Most think of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) as the heartwarming story of how a coldhearted miser turns from his ruthless and greedy ways to a life of charity and joy, embracing love and egalitarianism as a reflection of the Christmas spirit. Some scholars, however, would argue that such a reading gets it wrong. The novella, which receives thorough treatment in the digital collections of Gale Literary Sources, has been the subject of unexpected interpretations by critics who seek to illuminate its author, contextualize its composition, and explicate its allegorical content.
Greed Is Bad, but Not for the Reasons You Think: Lee Erickson argues that the novella, despite its apparent appeals to charity, actually reflects Dickens’s “primitive Keynesianism,” in that it displays his “intuitive solutions both to the financial depression that gripped England in 1843 and also to the specter of bankruptcy that loomed over him when his readers could no longer afford to buy his novels in numbers as large as before.” During the time that the story was written, a weakening economy in England prompted a desire among middle-class Victorians to maintain high levels of liquidity, saving their money against the prospect of leaner times ahead and thereby harming the consumer economy. The problem with Scrooge’s money hoarding, then, is not a lack of charity but a solid case of economic irrationalism: “Dickens, in effect, correctly prescribes not so much charity to the poor as greatly increased, indeed extravagant, consumer spending as the way back to Tiny Tim’s health, the English economy’s soundness, and Dickens’s own financial well-being.” Erickson concludes that “although it has long been easy to think of Scrooge simply as a transformed, blessed sinner, readers of Dickens need to realize that Scrooge lives today as a primitive Keynesian consumer, to learn to enjoy spending what they have while they can, and, like good Victorian readers, to buy that prize turkey for Christmas!”
Dreaming of Economic Power: Ronald R. Thomas reads the story from the perspective of Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams as “expressions by the dreamer of a wish,” exploring what Scrooge’s vision reveals about the repressed desires of nineteenth-century England. If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland concerns a need for a departure from childhood fantasy into adult political power, A Christmas Carol reflects the need for personal mastery in the form of economic power:
The worst fate one of the voices from Scrooge’s dream can wish him is that he will awaken to see the path he has chosen as nothing but an “unprofitable dream.” But Scrooge will be sure to make his Christmas dream turn a profit for him. Rather than do that by telling his dream after he awakens, as Alice did, Scrooge does it by suppressing the dream—by keeping its unprofitable aspects secret, by ensuring that the “writing” that appears in the dream will be “erased.” Scrooge’s dream enables him to enhance his place in the economic world and tighten his hold over those in his “service” by understanding that “power lies in words and looks.”
The Victorian Fascination with Supernatural Things: In her essay “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency,” Jennifer Bann discusses Jacob Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, placing it in the context of nineteenth-century literary depictions of apparitions. She argues that Marley’s chains are a part of a “long tradition of the limited dead” in literature:
In this, the ghosts echo specters as distant as the ineffectually vengeful Old Hamlet, or the mournful Achilles, explaining to Odysseus that he “would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead.” When these ghosts walked, it was not to deny death’s role as agency’s ultimate terminus, but to affirm it. For Marley, and potentially for Scrooge, death represents not transformation but limitation, and ghosts not agency’s continuation but an emphatic demonstration of its temporality.
Victorian adherents of the movement known as spiritualism—which emerged as a cultural force in the decades after the publication of A Christmas Carol—increasingly construed death as a kind of liberation, and they practiced séances in order to communicate with those who had passed on. For Bann, this led to a shift in how dead spirits were characterized in stories and novels, and she reviewed powerful ghosts in late-nineteenth-century fiction as evidence of “the dynamic and complex world of the Victorian spiritual imagination,” adding, “it seems only fitting that we leave Jacob Marley wringing his hands ineffectually before Scrooge’s fireplace, and look to where spiritualism’s hand is pointing.”
Whether or not the critics leave you spooked, merry, or crying “humbug,” may the holiday season find you much like Scrooge at the novella’s end: “his own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”