After celebrating the joy and charity of Christmas, A Christmas Carol is foremost a condemnation of 19th-century Victorian England's division between the rich and poor, the Haves and Have-Nots. London was a great world power, rich from industry and colonial influence, yet poverty ran amok through its streets and factories.
The Poor Laws were England's response to poverty. However, the Poor Laws barely kept the poor alive while trampling their dignity; arduous labor in workhouses or humiliating stays in debtors' prisons (both of which Scrooge references in Stave One) were the two welfare options for the poor. Even worse, poverty was profoudnly cyclical. Poor children, afflicted by rickets from working long hours in polluted factories, had little chance to survive into healthy, let alone wealthy, adults.
Dickens's family was sent to debtor's prison when he was twelve (he was able to work in a shoe-polish factory), and the experience clearly marked his later work. In A Christmas Carol, he lashes out against the greed and corruption of the Victorian rich, symbolized by Scrooge prior to his redemption, and celebrates the selflessness and virtue of the poor, represented by the Cratchit family. He even examines the seamier underbelly of London, showing us a scene in the bowels of London as workers divvy up Scrooge's plundered possessions.
Fittingly, Dickens wrote the novella while somewhat impoverished in the fall of 1843. To ensure the book's affordability when published the week before Christmas 1843, he paid for the production costs himself and set the price at a low five shillings. These expenses, coupled with rabid piracy, financially offset the wild success of A Christmas Carol, and Dickens earned much less than expected. Nevertheless, his most popular work?and perhaps the most popular artistic work associated with Christmas?continues to dominate our idea of Christmas through numerous film and theater reincarnations and ritual readings.
In A Christmas Carol, an allegory of spiritual values versus material ones, Charles Dickens shows Scrooge having to learn the lesson of the spirit of Christmas, facing the reality of his own callous attitude to others, and reforming himself as a compassionate human being. The reader is shown his harshness in the office, where he will not allow Bob Cratchit enough coal to warm his work cubicle and begrudges his employee a day off for Christmas, even claiming that his clerk is exploiting him. In the scene from the past at Fezziwig’s warehouse, Scrooge becomes aware of the actions of a conscientious, caring employer and feels his first twinge of conscience. The author suggests an origin for Scrooge’s indifference to others as Scrooge is portrayed as a neglected child, the victim of a harsh father intent on denying him a trip home for the holidays and only reluctantly relenting.
The ghost of Marley teaches his former partner the lesson of materialism, as Marley is condemned to drag an enormous chain attached to cash boxes: “I wear the chain I forged in life,” the ghost explains. “I made it link by link.” Marley warns Scrooge that he is crafting a similar fate for himself and that the three spirits are coming to give him a chance to change. Marley is filled with regret for good deeds not done. This theme is repeated when the first spirit exposes Scrooge to phantoms wailing in agony, many of whom Scrooge recognizes. The phantoms suffer because they now see humans who need their help, but they are unable to do anything: It is too late; they have missed their opportunity.
The novel contains important social commentary. As the two gentlemen are collecting for the poor on Christmas Eve, Scrooge contemptuously asks, “Are there no prisons?” One of the gentlemen says that many of the poor, rather than go to the detested workhouses, cruel and inadequate residences for the destitute, would prefer to die. Scrooge replies that “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” a reference to Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), a treatise predicting that population would soon outstrip food production and result in a “surplus population” for which society could not provide. Later, in response to Scrooge’s plea to allow Tiny Tim to live, the Ghost of Christmas Present throws Scrooge’s words back at him: “What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Observing two ragged children clinging to the skirts of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge asks about them and is told, “They are Man’s. . . . This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.” The spirit has a warning: “Beware them both, and all their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” This warning suggests that those who do not share in the prosperity may in time prove dangerous to society. The revolution in France half a century earlier may have been on Dickens’ mind. An important idea that the author stresses is that humans are responsible for their own destiny, both as individuals and as a group. He is writing in the tradition of a religion that teaches that people will one day have to answer for their failure to fulfill their responsibility.