How do you start with a weighty topic like this?
Particularly, as I’m not a practicing Christian myself!
Religion is in the name, ‘A Christmas Carol’ inferring joy, happiness and singing to represent the Christian story and to perhaps show other people how to live. Dickens couldn’t have made it clearer (to his Victorian audience) that he wanted people to look inside themselves and reflect on whether they were living a good Christian life, or whether they were indeed ‘Scrooge’. Mostly, wealthy people were readers in Dickens time meaning we can allude that the readership would have been predominantly a wealthy one. Penny dreadful magazines were magnificent for bringing the printed word to the poor, but Dickens would have recognised that his novella may not reach a poor audience. So, Dickens intentions could therefore be allegorical: he wants the rich to recognise that their behaviour is incredibly damaging to humanity itself, furthermore religion, by turning a blind eye to the corruption in the actions of the wealthy are therefore complicit in this damaging treatment of people.
Another way religion is repeated in the novel is the use of staves to name the chapters of the book. The staves are a musical representation “Stave is the name for the five parallel, equally-spaced, horizontal lines which hold one or more part of the music”. Dickens chooses deliberately to hold his novella together in 5 staves, which hold together the allegorical meaning of the book. A Carol is a piece of music that you sing in church (hence one reason for the religious link) and which brings people together; irrespective of social class, wealth or any other consideration. Therefore, Dickens may be implying that the church is responsible for holding the moral fibre of society together and that he in particular finds the church to be failing in this responsibility. This interpretation is with thanks to @miss_thinks for this, as her discussion in the workroom illuminated (excuse the Ghost of the Past allusion) my understanding of the musical term and the significance of this.
Throughout his novella Dickens references religion in many ways both implicitly and explicitly.
Purgatory is implied with the use of Marley’s ghost – the waiting room between heaven and hell. By using the metaphor “These are chains I forged in life” we are immediately struck by the sense of judgement. Marley has been judged, as a result of his actions in life, but he can’t move forward he has to repent his sins in some way and many Christians believe in this three tier system: heaven – a place for the righteous, hell – a place for the sinners and purgatory – a place for the cleansing of sin. Purgatory, in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is presented as an unpleasant, woeful and depressing state, where the ghosts are doomed to wander aimlessly, feeling unhappy, abandoned and impotent.
My interpretation of the three ghosts is they may represent the Holy Trinity “The father, the son and the holy spirit”. Bear with me! I’ve discussed this with @DaveG5478 and he needed some more convincing!
Encounters with God from (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/beliefs/trinity_1.shtml) states:
Humanity met God in three different forms:
- God the Father: revealed by the Old Testament to be Creator, Lord, Father and Judge.
- God the Son: who had lived on earth amongst human beings
- God the Holy Spirit: who filled them with new life and power
Therefore, I am suggesting that Dickens made Scrooge face up to his shortcomings by revealing three ghostly forms to him:
Stave 2 sees the youthful presentation of the ghost as young child, yet at once wise man in The Ghost of Christmas Past “like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man” this oxymoronic presentation of the ghost reminds me of the presentation of ‘the son’ or Jesus. Jesus, a young man, said to be the son of God, is sent by God to remind humanity of the sacrifices he was making to show us a righteous path. We can see this biblical reference as reinforcement of this “For God so loved the world that He gave us His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” And while I’m not saying that the ghost is Jesus, metaphorically he represents the same guiding light as Jesus did, when he was sent to teach humanity a lesson. This guiding light imagery is reinforced by the “bright clear jet of light” which implies that from the Ghost of the Past emits a strong light to symbolically show Scrooge the way. As the ghost is showing Scrooge his past, perhaps the suggestion is that everyone suffers some pain in their life, but a Christian reaction to this is to overcome this and therefore be more humble and resilient, not less so (unlike Scrooge).
Secondly, we have the Ghost of the Present, who is like a benevolent father figure – ‘the father’ of the holy trinity or God. He is kind, caring and sprinkles cheer, just like the sacrifices made by God in sending Jesus to support humanity. The Ghost of the Present appears to be a Father Christmas type of character, but discusses with Scrooge (in anger) the sins of people: “and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry and selfishness in our name” suggesting that he is helping the poor and unfortunate to teach a lesson to the wealthy. These sins mentioned are being attributed to the Christian faith, but in actual fact they are the wrong-doings of man, who use religion to hide behind. This father figure is teaching us and judging us and we are failing. This is reinforced again with the figures of “Ignorance” and “Want” as “They are man’s” showing with the tone of despair and disparagement that he is judging humanity for the wrongs they have witnessed, allowed and been a part of. The Holy Trinity is ‘The Father, the son and the holy spirit’ and I believe the three ghosts appearing to Scrooge in different staves combine to represent the overall message of acceptance and a stark warning to Victorian Society of the dangers of not paying attention to Christian Teachings.
Finally, we have the presentation of the Ghost Yet to come as a Grim Reaper figure, who doesn’t speak, but only points. He is representative in my interpretation of the Holy Spirit. This is because he does teach Scrooge a vital lesson. Scrooge is at this point more willing to listen and does so “I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart” which shows that already within moments of meeting him Scrooge is willing to listen and perhaps repent his sins and change. Scrooge is filled with new life and we can see this in his repetition at the end of Stave 4 and start of Stave 5 the words “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future.” which shows that he has taken on board the messages sent to him by all three ghosts.
Then, going back to the start of the book we have the uncharitable and non-Christian actions of Scrooge “Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?” which these rhetorical questions highlighted again later in Stave 3 to remind Scrooge of his initial reaction to helping the poor. By the end of the novella he is repenting these actions with “whispered in his ear” and “a good many back-payments are included” when he meets the “two portly gentlemen” again. This shows that he has fully repented his sins and is a changed man. No longer do we see Scrooge as uncharitable and non-Christian, instead we see him as a man capable of repentance, change and living in a way that Christians should.
I’m not sure whether this is of any interest to anyone, but it really made me think about the way religion is presented in A Christmas Carol and that can’t be a bad thing. I’m also aware that there are many other religious presentations I haven’t included; Tiny Tim as just one example, but I hope my thoughts on this are useful.