up dead and totally unmourned.
Is Scrooge doomed to a life of being hated by everyone and then to a death without anyone shedding a tear or can he get his life in order in time? Are Tiny Tim and the rest of the Cratchit family doomed to poverty, illness, hunger, and death? Is it all fate, or does he have any power here? Seriously. We're asking.
After the ghosts leave, Scrooge takes some steps in the right direction. He gives Cratchit a raise and sends him and his family a giant turkey for Christmas dinner, he gives a bunch of money to the charity collector, and he shows up at Fred's party after all. Scrooge no more.
Scrooge continues his self-reformation and becomes a completely upstanding, excellent, generous, and friendly fellow all around. Everyone who knows him says that he is the very definition of the Christmas spirit. Well that was fast.
Scrooge is angry, snappish, mean, miserly, and hates Christmas and people who are happy. No one that he knows can change him.
A ghost and three spirits take him here and there to show him scenes from his own past, from the lives of those around him, and from his horrible future to make Scrooge realize what a mess he has made of his life.
Scrooge is shocked by the revelations, changes his ways entirely, and becomes a wonderful person and, more importantly, a Christmas lover.