Ghosts and Dickens


One cold, bleak, biting Christmas Eve, Ebeneezer Scrooge is confronted by ghosts, and brought face to face with his repressed memories, the errors of his present, and the possibilities of a better future to come.  For Charles Dickens, remembering is essential to our humanity, and as Scrooge discovers in A Christmas Carol there is no better time of year to remember than Christmas itself.

Professor Simon James steps into the imaginative world of Dickens’s nineteenth-century novels, and follows their ghosts into the present where they haunt modern film viewers who revel in the annual Dickensian Christmas movie. [MP3 version]

For Charles Dickens, it is imperative for a person to be able to remember their past selves, in particular their childhood self. While it is important not to live in the past, previous versions of the self have to be recognised in order to be a moral and a well-adjusted person.

Ghosts in Dickens frequently serve as a reminder of past or alternate lives. The eponymous Signalman is haunted by a spectre of railway accidents; in The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, Redlaw surrenders his memories of past wrongs, but finds himself unable to sympathise with the sufferings of others. Most famously, the ghosts of A Christmas Carol place Scrooge in a better relationship with other people in his past, present and future.

This lecture also considers the spectral afterlives of Dickens’s work in TV and film adaptations.

This lecture formed part of an Institute of Advanced Study series on the evidence of spirits, co-organised between the Department of English Studies and the Centre for Visual Arts and Cultures. The public lecture series continues until March, with future topics including ghosts in the nineteenth century, John Keats’s poetic shadows, and witches in medieval Europe.