a Christmas carol Charles dickens summary analysis context

CHRISTMAS SPECIAL: Mince pies & juicy persons in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

Happy Christmas, all. 

As I’m writing this, we’re still in 2020, which has been a rather unhappy year for many, what with the coronavirus pandemic, its attendant economic crisis, and its overall disruptiveness to human lives.

But while my seasons greetings this year won’t be taken literally by many, there’s perhaps no better time than now to reflect on the meaning of Christmas, and to activate that ‘Christmas spirit’ of charity and goodwill. 

Eh, kay.

As a festival born of religious beginnings, Christmas has become something of a secular irony, given the commercial element that has driven its widespread, cross-cultural adoption today.

The extent to which Christmas has been commercialised is ironically evident in some non-Christian societies, where glitzy trinkets, colourful baubles, bright tinsel, fairy lights, Starbucks reindeer cups and sundry other Christmas accoutrements grace the December cityscape like clockwork. (Tokyo, Bangkok, Shanghai – anyone?) 

Christmas in Tokyo (Photo credit: tokyoweekender)

Christmas? Bah, humbug! 

For a holiday that we nowadays take for granted, Christmas wasn’t always so widely celebrated – not even within Christian communities.

In fact, between 1644 and 1660, Christmas was illegal in England, with Oliver Cromwell, a staunch Puritan who reigned over England, Scotland and Ireland as Lord Protectorate, passing strict laws to prohibit any signs of Christmas celebration.

A public notice during the Cromwellian era – Christmas celebrations as “Satanical Practices”. Ho, ho, ho…….

The Puritans believed that the festival encouraged excessive ‘merry-making’ (in the sense of disorderly, reckless behaviour)*, and it took the restoration of Charles II in 1660 to bring Christmas back again.  

Still, it didn’t gain real popularity among the English-speaking public until the 19th century, when authors such as Washington Irving (in America) and Charles Dickens (in England) ‘revamped’ the image of Christmas from being an occasion of vice-indulgence to one of family-gathering, which appealed to Victorian moral values.

Ever since then, Christmas has not lost its lustre, and the annual arrival of 25 December is a day that most of us look forward to each year. 

*Apparently, one of the reasons for the Queen’s preferring to use ‘Happy Christmas’ as opposed to ‘Merry Christmas’ is the connotation of levity and unruliness in the word ‘merry’. 

But honestly, what’s so great about Christmas?

Part of Christmas’ appeal, I suppose, is its glamorisation of abundance.

It’s a time for lots of gatherings, lots of good, lots of presents, lots of cheer, and in our consumerist society – lots of last-minute shopping.

While such excess in behaviour wouldn’t be encouraged during any other time in the year, it becomes our modus operandi come late December (well, at least for those fortunate enough).

It’s like an annual prison break, a week-long guilty pleasure that not even the most financially, socially or dietarily restrained can bring themselves to resist (and indeed, are conditioned by the trappings of our capitalist systems not to resist). 

This notion of festive abundance, though, isn’t really a product of modernity: way back in 1843, Dickens made abundance versus paucity a key motif in his novella A Christmas Carol, which aptly reflected the growing socio-economic divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in Victorian England.

In a (chest)nutshell, the ‘haves’ can afford festive abundance, while the ‘have-nots’ must settle for paucity.

Yet, as the characters in A Christmas Carol show, material abundance can be meaningless in the face of spiritual poverty (as in the case of the protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge), whereas material poverty doesn’t ever dampen the joy of those blessed with spiritual abundance (as in the case of the Cratchit family). 

michael caine scrooge GIF

Introducing enumeration – the trope of abundance

In the wonderful world of literary devices (which you can explore separately here), the message of abundance is often conveyed by enumeration – the technique of listing out many things in an orderly, parallel manner. 

There are many versions of this word, including amplification, cataloguing, or even simply – listing, but I personally think ‘enumeration’ is best, because the act of ‘enumerating’, of counting out a series of items or ideas, is closest to the essence of this device, which is to highlight the sheer amount of whatever’s being discussed. 

Enumeration also happens to be a favourite trope among Victorian realist writers, many of whom cared deeply about approximating all shapes and forms of ‘real life’ in fiction, and it was this device which enabled them to communicate the specificity and diversity of the world that they sought in their craft. 

This ethos of striving to portray ‘truth’ in fiction, by the way, is called verisimilitude, which George Eliot, author of Middlemarch and also Dickens’ contemporary, aptly summarised as the task of – 

“…giv[ing] a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective; the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box narrating my experience on oath.”

This partly explains why  many Victorian novels tend to be unforgivingly long: there’s just too many details to be included – it could take upwards of 5 pages to describe a living room down to its nooks and crannies (19th century readers clearly had a different concentration span than their stimuli-hungry 21st century counterparts). 

Meatier than a Katz pastrami sandwich…

In terms of length, then, A Christmas Carol is  quite the anomaly, which makes sense if we consider that Dickens wrote it all in just 6 weeks (strategically published on 19 December), as he was fuelled by the commercial imperative of meeting sales targets set by cut-throat publishers, and by the familial responsibility of feeding a new mouth (his fifth child Francis would be born a month after the book’s publication, in January 1844). 

First edition of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

Faced with the prospect of not having enough at home, but also witnessing the widespread destitution of the London poor, Dickens perhaps found a measure of solace in his rich descriptions of Christmas festivities, the most glorious of which we see in Stave 3 – ‘The Second of the Three Spirits’. 

So, in this post, let’s close read the beginning of Stave 3 to see how Dickens conveys the abundance of Christmas through the trope of enumeration. 

It opens with Ebenezer Scrooge discovering  ‘the Ghost of Christmas Present’ clad in a bright green robe, sitting atop a Christmas feast in one of his rooms. 

Delightful stuff. 

a Christmas carol dickens context key facts publication

Reading Stave 3 of A Christmas Carol: “mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples” 

a christmas carol summary analysis stave 3 dickens gcse English literature

After Scrooge ‘travels’ through the memory lane of his childhood and early adulthood with ‘the Ghost of Christmas Past’ in Stave 2, he falls into slumber and wakes up the next day to find the second of the three spirits – this time ‘the Ghost of Christmas Present’ – in his house. 

This second spirit is the embodiment of excess, being “a jolly Giant” with a “capacious breast” and a family of “more than eighteen hundred”. Most spectacularly, this gargantuan apparition has ‘decked out’ a bleak room with all the festive paraphernalia that stingy Scrooge would never dream of buying. 

As the protagonist notices in awe – 

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door. 

Like the smorgasbord of Christmas ornaments and food on display, the passage itself is stuffed to the brim with descriptions, couched in periodic sentences and energised by the doe-eyed excitement one finds in a 5-year-old child on Christmas Day.

Marked by happy abundance, this moment contrasts with Scrooge’s disposition as a miserable miser, and seems to taunt him with all that he’s missed out on over the years –  “for many and many a winter season gone”. 

Dickens first creates an atmosphere of liveliness and zest with the enumeration of Christmas foliage, as we see from the lexical field of greenery:

“hung with living green”, “a perfect grove”, “bright gleaming berries glistened”, “crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy”.

ghost of Christmas present Christmas carol Charles dickens summary analysis

The adjectives “bright”, “gleaming” and “glistened” mean more or less the same thing, but instead of this being a case of pleonasm (using more words than necessary to convey one idea, and so a fault of style), it seems like Dickens is compensating in language what’s been missing in substance (i.e. Scrooge’s festive austerity).

This verdant imagery also foreshadows the ‘revitalisation’ of Scrooge’s Christmas spirit at the end of the novel, when the character transforms from a penny-pincher to a philanthropic Good Samaritan. 

As he describes the Ghost’s ‘feast-of-a-throne’, Dickens turbocharges his use of enumeration to present us with a gluttonous tableau at once carnivorous and diabetic, cardiac-arresting and glucose-spiking (which is, arguably, a key appeal of Christmas).

There’s a hint that the author catalogues this full-on Christmas menu for the imaginative benefit of his 19th-century readers, as an opulent buffet for the mind is second best to a real one, which most wouldn’t have been able to afford back then. 

There’s an almost hedonistic emphasis on range – in the types of meat offered (‘turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages”); on ripeness – in the seasonality of fruit and harvest (“red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears… seething bowls of punch”); and on scale – in the quantity of food (“great joints”, “long wreaths”, “barrels of oysters”, “immense twelfth-cakes” etc.), all of which reflect  the utter lack of ‘merriment’ that has thus far characterised Scrooge’s empty Christmases, and presents the character with the joyous possibility of what he could have – if only he would let loose a little and appreciate the material gloriousness that comes with the season.  

The Victorian Christmas Feast menu (Photo Credit: The British Library)

But of course, the joy of Christmas isn’t solely material in nature. The essence is in human relationships and social  warmth, which is why the Ghost of Christmas Present then takes Scrooge on a tour of the bustling main streets, where he sees people in good cheer, despite the gloomy environment that engulfs them. 

There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.

This is the spirit and power of Christmas: the thought and anticipation of it makes us happy even when outward circumstances don’t give much cause for joy. 

As Scrooge then observes – 

For the people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball – better-natured missile by far than many a wordy jest – laughing heartily if it went right, and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. 

Before we proceed, notice that in contrast to the earlier moment when Scrooge first discovers the Ghost of Christmas Present, the focus here shifts from the materiality of objects (ornaments and food) to the humanism of the festival: no longer do we see types of meat described, but “the poulterers’ shops… still half open” in commercial industriousness, looking to make their last pot of gold before everyone goes home for the holidays; no longer are we presented with the tantalising glossiness of fruits, but “the fruiterers’ [shops]… radiant in their glory”. 

Most hilariously, there’s the caricature of “baskets of chestnuts” as “great round, pot-bellied” men, made even more vivid by the simile of them “shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen”, “lolling” and “tumbling” in physical awkwardness.

There’s also the anti-papal personification of the “Spanish Onions”, which are brought to life in an unflattering light, as “ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed… Spanish Friars… shining in the fatness of their growth”, marked by their lusty “winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by”.

Dickens’ distaste for Roman Catholicism (and other forms of ceremonial religiosity) is clear here, delivered in his dig at the gluttonous, greedy and predatory friars who indulge in their own opulent comforts while the common people suffer in poverty. 

Reading Stave 3 of A Christmas Carol (continued): “so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day”

a christmas carol summary analysis stave 3 dickens gcse English literature

The description then homes in again on fruits, nuts and all that good Christmassy stuff, all enlivened by Dickens’ humanistic characterisation – 

There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to  a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement. 

This is such a wonderful passage, with the descriptive enumeration of fruits, nuts and fish made all the more appealing by a host of other literary devices. 

First, there’s an ironic wink behind Dickens’ attribution of “benevolence” to the shopkeepers’ decision of “dangling… bunches of grapes… from conspicuous hooks”, because of course it’s not so much out of their kind intentions that they’d want “people’s mouths [to] water gratis as they passed”, as it is out of their business acumen that more passers-by will be lured into being customers upon seeing the juicy grapes (is Dickens perhaps throwing some meta-shade on himself, aware of  the heavy commercial agenda which has  driven his own business as a serialised writer?). 

purple drank fox GIF by Animation Domination High-Def

The personification that we’ve  seen earlier continues with the “piles of filberts… recalling… ancient walks among the woods” (i.e. the filberts’  original habitat), the nostalgia of which both sharpens the emotional tenor of the moment, and draws attention to the reliance of human festivity on environmental abundance. 

Still, there is a sense that nature – at least during Christmas – is happy to be of service to man, as those “Norfolk Biffins… in the great compactness of their juicy persons” are “urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner”.

It’s like they’ve been growing all year just for this moment, to be consumed on an occasion of joy and celebration.

The oxymoron of “great compactness” reinforces the juiciness that’s contained within these apples (i.e. a great amount of juice embodied in a small fruit), which is then echoed by the metaphor of these fruits as “juicy persons”.

apples GIF

It’s ironic, then, that the only thing which is  actually alive in this scene – “the very gold and silver fish” – should be the least lively object in this Christmas selection.

But even with their “dull and stagnant-blooded” nature, they are nonetheless shown to be making an effort to be part of the exciting action, which can’t quite be said of the human being looking on at this moment, who is, of course, our one and only Ebenezer Scrooge. 

The portrayal of festive verve then reaches its emotional height, when Dickens zooms in on the last-minute jingling and jangling of people rushing to get their shopping done for the big day – 

The Grocers’! Oh the Grocers’! Nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist ad pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress: but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, clashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose. 

Notice that this is one long, periodic sentence (“It was not alone… they chose.”) And within each section – first the description of material plenitude, then the flurry of human action – the clauses pile on top of each other to show the sheer amount of stuff and activity interacting in chaotic synchrony. 

The enumeration of “scales”, “twine and roller”, “canisters”, “blended scents of tea and coffee”, “raisins”, “almonds”, “cinnamon”, “spices”, candied fruits”, “figs”, “French plums” etc. is chained together by the polysyndeton of the ‘or’ conjunction, which presents a kaleidoscope of culinary options, and infuses the moment with the giddy excitement of our child-like selves seeing and wanting everything all at once. 

No Big Deal Yes GIF by CBC

Interestingly, this long section then introduces the contrastive conjunction “but” to once again pivot the narrative’s focus from things to people, as we see “the customers” in their “hurried and… eager” frenzy”, concretised by the kinaesthetic string of verbs “tumbled up”, “clashing”, “came running back” and “committed hundred of the like mistakes in the best humour possible”.

Set amidst the merry to and fro, push and pull, flotsam and jetsam of people moving here and there to get their purchases done on Christmas Day, the contours of Scrooge’s lonely, looker-on figure appear all the sadder, and highlights his outsider status as someone who rejects (and is thus rejected from) being part of the social fold. 

disappointed kermit GIF

Ultimately, in a fairytale-esque denouement, Scrooge is redeemed after the visitation of the Three Spirits, and he changes his mingy ways for the better to help the less fortunate (including Bob Cratchit, his poor clerk with a big family and a crippled son called Tiny Tim).

The rest of us also benefits from his ‘charity’, albeit ironically, in the namesake of an allusion that refers to anyone with a mean, stingy streak. 

So don’t be a Scrooge, everyone, and remember to enjoy this wonderful, wonderful holiday. 

Want to know how Scrooge transforms throughout the book? Watch my video below to find out!

Reading or studying other novels? Check out my posts below!

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