Background.

A Christmas Carol.
  • A Christmas Carol is a novella, or short story, written by Charles Dickens and first published in the Christmas of 1843. The allegorical tale tells the story of the transformation of the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge through the visits of the spirit of his former business partner and three ghosts over the course of a Christmas Eve night. It remains a much-loved traditional Christmas tale.

Context.

In this quotation, Charles Dickens humourously describes the smell of freshly baked Christmas pudding as it emerges from a large bowl used to cook it in. In a time before washing machines, large bowls (usually made of copper to avoid tarnishing) were used to wash clothes. These ‘wash-house copper’ bowls were cleaned out and used by poorer families at Christmas time to cook a large pudding for the festive period, being the only pan they had that was large enough.

As the lid is opened, the smell from the bowls normal laundry use wafts around the room. Dickens describes the cloth (that would have covered the pudding as it cooked in the saucepan) as smelling like a washing-day, it being soaked in steam and vapours tainted by the smells from the laundry bowl. Dickens then goes on to describe the smell of the pudding as like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that!

The Ghost of Christmas Present, the second of the three spirits that haunt the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, in order to prompt him to repent his selfish ways, has taken Scrooge to see the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. There, he witnesses the Cratchit family enjoy a Christmas meal.


Illustration from Stave 3 of the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing the Ghost of Christmas Present visiting Ebenezer Scrooge.

Symbolism in A Christmas Carol: Food.

Food is used within A Christmas Carol to highlight individual characteristics and complement some of the themes that run through the story, such as Christmas and the importance of family. At the start of the novella, imagery of food is used to show characteristics of the protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge as a closed, self-isolated character when he is described as being as solitary as an oyster. On Christmas Day morning, Scrooge is shown city streets full of delicious food prepared for the festive period. Charles Dickens pays detailed attention to describing some of the food and often adds humour to the depictions, almost giving them their own personality such as great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, and ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars. We read of the Cratchit family sitting down to a small roast goose dinner on Christmas Day. Goose was a cheaper meat than Turkey, reflecting the poverty of the family. The meat is eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, reflecting the Cratchit’s making do with cheap accompaniments. Poor households did not have their own ovens so the goose is cooked in the ovens of a local bakers and a clothes-washing pot is used to cook the small pudding for a large family, causing the cloth to have a smell like a washing-day! Bob Cratchit makes a festive punch-type drink of a hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, gin being a cheap alcoholic ingredient to add. Despite the meagre meal the dinner at the Cratchit’s shows Christmas tradition of bringing the family together and the emotional warmth within the household. After he is visited by the spirits of his former business partner, Jacob Marley and three ghosts, we see Scrooge, a changed man, purchasing a large turkey to for the Cratchits, symbolising his transformation from miserly to a generous character.


Literary Technique.

This is an example of the figurative language Charles Dickens uses in his works, here using a simile to compare the aroma of a freshly baked Christmas pudding – cooked in a bowl that is clearly still tainted with the contents of its regular use to wash clothes – as the lid is opened and the smell wafts around the room.

Bob Cratchit.

The abused, underpaid clerk of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit is a kind but very poor man with a large family and a very sick son, Tim. He works for Scrooge, copying letters in a cold dismal room, so small it is described as a sort of tank. Bring winter time, he is forced to try and stay warm with thick clothes and heat himself by the flame of a candle. He wears tattered clothes as he cannot afford a coat. Cratchit is treated poorly by Scrooge and given a weekly salary that is insufficient to provide his family with a proper Christmas dinner. Despite these circumstances, Bob Cratchit represents the opposite qualities to Scrooge including kindness, generosity and a love of his family members.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Stave 3 (The Second Of The Three Spirits) of A Christmas Carol:

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone—too nervous to bear witnesses—to take the pudding up and bring it in.

Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose—a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

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A smell like a washing-day!
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