Study Guide

A Christmas Carol Themes

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    In A Christmas Carol, compassion is the main ingredient in the kindness and generosity cake that Dickens seems to crave. Scrooge gets a load of the contrast between those people who are willing to feel pity towards him (his ex-fiancée, his nephew, his clerk) and those who coldly dismiss him as he does them (fellow business people, his servants, the pawn shop owner). Then he reaches deep inside himself and finds a whole bunch of empathy that's he's been repressing, and—alakazam—he's flooded with nothing but good vibes toward those around him. After that, he transforms into a dude who can put himself into the shoes of others, and even forgive them for their misdeeds. In other words, he's now one of the people who are emotionally best equipped to live life.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Why does Cratchit feel pity for Scrooge? Why does Fred? Is it for the same reason, or do their different points of view affect their perceptions of him?
    2. Who has the most to forgive in the novel? Who has the least? Does anyone hold a grudge?
    3. Forgiveness and compassion are pretty important aspects of Christian belief. What would be different if the novella couched its discussion of them in a religious context? Why don't we hear more about the value Christianity puts on these qualities, and instead experience them in the mostly secular sphere?
    4. What if Scrooge didn't come around in the end?

    Chew on This

    Bonus! The person Scrooge learns to feel the most compassion for during his ghostly adventures is himself.

    The only way to make the novella work is to have a totally unrealistic representation of how willing to forgive everyone is for a lifetime of Scrooge's misdeeds. Can you tell Shmoop can hold a grudge?

  • Isolation

    Eric Carmen was on to something. Of all the scary visions and horrible emotions A Christmas Carol describes, there is pretty much none that is quite so overwhelmingly devastating as being all alone. Over and over again we get to check out people who have been geographically or mentally isolated by their life circumstances. In all of these cases, everyone we see struggles as best they can to reverse the isolation and to seek out other humans to hang out with because, you know, that's what humans do. That's what makes Scrooge such a monstrous weirdo; he has isolated himself rather than being forced into that state.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why does the novella give Scrooge a family member (Fred)? How would the story be different if he had no living family at all?
    2. Can we connect the fact that Scrooge chooses books rather than people for company during the lonely Christmas holidays at school as a boy to the fact that he lives in self-imposed exile as an old man? How does this change our perception of him? Or does it not?
    3. In the novella, it's important that Scrooge is isolated not only from companionship with other people, but also from economic transactions with them. Why? How are the two similar? How are they different?

    Chew on This

    The scenes of people buying the preparations for Christmas celebrations are, if anything, even more important than the scenes of people actually having Christmas parties.

    The person Scrooge is most isolated from is actually himself, and the novella is a long journey of the man coming to recognize his own humanity.

  • Transformation

    A Christmas Carol is bursting at the seams with all sorts of supernatural transformations, and readers are constantly invited to feast their eyes on the way an object, a person, or even a whole scene melts into another, often totally without commentary from the characters who are living it. All this is fitting for a work which is in itself a story of two transformations—a young lonely boy's gradual evolution into an embittered old man, and the Herculean efforts necessary to reconnect that old man back to the emotionally available person he once used to be.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What's the coolest supernatural transformation in the novella? Why? What's the least interesting?
    2. What's so awesome about his transformation is that Scrooge regains his ability to feel emotions appropriately. Compare, for example, the strangely delayed and cut off fear he experiences at the sight of the transformed doorknocker with his feelings when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come disappears. How does the novel treat these scenes of fear differently? How are they similar?
    3. Why does the transformation of Scrooge take place over one night? Why not stretch it out? What would be different if this story happened over weeks? Months? Years?

    Chew on This

    Because we see that Scrooge was a sensitive and loving boy when he was a child, this is not a true transformation story so much as a story of a man reclaiming qualities he has already had all along.

    Okay, okay. More than any memory, it is the horrifyingly chaotic and unpredictably shifting supernatural assault that bugs Scrooge.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Rationality

    In A Christmas Carol, rationality and logic are pretty much big road blocks on Scrooge's way toward being a successful and fulfilled human being. Whatever Scrooge's emotional or psychological faults may actually be, they are outwardly shown by the way he dismisses the poor and the sentimental with the cold and heartless logic that Dickens attributed to the supporters of the New Poor Law and the newfangled science of economics. One of the main ways that we recognize that Scrooge has been cured is his sudden willingness to put himself in the hands of the Christmas Ghosts, and to give himself over to the supernatural irrationality and emotion they represent.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Rationality

    1. Why is Scrooge's brand of clear-eyed rationality shown to be so very terrible? If he kept that part of himself while also tapping into his emotions, would that have been a cure? Why or why not?
    2. Who is the most irrational character? Who is the most rational? How do you know?
    3. Scrooge provides his own rational explanation of the ghosts he sees—that they are nightmares fueled by indigestion. Does it diminish the story if this is actually the case—that he transforms because of a bunch of bad dreams and repressed memories and guilt bubbling up as opposed to an actual supernatural sleepwalk? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The poignant moments when he is trying his best to make sense of the wacky supernatural stuff going on while still trying to cling to his rationality are the places where we identify strongest with Scrooge.

    No matter how much Dickens rails against rationalism, A Christmas Carol is totally a rationalist story; it throws the religious aspects of Christmas out the window and pushes for a more secular holiday based on kindness and generosity.

  • Choices

    In a novella where not very much plot actually happens, it is striking that most of what we see the characters actually do is make choices about the kinds of people they want to be. Basically, this adds up to the idea that free will is the paramount power in the world, and A Christmas Carol places a heavy burden on readers. That's because this is a story that stresses that outcomes depend almost entirely on choices. Yikes. That's a whole lot of responsibility.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Is there any problem in the text that Scrooge's choice about what to do with his money can't solve? Are we ever shown anything that resembles fate rather than the logical result of human actions (or inaction)?
    2. Which character has the most power to choose? Which has the least? Is there anyone who makes no choice at all? Do the ghosts have free will of any kind—do they make choices?
    3. What's the worst choice that Scrooge makes? Why?

    Chew on This

    Scrooge actually goes wrong in the way past. It's his decision not to seek out other people during Christmas vacation in school that leads to his eventual complete isolation. Whoops.

    The text leaves room to wonder whether Scrooge will be harmed by the same lack of balance that led him to entirely shut the world out—except this time in the other direction, by letting the world in too much.

  • Time

    On the one hand, in A Christmas Carol time is, quite frankly, nutso. Scrooge's experiences last one night, but feel to him like several days, and encompass many years worth of emotional crises and reversals. Whew. On the other hand, the story is structured as a race against time with the two ticking time bombs of Tiny Tim's illness and Scrooge's own eventual death as the zero hours that have to be somehow prevented or at least put off indefinitely. So time is both totally stretchable and totally scarce, which only adds to the surreal, chaotic feeling of the story.

    Questions About Time

    1. Why does the novella feel like a race against time when we don't actually know how many years into the future the visions of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are? What would be different if we knew that Scrooge had several years to decide to change himself?
    2. Why do the ghosts come at one in the morning? Why does time keep resetting itself? Why not just come at successive times in the same night—or at the same time on different nights? Is there a point to the destabilization of time in this way?
    3. Why does the revelation of the past show us many different time periods while the future only shows us one Christmas? What would be different if we saw several of the years yet to come and watched Scrooge's life slowly unravel further and further? Was he already at his lowest point, so there was nowhere else to go but death?
    4. Has Dickens created a whole new category of supernatural creatures—time ghosts? Can you think of any other work that features magical beings specially tied to time? What qualities do they share with regular ghosts (like Marley for example)? What is different about them?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Scrooge goes to bed at two in the morning but then wakes up at midnight of the same night (i.e. two hours before he fell asleep) means that this whole experience is a dream, plain and simple.

    Scrooge is much more a hoarder of time than of money. We see him bullying Cratchit over a few minutes of lateness and a day of vacation, but we never see him occupy himself with any actual bills or coins. So the upshot of the novella is to get Scrooge to reexamine the way he spends his time even more than his income.

  • Family

    A Christmas Carol presents family life as the most normal and healthiest experience that all humans should aspire to. How Victorian! The inspirational characters are members of large families or family groupings—Bob Cratchit, Fezziwig, the miner, and Scrooge's ex-fiancée. But even the family-less folks strive to connect in family-like groupings. In the end, it is not enough that Scrooge simply be rehabilitated as a person—he also has to be re-incorporated into family life as Fred's uncle and father numero dos to Tiny Tim.

    Questions About Family

    1. Should the Cratchits be psyched to have Scrooge suddenly become a "second father" to Tiny Tim? Does Tiny Tim really need another father, or does this have some weird overtones of Scrooge buying his way into this family?
    2. How are the families we see different from one another? How are they the same?
    3. Do we get the sense that if Scrooge's own family had been more intact he would have been a less damaged person?
    4. The only other people we don't see with families are the businessmen discussing Scrooge's death and the thieves pawning his stuff. How are these groups similar? How are they different?

    Chew on This

    You know what? The ghosts are kind of a family unit, too.

    The most crucial moment of Scrooge's transformation is when he tears up at the thought that his ex-fiancée's children could also have been his own. We mean, he cries for crying out loud. Pardon the pun.

  • The Home

    It's not often thought of in these terms, but A Christmas Carol is all about being a Peeping Tom. Both the readers and the protagonist spend an unusually large amount of time simply watching others go about their business without realizing that they are being observed. Creepy, much? It is striking that while the ghostly invasion of Scrooge's home is felt by him to be a distinct violation, no one questions the ethics of surveillance as he and the ghosts eavesdrop on conversations and peer into the private celebrations of others. We guess Dickens had a thing for double standards.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Why is it okay to do the kind of invisible observing that Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present do? As far as Scrooge knows, he is actually watching real people do real things that he is not meant to see—why does no one have a problem with this in the story?
    2. Do the homes we see fit their residents? Can you think of an example where a home is exactly the right match for its inhabitants and one where it isn't?
    3. Why is Scrooge's house so uncomfortable? Why doesn't he spend his money on luxury or food or nice things? How would the story change if he did?

    Chew on This

    The weirdest thing about this book is that Scrooge grows into an ethical person by doing a totally unethical thing—spying and snooping.

    The many transitions and transformations that Scrooge's house undergoes make it not really a home at all, but more of a no-man's-land.

  • Memory and the Past

    One of the most magical elements of A Christmas Carol is that memories are totally accessible. Scrooge doesn't have to remember them—he lives them, which means his memories aren't tainted by, well, other memories and lessons learned (or unlearned). With the right guide, Scrooge is able to examine and draw conclusions from specifically those memories that are most relevant to the problems he faces in real time. Convenient! At the same time, these same memories are used to humanize and explain the otherwise monstrous and almost inhuman Scrooge—to make readers sympathize with him rather writing him off as an irredeemable jerk.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Do Scrooge's memories actually explain the man he has turned into? We see him being isolated and then in turn isolating himself, but why would this have turned him bitter and vicious, rather than, say, hermit-like and shy? Does the novella suggest that we are missing the full picture?
    2. Why don't we find out more details about Scrooge's father and what exactly his sister means when she says that he is nicer now and Ebenezer can come home? What kinds of potential backstories can we imagine? Does it matter which of them is the real one?
    3. Why is Scrooge so eager to cap off the Ghost of Christmas Past? How is his exposure to his memories making him feel? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    Reliving his memories is what causes Scrooge to finally connect with his senses of smell, touch, taste, and hearing—rather than shutting them out and distrusting them like he does when faced with the ghost of Marley.

    Instead of simply explaining Scrooge, his memories attempt to excuse him, as if to say, hey, he had a bad childhood, so cut the man some slack.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Although A Christmas Carol focuses on generosity and compassion when it comes to being connected to others, the novella argues for another, equally important motivator for good behavior—feeling guilty when doing bad deeds. A large part of what makes Scrooge such a monster is that he appears to feel no remorse for his cruel indifference and no sense of responsibility for the welfare of others. As he remembers and works through his many bad deeds through the visions brought by the Christmas Ghosts, Scrooge gradually regains his ability to feel shame about what he has done, which means he can police his own behavior in the future.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Why don't we see more of the things Scrooge should feel guilty about in the visions of the past? The main things that seem to prick his conscience are the way he treated his Christmas Eve visitors—but surely he has done much worse than that, right? Why don't we learn more about the couple who are about to go bankrupt because he is such a harsh creditor, for example?
    2. Are there any other characters that feel guilty for any reason in the text? How does their guilt compare with Scrooge's?
    3. What other feelings are triggered by the sensations of guilt? Does Scrooge feel embarrassment at his bad behavior? Remorse? Shame? Inspiration? Why or why not?
    4. Why don't Fred and Bob Cratchit blame Scrooge for being such a, well, scrooge? Would it make the text too complicated if they had a lot of hard feelings towards him?

    Chew on This

    The unrealistic ease with which Scrooge accepts blame for his past actions has more to do with the fact no one holds a grudge about his behavior than with any actual sense of remorse.

    Scrooge's recovery of the ability to feel guilt totally misfires, because it teaches readers that however ungenerous and mean-spirited they might be, as long as they are aware of it, there is always plenty of time to change and be forgiven. Phew.