Why Dickens Wrote "A Christmas Carol"

Why and How Charles Dickens Wrote the Classic Story of Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge's Third Visitor, from the 1843 edition of A Christmas Carol. 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 was not selling well, and Dickens feared his success had peaked. Indeed, he faced some serious financial problems as Christmas 1843 approached.

And 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 a greedy businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge, who would be transformed by the Christmas spirit.

The Impact of A Christmas Carol Was Enormous

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

  • The book was immediately popular with the reading public and it is perhaps the most famous work of literature associated with Christmas.
  • It helped elevate the popularity of Christmas in the 19th century, which was not yet the major holiday we know.
  • Dickens intended the story as a strong condemnation of greed, and the transformation of Scrooge provided an optimistic message that proved popular.
  • The story of A Christmas Carol established the idea of Christmas charity toward those less fortunate.
  • Ebenezer 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.

Charles Dickens Wrote A Christmas Carol During a Career Crisis

Dickens had first achieved popularity with the reading public with his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which appeared in serialized form 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 had achieved literary superstar status with The Old Curiosity Shop, as readers on both sides of the Atlantic became obsessed with the character of Little Nell.

An enduring legend is that New Yorkers eager for the next installment of the novel 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 enjoy his visit very much, and the negative observations he put into a book he wrote about it, "American Notes," tended to alienate many American fans. Dickens had been offended by American manners (or lack thereof), and his visit had been restricted to the North, as he was so offended by slavery that he wouldn't venture into the South beyond a foray into Virginia.

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

Back in England, he began writing a new novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. Despite his earlier success, Dickens found himself actually 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.

Dickens Wrote A Christmas Carol as 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 October 5, 1843, Dickens gave a speech in Manchester, England, at a benefit to raise money for the Manchester Athenaeum, an organization which 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, and he worked 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.

A Christmas Carol Touched Countless Readers

When the book appeared, just before Christmas 1843, it was immediately popular with the reading public as well as with critics.

British author William Makepeace Thackeray, who would later rival 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 the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge 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's story, and its widespread popularity, helped Christmas become established as a major holiday in Victorian Britain.

Scrooge's Story Has Remained Popular to the Present Day

A Christmas Carol has never gone out of print. Beginning in the 1840s, it began to be adapted for the stage, and Dickens himself would perform public readings of it.

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

"When he came to the introduction of characters and to dialogue," the New York Times reported, "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 of course, 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 wishing 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."