A Christmas Carol: Scrooge and Marley

When A Christmas Carol was published in December 1843, Dickens was already Britain’s foremost writer, and
increasingly active in social reform. At the time the author considered it ‘his most prodigious success’, and the novel
has never been out of print in the century and a half since. In his book Lives And Times Of Ebenezer Scrooge, Paul
Davis described it a ‘culture-text’, constantly reinvented and reinterpreted down the generations, powered by a
moral core that is both unambiguous and timeless. Ebenezer Scrooge, the solitary, misanthropic miser, remains
central to its enduring appeal, to the extent that his name is a more recognisable entity to audiences than the story

Several critics have observed how A Christmas Carol has become not simply descriptive of an idealised Victorian
Yuletide, but in many ways prescriptive of expectations of a contemporary British Christmas. Many of the
conventions that took hold are rooted in Dickens’ unrestrained advocacy of a holiday that was at best only partially
observed (and subordinate to Easter). In particular, it reinforced notions of Christian charity that many feared were
lost in the industrial revolution and the ‘hungry 40s’ that ensued towards the end of its first phase in the 19th
century. Dickens shared common cause with the crusading reformers of the period, both as a literary figure and

The conditions of the book’s creation can be located firmly within that context. A Christmas Carol was directly
inspired by the October publication of The Second Report (Trades & Manufactures) of the Children’s Employment
Commission, with its first-hand testimony of the conditions endured by young labour. He had spoken in Manchester
that same month and been appalled by the squalor of workers in the world’s first industrialised city. He thereafter
resolved to write a ghost story for Christmas that would prick the consciences of the monied classes who had so
materialistically benefited from industrialisation. His original intention was to produce a pamphlet – and there is much
of A Christmas Carol that reveals both the social imperatives behind its purpose and the haste of its production.
That Dickens bemoaned the fact that he made little money from the venture, due to a low cover price and eye-
catching presentation to broaden its readership, has its own ironies. Another is that, given his stature within the
reform movement, Dickens was later plagued by professional begging letter writers. The tone with which he was
moved to disparage these highly organised locusts would have doubtless raised Scrooge’s admiration. Indeed, as
implacably scornful of Scrooge’s demeanour as Dickens may have been, when the occasion demanded it, his most
famous literary creation shared his capacity for salty, perfunctory vernacular.

The period of extreme social hardship at the onset of Victoria’s long reign infused Dickens’ writing; the author
himself had worked in a blacking workhouse aged 12, interrupting his education, when his father was briefly sent to
debtor’s prison. He was a fierce opponent of the New Poor Law of 1834 and its punitive provision for the destitute,
agitating for a more benevolent response to widespread poverty. Two years earlier, Dickens’ friend Douglas Jerrold
had written How Mr Chokepear Kept A Merry Christmas for Punch. It is not difficult to detect its influence on A
Christmas Carol and its title character on Scrooge. Within the story Chokepear, “to the finger-nails, a respectable
man”, is upbraided for turning his back on those less fortunate and keeping a “Christmas of the belly”. Gabriel Grub,
Dickens’ character from The Pickwick Papers, can likewise be seen as a Scrooge prototype. “Gabriel Grub was an ill-
conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow - a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself . . . and
who eyed each merry face, as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as it was difficult to
meet without feeling something the worse for.” The same lines could equally describe Scrooge.

Yet even as a composite of these progenitors, Scrooge remains amongst Dickens’ most singular creations and
evocative grotesques. His name has seeped through our culture as an inalienable archetype of miserly behaviour,
synonymous with cheapskatery and penny-pinching. He differs from the Chokepear mould in crucial regards. The
description of his private chambers, inherited from Marley, is far starker than that of the Cratchit household,
leavened as their lodgings are by mirth and familial love. In these extremes – where siblings never quarrel and all
endeavour is noble and wholesome, you sense that so overpowering are Dickens’ convictions, he is well able to set
aside realism to better illustrate the contrast. Scrooge’s dank, dismal abode reflects his own cussed character
(“darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it”) indicative of a man short-changing himself. That is why depictions of
Scrooge as emblematic of unrestrained capitalism are problematic. For Scrooge is as mean to himself as he is to the

It is clear that while he resents Bob Cratchit his absence on Christmas Day, Scrooge would afford himself no such
luxury. In fact, he specifically condemns the holiday for its impact on his business just as he decries those who would
solicit or importune him for charitable donation. Unlike Chokepear, his Christmas supper is gruel, as it would have
been, we are led to imagine, on the other 364 days of the year. Grub is similarly ill-disposed to the concept of
‘Christmas spirit’, but perversely engages in it by viciously beating a hapless boy passing by, and is drawn to
merriment at the prospect of digging a new grave on such an occasion. The contrast here is with Grub’s cruelty and
animus as opposed to Scrooge’s cold indifference and dearth of feeling (though the appearance and summoning of
his supernatural prosecutor, The Goblin King, chimes closely with the methodology of ghostly visitations in A
Christmas Carol).

Scrooge, his very name spiced with onomatopoeic portent, has been considered an exaggerated caricature of
economic dystopian Thomas Malthus and his “assumptions of scarcity”. In contrast to the company Dickens kept
and the beliefs he firmly held, Malthus, critical of notions of social reform, foretold the dangers of population growth
– readily parroted by Scrooge in his guiltless talk of ‘surplus’ humanity. Scrooge, then, is most accurately seen as an
amalgam of literary fancy, folk devils such as Jack Frost and a lampoon of political and moral foes.

Beyond the veil of mean-spiritedness, occasional cracks show in Dickens’ intentions. Scrooge makes reference to a
contemporary means of subjugation of the poor; the treadmill – a brutal exercise regime used increasingly in
prisons. That betrays the transitory nature of reform at the time. “The same reforming impetus that had swept away
the stocks and pillory and roadside gibbets,” wrote Kellow Chesney in The Victorian Underworld, “that had made the
flogging of women criminals an intolerable affront to decency . . . also produced jails of great severity. In place of
filth, jail-fever and corruption, came the treadmill, the crank and strict regimentation.” Similarly, in the company of the
Ghost of Christmas Present, there is allusion to the closure of bakers on the Sabbath, a rare source of hot meals for
poor families. But such glimpses of Dickens’ specific agenda are fleeting. A Christmas Carol’s recurrent and
universal theme of Christian charity emerges relatively unhindered by the trappings of contemporaneous particulars.

This was a story that Dickens explicitly intended for both theatrical production and oral presentation (specifically in
the tradition of the fireside ghost story). And Scrooge is the perfect repository for an audience’s resentments, as
demonstrated by the numerous dramatic adaptations of the book. As a pantomimic villain to enthral both young and
old, there is a lascivious quality to his curt, obdurate utterances which marks him as a lustrous anti-hero; a rich vein
of gleeful antagonism to his humbug.

Yet Scrooge is somewhat less than a rounded character. The scene in which his betrothed Belle rejects him for his
love of coin occurs after the fact; what changed the joyful apprentice of Mr Fezziwig’s establishment to the money-
obsessed, emotionally repressed adult Scrooge is unclear. Indeed, hints of any underlying fear of the poor house
chime more accurately with Dickens’ own back-story rather than his protagonist's. The combined loss of Belle and
his younger sister Fan, seemingly the only one to have shown tenderness to the young Scrooge, offer clues. But the
chronology of these events, and their congruence with the hardening of Scrooge’s resolve, is unclear. The
emotional tenacity and resignation of Belle contrasts with Scrooge’s sterility. Yet the torture revisiting the scene
kindles in him is restorative to the concept of Scrooge as a man fallen from ‘true’ virtue rather than one ever bereft
of it. Not least because of the revelation that Belle, later dramatically short-handed as a woman of warmth and
substance, once detected in him similar qualities. While Scrooge may not rival Shakespeare’s Iago for the lack of
textural nourishment to sustain such a ruthless aspect, other Dickens characters stamped with villainy, from Fagin to
Gradgrind, have a great deal more motivational hinterland to draw on.

Unlike those characters too, Scrooge is not the master of his own destiny. He is buffeted by events, initially a
reluctant convert to the will of Marley. It is interesting under a contemporary lens to see the step by step programme
Scrooge undergoes through the entreaties of Marley and the three ghosts as analogous to various recovery
programmes; self-discovery/realisation, contrition, atonement. And it is equally revealing to note how he
incrementally becomes a willing partner in the process; how blithely accepting he is of the inevitability and welcoming
of the possibility of making reparation.

And that is where Marley is so interesting. His interlude in the book is brief, but he imparts possibly its most
enigmatic statement, providing Scrooge with “a chance and hope of my procuring”. Of course, his more famous
quote is his repudiation of Scrooge’s assessment of his prudent business skills (“Mankind was my business” being
his retort to Scrooge’s limp assertion that “You were always a good man of business”). Yet the visitation and the
train of events set in motion came at Marley’s specific behest. This intervention arrives bereft of further explanation.
And that is one reason why we can presume that his represents the inner voice of Dickens. He is, in that sense, the
energetic of the piece.

Marley is introduced to the book (beyond the scene-setting assessment of his mortal status as being assuredly
“dead as a doornail”) within the context of Scrooge’s easy acknowledgement of shared identity. Scrooge has not
given pause to think of his partner in the seven years since his passing, nor removed his name from their place of
business. Indeed, in their encounter, it is the familiarity of their relationship that is striking. It also offers one of the
novel’s few comic interludes; Scrooge observing that “there is more of gravy than grave about you” as he ruminates
– terror so far incomplete - that it must have been food poisoning that summoned the creature before him.
Astonishment abated, he salutes Marley as a fellow traveller, and is discombobulated when he finds their once
unyielding mercantile philosophy no longer unifies them.

Marley’s visit is clearly his own act of reclamation. He is, without Dickens pressing the point in terms of exposition, as
morally incriminated by callous usury as Scrooge, His spoken intercession is limited, but it is his visage that
pervades Scrooge’s adopted lodgings. His face initially radiates from the door-knocker and from that point
references invade Scrooge’s consciousness. His former partner’s funeral hearse looms, accompanying Scrooge’s
ascent up the stairwell, before his face reappears on the tiles of his fireplace and he sets the bells to ringing in his
former quarters. Marley thereafter frames the story’s secondary theme of judgement and reckoning, but also
introduces the possibility of atonement. Through the visits, he ventures that Scrooge might “shun the path I tread”.
He appears physically cowed (though not so forlorn in that regard as the shivering Scrooge), draped in chains of his
own making – quite the most striking metaphor in the entire book. He is also, revealingly, by far the most temperate
of the supernatural interlocutors. He is emotive, frustrated and humane in his apparition; and it could be argued that
in such form he betrays the moral impulse of the writer. The other ‘ghosts’, mirroring in inverse fashion the
incremental level of Scrooge’s moral awakening, proceed from this animated mode to the almost impenetrable,
inscrutable (until the moment at which true contrition is wrested from Scrooge) horror that is the Ghost of Christmas

There is also the admission that he has followed Scrooge on “many and many a day”, that his sins in life had forced
him to sit at the elbow of his one-time partner. It is a revelation that is superfluous to the narrative – at least until the
army of restless phantoms, similarly fettered, reveal that they are tormented by their inability to ever again intervene
to lighten the wretchedness of others’ conditions. Why has Marley alone been afforded this possibility? No
explanation is given in the text. Conclusions might range from convenient literary device to divine providence. The
fate(s) of Tiny Tim add a sentimental imperative to the novel’s denouement, enabling Scrooge to move from the
abstraction of ‘surplus population’ to acknowledging the awful reality hidden behind the phrase. Yet it is Marley who
is the instrument for the central theme of redemption and reclamation.

Mark Hazard Osmun explored such a proposition in his novel Marley’s Ghost. His justification was that Marley “. . . is
the one who truly does something good for someone else with no hope of his own reward”. And that surely is the
case. So sketchily is his character traced within A Christmas Carol that, aside from a detailed physical description
including his ‘death-cold eyes’, presumably a buttress to the ghost story elements of the tale, we learn little more
about Marley’s original joint purpose with Scrooge. Like Osmun, we are left to draw our own conclusions about what
compelled him to save Scrooge from a similar fate.

The most obvious contrast between the two characters is that Scrooge, skin and bone though he may be, is human
and corporeal, Marley a ‘shade’ or ‘shadow’. And yet, in order for the parables to be delivered and staged, Scrooge
too has to walk in the same twilight world. In all he says and does, Marley can be taken as a cipher for Darwin’s
avowed New Testament Christianity (to which he was so morally indebted he translated a version for his own family).
Concerned less with theology and cant than the fundamental Christian values of faith, hope, love and charity,
Dickens quest, demonstrably a hugely successful one, was to procure the best means of delivering the same. “One
of my most constant and most earnest endeavours,” he would write, “has been to exhibit in all my good people some
faint reflections of the teachings of our great Master, and unostentatiously to lead the reader up to those teachings
as the great source of all moral goodness. All of my strongest illustrations are derived from the New Testament; all
my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and

This distillation of such a vocational philosophy can readily seen to animate Marley’s disposition and actions. A
Christmas Carol though, also closely follows the Old Testament principles set down in Deuteronomy 15: “If there is a
poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be
hardhearted or tight-fisted toward your poor brother. Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he
needs. Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near.’ As
such, Marley’s visitation, seven years after his death, possesses further clear Biblical overtones.

Unlike similar Dickensian tropes, Scrooge’s motivation is not the feathering of his own nest, the filling of his own belly
or the satisfactions of luxury. Rather, as Davis shows, Scrooge begins the book mired in a psychological impasse –
his overwhelming fear of poverty has frozen him as a lost soul saving obsessively for the future while his present is
lost and his past forgotten. He is the money-counter whose ledgers are maintained rigorously but does not bear
account for the loss of precious time. The appointments with the three ghosts and the inexorable ticking of clocks
gives the novel its dramatic momentum but also introduces a currency foreign to Scrooge’s inventories. Most
tellingly, at the point of redemption in the final stave, the remorseless, joyless drip of his life is replaced by a
maniacal frenzy to use what time is left to him constructively in the service of others. He shaves haphazardly and is
unable to co-ordinate his stockings in the midst of this new excitement. “I’m quite a baby,” he chirps. And he is,
indeed, reborn, in a certain allegory of baptism.

Then there is the “infernal atmosphere” of Marley’s apparition, and the fact that it addresses him as a “man of the
worldly mind”. Marley’s bindings, significantly, are of ‘cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses
wrought in steel’. His crimes therefore are delineated specifically through the agencies of capital (if we read deed as
‘legal document’ rather than action). Subsequently, Marley’s Ghost explains, it is the fate of all men who do not
“wander abroad” and bring happiness where they might, to do so impotently after their death. There is also the
confirmation that Scrooge’s ‘sins’ had amounted to a chain of similar length seven years hence, with the certainty
that Scrooge’s own “ponderous chain” will be that much the longer, and his “incessant torture of remorse” all the
greater. What of the ‘mournful dirge’, the carnival of piteous shadows Marley dissolves back into, his companions in
interminable regret? This is surely Dickens’ depiction of purgatory rather than hell itself.

When Scrooge falls on the ghost for mercy, Marley’s response illustrates the nature of his intervention; “Nor can I
tell you what I would. A very little more is all permitted to me.” He further laments his own condition, at which point
Scrooge famously evokes his platitude that he was a good man of business. And then there is the exchange that
most literally invokes Christian tradition; drawing on the story of the Three Wise Men, before Marley confirms that his
‘mission’ is authorised, but provides no further detail. “I may not tell”. But he does confirm that said mission is part of
his penance. And, as demonstrated above, undertaken of his own volition.It can be construed therefore that, in
some part at least, Scrooge’s redemption is Marley’s own.

A Christmas Carol is among Dickens’ most didactic works. “It is hard to think of an art that is less secretive than
Dickens’s,” wrote Steve Connor. “Unlike other writers, Dickens keeps his underside clearly and flagrantly on
display”. The book’s strengths and weaknesses consequently derive from Dickens’ urgency in responding to social
injustice. He intended it to be, in his own words, a ‘sledgehammer’ work. Consequently none of its characters are
overburdened with nuance or subtlety. Yet in Scrooge he produced his most durable literary archetype, one whose
name echoes down the years whenever greed and usury are recalled. It is rarely invoked to illustrate a journey
undertaken or a slate washed clean, finding resonance instead in indifference to others and the pursuit of Mammon.
In a quirk of literary injustice, he remains the ultimate Dickensian villain, beyond such low criminals as Sikes, Fagin
or Jonas, despite the fact that his wicked deeds are redeemed.

As Dickens himself wrote in the two-part essay The Amusements of the People, he was a firm believer in ‘popular
culture’, and made his moral representations as agreeable to as wide a sweep of the populace as possible. And
perhaps that is why the idea of Scrooge took hold so; because he was such a fundamentally forceful, uncomplicated
creation. For Scrooge’s parsimony extends beyond that of pragmatic selfishness. He does not toss the charitable
foundation a halfpenny to usher them away nor make evasive pleasantries while dismissing his nephew’s offer of
supper – it is clear his abject lack of sympathy with the poor is not merely callous but more purely misanthropic and,
indeed, philosophical.

In this starkly morality tale Dickens’ depiction is unyielding: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his
pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” In short,
Scrooge is given to represent all that is shrivelled and shorn of humanity. It is a portrait more fitting for a man on his
death bed than a successful businessman. Yet in this absolute condition his eventual absolution works most
dramatically, and his redemption results in one of the great modern parables.

Alex Ogg