Why Dickens Wrote 'A Christmas Carol'

He wanted to highlight the income gap in Victorian Britain

Ebenezer Scrooge
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens is one of the most beloved works of 19th-century literature, and the story's enormous popularity helped make Christmas a major holiday in Victorian Britain. When Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" in late 1843, he had ambitious purposes in mind, yet he could never have imagined the profound impact his story would have.

Dickens had already achieved great fame, yet his most recent novel wasn't selling well and he feared his success had peaked. Indeed, he faced some serious financial problems as Christmas 1843 approached.

Beyond his own worries, Dickens was keenly attuned to the profound misery of the working poor in England. A visit to the grimy industrial city of Manchester motivated him to tell the story of greedy businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, who would be transformed by the Christmas spirit.

Dickens rushed "A Christmas Carol" into print by Christmas 1843, and it became a phenomenon.

The Impact of 'A Christmas Carol'

  • The book was immediately popular with the public, becoming perhaps the most famous literary work associated with Christmas. It elevated the popularity of Christmas, which wasn't the major holiday we know, and established the idea of Christmas charity toward those less fortunate.
  • Dickens intended the story as a strong condemnation of greed, and the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge provided a popular optimistic message.
  • Scrooge became one of the most famous characters in literature.
  • Dickens himself became associated with Christmas in the public mind.
  • "A Christmas Carol" was transformed into stage plays and later films and television productions.

Career Crisis

Dickens had achieved popularity with his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which was serialized from mid-1836 to late 1837. Known today as The Pickwick Papers, the novel was filled with comic characters the British public found charming.

In the following years Dickens wrote more novels:

  • 1838: Oliver Twist"
  • 1839: "Nicholas Nickleby"
  • 1841: "The Old Curiosity Shop"
  • 1841: "Barnaby Rudge"

Dickens reached literary superstar status with "The Old Curiosity Shop," as readers on both sides of the Atlantic became obsessed with Little Nell. An enduring legend is that New Yorkers eager for the next installment would stand on the dock and yell out to passengers on incoming British packet liners, asking if Little Nell was still alive.

Preceded by his fame, Dickens visited America for several months in 1842. He didn't much enjoy his visit, and he put his negative observations into a book, "American Notes," which alienated many American fans. Dickens was offended by American manners (or lack thereof), and he restricted his visit to the North, as he was so offended by slavery that he wouldn't venture into the South beyond a foray into Virginia.

He paid attention to working conditions, visiting mills and factories. In New York City, he exhibited his keen interest in the poorer classes by visiting Five Points, a notorious slum neighborhood.

Back in England, he began writing a new novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit." Despite his earlier success, Dickens found himself owing money to his publisher, and his new novel was not selling well as a serial. Fearful that his career was declining, Dickens desperately wanted to write something that would be very popular with the public.

A Form of Protest

Beyond his personal reasons for writing "A Christmas Carol," Dickens felt a strong need to comment on the enormous gap between the rich and poor in Victorian Britain.

On the night of Oct. 5, 1843, Dickens gave a speech in Manchester, England, at a benefit for the Manchester Athenaeum, an organization that brought education and culture to the working masses. Dickens, who was 31 at the time, shared the stage with Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist who would later become Britain's prime minister.

Addressing the working-class residents of Manchester affected Dickens deeply. Following his speech he took a long walk, and while thinking of the plight of exploited child workers he conceived the idea for "A Christmas Carol."

Returning to London, Dickens took more walks late at night, working out the story in his head. The miser Ebenezer Scrooge would be visited by the ghost of his former business partner Marley and also the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Finally seeing the error of his greedy ways, Scrooge would celebrate Christmas and give a raise to the employee he had been exploiting, Bob Cratchit.

Dickens wanted the book to be available by Christmas. He wrote it with astonishing speed, finishing it in six weeks while also continuing to write installments of "Martin Chuzzlewit."

Countless Readers Touched

When the book appeared just before Christmas, it was immediately popular with the reading public as well as with critics. British author William Makepeace Thackeray, who later rivaled Dickens as a writer of Victorian novels, wrote that "A Christmas Carol" was "a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness."

The story of Scrooge's redemption touched readers deeply, and the message Dickens wanted to convey of concern for those less fortunate struck a deep chord. The Christmas holiday began to be seen as a time for family celebrations and charitable giving.

There is little doubt that Dickens' story and its widespread popularity helped Christmas become established as a major holiday in Victorian Britain.

Popularity Has Lasted

"A Christmas Carol" has never gone out of print. Before the decade ended, it was adapted for the stage, and Dickens performed public readings from it.

On Dec. 10, 1867, The New York Times published a glowing review of a reading of "A Christmas Carol" Dickens had delivered at Steinway Hall in New York City:

"When he came to the introduction of characters and to dialogue, the reading changed to acting, and Mr. Dickens here showed a remarkable and peculiar power. Old Scrooge seemed present; every muscle of his face, and every tone of his harsh and domineering voice revealed his character."

Dickens died in 1870, but "A Christmas Carol" lived on. Stage plays based on it were produced for decades, and eventually, films and television productions kept the story of Scrooge alive.

Scrooge, described as a "tight-fisted hand at the grindstone" at the beginning of the tale, famously snapped "Bah! Humbug!" at a nephew who wished him a merry Christmas. Near the end of the story, Dickens wrote of Scrooge: "It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge."