A Christmas Carol | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol | Themes


Wealth versus Poverty

One of Dickens's primary purposes for writing A Christmas Carol was to encourage wealthy members of Victorian society to act as benefactors to the very poor. To encourage readers to act generously, he highlights the huge gap between rich and poor through the simple relationship of Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. Scrooge, a wealthy miser, has more money than he could spend in a lifetime, yet he is greedy and stingy. He refuses to buy Christmas presents, pay his employee a living wage, or donate to charity. In this way, he is a symbol for the wealthy in Victorian society, many of whom at the time of publication were little concerned with the poor, whom they believed should simply work harder to obtain their own wealth. Scrooge is so stingy that he won't even allow his employee to burn more than one lump of coal at a time, leaving Cratchit both shivering and destitute at Christmas.

Bob Cratchit, on the other hand, symbolizes the sympathetic poor: hard-working, honest, underserved, and unable to get ahead. As a result, his family is impoverished, his older children must join the workforce, and his youngest son's disability is left untreated. They are a kind, optimistic, and generous family, yet they are doomed by their situation. No matter how hard Bob Cratchit works, he will never rise above his station or be able to provide better for his family. Dickens not only highlights the unfortunate gap between rich and poor, he also encourages the wealthy to give generously by sending the message that generous giving creates nurturing relationships, changes the lives of the poor, and makes life more meaningful.


Redemption is the act of making someone a better person, often because that person has turned from a life of vice or sin. By showing him the effects of his choices on his past, present, and future, the three ghosts give Scrooge an opportunity to change his ways to avoid a terrible fate. At the opening of the novella, Scrooge is a mean, miserly recluse who would rather sit in the lonely darkness of his sparse living room than light a candle. He has no time for friends, family, or joy; all he cares about is money. His selfish behavior is best understood through his nasty "Humbug!" shouted whenever anyone wishes him well. He wants nothing to do with Christmas, its merriment, or the compassion and generosity associated with it.

Over the course of the Christmas Eve night, Scrooge is visited by three spirits. The primary purpose of their visits is to show Scrooge the effects of his greed on himself and on those around him. First, Scrooge sees his engagement fall apart, due to his love of money; then he sees how his stinginess directly affects his family (Fred) and the Cratchits. Finally, Scrooge sees how little his wealth means after death: he is afforded no respect, care, or mourning. Almost everyone in his life is simply glad to see him dead. Faced with this sad reality, Scrooge begs the spirits for a second chance. When he wakes on Christmas morning, he is transformed. For the rest of his days, Scrooge is generous, open-hearted, and beloved by family and friends.


Time is an important but somewhat complicated theme in A Christmas Carol. One of the story's main conflicts is that Scrooge is running out of time. He is old and, as Marley and the three spirits remind him, nearing death. So, too, is Tiny Tim, whose health is clearly deteriorating as his young life reaches its end. For either character to be saved, Scrooge must work quickly. Throughout the novella the narrator points out clocks, chimes, and bells tolling to remind readers of time ticking steadily away. The three ghosts—whose names highlight the three main "categories" of time: past, present, and future—also hint at the inevitable passage of time. Yet their visits each convolute time: each ghost arrives at one a.m. on Christmas Eve, but their presences do not overlap.

As Scrooge visits his past, present, and future, he learns the importance of focusing on his entire life as a whole, not dwelling on the past or living entirely in the present moment. Scrooge's flaw is focusing too strictly on the future (his wealth), but after witnessing the aftermath of his own death Scrooge vows, "'I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me." This moment, along with the complicated timeline of ghostly visits, encourages Scrooge (and the reader) to slow down, enjoy the moment, and contemplate the significance of life.

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