Published in 1843, Approx. 32,000 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.
A Christmas Carol has constantly been in print since its original publication in 1849, and has been adapted for stage, television, film, and opera. It has often been credited with returning the jovial and festive atmosphere to the holiday season in Britain and North America, following the somber period that emerged during the Industrial Revolution.
The story opens on a bleak and cold Christmas Eve as Ebenezer Scrooge is closing up his office for the day. As the story progresses and Christmas morning approaches, Scrooge encounters the unforgettable characters that make this story a classic: Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and, of course, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.
One of Dickens's shortest stories, and certainly his most famous, A Christmas Carol is a great read even if you already know the story (which nearly everyone in the English-speaking world does) and have seen any of the dozens of film and theater adaptations. The message of A Christmas Carol is simple enough for a child to understand, but the complete novella is rich in detail and storytelling.
"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"
Scrooge trembled more and more.
"Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!"
Of course you know who Ebenezer Scrooge is. Of course you're familiar with Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Of course we've seen the visit of the three ghosts imitated, alluded to, and parodied a thousand times in the century and a half since this book was first published. Unlike most of my book reviews, I am not going to even try to sum up all the different film adaptations. (Wikipedia lists dozens.) I've seen many of them and so have you. But what you should know is that there are small nuances to the story, scenes and bits of dialog and Dickens's special narrative touch, which you will never get without reading the original words. Probably every bit of the tale has been included in one adaptation or another, but no adaptation has included all of it.
Dickens is most famous for creating memorable characters, and he's also second only to Shakespeare for quotability. Ebenezer Scrooge is possibly his most famous creation; "Scrooge" is now a standard term in English for a miserly, joyless wretch.
“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”
He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”
“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.
“What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
The other thing modern readers remember Dickens for is bringing Victorian England alive (indeed, probably most of what the average person today knows about Victorian England comes from Dickens novels). Like most of his novels, A Christmas Carol was written with a moralizing purpose. While the main story is the redemption of Scrooge and his transformation from bitter, unloved misanthrope to a kind and charitable benefactor, Scrooge symbolizes the sentiments of Victorian England as Dickens saw them, and particularly the treatment of the poor. This was a time of debtor's prisons and workhouses and extreme and deliberate humiliations for recipients of what little public welfare was available. The Malthusian belief that feeding poor people only encouraged them to breed and thus created more poor people was at the height of popularity. Hence, while Scrooge's attitude may seem shockingly callous today, Dickens was only putting into Scrooge's mouth words representing what many people believed, made ugly only by stripping away the sanctimonious veneer under which they were usually hidden.
"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.
"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.
"Both very busy, sir."
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."
But like all Dickens stories, and in fact more than most of them, you can read and enjoy A Christmas Carol for its own sake, without worrying about its historical context or Dickens's intended message. It is first and foremost a redemption story. Scrooge's vivid characterization, the heartwarming and tearjerking moments with the Cratchits, and the supernatural elements in the form of the ghosts who haunt Scrooge, make this a modern fable that is largely responsible for inventing Christmas as we know it. Dickens's talent for descriptive prose, for capturing vivid personalities and strong emotions, for observing human nature wryly, critically, and sentimentally, is as fully realized here as in his longer novels.
This novella is possibly my favorite Dickens story. When the overwrought sentimentality and hypocrisy of Christmas annoys me, and I'm going to go kick a reindeer to death if I hear one more "Twelve Days of Christmas" parody, I tame my inner Scrooge with this dark and moody story with the cheerful, uplifting ending. Actually, the ending has always grated on me just a teeny tiny bit, because Scrooge's change of heart is so sudden and complete, it reminds me of one of those Jack Chick comics where a lifelong unbeliever experiences instant conversion with a single conversation. But Dickens meant to write a Christmas story with a message, not a novel, so if Scrooge's character arc seems a bit abrupt, it serves its intended purpose.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
Verdict: Don't let Dickens daunt you. Being less than a hundred pages, A Christmas Carol is a quick read, and it really is one of those little gems that everyone is familiar with but not enough people have actually read. You know the story, but if you haven't read Dickens's complete novella, you are missing out. It's got all the heart and sentimentality for which it's famous, but it's a powerful little story even for secular Scrooges like me.
Also by Charles Dickens: My reviews of A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations.
My complete list of book reviews.