A Christmas Carol | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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A Christmas Carol | Stave 1 : Marley's Ghost | Summary

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Summary

The novella opens with the clear statement that "Marley was dead: to begin with." His business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, a shrewd, nasty man, had even signed the register of burial. Scrooge had been Jacob Marley's only friend, his "sole executor, his sole administrator ... and sole mourner." If anyone knew for sure Marley was dead, it was Scrooge, who continues working at their warehouse, having never removed Marley's name from the door. Sometimes clients refer to him as Scrooge, sometimes as Marley; it makes no difference to him.

On Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after Marley's death, Scrooge is in the freezing counting house with his assistant, Bob Cratchit, who is copying letters. Outside, it's foggy and so cold that passersby beat their chests and stamp their feet to stay warm. At 3 o'clock it's already so dark that the men must light candles to see their work. Poor Bob Cratchit, whose coal is cruelly rationed by his stingy boss, also tries to warm himself by the candlelight. Suddenly Scrooge's beaming nephew, Fred, bounds into the counting house, declaring, "A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" Scrooge has no time for holiday greetings and immediately snaps that Fred has no reason to be merry: "You're poor enough."

Fred has come to invite Scrooge to Christmas dinner. Scrooge is disgusted. He views Christmas as a foolish time of year when people want something for nothing and spend more than they can afford. He chastises merrymakers like Fred saying, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding." Fred does his best to defend Christmas and its beloved traditions, but Scrooge won't listen, growing more irate as the conversation continues. Bob Cratchit, still freezing in the corner, applauds Fred's good points, but quickly returns to his work in response to Scrooge's threat to fire him on the spot.

After Fred leaves, Scrooge laments that he must be related to such a fool and that he must employ an equally foolish man in Bob Cratchit. Cratchit, who makes only 15 shillings a week with a wife and family to support, also wishes Fred a Merry Christmas. Soon after Fred leaves, two men enter the office; they are taking up a holiday collection for the poor. This request infuriates miserly Scrooge, who argues that the poor should be sent to prisons and workhouses, two institutions he already supports through taxes. The solicitors try to argue that the poor are neediest during the holiday season, when "Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices," but again, Scrooge will hear none of it: "If they would rather die," Scrooge says, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." He pushes the men out of his office and returns to work. Outside his window, city dwellers bustle to and fro, busily running their holiday errands. A caroler makes the mistake of singing "God bless you, merry gentlemen" outside Scrooge's door, but flees in terror when Scrooge bangs him viciously away.

As Bob Cratchit prepares to leave for the day, Scrooge complains about having to give his sole employee the day off tomorrow, accusing Bob of picking his pocket. He agrees to give Bob the entire day off on Christmas, but says he must come in "all the earlier next morning!" After shutting up the office, Scrooge trudges home, scowling and fuming at merrymakers who sledge down hills and gleefully throw snowballs. When he reaches his house, he reaches for the door knocker and is surprised to see it morph into the face of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. As he stares in surprise, the knocker morphs back into its everyday shape. Looking cautiously around, Scrooge continues inside, taking care to double-lock the door behind him.

Sitting by the fire, Scrooge is first alarmed by every bell in the house beginning to ring; when they cease, he hears a strange clanking sound, as if "some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant's cellar." Shouting at the sound, Scrooge refuses to believe that it might be a phantom, even when Marley's ghost enters the room, bound in heavy metal chains. When Scrooge demands to know what Marley wants from him, the ghost replies, "Much." Scrooge sarcastically invites the ghost to sit down and is slightly disturbed when Marley takes him up on the offer. Still, Scrooge refuses to believe the ghost is real, saying the vision is probably caused by "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese." Annoyed, Marley shouts loudly and rattles his chains. To further grab Scrooge's attention, he unwinds the bandage around his head, causing his jaw to drop down to his chest. Terrified, Scrooge falls upon his knees and begs for mercy. The ghost explains that all spirits are required to walk among the living for as long as they have been condemned. Marley has come to warn Scrooge that unless he changes his ways, the chains he will carry in death and the length of his wandering will be much longer than Marley's. Scrooge tries to argue that Marley wasn't a bad person—in fact, he was a wonderful businessman—but Marley insists he should have been more concerned with humanity than with making money. To avoid an eternity of "incessant torture of remorse," Marley says Scrooge will be visited by three phantoms. Then he fades toward the window and disappears. Not sure whether he believes what happened or not, Scrooge falls quickly and soundly to sleep.

Analysis

What is most noticeable in the opening stave of the story is the clear mood Dickens creates, primarily through his use of weather. Although set on Christmas Eve, the scene is downright spooky. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon it's "bleak" and so foggy that Scrooge must light a fire to see his work. It's so dark, in fact, Ebenezer Scrooge can't even see the passersby who "wheeze" from the cold. Fog pours through "every chink and keyhole" so densely that the houses across the street look like "mere phantoms." It sounds more like Halloween than Christmas Eve. Not only does this mood set the stage for the visits of many ghosts, it also helps place the novella in time. During the Victorian era, London saw the rise of factory work, and the air was often dense with smog and pollution, as well as smoke from the heating and cooking fires of the city's rapidly growing population; this is likely the dirty "fog" pouring through Scrooge's windows.

The opening stave also establishes the story's allegorical style. An allegory is a story that relies heavily on symbolism to convey a particular message. In this case, the message is directed at Victorian society. At the time of the story's publication, there was a massive divide between rich and poor in British society. There were few government organizations or programs to assist the very poor, so they were often left to painfully struggle on their own—with many suffering horrific existences in the prisons and workhouses Scrooge mentions. Children were especially vulnerable, and at young ages, poor children were often taken from school and sent to workhouses or debtors' prisons to pay off their parents' debts. Despite the obvious suffering around them, wealthy members of society largely ignored the poor, as seen in Scrooge's abrupt refusal to make a charitable contribution when requested.

Dickens takes direct aim at the British government when he quips that many of the phantoms at the end of the chapter "might be guilty governments ... linked together." During the visit from the charity solicitors, Scrooge mentions the "Treadmill and the Poor Law." The Poor Law was instituted in 1834, ensuring that anyone too poor to afford housing would be re-homed in a government building. While this sounds nice, government housing was akin to prison, in which the poor had to work in horrific conditions without pay in exchange for their "free" housing. The Treadmill was a form of punishment for debtors, who in prison were forced to walk long hours on a rotating machine. Today, this type of punishment would likely be considered "cruel and unusual." Scrooge would have been directly involved in sending the poor to debtors' prisons given that he worked as a moneylender. It is unlikely that miserly and mean Scrooge would have been understanding if his debtors' payments came late.

In this allegory, Scrooge symbolizes the wealthy members of Victorian society, who, like Scrooge, ignored the plight of the poor. As such, he embodies the very worst of a wealthy society. He is described as a "covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint ... and solitary as an oyster." A bitter coldness has permeated his soul, affecting everything about him, including his physical appearance, his frosty voice, and the stiffened way he walks. His personality is so cold, "no wind that blew was bitterer than he." Everyone he comes into contact with despises him: no one stops him on the street to ask how he's doing or what time it is. He has no friends and doesn't desire any. Everything about Scrooge's life revolves around his money: he despises others for spending money on what he considers to be frivolities; he refuses to turn on lights because "darkness is cheap"; and he accuses his devoted employee of "picking his pocket" for taking Christmas Day off. Because he is a symbolic character, Scrooge is relatively two-dimensional. He must be described as purely nasty to clarify the novella's message of redemption.

Another character described as purely nasty is Jacob Marley. Although the reader sees very little of him, and only after death, it's clear that he conducted life in the same way as Scrooge: pinching pennies and focusing solely on himself. Their lives are so indistinguishable, in fact, that Scrooge responds to both his own name and his deceased partner's. As a result of his selfishness, Marley is doomed to wander the afterlife dragging his chains in a state of "incessant torture." While Marley's visiting specter seems more appropriate for a Halloween story than a Christmas one, ghost stories were a traditional Christmas Eve pastime during the Victorian era. This tradition dates back to when December 24 and 25 were the pagan celebration of winter solstice, during which it was believed the dead returned to settle unfinished business, as seen in Marley's return to warn Scrooge of his fate. Almost all of Dickens' subsequent Christmas books and Christmas stories feature supernatural characters.

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