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A Christmas Carol | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Brief Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


On a dark and dreary Christmas Eve in Victorian London, the wealthy miser Ebenezer Scrooge is shut up in his counting house. His sole employee, the mistreated Bob Cratchit, shivers as he tries to warm himself by the single coal allotted to him by his stingy boss. Outside it's foggy, freezing, and windy, but passersby remain focused and happy in their holiday preparations. Inside, Scrooge grumbles about their merriment, growling, "Humbug!" to anyone who crosses his path. The first unfortunate victims are charity collectors, and his nephew, Fred. Every year, Fred invites Scrooge to attend his annual Christmas party, and every year the invitation is met with rebuke. Scrooge has no patience for family, holidays, or merriment, and despises anyone who does. Nevertheless, Fred vows to return next year and offer again.

After reluctantly releasing Cratchit from the day's work, Scrooge takes a solitary meal in a tavern and then trudges home, avoiding snowball fights and frantic shoppers. Outside his apartment, Scrooge glances wearily at the door knocker and is astounded to see its shape transform into the face of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who has been dead for seven years. Startled but stoic, Scrooge ignores the apparition and calmly warms some gruel. Although he tries, Scrooge cannot ignore the loud banging and clanging in his hallway as Marley's ghost approaches. He has come to warn Scrooge of the terrible afterlife that awaits him should he fail to change his ways. Marley's ghost is shackled with a heavy chain, which he is forced to drag along as he wanders the earth; he warns Scrooge that Scrooge's chain is even longer and heavier than his own, or at least it will be unless Scrooge drastically alters his behavior. To help Scrooge along the way, Marley has arranged for three spirits to visit him that night. With a "Humbug!" Scrooge rejects the offer and falls asleep.

Scrooge awakens and hears the clock strike midnight. He is confused, since he fell asleep around 2:00 a.m., and believes he has slept a day and a half. This time confusion will continue as the story progresses. Then, as the now wakeful Scrooge hears the clock strike one o'clock, the first spirit arrives: the Ghost of Christmas Past, a spirit with a bright light emanating from under its hat, which he uses to bring Scrooge through a series of memories. Scrooge watches as a childhood version of himself is left alone in boarding school over Christmas, and then he witnesses the cold end of his marriage engagement. Not all the memories are bad, however, and Scrooge is filled with joy remembering his beloved younger sister, Fan, and holiday parties thrown by his first boss, Mr. Fezziwig. Through each memory, Scrooge sees how his obsession with money alienated him from loved ones and turned him into the miser he is today. Overwhelmed with emotion, Scrooge lunges at the spirit and snuffs out its light. Instantly he is transported back to his own bed, where he promptly falls asleep.

Again Scrooge awakens, and the second ghost also visits at precisely one o'clock. Rather than bursting into Scrooge's room, the Ghost of Christmas Present sets up an elaborate Christmas feast in the next room, which Scrooge surveys warily. This spirit is a merry giant, the embodiment of "Christmas spirit," who takes Scrooge into the London streets. Outside, Scrooge witnesses the holiday celebrations of those closest to him—notably Bob Cratchit and Fred. At the Cratchit house, Scrooge sees the everyday struggles of his employee, who has a large family, including a disabled son, to care for. It's clear Cratchit's meager salary isn't enough because his two oldest children have been forced from school and into work to help the family survive. They have a scanty Christmas "feast" and few decorations, but the family is simply happy to spend the day together, making merry as if they were millionaires. Scrooge next visits Fred's holiday party, where he is surprised to enjoy the company and games. At both parties, hosts raise toasts to Scrooge's health, to varying responses from the partygoers. Through these experiences Scrooge learns how his generosity—of both time and money—could improve the lives of those around him.

The final spirit approaches as Scrooge bids farewell to the second. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a foreboding, shrouded figure who doesn't speak, only pointing a long, bony finger in the direction Scrooge should travel. The spirit takes Scrooge around town after the death of a prominent businessman. Some of the businessman's friends discuss not wanting to attend the funeral unless a free lunch is served, while clients rejoice that a kinder officer may overtake their loan. Meanwhile, the dead man's laundrywoman steals his belongings, including the bed curtains his corpse was wrapped in, to pawn them. When Scrooge realizes the dead businessman is himself, he pleads with the spirit for a second chance. Meanwhile, at the Cratchit house, Tiny Tim has died, and the entire family is in mourning. Scrooge begs the spirit to reverse time and allow him to make amends. He swears he has learned the lesson and will live his life a changed man. He throws himself at the spirit's feet, one moment clinging to its robes, and the next moment clinging to his bedpost. He has returned back to the present day, alive and well.

Overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness, Scrooge vows to live generously, starting immediately. Shaking with excitement, he calls down from his window to a passing boy, asking what day it is. When the boy responds that it's Christmas Day, Scrooge bursts out laughing. He offers the boy a hefty sum to purchase the prize turkey from the butcher's window, which he arranges to be anonymously delivered to the Cratchit home. Then he rushes to Fred's party, too excited to ring the bell, and passes a joyous afternoon with family. The next day, he arrives early to work, and when Cratchit arrives late, Scrooge surprises him by giving him a raise rather than firing him. The story concludes with the announcement that Scrooge lived the rest of his life "better than his word," becoming a good friend, master, and man.

A Christmas Carol Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Fred invites Scrooge to dine on Christmas Day.

Rising Action

2 Scrooge refuses to donate to help the poor.

3 Scrooge visits with Marley's ghost.

4 The Ghost of Christmas Past arrives.

5 The Ghost of Christmas Present arrives.

6 The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrives.


7 Scrooge realizes death is imminent.

Falling Action

8 Scrooge joyfully realizes he has been given a second chance.


9 Scrooge becomes a benefactor for the Cratchit family.

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