Skip to main content

A Christmas Carol offers lessons in Psychology and Faith A Book Review

A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens

A Review by Geoffrey W. Sutton

My copy of A Christmas Carol was a gift on Christmas day, 1963. Two Christmases before I had walked the cold, fog-laden, smog drenched streets of Old London with my dad whilst my mother visited with her family. It was a grey day and a grey week. We took turns warming parts of our body by fireplaces here and there. After five years in the U.S. we had returned home to London on the occasion of my maternal grandmother’s death. 

Dickens’ story paints a familiar tale textured by my early memories and enriched today by having watched my favourite rendition of A Christmas Carol (1984) with my wife on Christmas eve.

My interest in reviewing the book is not just for a pleasant walk about the old streets of London but I'm motivated by a sense of appreciation for the poetic and colourful artistry with which Dickens plumbs the hopes and fears of humanity. So, following a quick summary, I’ll share my psychological take.

The Carol

We meet death and Ebenezer Scrooge on page one. It’s Christmas time and we learn Scrooge’s old business partner, Jacob Marley, is as dead as a door nail. After revealing his humbug callousness toward the poor, Scrooge arrives home to meet the chain-dragging ghost of Marley who rattles the shackles of eternal punishment as he foretells the trinity of spirits that will anoint his Christmas Eve.

As prophesied, the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future pummel Scrooge until he cries out for mercy. Painful and evocative scenes of joyful and miserable characters offer perspectives that induce fear, terror, and eventually empathy. When the agony is past, Scrooge is reborn as an adult child overflowing with love and compassion. He is redeemed.

Dickens's Psychology

Psychotherapy. Scrooge experienced intensive religiously oriented psychotherapy before Freud and his disciples examined the trinity of spirits engaged in perpetual conflict within troubled minds. Although the early ideas of the psychoanalysts no longer stimulate scientific inquiry, Dickens shares a narrative common to people with keen insights into the mental turmoil fuelled by old memories and recent social interactions. 

Psychotherapists savour those moments when a patient discovers a new perspective—one that liberates them from their current pain and offers a view that energizes them for the tasks of life. The psychotherapist-spirits expertly guide Ebenezer through memories and scenarios on his way to a new formulation of life.

Psychotherapists often suggest patients read books-- bibliotherapy. Evidence suggests many find reading helps resolve conflicts and find solutions to life's struggles. A Christmas Carol offers a rich look at the importance of friendships and the ability of people to make significant life changes.

Dickens was also keenly aware of the social factors in life that make a difference. The story reminds us of Dickens' own poor childhood in Camden Town where his family went to debtor's prison. Poverty and lack of education (Ignorance and Want) have an effect on people's lives.

Emotions. Psychological science has danced with emotions since its inception. Psychotherapists know the powerful forces of fear and anxiety that drive people away from life and into the cold, lonely, and risk adverse confines that ironically keep them from participating in a rich and exciting life. Dickens artfully illustrates the battle between the forces of anxiety and those of love.

In the story, Dickens also portrays the development of empathy that matches reality. We often develop empathy when we can see a troublesome experience from the perspective of another. Empathy is a key to compassion. And empathy is stimulated by taking on another's perspective.

... empathy is stimulated 
by taking on another's perspective.

Empathy also links to forgiveness and compassion. Forgiveness allows us to leave our past behind. We can learn to forgive parents and ourselves. Unfettered from the chains of the past, we can face the present with a fresh and compassionate view of others and ourselves. New perspectives can stimulate positive and negative emotions and can motivate behaviour.

Psychology of Religion

A Christmas Carol conveys the compassion of Christianity in a most entertaining manner. But Dickens also captures an essence that still informs contemporary inquiries into the Psychology of Religion. Throughout history, people have negotiated the natural world by reference to their understanding of the spiritual. Worldviews make a difference in appraising the meaning of holidays and family gatherings.

Religions may be considered as organized paths for pilgrims questing for a meaningful life. Saintly pilgrims reveal the joy of following the path of virtue and attract followers along the way. They also embrace those whose life-crises provoke a re-examination of life and what life is all about. A Christmas Carol is indeed a narrative about the meaningful life.

In any era, terror reigns in one part of the world or another. I’ve written about Terror Management Theory elsewhere so I won’t repeat the details here. Nevertheless, Dickens’ keen insight into the role of death as a pervasive source of anxiety that has predictable outcomes affecting faith and behavior, must be acknowledged.

Suffice it to say, Ebenezer Scrooge was confronted by death in a frightful manner and the death-informed lessons changed his life. Dickens's insights are prescient and deserve to be recognized in that long line of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Otto Rank, and Ernest Becker who preceded the formulation of Terror Management Theory.

Cite this post

Sutton, G. W. (2015, December 26). A Christmas Carol offers lessons in psychology and faith: A book review. International Journal of Book Reviews. Retrieved from

A Christmas Carol Illustrated Classic on AMAZON

Read more about Spirituality and Virtues in LIVING WELL: 10 Big Ideas
of Faith and a Meaningful Life.


Enjoy Mind the Gap! Send it as a Gift

AMAZON     and on GOOGLE eBooks


Dickens, C. (1843/1963). A Christmas carol. New York: Macmillan.

My website: 

Links to Connections

Checkout My Page


My Books  AMAZON          and             GOOGLE STORE


FOLLOW me on   FACEBOOK   Geoff W. Sutton   TWITTER  @Geoff.W.Sutton




Articles: Academia   Geoff W Sutton   ResearchGate   Geoffrey W Sutton 

Update: 8 December 2022


Popular posts from this blog

Denial of Death and the Meaningful Life- Book Review

  The Denial of Death   by Ernest Becker A Review by Geoffrey W. Sutton The prospect of death, Dr. Johnson said, wonderfully concentrates the mind. The main thesis of this book is that it does much more than that: the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.  — Ernest Becker, xvii I completed a recent reading of this old classic yesterday (13 December, 2015) because I was interested in Becker’s contribution to Terror Management Theory, which I find so helpful in understanding the ways U.S. leaders are publicly responding to terrorist activities. Becker’s ideas are more than forty years old and many have not withstood the test of time. However, his basic premise that we deny the reality of death in many ways remains valid

WILLPOWER Setting & Reaching Goals- Book Review by Sutton

WILLPOWER Rediscovering the Greatest    Human Strength By Roy Baumeister & John Tierney Reviewed by Geoffrey W. Sutton I go to a gym, which is crowded in January. Regulars know the early Happy-New-Year commitments to fitness will weaken sometime in February. Roy Baumeister has spent a good part of his career studying self-control. His book, Willpower   written with Tierney,  entertains and informs us with an organized set of findings explaining factors that influence self-control. Two critical factors weaken our judgments: food and sleep. We need glucose and sleep to be at our best when it comes to making wise decisions and marking progress toward our goals. A pretty woman can loosen a man’s grip on his career--we hear these news stories from time to time as one political group takes aim at each other's leaders--men who failed at sexual self-control and sadly blame women for their lack of self-control. Fat shaming happens. T

THE RIGHTEOUS MIND by Jonathan Haidt Book Review

THE RIGHTEOUS MIND:     WHY GOOD PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED    BY POLITICS AND RELIGION By     Jonathan Haidt Reviewed by     Geoffrey W. Sutton In The Righteous Mind , Haidt provides readers with a review of moral psychology research, which continues to be helpful in analyzing the culture wars between religious and political groups. I was introduced to the work by an exceptional undergraduate psychology major, Kayla Jordan, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in Social Psychology. Our published academic review is available online . In this review, I provide a summary and some thoughts about the usefulness of Haidt's approach. Haidt's work is organized around three principles of morality. First,  “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second,” Drawing on the philosophy of Hume and supported by research, Haidt explains how so much of morality is governed by emotion driven, automatic thinking, rather than cool, rational thought. This is a contrast to the comm