Ghosts of Scrooges Past: Revisiting “A Christmas Carol”

13 May


It’s a pleasure to join in the Austen vs. Dickens Dueling Authors tour. These two authors turn out to be very closely matched on the Fictional 100, which includes Austen’s Emma (70), and Dickens’s David Copperfield (72) and Scrooge (73). True, Dickens has two characters to speak for him, but Austen’s Emma pertly maintains her very slight edge in rank. Still they are all three nearly equal, in my estimation, in their breadth of influence. Emma and Scrooge, in particular, seem rather comparable in their recurrent popularity as subjects of film and in their adaptability to new settings and time periods. Emma has her “Clueless” and Scrooge has, well, “Scrooged”! (among many other versatile versions). David Copperfield ranks just ahead of Scrooge because, although “A Christmas Carol” is a perfectly crafted gem of a novella, David Copperfield has been called “the best of all Dickens’s books” (by G. K. Chesterton, for example) and it was Dickens’s own “favourite child.” David is the precursor of all “portraits of the artist” in their youth, including above all James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 



Given that these characters seem to duel to a draw, why have I chosen to revisit Scrooge and “A Christmas Carol”? It is because I want to ask, and try to answer, a particular question: What shall we make of Scrooge’s turnabout–why does he change? If he is meant to be taken as an old sinner redeemed, he is an odd one, because Scrooge never asks for redemption–rather he resists it and it must be nearly forced upon him. His change of heart is brought about by being induced to review his life and change his perspective on it: He is made to see himself as others see him. Psychologically, this leads him to focus on his own character flaws.

How does this come about? “A Christmas Carol” is in truth a Christmas ghost story, in which Dickens shows what changes can be wrought in a man in one extraordinary night. The three ghosts of Christmas Past,  Present, and Future are nearly as familiar in deed and appearance as Scrooge himself. But I would like to suggest that it is the first ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past, who has the overwhelming burden of catalyzing change and repentance in Scrooge. If he were to fail in his task, the moving scenes of Christmas Present and Future would not be met with a softened gaze from Ebenezer’s hardened old heart.

Before we look again at each of the past scenes Scrooge must witness–the four Ghosts of Scrooges Past–I want to say a bit about how actors and observers look at the world differently. It is largely a matter of perspective. Imagine a man running to catch a commuter train and just missing it as it pulls away from the station. He is visibly frustrated and will have to sit and wait for the next train. How might he account for this event? As an actor in the situation, he has knowledge about the circumstances that led to his missing the train: perhaps there was a power failure and his electric alarm didn’t ring, or he was delayed by an accident on the highway, or he needed to spend extra time getting a child ready for school. All these aspects of his situation will be very prominent in his thoughts. Now consider another commuter standing on the platform who observes the man miss his train. What does he see, and what does he think? The running commuter is the most salient thing he sees, standing out as the focal point of his attention. Social psychologists (Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett) have shown that an observer in such a scene is much more likely to make character judgments about a person and ascribe traits in order to explain his or her behavior. In this case, the bystanding commuter may think the first man is habitually late for trains and judge that this tells something about him, rather than about the situation he finds himself in.

Now back to Scrooge. Scrooge has been living his life for decades thinking that his miserly ways make perfect sense. He sees the world around him according to its economic rules and he works to win as much for himself as he can. He understands very little about the poor except that they are poor and need to impinge as little as possible on his aims. Enter the Ghost of Christmas Past who makes Scrooge undergo a radical shift in perspective. Now he must visit four shadowy scenes from his own past, but this time as an outside observer.

First, he sees himself as a “solitary child” left at his school when the other boys had gone home to warm Christmas holidays:

…a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

Who could imagine that Scrooge would weep? To show that it is more than self-pity, Dickens shows the first inkling of repentance by having Scrooge recollect the boy who had come caroling at his door earlier that night; rather than turn him away harshly as he did, now he “should like to have given him something.” When Scrooge’s own loneliness is made to stand out in such high relief for him, he can suddenly see and feel the loneliness in another boy like himself.

Next, the Ghost shows Scrooge a later scene at school, this time with his sister Fan, who would die young, leaving one son, Scrooge’s nephew. Beholding himself, Scrooge cannot help but see how much he loved her, and she him, and he is shamed to realize how cold he has been to his dead sister’s son. Later, spying upon Fezziwig’s ball, Scrooge sees and recalls new traits about himself–that he is capable of merriment and friendship, and he sees old Fezziwig’s open-hearted generosity and good spirits–the chief traits of his employer at Christmastime. Scrooge must observe himself as one kind of man then, but now such a different character.


The last shadow from Scrooge’s past reveals a tragic moment of transition, when ambition and greed had begun to take hold of him and he had allowed his fiancée Belle to release him from his engagement. At the time when he let Belle go, he thought only of her poverty, but as he observes his life replay before him, he can see his own greed, his own cruel mistake.

The Ghost of Christmas Past has caused a shift in Scrooge from a very unself-conscious actor to a witness, painfully observing himself. He is already different when the Ghost of Christmas Present comes to show him Bob Cratchit’s family, his nephew’s merry party, and some families of miners where the spirit of Christmas was yet dwelling. Closely observing their daily circumstances, he begins to see them as more than just the “surplus population,” but as people struggling with hardships and deep sorrows, enough so that he resolves to change them if he can. Even in Christmas Present, he is forced to observe the echoes of himself:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

While Scrooge is shifting from being solely an actor to being an observer of himself, we, the readers, make the opposite shift, from observing Scrooge, with all his abominable traits, to greater identification with him as an actor in this very absorbing redemptive drama. Whereas we first observe him in his counting house, turning away carolers and tormenting Bob Cratchit, confirming our first impression of his miserliness and cruel temperament, by the end of the “Carol” we feel as though we have been visited by three spirits, and given a second chance, and our own hearts are opened, now ready to rejoice with Scrooge at his conversion and reprieve. The annual visitation of Scrooge at Christmas time may work upon us as the three ghosts worked upon him: spurring us to imagine the long-term consequences of our actions and the latent possibilities inherent in our lives–alternative, better universes that we might choose to inhabit.

Both Dickens and Jane Austen were particularly adept at bringing their readers in close to identify with a character, as if they were actors in the scene themselves, or at holding them back at a distance to observe and judge. Understanding this “social psychology” that exists in the encounter between readers and characters is, for me, a big part of trying to appreciate the novelist’s art.


Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. [First published in 1843]

Jones, E. E,  and Nisbett, R. E. The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, and B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior, pp. 79-94. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1971.

Nisbett, R. E., Caputo, C., Legant, P., and Maracek, J. Behavior as seen by the actor and as seen by the observer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 154-164 (1973).

Pollard-Gott, Lucy. Attribution theory and the novel. Poetics, 21, 499-524 (1993). [This article analyzes some  interesting implications of the observer-actor shift for readers of Pride and Prejudice, A Passage to India, and War and Peace]

Pollard-Gott, Lucy. The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2010.



Also posting today on the Dueling Authors tour:

Fat Books & Thin WomenMansfield Park by Jane Austen & Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Birdbrain(ed) Book BlogNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen &  The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens


5 Responses to “Ghosts of Scrooges Past: Revisiting “A Christmas Carol””

  1. fictional100 June 1, 2011 at 12:22 am #

    Never too late! Thanks so much, Jaime, for your generous comment.~lucy

  2. JaneGS December 26, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    I really enjoyed your analysis of how we can relate to Scrooge by the structure of the story–very interesting, and of course I liked the link to Austen.

    BTW, I have been listening to Pickwick Papers after not reading it for ~20 years, and I was struck by one of the stories, “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” and how it was most likely a first draft of The Christmas Carol. Certainly, there are many similarities between the two stories, and Dickens reworked the original material into that later one.


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