Why Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol"
A Christmas Carol is more than a timeless Christmas story. Its author hoped that its lessons would be remembered all through the year.
A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. It ensured that Charles Dickens’ name would forever be linked with Christmas. In some ways, it’s a very Victorian story of urban circumstances. The extremes include wealth and poverty, industry and inability. But it also helped change Victorian society. That's according to historian Catherine Golden for the National Postal Museum blog. And that’s why Dickens wrote it.
It boosted people’s awareness of the plight of the poor in Victorian England. But Dickens also had a more immediate need, he needed cash. He’d spent too much on his 1842 American tour, Golden writes. He needed to support his large family. “Thinking creatively, he wrote himself out of his dilemma,” she reports.
The already well-known writer’s solution worked, to a degree. He sold out the first print run of 6,000 copies in a week. By the end of the next year, the book had sold more than 15,000 copies. That's according to Brandon Ambrosino writing for Vox. According to Michael Varese writing for The Guardian, the book had lavish bindings and a relatively low price. So much of that money didn’t make it back to the author. He was hoping to make at least $1000 from the book. “What a wonderful thing it is that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!” he wrote.
The book did have the cultural impact Dickens was hoping for, though. The writer came from a poor family and is remembered as a friend to the poor throughout his life. In the fall of that year, writes Ambrosino, the author had visited a Samuel Starey’s Field Land Ragged School, which taught poor children. “Dickens easily empathized with such children living in poverty, coming, as he did, from a poor childhood himself - a fact that set him apart from many other English authors,” writes Ambrosino.
“Even if economics motivated Dickens to write A Christmas Carol, his story stimulated charity,” writes Golden. Characters like Bob Cratchitt’s family, Scrooge’s lost love and of course Scrooge himself paint a vivid picture of a time and place where need was everywhere. This was especially true in London. And Scrooge’s redemption arc that anchors the story is an important voice to potential middle-class givers, writes Ambrosino.
“Though he doesn’t give away any of his money [at the beginning of the story], and though he feels no sympathy for those less fortunate than he, Scrooge, as Dickens makes clear, is no criminal. He works hard for his money, day in and day out.”
In the end, Scrooge becomes a sympathetic character. He believed that prisons and workhouses were enough social aid for those in poverty. This was a common enough belief in Victorian times. It is overwhelmed only when he realizes that the city needs something more. It needs empathy, in the form of charity.
Like Scrooge at the end of the story, when he becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew,” Dickens himself was a charitable man. He made a good living, writes Ambrosino, “and he used his wealth and influence to help those less fortunate.”
Dickens may not have gotten rich off of the publication of A Christmas Carol, but he did make the world a little richer.