The first spirit looks like both an old man and a child. This is used to represent the whole of society, and that everyone must become kinder for it to improve. Dickens also describes it to have a “tunic of purest white” and a “lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful”. It is also described to have a jet of light shooting out of its head. All these light and beautiful things contrast to the dark home and personality of Scrooge, and represent truth – emphasising Scrooge’s darkness and therefore ignorance.
The spirit tells Scrooge that his objections to happiness have forced it to wear a cap “low upon its brow”, which represents the drag on society that this attitude has created. The spirit says, “Would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? ” This shows that Scrooge does not want to see the truth, and is therefore trying to extinguish the light of education to create darkness, or ignorance, which he is more comfortable with – just as society are.
A change in Scrooge is evident almost immediately, when he is shown himself as a boy, left in his school over Christmas. Scrooge starts to cry, which presents a strong message to the reader – that if this miserable, cruel old man can change and be shown to feel something, then so can they. When the sprit takes Scrooge to Fezziwig, his old employer, another contrast to Scrooge is introduced. Fezziwig is a kind and compassionate man, described to have a “comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice”, which contrasts to Scrooge being “covetous” and “grasping”.
Like Scrooge’s nephew, Fezziwig is used to show how different life is for someone who spreads love and happiness, rather than greed. It also reminds Scrooge of how much he admired Fezziwig, which causes him to realise that he wants to be like him, a kind and loved employer. The ghost of Christmas past shows Scrooge how his life could have been, if he had not become so obsessed with money. This is successful in creating a feeling of regret in Scrooge, which in turn scares the reader that they may end up regretting things if they don’t change.
As the spirit shows Scrooge each of these scenes, the reader sees him experience more emotion – creating the picture that he is changing, and they feel they are changing with him. However, Scrooge is still shown to be unwilling to learn the truth, as he physically tries to extinguish the spirit’s light. He is unsuccessful in this, which is perhaps meant to explain to the reader that although they may not want to hear the truth, once they have, they can no longer be ignorant and pretend they don’t know – no more willful ignorance.
The second spirit is not only associated with light and kindness, but also symbolises generosity and the giving to those less fortunate – as it is depicted to look like Santa Claus. It is described to have “a green robe… bordered with white fur”. These bright colours and the jovial nature of Santa Claus again contrast to both Scrooge’s home and his personality. At first, Scrooge feels unable to look him in the eye – showing that he feels guilty for being so ignorant. The reader now sees a large change in Scrooge, when he in fact shows that he wants to change “if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it”.
This is important, as it shows he has accepted that he has been ignorant and he now wants to become educated, and change the way he lives his life. When the spirit shows Scrooge the Cratchits’ house, Dickens again uses symbolism and emphasises the warmth, light, love and joy in the house. This is used to show the reader that money is not the source of happiness, and even though the Cratchits have a small, pathetic house, they are still happy at Christmas, emphasising the important things in life.
Dickens introduces Tiny Tim to add yet more sympathy for the Cratchits, showing just how difficult life is for the poor, but they can still be happy. Dickens uses the conversation that the Cratchits have about Scrooge again to frighten the reader, showing that if they do not give out love and kindness, then they will receive none. Tiny Tim is not only used to build the sympathy of the reader, but also the sympathy of Scrooge. He feels sorry for him, and realises how terrible life must be for the Cratchits, especially on the low salary that he pays his clerk.
This also creates a sense of guilt, and Scrooge asks the spirit “tell me if tiny Tim will live”. Dickens uses the opportunity to symbolise what will happen to society if things do not change – by saying Tiny Tim will die if “the shadows remain unaltered by the future”. Dickens then repeats, to great effect, Scrooge’s earlier statement “he had better die and decrease the surplus population”. This very effectively prevents Scrooge from his usual willful ignorance of the truth , forcing him to face his previous inhumane comment.
This finally allows him to realise how cruelly he has led his life, and also causes the readers at the time to admit to their greed and mistreatment of the poor. The last of the three spirits is depicted as the opposite from the others – it is a dark, almost grim reaper-like spirit. It is also a lot more frightening than the other ghosts, as it is silent – this causes the imaginations of both Scrooge and the reader to be involved, making it scarier. As each new spirit arrives, from past to future, each has been getting progressively darker until the final one.
This is used by Dickens to symbolise the progressive destruction of society. The ghost of Christmas present is still light, but it is darker than the ghost of Christmas past. This shows that society has been getting worse, and although it is not yet destroyed, it will be in the future unless attitudes are changed. Scrooge states “ghost of the future, I fear you more than any Spectre I have seen”, which shows he is more scared of the future than of the present, as he has now become less ignorant and is now aware of the destruction his attitude is causing.
When the spirit shows Scrooge scenes after his death, Scrooge is still too ignorant to realise they are of his own death. This is effective, as he gradually feels more sorry for this dead person, feeling shocked at how no one cares after he has died. He then realises that it is he that died, which frightens him and creates a massive weight on top of him – this causes him to want to change, he wants to be remembered once he is dead.
Dickens describes the businessmen, talking uncaringly about his death, with only one sentence to be said of his death “Old Scratch has got his own at last”. Dickens also describes the poor selling his belongings. This not only shows that no one likes him, but also the desperation of the poor – the fact that they would undress a dead body and sell the clothes is not meant to show the uncaring attitude of the poor, but what they have to resort to, just to survive.
This shows the reader that it wouldn’t take much of their money to give the poor a happier life, and to stop them having to resort to this. The fact that people are selling Scrooge’s belongings is also intended to frighten the reader into thinking that if they are not kind and compassionate in life, then they might not be missed either, in death. Scrooge finally changes once the last spirit leaves “hear me! I am not the man I was! ” This makes the reader feel relieved, as it shows them that they still have time to change how they are and become better people.
Scrooge also says “I will not shut out the lessons that they teach” – this shows he has lost his ignorance and has therefore become a better person. Dickens message here is that if more people were changed like this, then society would change and therefore so would the situation of the poor. The key incident in ‘A Christmas Carol’ that explains Dickens’ social aims is when the ‘present’ ghost reveals the two children from beneath his cloak, representing ignorance and want. Dickens wants to alleviate the ignorance of those who could help to change things but choose to ignore them.
These two children are used to show that ignorance and want can drive you to greed, envy and stealing – it is ignorance that is driving the evil in the world. Scrooge has become a light, warm and soft person, laughing and enjoying life. He helps the Cratchits, and Tiny Tim lives, which shows how this change will have a positive effect – a parable for what Dickens feels should happen. The novel produced some immediate effects, causing an American factory owner to give his employees an extra day off work and a social critic to go out and buy a turkey.
Dickens made the reader at the time face up to the social deprivation, and was part of the process of creating a social conscience. Dickens also wanted to alter the situation of the poor at the time, by removing what he believed to be ‘dark’ ignorance, using the ‘light’ of education – so the poor could help themselves. ‘A Christmas Carol’ also enables today’s reader to the importance of today’s Welfare State, without which the poor would have no respite. This shows that Dickens succeeded in contributing to the change in social attitudes, therefore achieving his aims.