A Christmas Carol has been in print for 180 years now. A slender, scarlet-covered novella, written by Charles Dickens in the autumn of 1843 specifically as a Christmas giftbook, it has been the subject of numerous stage and film productions, imitations, cartoons and critiques. In 2012, it sold 158,350 new copies in the eight countries for which such figures are available. Surely nobody could possibly have anything fresh to say about it now? In fact, Dickens scholar Robert L. Patten pulls off this surprising feat: Dickens, Death, and Christmas offers many new insights into the Carol, among much else elucidating the subtle ways in which Dickens communicates Christian doctrines through this most popular — and most accessible — of his works.

This is achieved by placing it in the context of Dickens's life and times, and entire ouevre. As well as discussing the Christian values expressed here, and drawing on biblical passages that support the notion of a spiritual transformation or rebirth, Patten brings into play the celebration of the Winter Solstice in Victorian England, the social issues of the Hungry 1840s, and the mounting calls for social reform. A variety of critical approaches are also brought into play: New Criticism, Freudian criticism, New Historicism and Feminist criticism are among the lenses though which Patten analyses and vivifies this much-loved novella.

In general, of course, A Christmas Carol chiefly concerns the spiritual redemption and social reintegration of the central character, a stony-hearted miser who embraces Malthusian rather than Christian doctrine as the guiding principle of his alienated existence. The political and economic theorist, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, often crops up in these twelve chapters: Patten discusses in depth the Malthusian doctrine outlined in his Essay on Population, namely, “Decrease the surplus population.” There will always be, argues the unreclaimed Scrooge, many more mouths to feed than an adequate food supply, and so parsimony rather than generosity is the watchword for the individual’s survival: always look out for Number One. Patten shows how brilliantly Dickens deconstructs this proposition as he graphs Scrooge’s trajectory towards embracing the real meaning of Christmas, through Scrooge’s own words, those of the traditional storyteller (Dickens’s narrator), and those of such significant secondary characters as Tiny Tim and Nephew Fred. In this way — that is, by including Dickens's critique of Malthusianism — Patten balances conventional Christianity with what we might call Victorian sociology: "the Carol is about action in this life, not reward hereafter" (124). Strangely enough, Malthus's name does not appear into Patten’s index, although Utilitarianism (with which Dickens was much engaged in the 1840s, and against which he so often argued) does.

In the remaining chapters Patten explores the connections, thematic and otherwise, between the Carol and its seasonal successors, the other Christmas books of 1844-48, and the various Christmas stories published in periodicals. Only two of these are specifically set at Christmas, but all of them reflect Britain's class system:

What we will see in later Christmas books is Dickens's continuing wrestle with three related issues. First, Death as the terminus of life, but also a means for judging life, and the surviving ones' relation to it. Second, inequality, the tremendous gap between those who have more than enough and the lowest levels of human deprivation, personified by want and ignorance. And third, all the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual conditions that arise from isolation, selfishness, greed, exploitation, for both rich and poor. Dickensian Yuletide stands over against such human conditions and feelings; his telling of new birth and old death impels thoughts, myths, fables, fairytales, epics, and stories about overcoming despair and finding light in the darkness. [125-126]

The four novellas also concerned with the social problems of the Hungry Forties are The Chimes (1844); The Cricket on the Hearth (1845); The Battle of Life (1846); and and The Haunted Man (1848). These novellas focus once again on curmudgeons or nay-sayers, but not necessarily on upper-middle class Malthusian social isolates such as financier Ebenezer Scrooge. In Chapter 7, "Ringing Out Change," Patten shows how Dickens spiritually redeems and socially reintegrates Toby Veck, a humble ticket-porter; in Chapter 8, "Chirping," he looks at the Dickens's treatment of a Dorset carrier; in Chapter 9, "Battling for Life," Dickens's main protagonist is a country physician; and in Chapter 10, "Bargain Haunters," the focus is on a university Chemistry professor. These spiritually and emotionally afflicted characters are all guided towards epiphanies which will enable them to reintegrate past and present and find a way forward into fulfilling and useful lives. Along the way Patten quite ingeniously brings together a great number of insights that have been articulated elsewhere, adding more of his own in close readings of the narratives.

In two further chapters Patten takes us beyond the Hungry Forties to Dickens's seasonal offerings of the 1850s, in Household Words, and 1860s, in All the Year Round — with a nod to Christmas and its attendant motifs in the major novels beyond Pickwick in Chapter 12, "Endings." This kind of comprehensive approach, covering material with which many readers will be less familiar, or perhaps not familiar at all, is another useful aspect of the book.

Patten uses the biographical context of these writings admirably, discussing the Dickens family's removal to Genoa, the disappointing Carol royalties, and the copyright violation case against Parley's Illuminated Library. Also examined in detail are his switching publishers from Chapman and Hall to Bradbury and Evans, and his use of multiple artist friends for illustrating the remaining Christmas Books. All these events had an impact on his work; all help to illuminate it.

Publishers' claims are not always dependable. But those made on the dust-jacket here prove to be entirely accurate. Patten's 344-page volume does indeed succeed in disclosing "many hitherto overlooked connections between Dickens’s writings and life and arrives at some surprising conclusions about Dickens’s imagination, understanding of the conditions and meaning of Christian life, and the failures of British society to meet the pressing needs of its people."

Links to Related Material


Patten, Robert L. Dickens, Death, and Christmas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023. 344 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-286266-2.

Created 11 February 2024