What Is the Story of Ebenezer Scrooge?
There is a tidy row of nineteenth-century brick town houses on Doughty Street in London, England. Behind the cheery red door at number 48, the rooms are decorated for Christmas. Presents are piled under a tree lit with candles. The halls are decked with holly and ivy. There are evergreens on the mantel of each fireplace. Wreaths and red bows are hung throughout the four-story building, and there is Christmas sheet music on the piano. It’s all very merry, until a tall professor in a green sweater reads aloud: “Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house.”
Meet Ebenezer Scrooge, one of beloved British author Charles Dickens’s most famous characters. Or as Dickens described him: “Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Scrooge is the main character in Dickens’s short novel A Christmas Carol. That is what the professor is reading for his audience at 48 Doughty Street, the London town house that was once the home of Charles Dickens and his family that is now a museum.
Every Christmas, performances like this take place on the radio, at schools, in libraries, and in other public places. It is an annual holiday tradition for many people to buy tickets to see a play or a musical production of A Christmas Carol. Many more watch movie versions of Dickens’s popular Christmas tale. There are even festivals dedicated to A Christmas Carol. People re-create Dickens’s world. They dress up in clothes from the 1800s, sing carols, and serve food like sugarplums and fruitcake. Actors stroll around in costumes. They look and talk like the men, women, children—and ghosts—in the book. Everyone is on the lookout for Scrooge!
But what makes so many people want to gasp, boo, hiss, or clap for the main character of a book written nearly 180 years ago? Who is this Ebenezer Scrooge, and what exactly is his story? Chapter 1: A Man of Many Words
Ebenezer Scrooge is a fictional character. But his last name is now a real word used for anyone who is mean, coldhearted, or cheap. This is thanks to the power of Charles Dickens’s writing.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812. He never finished school but still grew up to be one of the world’s most famous authors. The life he led was an education in itself.
Charles was one of eight children. His father, John Dickens, was not very good with money. He spent more of it than he earned. When Charles was ten years old, the family moved to Camden Town, a neighborhood in London. Life there was difficult. The Dickens family lived in a series of cramped, often cold, homes. They were in debt because John Dickens owed money to so many people and shops.
Charles, who loved reading and learning, had to leave school at age twelve. He went to work in a factory. His job was to paste labels onto pots of blacking, a kind of shoe polish. The factory was dirty, smelly, and overrun with rats. Charles worked ten hours a day. Meanwhile, John Dickens, his wife, and most of their other children ended up in debtors’ prison. They stayed there until John’s debts were repaid. Charles was angry, sad, and embarrassed about his job and his family’s situation. Later in life, he did not tell people about his stressful childhood. But he never forgot what it was like to be poor and miserable.
Dickens was a smart and energetic person. He was determined to be successful at something. At first, he wasn’t sure what. When he was fifteen, Charles worked as a clerk in a law firm. Sometimes he entertained his bosses there. Dickens imitated colorful Londoners he saw throughout the city. He acted out funny scenes of things that happened on the streets. He also taught himself shorthand, a quick way of taking notes. This helped him get jobs as a journalist when he was seventeen.
For several years, Dickens reported on government issues and court cases. In 1833, his first short story was published in a magazine. He also wrote articles about everyday people for various newspapers. These sketches were very popular. They led to Dickens being offered a job as a magazine editor. Charles worked hard as an editor. He became friends with other authors. He continued with his own writing as well. Dickens began producing novels. They were published as serials. That means one chapter of the novel was published in each issue of a magazine. Readers bought the magazine regularly. For authors, this meant a new chapter was due every month. Sometimes Charles wrote as many as ninety pages a month. And this was in addition to his editing work.
Charles Dickens lived and wrote during a period of great change called the Industrial Revolution. This revolution started in Great Britain and dramatically changed how people lived and worked. It helped create the modern world.
Charles Dickens was an excellent storyteller. He was fascinated by city life and the variety of Londoners around him. Being a reporter had made him a sharp and accurate observer of people. He had witnessed how the law, business, and the courts worked. He saw that the poor were not always treated justly. His personal life had made him sympathetic to how difficult and unfair life could be for many people. With pen, ink, wit, and wisdom, Charles Dickens brought all this to life on the page. By the time he was thirty, he had published five novels. Most of them were wildly popular. Even Queen Victoria, ruler of England at the time, read his books.
In 1843, Dickens introduced a new character to his devoted readers and a new word to the world: Scrooge! Chapter 2: A Good Idea for a Book
Charles Dickens had a lot on his mind in 1843. He was still thrilled to be living in London. The city was exciting! Dickens especially loved going to the theater. He knew many interesting people. He enjoyed his growing fame as a writer. He had even traveled to the United States in 1842 on an author tour. But he could not ignore how so many British people were forced to live and work.
The Industrial Revolution changed everyone’s lives. But that change wasn’t equal. The rich got richer. They built mansions and bought art and other expensive things to fill them. Wealthy families lived well. Sometimes, they shared their wealth. They paid for the construction of libraries and museums. Or they set up charities to help people. A middle class of factory owners, merchants, and lawyers grew. They could afford to buy homes and educate their children, too.
But many jobs didn’t pay well. Factory work was noisy and often unsafe. Workers lived in dirty, crowded shacks or rundown buildings. Unemployed people had it even worse. Whole families starved on city streets. Dickens was particularly shocked by a government report about the terrible lives of poor children. They worked in mines or factories for ten, twelve, or more hours a day. Their jobs were dangerous and paid little. Sometimes, small children had to actually climb into factory machines to fix them.
During the Industrial Revolution, some people profited from other people’s misery. Dickens was angry about this. He said he wanted to “strike a sledgehammer blow” to help reform or change things.
Meanwhile, his responsibilities at home had increased. In 1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. She was the daughter of a newspaper editor he knew. Within seven years, Charles and Catherine had four children—and a fifth child was on the way. His latest novel had not sold well. Dickens needed money. He turned to his sharpest tool: his words.
Dickens decided to write a Christmas book. He thought this would earn him some money. But he also wanted his story to raise thoughtful questions: Why does society favor some people and not others? How are wealth and poverty connected? What should be done about suffering and injustice? Most important, he wanted his readers to think about what it truly means to be a good, loving human being.
To accomplish all this, Charles Dickens came up with the perfect villain: Ebenezer Scrooge! Then he set about writing his Christmas book.
It took Charles Dickens only six weeks to complete A Christmas Carol
. The book is almost thirty thousand words long. And it’s a most unusual holiday story. For one thing, its main character, Scrooge, hates
Christmas. He is a disagreeable, unlikable businessman who cares only about himself and money. He ignores his only relative, his cheerful nephew, Fred. He is unkind to his sole employee, the hardworking clerk, Bob Cratchit. Bob’s hours are long and his pay low. Stingy Scrooge won’t even provide enough coal to keep the office warm! Still, at the end of each day, the clerk goes home to his poor but jolly and loving family. Scrooge heads back to the big, gloomy house where he lives alone.
Clearly, Dickens is setting up a story in which Ebenezer Scrooge needs to learn some important life lessons. The surprising thing about this holiday tale is who will teach him those lessons: ghosts! Chapter 3: Bah! Humbug!
“Marley was dead to begin with.” That’s a strange way to begin a Christmas story! The unnamed narrator of A Christmas Carol
explains that Jacob Marley was Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner. But now “Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.” Then the narrator introduces Scrooge. Here is a man whose “cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait [his way of walking], made his eyes red, his thin lips blue . . .”
Scrooge walks to and from work, ignoring the weather, everyone he passes, and even tail-wagging dogs. No one dares to say hello to him. He’s never stopped and asked for directions or the time. Beggars shrink from him and never ask him for money. Scrooge is fine with all this. He likes to keep people at a distance.
Scrooge owns a counting-house. His company lends money and keeps track of business accounts and finances. At the beginning of A Christmas Carol
, Scrooge is working at his counting-house on Christmas Eve. So is his clerk, Bob Cratchit, who spends long hours at his desk in a cold corner of the office. He has to huddle around a candle to keep warm! Although Ebenezer himself started as a clerk in a warehouse, he does not pay his own clerk very much. Cratchit can barely support his wife and six children. He cannot afford care for his sickly son, Tiny Tim. He doesn’t even own a winter coat! Still, Bob Cratchit looks forward to spending Christmas day with his family.
Ebenezer Scrooge does not care about the holiday. His nephew, Fred, drops by to invite him for Christmas dinner. Scrooge refuses to go. “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding . . . ,” he snaps. When Fred wishes him a “merry Christmas,” his cranky uncle replies, “Bah! Humbug!” That became Scrooge’s most famous line! But what exactly is
Two well-fed, well-dressed businessmen visit Scrooge in his office. In the spirit of Christmas, they are collecting money to “buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.” Scrooge smugly suggests that the poor can go to debtors’ prison or the workhouse instead. He is not concerned about the conditions in either of those places. He feels that if the poor die there, it’s not much of a loss. That means fewer people to support. Scrooge sends the businessmen away without a penny.
When a young boy sings a Christmas carol outside the office door, Scrooge chases him off with a ruler. Finally, by nightfall, it’s time to close the office. Scrooge growls at Bob Cratchit for taking off the next day, Christmas. Then the cranky old man heads home alone.
The cruel things Scrooge says and does on Christmas Eve will come back to haunt him . . . that very night
The way to Scrooge’s home is dark and dreary. As he puts his key in the front-door lock, a strange light hovers over it. And then the door knocker transforms into a face! For an instant, Jacob Marley stares straight at Scrooge.
A startled Scrooge scurries inside and checks all round his dim, gloomy house. “Humbug,” he decides and changes into his bedclothes. He sits in front of a barely flickering fire and sips thin soup.
Suddenly, all the bells in the house start ringing! There’s a deep, clanging boom in the cellar. Something is noisily dragged up the stairs. The clanging grows louder and closer. And then there, standing right in front of Scrooge, is Jacob Marley. The ghost is covered in thick iron chains. Metal locks, keys, cash boxes, and other tools of the counting business hang heavy all over him. And yet the ghost passed through the thick, bolted, double-locked door. Ebenezer can look right through his long-dead partner’s body. And he still doesn’t believe what he sees!
Scrooge insists that an upset stomach is making him imagine things. He thinks that he must have eaten something bad. He tells Marley’s ghost, “You may be an undigested bit of beef . . . an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
But Marley knows better. The dead man is doomed to wander as a ghost in chains because in life he was a greedy, uncaring person. Just like his partner. Marley has come to offer Scrooge a very special Christmas gift. “I am here tonight to warn you,” he says, “that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.”
Scrooge is shocked to hear who will deliver this hopeful gift . . .
“You will be haunted by Three Spirits,” Marley tells Scrooge.
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