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History of the Charles Dickens Novel, "A Christmas Carol"

Updated on March 26, 2013

You must know the story. Even if you haven't read the book, you've probably seen one of the many film or television adaptations.

There are few stories which embody the spirit of Christmas more than A Christmas Carol, the classic novella written by British author Charles Dickens in 1843.

What Inspired A Christmas Carol?

The plight of the poor was a big concern for Dickens. The major reason for this was his own family situation. When he was younger, his father had been sent to Marshalsea Prison for not paying his debts. The rest of the family joined him, except for young Charles, who was sent to work in a shoe polish factory.

This experience was extremely traumatic for Dickens. It left him psychologically scarred. It exposed him to the harsh realities of poverty in Victorian Britain. This later influenced much of his writing. It also helped him create the characters who inhabit his famous Christmas story, including Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, he was already a popular writer. However, his most recent novel had not done well as he would have hoped. He wanted his next book to be a success, but not just financially. Dickens felt in tune with the poor people of Britain. In his next book, he wanted to say something about the huge gap between rich and poor in Victorian Britain.

On October 5, 1843, he gave a speech in Manchester. He shared the stage with Benjamin Disraeli, a man who was later to become Britain's prime minister. It was while speaking to the working poor of Manchester that an idea for a story about a greedy businessman began to take shape. When he returned to London, Dickens began to write, hoping to complete his story before Christmas.

A Victorian Christmas

In the mid-seventeenth century, Cromwell had abolished the celebration of Christmas. The winter holiday hadn't quite been celebrated in the same way since then. By the Victorian age, people were beginning to revive the festival again.

New traditions were being introduced. The first Christmas card was sent in 1843. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, had introduced the idea of having a Christmas tree from his home country of Germany. There was also a revival of carol singing.

When A Christmas Carol was published on 19th December 1843, it was an immediate success. It helped with the revival of the Christmas festival. British writer G.K. Chesterton said with Dickens' classic tale had changed Christmas from a sacred feast into a family festival. He made Christmas something which everybody could enjoy at home and not just observe in church.

These days, British and American ideas of a 'traditional' Christmas come from the celebrations of the Victorian Age. The continued popularity of Dickens' story perhaps has a lot to do with a nostalgia for Christmases of that time.

What is the Story of A Christmas Carol?

A Christmas Carol is the story of a miserly, old man called Ebeneezer Scrooge. The story begins on a cold, night exactly seven years after the death of Scrooge's business partner Jacob Marley. Scrooge is a mean man who hates Christmas and calls it, "humbug." He refuses an invitation to dinner from his nephew Fred and he refuses to give a donation to men collecting for the poor. The only thing he does do to celebrate the season is to let his overworked, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit have Christmas Day off with pay.

When Scrooge gets home that night, he is visited by a ghost. Marley tells Scrooge that he must change his ways. He must stop being so mean. Scrooge is then visited by three more ghosts: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future. Each ghost shows him a scene in order to help him change.

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood. Scrooge is reminded of more innocent days. They also show why he became the man that he is today.

The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to some different places, including the family dinner table of Scrooge's worker Bob Cratchit. Bob Cratchit's youngest son Tiny Tim is very ill but cannot be helped because Scrooge does not pay Cratchit enough money.

The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Tiny Tim's death, as well as Scrooge's own death. Nobody has a good word to say about Scrooge after his death. Several of his business associates are shown discussing the funeral. They say they will only attend if a free lunch is provided. Several people steal from the dead Scrooge. His grave is neglected.

Scrooge is shaken by these disturbing ghostly visitations. He awakens on Christmas morning a changed man. He spends the day with his nephew and sends a big turkey to the house of Bob Cratchit. He now treats people with kindness and he embodies the spirit of Christmas.

A Christmas Carol on Film, TV & Stage

A Christmas Carol has been adapted many times for the theatre, film, television, radio and even the opera. Popular on the stage, many different actors have taken on the role. Similarly, during the Christmas season over the years, a wide variety of radio and television versions have been produced of the Dickens classic.

The story has been recorded by actors and even the book itself has been republished in different forms. For a more visual experience of the text, you should check out A Christmas Carol The Graphic Novel.

On film. the earliest surviving was from 1901. There have been many more adaptations for the big screen. A 1951 version with Alistair Sim as Scrooge was critically acclaimed at the time. Albert Finney appeared in a musical version in 1970. Mickey's Christmas Carol in 1983 featured Scrooge McDuck. The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992 had Michael Caine as Scrooge. The 2009 film A Christmas Carol, directed by Robert Zemeckis, used motion capture techniques to animate the classic with the voice of Scrooge being provided by Jim Carrey.


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    • timorous profile image

      timorous 4 years ago from Me to You

      Nicely written account of the famous Dickens tale. The book (and fim & tv adaptations) has a feel-good atmosphere from a simpler and bygone era, with a moral and a happy ending. However, it also speaks to the plight of the poor from any era. I think this is what has kept it so popular all these years.

      It's interesting to read the original, unabridged version of the book, and compare it to the most famous film version (1951, Alistair Sim). For that screenplay, a few characters were added, to fill in a few gaps in Dickens' tale, relating to Scrooge's career. To my mind, this is really the definitive film version.