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A Christmas Carol | Context

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Industry and Population

The rise of technology during the Industrial Revolution brought in machines to replace human labor, forcing hundreds of thousands of laborers to the big cities searching for work. There simply weren't enough government programs, infrastructure, or funds to support the burgeoning population, which left millions of poor families living in destitution. Many of those unable to support themselves—often single women, the elderly, the disabled, and children—lodged in workhouses, where a squalid bed was "rented" in exchange for long hours of manual labor. Children in the workhouse were separated from their families, given inadequate education, and often punished with beatings for trivial transgressions. Those who managed to avoid the workhouse often racked up impossible debts, landing many in debtors' prisons, where conditions were often worse than workhouses.

Despite these conditions, England's Victorian era was a time of rapid population growth: England's population grew from nearly 17 million in 1850 to more than 30 million in 1901, a fact that led some people to advocate for zero population growth. The philosopher Thomas Malthus, whose 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population remained widely influential throughout the Victorian period, proposed that the poor should simply not reproduce, and therefore the lower class would shrink over time.

Economic Divide

In sharp contrast to the poor, the rich lived relatively grand lives in opulent mansions, privately educated their children, traveled, hired servants, and threw lavish parties. Charities existed to help bridge the widening gap between rich and poor, but many wealthy families refused to help the poor, believing poverty could be avoided with better decisions. Many blamed the poor for their depressing existences, saying they should simply find better jobs, have smaller families, or incur fewer expenses.

At the time of A Christmas Carol's publication, about one-fourth of England's population was living in poverty. The Poor Laws, which had once given money directly to impoverished people to subsidize their living, were amended in 1834, forcing the poor to seek aid from secondary government institutions, most commonly workhouses. Dickens, who had firsthand experience with both workhouses and debtors' prisons, believed that the solution for financial equality was wealthy benefactors individually supporting impoverished families. A Christmas Carol helped spread the message that great joy could be found in helping a poor family survive.

Poverty and Disease

The combination of poverty, overcrowding in the cities, and poor sanitation left impoverished Victorians, such as Tiny Tim, open to disease. While Dickens does not specify Tiny Tim's disease, there are textual clues: leg braces, a crutch, and the implication money might prevent the boy's death. Some doctors have made a diagnosis based on these clues as well as a knowledge of the story's setting.

Some speculate Tiny Tim suffers from rickets and tuberculosis. Rickets is a condition where the bones soften due to a vitamin D deficiency brought on by a poor diet or lack of exposure to sunlight. Leg braces and crutches would have been common remedies at the time. A vitamin D deficiency also compromises the immune system, leaving people susceptible to bacterial infections such as tuberculosis. Tuberculosis was a common killer during Dickens's time.

Living in an overcrowded and polluted London likely could have made Tiny Tim part of the 60 percent of working-class children with rickets and 50 percent of working-class children with signs of tuberculosis. These statistics could have been impacted if poor children had access to sunlight (blocked by pollution at the time) and an improved diet containing vitamin D.

Others have diagnosed Tiny Tim with polio, cerebral palsy, and kidney disease. However, Dickens's nephew Henry died of tuberculosis and may have provided some of the inspiration for the character of Tiny Tim.

Christmas

Although A Christmas Carol has a strong social message, its primary purpose is to entertain. At the time of the novella's publication, Christmas traditions were rapidly changing. In the 1840s, most businesses remained open on Christmas Day, and it was rare for employees to be given the day off. In 1843, the first Christmas cards—with handwritten greetings and well wishes—were being delivered, and British Christmas crackers (festive papers filled with sweets, toys, and nuts) popularized holiday home decorations. In 1848, a newspaper published a holiday picture of Queen Victorian and her German husband, Prince Albert, celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, and another holiday tradition was born.

When A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, Christmas was just transitioning from a quiet, religious holiday to one enjoyed by an entire community. Dickens himself celebrated the holiday lavishly, putting on elaborate Twelfth Night performances for family and friends. One Christmas tradition Dickens honored was telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. The tradition dates back to pagan times, when it was believed that during the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, spirits returned to earth to settle unfinished business. While that tradition faded over time, A Christmas Carol is a holiday classic that continues to offer readers an enjoyable blend of the spooky and uplifting.

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