Searching for the Gothic in Dickens’ Christmas classic!
‘A Christmas Carol’ is a classic Christmas story, as it encompasses all that should be at the heart of Christmas. Love, joy, family… and a prize turkey that can feed the five thousand. It also gives us the lesson that people can change and that sometimes they should, in a quick hit of one hundred and seventeen pages… depending on your edition.
This happiness however doesn’t come about on its own, and is only really facilitated by Scrooge’s conversion, which in turn is only facilitated by the appearance of the three Ghosts… four if you count Marley.
If we want to find the Gothic in the novel, we should start with Dickens’ finest creation. Scrooge! He kind of fits into the archetypal Gothic patriarch mould, a figure that is tyrannical, uncompromising and relentless. We get this from Manfred, in ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ and the Marquis in ‘A Sicilian Romance.’ He squeezes all the money he can out of everyone he can, he seeks to control Bob Cratchit, refusing to let him put more coal on the fire, and is unforgiving towards the plight of all the poor and needy, thinking they should pop their clogs to ‘decrease the surplus population.’ What a nice man.
Trying not to be rude to the man but let’s be real here – he is bloody scary looking:
“The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”
There is an obvious harshness to his appearance, with the ‘pointed’ nose, and his ‘grating’ voice. ‘Grating’ brings up ideas of ‘scratching’ and ‘grinding,’ and you don’t really want to hear those kinds of tones at Christmas. He really he sounds like a dead man walking, especially as his lips are turning ‘blue.’ Fun fact, having blue lips is called cyanosis, which is induced by extremely cold temperatures or a lack of oxygen in the blood. A lack of oxygen would definitely result in death. His appearance perhaps doesn’t resemble the classic Gothic patriarchs I listed above, but his appearance is terrifying, and considering the Gothic is supposed to be antithetical to the civilised, Enlightened world, we can definitely place the haggard character in that category.
The Ghosts fit in well with this too, especially Marley’s and the Ghost of Christmas Future. It is the ‘otherness’ of the Ghosts that make them Gothic, as well as their ability to transcend the physical world and laws of nature.
With Marley especially there is the conflict between the living and the dead, and the physical and the ethereal. Dickens immediately messes with our minds, saying the ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’ As a reader we are all screaming that once you’re dead, you’re dead – that’s the end, not the beginning. This brings out the supernatural element, establishing it early within the narrative. Marley’s ability to shapeshift is Gothic too, although perhaps not in the classic sense. Traditionally, the shapeshifting of Gothic characters links into their ability to change their character, like Catherine Earnshaw to Catherine Linton in ‘Wuthering Heights.’ Marley physically changes into the doorknocker, which is a fairly potent and distressing image, which showcases his physical shapeshifting abilities.
Marley’s ghost can also link closer to ideas about bodily monstrosity and body horror, as he is quite literally, falling apart. Every director makes a meal of Marley’s runaway jaw. It is a great moment. The presence of his chains is also confusing, as he is not a physical being, yet he is held down by physical chains. It is a Gothic image of confinement and restraint, as his body and mind are confined, he cannot be fully free. The irony of course is that he is constrained by his own heinous crimes. It is a classic trope in the Gothic genre to be refined and constrained, stopping full expression of the soul… again, I reference Catherine Earnshaw and Catherine Linton.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is also a very Gothic image, as there is the element of the unknown and the element of mystery. We literally cannot see who, or what, is there. It is therefore something we cannot understand, which again, ties nicely in with the Gothic genre. It is not a heteronormative being, it’s form cannot be understood by Scrooge, making it appear as a classic example of the ‘other.’ Its main function is to tell Scrooge that he is going to die, and to show him his fate. There is an obvious darkness to this, and the idea that in that moment, Scrooge is doomed. This too is a Gothic element, the foreshadowing idea of death, and the idea that meeting our maker cannot be avoided and is inevitable. Scrooge can put it off by turning into Father Christmas, but he can never truly avoid it.
Away from the physical appearances of the characters, we could even say that the novel is Gothic as it looks at the darker side of humanity. Scrooge is everything that he wouldn’t want someone to be, cruel, pessimistic, tyrannical… I could go on. The Gothic genre frequently looks at humanity and explores their darkest desires, such as Ambrosio’s lust in ‘The Monk.’ Scrooge’s desire perhaps isn’t that seedy, as he purely desires money. However, like Ambrosio, this desire pushes him to do bad things, and alienate all of those around him. Dickens pays attention to Scrooge’s desires that disrupt those around him for the worse, a trope that the Gothic genre frequently employs.
Scrooge really provides an anatomy of the human psyche, as we witness his conversion from miser to merry man. Here he appears to depart from the classic Gothic villains, who don’t get the chance to convert or change… as most of them all die. Again, Scrooge exhibits the Gothic trope of shapeshifting, much like Marley before him, as his character jumps from one end of the spectrum to the other. Proof that with a little help from some Gothic ghouls, everyone can embody the true spirit of Christmas.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Thanks for reading!
 Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (London, Penguin Classics Read Red, 2007) p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 Ibid., p. 1.