In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, personifies the idea that success is found not in hoarding wealth and self, but in service and friendship. Scrooge begins the story’s allegorical journey as a miserable man who openly mocks Dickens’ generous characterization of the Christmas season. But a ghostly intervention forces Scrooge to confront his past, develop compassion for the neglected child he was, and carry that compassion into his city to extend it to those in need. As he faces an internal conflict between what past experiences have taught him to believe—that life is a zero-sum game—and the abundant joy he can experience by using his riches to serve others, Scrooge realizes that “charity, mercy . . . and benevolence” are everyone’s business.

In the story’s inciting incident, Scrooge, an exploitive and hostile man, experiences a startling vision on Christmas Eve: the face of his dead business partner Jacob Marley. At first, Scrooge flatly rejects the vision. Then, when Marley’s ghost explains what Scrooge must undergo for his own good, Scrooge squirms to avoid the conflict that, rooted in his heart, leads him to hoard and hide. Scrooge watches as tormented spirits stream past, wailing because they desperately want what they rejected in life—“to interfere, for good, in human matters.” Overwhelmed, Scrooge collapses into sleep.

As the rising action unfolds, chimes announce the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past. This guide must dim his brightness so that Scrooge, who prefers the cheapness of a dark house, can look at him. The ghost is sweetly childlike and wisely parental, an appropriate teacher for the lesson Scrooge must learn about the painful childhood experiences that led him to isolate himself. Scrooge weeps to see himself alone at Christmas, when other boys had gone home, and feels again the sting of his distant father’s rejection. He sees his first employer, Fezziwig, whose kindness causes Scrooge to wince under the ghost’s gaze as he thinks of Bob Cratchit. Hardest to relive is the Christmas when Scrooge’s fiancée, Belle, breaks their engagement because Scrooge sees their love as “an unprofitable dream.”
The conflict these memories force into Scrooge’s awareness becomes intolerable when he sees the good life he and Belle might have had. He forfeited that future by choosing the security of wealth over the unpredictability of human relationships. Belle tells Scrooge, “You fear the world too much.” All his adult life, Scrooge has tried to control what he could not as a child—his own security. He can count coins and budget coal, controlling material goods in a way that he cannot control people. But the cost of this control is pain and loneliness. This realization leads Scrooge to forcefully extinguish the light that has shown him the choices that led to his fearful, lonely adulthood.

As the rising action continues, the Ghost of Christmas Present arrives to present an antidote to the fear that has impaired Scrooge—the shared life of community. The first spirit forces Scrooge to examine himself, while the second invites him to see others. Scrooge needs both perspectives. He observes people of many walks of life as they celebrate Christmas together. Scrooge sees joy enduring wherever friends gather, in “almshouse, hospital, or jail.” His education in generosity stings, however, when the ghost uses his own callous words against him. When the ghost forces Scrooge to look at the ghastly enemies of human thriving, Want and Ignorance, Scrooge tries to defend his past comments, but “the words choked themselves.” Having confronted the pain of the past and witnessed the comfort of human companionship in the present, Scrooge is no longer willing to participate in the lies he has told himself about poverty.

The arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come propels the story toward its climax. Humbled, Scrooge does not resist this ghost’s lesson. But to reach the epiphany that marks the climax, Scrooge must face horrible truths: when he dies, many people will be glad; and his lifetime of hoarding will end in waste. Scrooge’s delusion—that he could protect himself from loss by becoming “secret, and self-contained, and solitary”—crumbles. He pleads for time to revive his relationships and to use his wealth generously rather than letting it pile up pointlessly. In a striking transformation that bookends the moment when the doorknocker morphs into Marley’s face, the terrifying ghost shape-shifts into Scrooge’s familiar bedpost.

The novella’s falling action and resolution are brief and joyful. Scrooge capers about like a child, recalling his past. He appreciates his rundown home, delighting in the present. And he acts on his resolve to make up for lost opportunities, rescuing the future. Scrooge’s humanity, buried so long by fear, emerges.

The novella’s final lines celebrate the resolution of the conflict that for decades locked Scrooge into a misery that spilled over onto others. Scrooge experiences a reversal so complete that he “did it all, and infinitely more.” Not only do others benefit from Scrooge’s transformation, but so does he. Scrooge is restored to the “wonderful unanimity” of a life of relationship, friendship, and service.