Study Guide

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol Summary

Seven years after the death of his business partner Jacob Marley, a miserable old man named Ebenezer Scrooge is working in his office. He hates happiness, love, family, generosity, Christmas, and probably also puppies. When his nephew Fred invites him over to Christmas dinner, Scrooge yells at him and refuses. Scrooge then tells off the people collecting charity donations, and grumbles and complains that the fact that his clerk Bob Cratchit gets a paid day off for Christmas is theft.

That night, he is haunted by Marley's ghost, which warns Scrooge that the dead who led bad lives are forced to roam around and not be at peace. The ghost also claims that three other ghosts are going to appear to Scrooge, and leaves after telling Scrooge to change his life before it's too late.

Scrooge shakes all this off as indigestion, but sure enough he soon gets a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. This spirit takes him on a tour of his childhood memories and Scrooge quickly starts crying when he remembers himself as a neglected boy. The past also features scenes from Scrooge's young adulthood, when he transforms into the greedy miser that he ends up being after rejecting his fiancée and not learning the lessons of hospitality taught by Fezziwig, the man he was apprenticed to.

Now it's time for the Ghost of Christmas Present, which flies him around the country to show how pretty much every other human is making the most of the season by getting together with friends and family. The flyby includes a stop at Fred's house, where a bunch of friends are living it up with dancing and games. Scrooge also gets to check out the dirt-poor but loving Christmas dinner preparations of the Cratchit family. The youngest son is Tiny Tim, a sick, saintly boy.

Next, Scrooge is squired around by a phantom—the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Spoiler alert: Christmas Yet to Come is a pretty sucky place. Tiny Tim is dead, the Cratchits are bankrupt, and also Scrooge himself is dead with no one to mourn him—just a bunch of people to rob his corpse. After seeing his grave and freaking out, Scrooge promises to reform…

… and so he wakes up in his own bed on Christmas Day. He sends a giant turkey to the Cratchits, goes off to Fred's party after all, and gives a honkingly large donation to the charity collector. He changes his attitude and lives the rest of his life with generosity, good cheer, and compassion toward the worse off. Truly, he's become all about the spirit of Christmas. Also he gets a puppy. (Full disclosure: that last part was a lie.)

  • Stave 1

    Marley's Ghost

    • Boom, we start just like that with the narrator busting out the fact that Marley is 100% dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead.
    • His old business partner Scrooge is alive though, and still runs the same small company they used to run together. It's not really clear what this company actually does, but it doesn't really matter for the purposes of the story. Basically, it's some kind of middleman operation, where they don't make anything, and just sit around doing bookkeeping all day long. Or something. Dickens wasn't really up too much on the ins and outs of businesses.
    • Anyway, Scrooge turns out to be the grumpiest grumper that ever grumped. And also, he's pretty greedy. And worst of all? He is all head, no heart. This is a big no-no in Dickens's world, so we're guessing someone's about to learn a lesson about feelings.
    • On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is in his office, counting money and watching his clerk. Everything is as shoddy as possible, because Scrooge doesn't want to spend an extra cent even on heating the place if he doesn't have to.
    • His nephew bursts in and is all, La-la-la, Merry Christmas!
    • Scrooge throws out his famous catchphrase—say it with him now—"Bah! Humbug!" Okay, it's no "Leggo My Eggo," but still.
    • The nephew wants Scrooge to come over for Christmas dinner, but Scrooge isn't having any of it. Scrooge doesn't get what the big deal about Christmas is, and calls everyone else a jerk and an idiot for not being depressed by being in debt and not using that day to work more to try to pay it off.
    • The nephew is like, but what about the whole Jesus's birth thing? And the whole being nice to other people thing? Nice try, dude.
    • Scrooge makes him leave, but not before insulting his marriage because it's based on love. (Hey, you know whom Shmoop would love to have over for family dinner? That crazy old uncle who hates us and insults our spouse. You kind of have to wonder why this nephew is so dead set on having this horrible man come by. Shmoop's going to go all cynical here and say the nephew wants to bank that inheritance! Okay, fine, he's totally not. We just don't really get why he's so fixated on Scrooge coming.)
    • Right. Where were we?
    • Oh, yes. A couple of guys show up asking for any donations for the poor. Scrooge tells them to go stuff it, and argues that anyone who is poor can either go to jail, go to the workhouse (basically, jail for poor people where you have to work), or die. He successfully harshes their mellow and they take off.
    • Someone comes by to try to carol and Scrooge almost hits him in the face with a ruler.
    • Scrooge then turns on the clerk and grudgingly gives him Christmas Day off with half pay—or as he calls it, the one day a year when the clerk is allowed to rob him.
    • Finally, the day is done, and Scrooge goes home to his apartment. It's worth noting that he lives in a building that is otherwise all offices, so there's no one else around to hear him scream.
    • Just as he is about to go in the door, the doorknocker… turns into the face of his dead partner Marley! Eek!
    • But then it's okay, and Scrooge is only very mildly freaked out. He checks around the house, but everything seems hunky-dory.
    • He sits down to eat his sad little dinner (and honestly, we do have to point out that he is so consistent in treating everyone like dirt that he treats himself the same way as well). Just then, all the bells in the house start to ring.
    • Then, the door from the cellar bursts open and out of it comes… Marley's ghost! All wrapped up in chains that are a literal mockery of his business life, made out of keys and locks and money purses and cash-boxes.
    • Scrooge is pretty impressive here. He is clearly really freaking out, but still manages to smart-mouth this ghostly horror for a while.
    • Finally, the ghost gets a word in edge-wise, makes its jaw fall off its head to prove that stuff is about to get real, and reveals a couple of things:
      1. Ghosts of terrible people have to endlessly work to make the world a better place.
      2. Marley has gotten Scrooge a chance to reform himself.
      3. Three ghosts are coming.
    • Then the ghost goes out the window and Scrooge sees it join a whole mishmash of miserable ghosts, all of whom are similarly chained with the physical manifestations of their misdeeds. Scrooge realizes that he knew a bunch of them when they were alive.
    • The fog sets in and the ghosts fade from view.
    • Scrooge tries to shake the whole experience off, finds that he can't, and instead just goes to sleep, 'cause, why not?
  • Stave 2

    The First of the Three Spirits

    • Scrooge wakes up and starts freaking out because the clock makes it seem like he slept straight through the next day… but, you know, once you start messing around with ghosts and stuff, the clock is the least of your problems.
    • Scrooge goes over the whole thing with Marley in his head and decides it was probably a crazy dream. Which—um, spoiler alert—not really.
    • Suddenly, the clock strikes one, the curtains of his bed are pulled open, and he sees… a ghost that looks like a cross between a tiny old man and a child. (Oh, just a little Shmooptastic FYI here: back in the day, they had four-post beds for a reason—there were curtains going from post to post that you would pull closed to sleep. So those are the curtains that we're talking about here.)
    • So. The kid/grandpa ghost is crazy looking, sometimes with twenty legs, sometimes with no head. It also is very, very bright, but carries with it a huge version of an old-timey metal candle-extinguisher (basically, a little cone-shaped thing that you would put over a candle to cut off the evaporated candle wax fumes that make the fire go in order to put it out).
    • It claims to be the Ghost of Christmas Past, and takes Scrooge off for a walk through the wall. Scrooge is all, um, that's not going to fly for me, buddy, but the ghost magics him into being transmutable. Sweet.
    • Off they go.
    • First stop? Scrooge's totally depressing childhood, spent all alone in a school where every other kid is off for Christmas break with the family.
    • (Before we go on, we have to point out something here. Scrooge starts to break down pretty much immediately from this point on. Like, there is almost no effort required on the part of the ghosts to get him to own up to being a jerk. Almost every modern adaptation of the whole Scrooge-and-the-three-ghosts archetype that follows this one—and there are many, so check out Shmoop's "Best of the Web" section for some cool ones—tries to draw out this process a bit more. So it's always a little shocking to re-read the original and see that Scrooge gives in to the lesson-learning with no resistance at all.)
    • Back to the story.
    • Scrooge starts to sob hysterically at the sight of himself as a little boy reading a bunch of fantasy books. (Oh, and did you notice that he reads pretty much only adventure stories? That's pretty at odds with his hyper-rational self in the present. Dickens, by the way, was way against rationalism.)
    • Not only does he cry, but also he immediately fesses up to the kid/grandpa ghost that he should really have shelled out some coin to that caroling kid from earlier in the evening.
    • But it's time to get back on the love train, oops we mean the ghost train. Stop number two is another one of these Christmas-vacation-spent-at-school days. This time, though, Scrooge's little sister comes to bring him home. Her big news is that their dad has for some reason gotten way nicer and so little Ebenezer is allowed to come back home for good.
    • (Wait, what? Yeah, no kidding. None of this is filled in beyond what we're telling you here—why on earth he was sent away in the first place, what was the matter with crazy old dad, why the sister was allowed to stay behind, and what changed? Apparently doesn't matter when you're trying to crank this thing out to get it published before the Christmas deadline.)
    • Anyway, we learn that the sister is dead now, but that Scrooge's nephew is her son. Which… doesn't really tell us anything that the word "nephew" didn't already convey, but, you know, clearly this is more important than the whole our-dad-was-way-crazy-but-let's-just-gloss-right-over-that-shall-we situation.
    • So, fine then, dead sister, got it.
    • Now, it's on to stop number three, where Scrooge remembers how awesomely he partied that one Christmas at the house of his master Fezziwig with his BFF and fellow apprentice, Dick Wilkins. Dudes, that party was totally off the hook!
    • Also, it's the first nice Christmas scene we've gotten so far—the point being that just for a few bucks, Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig make a whole bunch of neighborhood apprentice kids happy for a few hours and are then remembered with affection forever. Or something like that.
    • Scrooge immediately gets the point of this. By contrast he's been kind of a jerko to his own clerk. He's really pretty quick on the uptake, no?
    • On to the next glimpse into the past: the Christmas when Scrooge really starts turning into the greedy old hobgoblin we know and love.
    • In the scene, a slightly older Scrooge sits with his fiancée who straight up accuses him of loving money more than her. He's all, "Um, but I can still love you second-best, right? And also, money is really totally important!" But she is not having it, and breaks off the engagement. He doesn't really argue.
    • Finally, one last thingie from the Ghost of Christmas Past, which turns out to be basically the Dickensian equivalent of Beyoncé's "if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it."
    • The ex-fiancée is now sitting in the middle of her huge family, with a whole bunch of kids happily running around, and a husband who totally loves her and them and is just completely the kind of Prince Charming that Scrooge would never have been. The happiness is so absolute that it's a little suspicious. Or maybe Shmoop's just getting cynical in its old age.
    • Anyway, just like that, these super happy people just happen to mention crazy old Scrooge, who the husband says is all alone, now that Marley is on the verge of death. Wow, what a coincidence that they would just happen to talk about him right then!
    • Scrooge can't take any more of this all of a sudden. He grabs the extinguisher cap thing and tries to smother the kid/grandpa ghost with it. Wow, that's like Chekhov's gun! You just knew that thing was going to be used at some point as soon as Dickens described it when the ghost first showed up.
    • The ghost kind of melts into the floorboards and Scrooge falls asleep, which is clearly his go-to method of coping with a crisis. We prefer chocolate.
  • Stave 3

    The Second of the Three Spirits

    • Scrooge snorts himself awake, and again it's about to be one o'clock. Scrooge is hip to all this now, though, so he doesn't freak out.
    • Instead, he decides to be proactive, so he pulls apart the bed curtains himself this time, and gets ready to not be shocked. Except… nothing happens.
    • Well, nothing happens until he sees a weird light coming from the next room and decides to investigate. Guess what? That's right. Ghost time.
    • The second ghost looks like a middle-aged frat boy after a party. He's only wearing a half-open bathrobe, has a drunkenly jolly vibe, and he's surrounded by a ton of food and drinks.
    • Oh, and he's holding a cornucopia in his hand. (Cool word alert, kids—cornucopia is the Latin word for "horn of plenty", and it literally means a hollow animal horn filled with whatever goodies you want. It has since come to have a more general, figurative meaning: an overabundant supply of something.)
    • This guy turns out to be the Ghost of Christmas Present.
    • Scrooge grabs onto his bathrobe and away they go!
    • First on the menu is just a nice little flyover of the city, where everyone is bustling around getting ready for Christmas dinner. Friendly snowball fights, lots of food, neighbors getting together, and just an eerily picture-perfect scene all around.
    • The cornucopia turns out to have magic pixie dust in it that spreads Christmas cheer wherever the middle-aged frat ghost dumps some of it out.
    • They float away from the town and on to the house of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's clerk. Spoiler alert: Tiny Tim is coming, so grab the tissues and get ready for the tear-jerking.
    • The Cratchits are poor, but totally loving and adorable, of course. The mom loves the kids, the kids love the mom, the kids love each other, and everyone is just super hunky-dory.
    • They get the table ready for the meal, and then Bob comes home from church with their youngest, sickest kid, Tiny Tim, who is all shriveled up and also walks with a crutch.
    • Not only is Tiny Tim brave and stoic about his illness, but he also has deep thoughts about it—he tells his dad that he likes being a visual reminder for everyone else at church about how Christ healed the lame and made the blind see again. Wow, that's some high-level maturity perspective there, kiddo! Sure you aren't secretly a tiny seventy-year-old man?
    • Their sad little dinner is served, and they all eat with gusto.
    • Scrooge is again really quick on the uptake and asks his frat man ghost whether Tiny Tim will live. Um, not so much, says the ghost… unless something changes in their lives! Hmm… wonder what needs to change?
    • Then, Bob proposes a toast to his boss Scrooge. He seems to have a lot of compassion for how miserable and horrible Scrooge is, but Mrs. Cratchit, not so much. When the gloom of mentioning Scrooge's name in public wears off, they all get happy again and talk about how awesome it will be when the older kids get jobs and start to earn some money.
    • The ghost rubs Scrooge's nose in all of this just a little more, and then they float away to a mining field. It's horrible and desolate, but still, in a tiny hut, there is a little family celebrating Christmas.
    • Then they float even farther away to a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. But of course, the two dudes inside are totally Christmasing it up.
    • And even all the way out in the middle of the ocean, on a boat, all the sailors are drinking and singing and getting into the holiday spirit.
    • Scrooge is all, huh.
    • And then, just like that, the final stop on the tour: Scrooge's nephew Fred's house.
    • Fred and his wife are having a party with some friends, and of course, they are totally talking about Scrooge right when he gets there. Weird how that keeps happening, right?
    • Mostly, Fred and the gang are laughing about how Scrooge doesn't believe in Christmas. Fred says that he will continue to try to get his uncle to come over for the holiday every year forever.
    • They then start to play games, mostly blind-man's bluff. (Shmoop brain snack: this is basically blindfolded tag.)
    • It's pretty funny, actually, because the dude who is "it" starts peeking around his blindfold to keep hugging the girl he's into at the party.
    • Fun is had by all.
    • The last game is a variation of Twenty Questions, with Fred thinking of something, and the others eventually guessing that the "growling and grunting animal" is actually Scrooge. Okay, okay, we get it. Point made.
    • They drink to Scrooge's health, and with that, the ghost pulls Scrooge away from the scene.
    • They fly around a little bit more, seeing more of the same thing.
    • Finally, Scrooge notices that the middle-aged frat ghost is now more like an old man frat ghost. Turns out, it only gets to live until the end of Christmas.
    • And now it's time for some totally freaky craziness.
    • Scrooge looks down and sees a huge claw coming out of the bottom of ghost's robe (and there is a totally great moment, in which, with awesome British politeness, Scrooge is like, "excuse me please for being so forward, but is that perhaps some kind of monster coming out from under your clothing?" as opposed to a more normal reaction which would probably be something like "AAAAAH!").
    • The claw turns out to be… two small children! The elderly male Ghost of Christmas Present has just given birth to two small children! But we gloss right over to that, to reveal that these children are symbols—the boy is Ignorance, and the girl is Want (meaning poverty or the lack of something).
    • The ghost tells Scrooge that people need to watch out and not have these children running around in the world. Scrooge makes a note of that.
    • Just then, the jolly frat ghost disappears. Scrooge turns around, only to see… a scary phantom draped in a hooded cloak coming towards him.
  • Stave 4

    The Last of the Spirits

    • The phantom doesn't talk, but just points out with its hand.
    • This is definitely really spooky, but instead of getting really terrified, Scrooge turns into that kid with his hand raised straining to get called on in class. He's all, "You're the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come!"
    • The thing doesn't answer. "Ooh, ooh, you're about to show me the future!" No answer. "Oh, I know, I know, you're here to make me a better person, and I'm totally on board with that!"
    • The phantom floats away, with Scrooge somehow dangling from its cloak.
    • Immediately they are in the city, overhearing a convo between a few business dudes. Seems like someone is dead that neither of them cares about, and they are kind of laughing about how hard it'll be to gather up people for the funeral.
    • Huh. Wonder who is dead. Scrooge certainly has no idea, and tries to get the phantom to cough up some info, but no dice.
    • Another couple of businessmen also seem to be talking about a dead guy, but they care even less than the first group.
    • Scrooge is all, well, none of this is relevant to my embetterment, so let's get on with the show already! Oh, Scroogey, Scroogey. How could you possibly not be catching on to this?
    • The phantom takes him to the shady side of town, to a rag and bone merchant (basically a gross old pawn shop type place). Just as they show up, two women and a man come up to the counter with bags of stuff.
    • The first is a charwoman.
    • Okay, here's a little Shmooptastic primer in ye olde Victorian house servants. So, since labor was super-cheap back in the day, most people could afford servants. This meant that basically almost everyone above the very, very dirt poor would have a bunch of different people doing stuff for them. There would at least be some housemaids for cleaning, some charwomen for heavy-duty cleaning, and some cooks for… um, cooking, obviously. Poorer people would still have to rely on servants—usually just a charwoman to come and help with the serious cleaning, which was hard, because, you know, no DJ Roomba or Oxy Clean and stuff. Anyway, it's pretty significant that although Scrooge is rolling in it, he has almost no one working for him except the charwoman. It's just one more way to show how tightfisted the dude is.
    • Right, back to the pawnshop. The charwoman is a little stressed to show all her stolen goods at first, but the pawn shop owner is like, hey that dead guy was horrible, so who cares that you stole all his stuff, amirite?
    • This brilliant bit of philosophy does the trick, and the charwoman starts to unload the stuff… except the man pushes ahead of her and goes first. His plunder is mostly some office equipment.
    • Next is the second woman, who turns out to be a laundress. She's got sheets and towels and some clothes.
    • Finally, the charwoman's turn. She's got… yikes, she's got the bed curtains! And the bed blankets! And even the shirt that the dead guy was going to be buried in.
    • The moral of the story? No one cared enough to check on the dead guy, so these three ripped him off to their hearts' content.
    • Scrooge is all, man, that poor sucker! Good thing that's not me! He tells the phantom that he's totally learned his lesson, and he'll change his ways so he doesn't become that guy. Funny how he's suddenly really not so quick on the uptake, eh?
    • The phantom is all, ugh, you are so slow. Okay then. Desperate times…
    • It takes Scrooge to see the dead body lying under a sheet in some dark room with no people around.
    • Scrooge again isn't making the connection, and is like, yes, yes, I get it, I will totally be better so I don't end up like whoever that random stranger is! Then for some reason, Scrooge asks the phantom if there is anyone who feels anything about this guy's death.
    • All right, everyone, get ready for a twist!
    • The only people who feel anything about the death are a couple who feel… happiness! Oh, tricky word play, Dickens, you old so-and-so.
    • The reason these two are so happy is that they were in debt to the dead guy who was threatening them with bankruptcy, but now that he is dead they have some time to try to come up with the money.
    • Suddenly, Scrooge and the phantom are at the Cratchits' house. Nothing too happy is happening there. The kids all have to go out and get jobs. And also it turns out that Tiny Tim is dead. Bob Cratchit comes back from the cemetery and breaks down.
    • Scrooge is moved, but kind of wants to get out of there. We don't blame him.
    • He asks the phantom to finally show him himself in the future. Um. Yeah, folks, he still isn't catching on.
    • The phantom starts taking him somewhere, and they go by his old office. Scrooge peeks in only to see some other guy in his place. Huh, that's curious.
    • Finally, they get to an abandoned cemetery and the phantom points down at one of the graves. Scrooge totally freaks out, but still makes his way over to the grave and sees… his own name! Dun dun dun. Okay, yeah, we all saw it coming. Not too much suspense there.
    • Scrooge suddenly clues in to the fact that the dead guy he saw on the bed and whom everyone was discussing was actually him.
    • In terror, he asks the phantom a pretty crucial question—whether what he is being shown is actually the future, or just one of a number of possible futures. Basically, old Scrooge has just stumbled on the multi-verse theory of quantum physics. Way to go!
    • Scrooge grabs onto the phantom's hand, but the phantom shrinks away into a post.
  • Stave 5

    The End of It

    • That post turns out to be… Scrooge's own bed post. He is back in his bed. And his bed curtains are still there. And he has time to fix his life.
    • Scrooge gets dressed and runs to the window, laughing for the first time in many years. He hears church bells, and a boy passing by tells him it's Christmas Day.
    • All smiles and compliments, Scrooge tells the boy to go buy the prize turkey from the poultry shop, planning to send it to the Cratchits. He pays for the boy's time, the turkey, and even cab fare for him to haul the thing out to their house.
    • Outside, Scrooge runs into those charity collectors from the day before. He gives them a huge pile of money and then goes off to church and to walk around looking at people. All of this makes him super-happy.
    • He decides to head over to his nephew's house, where he totally startles his niece-in-law, and where he has a blast at the Christmas party they've got going on (it's the one we saw earlier in the story).
    • The next morning, he pretends to be all gruff and crabby at work, and then shocks Cratchit by giving him a huge raise and even buying some coal to heat the place for once.
    • And finally, we learn what the real future turns out to be. Scrooge helps out the Cratchit family, takes care of Tiny Tim (who then ends up surviving), and generally becomes a wonderful guy all around.
    • Everyone for ever after says that he sure is really good at keeping up the spirit of Christmas.