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A Christmas Carol

Simon J. James is Professor of Victorian Literature in the Department of English Studies. This festive season he discusses memory in Dickens’ work, and the importance of remembering past versions of ourselves at Christmas.

Christmas time is an occasion for remembering. Christians, of course remember and commemorate the birth of Jesus; for many of us, Christmas is also an invitation to look back at events since the previous year, and to longer ago. 

The writings of Charles Dickens repeatedly connect Christmas with the faculty of memory. He uses the circularity of Christmas’s unity with Christmas the previous year, and with all the other Christmases that preceded it, to remind us that time is both linear and circular: that we must look backwards and forwards even as we live in the present. From The Pickwick Papers, his very first and most purely comic novel, onwards, he urges his readers to remember family members who are not present around the table this year, and to remember previous versions of one’s own self from years gone by.  

How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken! (…)

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!

In the IAS project, Representing Memory, researchers from Durham, the UK, and Australia considered how memory is ‘represented’ in the academic disciplines in the sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities. We examined autobiographical memories as a kind of ‘mental time travel’: in order to maintain our sense of who we are, we continually remake our recollections of events in our own lives, imaginatively re-narrating themselves to ourselves and other people (memory and storytelling share neural resources).

‘Mental time travel’ is thus a useful way of understanding the visions shown by the ghosts in Dickens’s most beloved story, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge has lost his sense of the renewal offered by the circularity of the seasons, joylessly asking his nephew, 'What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?'. 

The Ghost of Christmas Past remedies Scrooge’s failure to narrativize by putting him back in touch with his own memories, sending Scrooge time travelling to childhood, and to his former employer Mr Fezziwig’s festive party, where ‘His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation’ (A Christmas Carol). 

Remembering the past versions of ourselves, for Dickens, keeps us happier, healthier, and more sympathetic to the sufferings of others. 

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