Dickens’ main social aim in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is to portray the terrible conditions and problems that are faced by the poor, in the hope of creating a kinder, more charitable attitude towards them so that they would be treated with more compassion. It is a story designed to evoke the readers’ consciences to convince them of the need to reform the existing social conditions. He aimed to change the way society was developing, and reduce greed and its damaging effects on human behaviour.
In order to achieve this, Dickens must re-enlighten those with the money and power to change things, and does so by using the character of Scrooge to personify the willful ignorance of those in power. Dickens also utilizes the theme of Christmas throughout the story to emphasise the desperation of the plight of the poor. He perceives education as the most crucial means by which attitudes can be altered, and uses this to force the reader to become aware of the negative effects of want and ignorance.
Dickens uses the tool of Scrooge to symbolise the harsh treatment and attitudes towards the poor at this time – a caricature of the problems. Dickens describes Scrooge as a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”. These adjectives have a strong effect on the reader, as the harsh words and harsh onomatopoeic sounds succeed in creating a very dark and evil image. This description of Scrooge is introduced early on in the novel, to build the foundations of the greedy, ignorant, cold and miserable social attitude towards the poor.
This image is then built upon when Dickens further demonstrates Scrooge’s cruelty, by showing how he treats his poorly paid clerk. Even on Christmas, he works in a “dismal little cell”, with a fire so small that it “looked like one coal”. To add to this, Scrooge even keeps the box of coal in his own room, threatening the clerk with dismissal if he were to replenish his fire. This metaphorically illustrates Scrooge’s coldness, even at Christmas he fails to spread warmth – neither in kindness nor in heat. When his clerk asks to take the day off on Christmas day, Scrooge begrudgingly agrees, making the clerk feel unwelcome.
At this point, the reader is already beginning to see Scrooge’s cruelty and unwelcoming attitude to Christmas. Dickens describes how Scrooge is anti-social – which contrasts to the idea of the communal celebration during Christmas. When he walks down the street, his cold presence causes children to run away from him and beggars to ignore him. In fact, the only person that tries to spread happiness to Scrooge is his nephew. Scrooge’s nephew also displays willful ignorance, but in a different aspect, as he constantly ignores Scrooge’s unfriendliness and continues to encourage him to come to his Christmas party.
He is the first main contrast to Scrooge introduced to the story, as when he is described he is associated with warmth and light. Scrooge’s only reply is “Bah! Humbug! ” which portrays his objection to the merriness of Christmas and the rudeness to which he treats the only person willing to be friendly to him. To complete the miserly image of Scrooge, Dickens personifies him as the willful ignorance of those in power, when two charity collectors approach him. He is shown to be selfish and have no compassion, when his response to the charity collectors is that the poor had better die to “decrease the surplus population”.
This shocks the reader at the incredible cruelty and greed of this wealthy man, that he won’t even be charitable on Christmas Day, which completes the image of Scrooge and his reflection on the society that Dickens aimed to create. Dickens introduces Marley’s ghost as a representation of what will happen to society if attitudes are not changed. He is an example of eternal punishment; he didn’t do good in life so he is destined to walk the Earth. Dickens is trying to show the reader that this could happen to society, it would become cruel, harsh and ghostlike unless more kindness is spread and the poor were treated with more compassion.
Marley is also a reflection of those with power, money and status that are able to change the situation but choose not to, and tries to show them what they look like to others – a powerful figure, but cold and heartless – like Marley’s ghost. He is also described to have chains attached to him – to symbolise the weight on society that he has caused by acting the way he did in life. Another method used by Dickens in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is symbolism. Scrooge is associated with being cold, hard and dark. When Scrooge was introduced, Dickens used pathetic fallacy to reflect Scrooge’s personality – with the weather being “cold, bleak and biting”.
His hair is described as a “frosty rime”, showing he both looks and is cold. His cold is contrasted when his nephew walks in “he was all in a glow… his eyes sparkled and his breath smoked again”. This sudden entrance of warmth and kindness emphasises the extremity of Scrooge’s coldness. Dickens uses Scrooge’s nephew to symbolise the difference that friendliness and kindness can make on society, it can even lighten the mood of the bleakest places and it is essential for a healthy society. It also shows how much happier a person is when they are being kind.
When Scrooge’s nephew leaves, Dickens again uses pathetic fallacy to show how Scrooge is feeling inside “the fog and darkness thickened”. This shows that not only is he ungrateful for his nephew’s efforts to spread kindness, he is in fact angry and annoyed by it – which shows how miserable, hard and dark he is. It also describes the hopeless situation that society was in, being driven by greed as more people became like this. As well as his description, Dickens even created Scrooge’s name to be onomatopoeic, as it sounds both cold and harsh.
This word has since been adopted by the English language, to mean “a miserly person”. This shows the impact that Dickens novel had on society, that the imaginary character that personifies the willful ignorance of those in power has evolved into a common word – and also shows that his main social aim was achieved as the image Dickens portrayed had been recognised by society. The significance of why the story is set at Christmas is that it is perceived as the time of giving, charity and of goodwill to all men – which succeeds in making the story more poignant.
Christmas is usually perceived as a time of short days and long dark nights, but with bright lights and decorations lightening the mood. Although he is financially secure, Scrooge doesn’t have any lights on in his house – this represents the dark attitude at the time, which Dickens aims to illuminate through education. Darkness is often associated with misery and gloom, and shows that although Scrooge is wealthy, he lives alone and has no one to give presents to, whereas poor families can be happy at Christmas, showing that it is not money but kindness and giving that spreads happiness.
The poor have less money but are happy, whereas Scrooge has more money but is miserable. This is to encourage society to be more charitable – by showing that giving will not only help the poor, but also help the wealthy live a happier and more satisfying life. When Dickens introduces the three spirits, the readers see a rapid change in Scrooge almost from the moment the first arrives, which starts the process of changing the attitudes of society. As Scrooge has been described to be one of the cruelest men imaginable, the fact that he is changing showed the reader that they too could change.