Dickens and Dante: Sin, Punishment and Redemption

One of the most famous works of English literature is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, with its Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – using visions of the past as well as the future to drive the plot. Here, English teacher Paul Garland looks at the surprising roots of one of the book’s most famous scenes, as Dickens himself looked back to a much earlier ‘Vision of the Future’.

When exploring the works of Charles Dickens, we are often (and rather predictably) drawn towards the historical background of the societal issues that concerned and inspired him. The Industrial Revolution, burgeoning cities, destitution of poverty and impoverished childhood are the usual contextual pillars which give weight to our knowledge of the text. However, on further exploration it becomes apparent that literary allusions within Dickens’ work are more effective as contextual references and specifically those within potentially the most endearing work of English Literature: A Christmas Carol. In this novella, Dickens drew upon one of the most famous and enduring works in the whole of European literature, Dante’s epic Italian poem, written in the 14th century, The Divine Comedy – and especially the division of the Inferno, which recounts the author’s ‘guided tour’ through the Nine Circles of Hell.

The phantoms that appear to the antagonistic protagonist, Scrooge, serve as guides of the soul and illuminate his past, present and future not unlike the way the souls lead Dante on his journey to self-realisation, and ultimately salvation. One of the most famous episodes in A Christmas Carol is the appearance of Marley’s Ghost. Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s old business partner, may have been “a good man of business” but he bemoans the woe of his consignment to a perpetual afterlife of torture and guilt:

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

The chains and cashboxes which he is forced to carry with him are representative of his greed and avarice in the human world and reflect Dante’s description of The Fourth Circle of Hell, a place where misers such as Marley (and Scrooge, if he does not change his ways) are punished by pushing heavy weights into the next sinner consigned to the same fate:

A greater crowd than I had seen as yet,
With piercing yells advanced on either track,
Rolling great stones to which their chests were set.
They crashed together, and then each turned back
Upon the way he came, while shouts arise,
‘Why clutch it so?’ and ‘Why to hold it slack?’

Dante, Inferno, Canto VII, lines 25–30

Illustration of Inferno, Canto VII

Paul Garland is an English teacher at The Langley Academy in Berkshire


A Christmas Carol and Dante’s Inferno are both works containing themes of sin, punishment and redemption. Think about a text you are studying at school in English – or another book you’re familiar with. Can you think of any parallels with the works discussed above? How are themes of sin, punishment, and redemption explored?