Written over a period of six weeks in 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most-loved Christmas stories in existence and has been adapted for radio, film and television countless times over the years. The reason for the story’s popularity is two-fold; it is a brilliantly absorbing plot, but it also has some of the most memorable characters in literary history. For example, the word ‘scrooge’ to denote a mean, miserly person stems from A Christmas Carol and few people will forget the sad story of Tiny Tim and his father, Bob Cratchit. Dickens clearly wanted to make a moral point with his story; he did that so well that the story still has a poignant meaning over one hundred and fifty years later.
There are a number of characters in the book, but those who appear most often and who have the most impact include the following:
Ebenezer Scrooge, the character around whom the whole book revolves, is a cold, hard-hearted miserly man. He runs a successful business on his own since the death of his business partner, Jacob Marley. Although Dickens never states clearly what the business is, the mention of ledgers suggests that it is a loan business. Scrooge, however, never wastes a penny on anyone, let alone himself. He seems destined to die unhappily and alone, because despite the efforts of his nephew, no-one can stand to be around him for any length of time. He sees Christmas as simply an opportunity for charity collectors to try and rob him blind and is unwilling to give his workers any time off over the holiday period.
Bob works for Scrooge. He has a large family and works hard to keep them clothed and fed. Scrooge, however, pays him the minimum wage and even begrudges him a day off at Christmas. Bob realises that Scrooge behaves the way he does because he is deeply unhappy and tries to make allowances for it, even though no-one else agrees with him. Unfortunately, Bob’s son, Tiny Tim, is very sick and yet, because Scrooge pays him so little, Bob can’t afford to get Tim the medical care he so desperately needs.
Despite his medical problems and the fact that he is lame, Tiny Tim is always cheerful and full of goodwill towards others. Despite his deceptively small role, Tiny Tim is really the central point of the whole story; it is partially his situation that attracts Scrooge’s attention and persuades him to change his way as he sees Tim’s situation change during his time with the three ghosts. Few readers will be able to avoid shedding a few tears over Tiny Tim’s valiant behaviour and Scrooge’s eventual realisation that he needs to help people like Tiny Tim.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Described by Dickens as being a mixture of young and old with “a bright clear jet of light” emanating from his head and a “soft and gentle voice”, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a journey to the past, when he was a much gentler, happier person. He sees his former schooldays, a party at his former place of work and his last Christmas with the love of his life, Belle, who reproaches him for his changing ways. Yet the Ghost of Christmas Past does not judge Scrooge and says very little; he merely shows Scrooge his past actions and lets him make up his own mind.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
This ghost is a hearty, cheerful fellow, described as “a jolly Giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn….” He is initially much less scary than the other two ghosts and shows Scrooge how happy other people are at Christmas, despite their problems, particularly Bob Cratchit’s family and his own nephew’s. However, he also shows Scrooge what real poverty is like and because of the juxtaposition between the two environments, Scrooge is forced to realise that there are many people who suffer in the world.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is easily the most spectral of the three ghosts: “It [the ghost] was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.” Unspeaking, it shows Scrooge how happy people will be when he is dead and how his money, which could have been used to improve other lives, is doing absolutely no good whatsoever. It is the final thing that Scrooge needs to persuade him to change his ways and he is forced to do it without any prompting from the ghost.
There are other characters in the book, including Scrooge’s former business partner, Jacob Marley, but those above are the ones who make the most impact. Anyone who hasn’t read the original story should do so; adapted versions are a great introduction, but nothing beats the beauty and skill of Dickens’ original words.