A Dickens of a Mistake: Plot hole in “A Christmas Carol”?
December 21, 2009


Ebenezer Scrooge never knew the son of his sole employee, Bob Cratchit, was seriously ill. It wasn’t until Scrooge learned that Tiny Tim might actually die unless he did something to help, that he was actually willing to forego some of his personal wealth to help save the life of a sick child.

When Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, he was already a famous author. Queen Victoria was a fan of his, for whom he performed live in 1851. Knowing this, Dickens described the crushing poverty of Camden Town (lower London) in vivid detail, knowing that it would be read by Queen Victoria and the literate upper-class, in hopes that it might make them aware of what life was like for the majority of Londoners, people whom they never met or had any interaction with. And now, every rich man & woman, including the Queen herself, would willingly read a tale about poor people and perhaps even sympathize with them. And the fact he did so in a Christmas themed story ensured it would be read again & again every Christmas “when abundance rejoices” (pg. 13).

Perhaps my only Christmas tradition: every year, I watch the musical version of “Scrooge” (starring British actor Albert Finney). Not nearly as faithful to Dickens’ manuscript as other versions, it is perhaps the best acted version of them all, and Finney convinces you of Scrooge’s redemption better than any other version I’ve seen yet.

Last week, I saw the new Disney 3D retelling of “A Christmas Carol“. While the movie was heavy on the 3D, inserting special scenes simply to show-off the three-dimensional effect, it is otherwise surprisingly faithful to the original book. It’s a shame that it is so badly (voice) acted. Hollywood actors do Olde English about as well as Ghandi did stand-up comedy. You don’t buy Scrooge’s miraculous conversion by the end of the movie, and Cratchit is almost superfluous.

While otherwise faithful to the original book, one scene caught my attention: the scene where Ebenezer’s sister “Fan” (yes, “Fan”, not “Fran”) came to the boarding school to bring her brother home for Christmas. In the Disney version, Fan is considerably younger than her brother. I noticed this, because I’ve always believed Fan MUST be older than her brother Ebenezer. Let me explain:

The backstory of “Fan” creates an enormous plot-hole in the Dickens classic.

Most experts seem to agree that “Fan”, Ebenezer’s beloved sister, died in childbirth to her son, Fred, helping to explain why Ebenezer so despised his nephew.

In the schoolhouse scene when Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Past viewing himself as a young boy, Fan tells her brother that she has come to bring her brother home for Christmas rather than him spending yet another holiday alone at school. The reason she gives: “Father is so much kinder than he used to be” (pg. 46). “Mother” however, is never mentioned. If Ebenezer’s mother were alive, how could she ever allow her only son to spend every Christmas alone at school year after year?

One can infer from all this that Scrooge’s own mother, like Fan, died in childbirth, for which his father blamed Ebenezer and couldn’t bear the sight of him, thus banishing him to boarding school and never allowing him to come home for the holidays. This would explain much. It explains why Scrooge hates Christmas, why his sister was so important to him (as a substitute mother), why he spent every Christmas away at boarding school and was only allowed to return once “Father is much kinder now”. It explains why Scrooge so despised his nephew, and Scrooge eventually coming to the realization he was blaming Fred for Fan’s death the same way Ebenezer’s father blamed him for his own mother’s death. It all makes perfect sense… except…

The problem is that Dickens describes Fan as “much younger than the boy [Ebenezer]” (pg. 45). If Scrooge’s mother died in childbirth, Fan could not possibly be younger than Ebenezer. And the story suggests she is not a step-sister because they have a long history together.

I DO think the idea of Scrooge’s own mother dying in childbirth to him was indeed what Dickens meant to suggest, but made a careless mistake saying Fan was “much younger” when writing that particular scene. Women dying in childbirth was quite common in Dickens’ time, so it is not “too coincidental” to think both women might have died the same way. If anything, Fan would of been at greater risk if that is how her mother died.

Maybe it is presumptive of me to suggest the famed author Charles Dickens “F—ed up”, but I’m curious what you think. Why is Scrooge’s father so cruel to his son and not his daughter? If Scrooge’s mother did not die while giving birth to him, why is she never mentioned? If Scrooge’s mother was cruel, distant or too cowardly to stand up to her husband, certainly this would of influenced him too (and his relationship with his one-time fiancee’ [unnamed in the book]) and of deserved mention in Dickens’ book. We are told all about his sister, his nephew and his father, but no mention is ever made of his mother anywhere in the book.

Next week, the last Monday of the year, will be my annual “Predictions for the coming year”. I did quite well (seven for 12) in 2008, and a quick review of my predictions for 2009 shows I did pretty well this year too, so be sure to return next week for a recap of how I did along with my Predictions for 2010.

Postscript: After so many mentions of it, I finally sat down and watched the Alistair Sim version of “Scrooge” from 1951. To my surprise, the Sim version includes a scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past says almost exactly what I had hypothesized… that Fan died in childbirth to Fred the same way Scrooge’s mother died in childbirth to him, AND that this was the reason his father hated him so. I’m a bit shocked that the exact same conclusion I came to appears in the Sim classic. This exchange does not take place in the original text and is an original scene inserted into the 1951 screenplay. And, as I note above, this scenario isn’t possible if… as Dickens wrote… “Fan” is much younger than Ebenezer.


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December 21, 2009 · Admin Mugsy · 17 Comments - Add
Posted in: General, Healthcare, Seems Obvious to Me

17 Responses

  1. Mugsy - December 22, 2009

    (Note: I have corrected the spelling of “Ebenezer”, as pointed out by readers. Thank you.)

  2. Paul Myron - October 30, 2013

    I don’t have a problem with he sister being younger.  I believe she is Ebenezer’s half-sister.  While dying in childbirth occurs often in the day and age, so was quickly remarrying. I believe this is what Dickens had in mind and since it was a common occurrence in his day, there was no reason to explain it to the readers.  My great-grandfather who lived not in England but in America in the 1800s had many children with is first wife, one of them being my grandfather.  His wife died, possibly in childbirth, and he almost immediately remarried a much younger woman, and they had several children.  So this happened all the time in both American and English society.  I don’t believe that Dickens messed up as you imply.

  3. Mugsy - October 30, 2013

    There is nothing in the story to suggest the father remarried or that his sister was only his half-sister. Neither assumption fits the basic precepts as laid out in the story.

  4. Joe - January 27, 2014

    There is no reason to assume that Scrooge’s mother died in childbirth. Just because it was common at that time doesn’t mean it happened in this particular case. She could have easily died some other way, or, more likely, was still alive and simply was unable (or unwilling) to challenge her husband’s authority. In real life, after all, Dickens himself was forced to work in a factory as a child (a fate far worse than boarding school, I’d imagine) and his mother lived well into his adulthood.

  5. Anthony - December 2, 2015

    If Scrooge’s mother died in giving birth to Fan, Fan would have to be younger than Scrooge. If his mother had died giving birth to an OLDER sister, Scrooge could not have been born.

  6. Anthony - December 2, 2015

    Oops. The article is of course about Scrooges’ mother dying giving birth to him, not Fan. My mistake. Humbug. 

  7. Admin Mugsy - December 2, 2015

    Chuckle. 🙂

  8. Dawn - December 12, 2015

    I have always assumed what has already been suggested, that his mother died giving birth and his father remarried. I have no fact to go on other than it was very common. I think Dickens did not go into detail because it was the norm of the day.

  9. Joy-Lyn - December 15, 2015

    I agree with Paul. Scrooge’s father remarried after Scrooge’s mother died. The reason it’s not explained in detail, is because at the time, such goings on were SO common Dickens feels no need to explain it. The other factor not mentioned yet by anyone, Fan is a girl. If Scrooge had a brother instead, Dickens might have gone into the re-marriage aspect as there would have been issues and potential conflict over their Father’s wealth….especially more interesting if Scrooge and his “brother” held affection for one another instead of awkward stiffness. Might have actually lent more portential depth to Scrooge.

    With a sister, issues of inheritence were a non issue. So her being the result of remarriage woudn’t have been important to the plot to Dickens or anyone else at the time….in the same way no author today would feel the need to explain the step by step detail of making a phone call.

  10. Admin Mugsy - December 15, 2015

    There is nothing upon which to base the belief that Scrooge’s father remarried or that Fran is only his half-sister. Instead, Scrooge implies Fran “took care of him” while growing up (beyond the death of his father?), making her the “mother figure” in his life. That’s not the role of a younger half-sister.

    “Father is much kinder now!”, Fran tells her brother when sent to fetch him, meaning she was present in the days before young Ebeneezer was banished to Boarding School. A younger sister would not recall those days, and yet we are told she is younger.

    Fran would of have had to abandon Scrooge to marry. Unacceptable. The “fix” was to make her younger so that it was an older Scrooge growing up to leave home, forcing her to marry rather than be alone, only to die in childbirth. Scrooge would blame himself for her death and by extension his nephew (the same way his father blamed him.)

  11. William - December 15, 2015

    This potential problem causes the story to stop or create a hiccup for a moment. It is unwieldy in its relationship with the story. It is very possible for this to be an author’s oversight as he rewrote sections of the story. This type of error happens.

    It is likely a mistake on Dickens’s part. Originally, Fan was to be older, but this did not fit the motive or depth of the story. Why would father be so vexed with Ebenezer? A reminder is the father has lessened in his spirit and mood. All of this is consistent with the idea of Fan being older, the mother dying during the birth of Ebenezer, and Fan’s death during childbirth. Death during childbirth was common and possibly consistent within families. The anguish the father has followed by Ebenezer’s own anger towards Christmas and Fred is very consistent to a death at childbirth. The motherly effect lends even more credence to this being the intended result. The reason for not correcting this error could be as simple as not having the power to do so, or Dickens moved on and the story was in the past for he would continued to write; he was already maximizing the returns on “A Christmas Carol”, so why change it.

    Inserting a step-mother is not consistent with the flow of the story even though remarrying was common. A question could be asked, why only two children from two mothers? This isn’t consistent with the majority of families where multiple children were born for this period. More importantly, a step-mother situation breaks the story completely. It does not lend itself to a reason whether inferred or not as to why Ebenezer is banned to a boarding school. Fan would be less likely of a motherly figure for Ebenezer had she been younger. The closeness likely would not be there. The only supporting evidence of this is Dickens. He never makes mention of this as a problem, and there are no corrections. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake. Altering that portion of the story may not have been a big deal to the overall goal of the story.

    There is no known indication of whether or not this is a flaw. Dickens to my knowledge never mentioned this being an issue nor was any attempt to “correct” this. We are left to wonder if this was intentional or not. It is part of the story that will remain clouded until some document is discovered explaining the intent.

  12. Not a robot - September 18, 2018

    I agree

  13. Not a robot - September 18, 2018

    Yo yo

  14. Quelly - December 9, 2022

    When analyzing “A Christmas Carol” it’s wisest to focus only on the book, as all movies made have taken license. In the book Fan is his “much younger” sister. No mention of either her or their mother dying in childbirth.

  15. Garrett Riley - January 7, 2023

    Grammar 101: If anything, Fan would of been at greater risk if that is how her mother died.
    “Fan would of?” Fan would “HAVE”! SINCERELY, the Grammar Nazi!

  16. Mike - December 7, 2023

    You are looking at the story from the point of view of the modern age. Back in the 1800’s, every male child of the well-to-do families were sent to boarding school. That’s just what they did.

    Also back then, men were the head of the house, so the wife had to submit to the will of their husband. If he didn’t want Ebenezer to come home, Ebenezer didn’t come home, and that was that.

    Also also, usually the boys that went off to boarding school were older, around 12 to 14 when they started. If Fan is 4 years younger (which is a long time between children, even today), she would have been 8 to 10 years old when he was sent away. That’s a long enough time for them to build up the relationship they did. If their father wasn’t a kind man (proven by what Fan says), they would have spent most of their time together and avoiding their parents as much as they could. They might have even developed a codependent relationship that lasted until Fran died, which would have been emotionally devastating to Ebenezer. We all know the rest of the story…

  17. Snoopy Williams - December 21, 2023

    Fan had to be older Scrooge says ‘mother must have looked much like you before she died.’ Fan could not have looked like Scrooge’s mom if she is a step-sister.

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