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A Christmas Carol | Stave 2 : The First of the Three Spirits | Summary

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Summary

Ebenezer Scrooge wakes in the middle of the night. The clock strikes midnight, which confuses and disorients him, because he remembers falling asleep at 2 o'clock. He cannot figure out whether he slept through an entire day or it's noon and a terrible plague has stolen the sun. He lies in bed for the next hour, contemplating whether Marley's ghost was reality or a dream. When the clock strikes one, the very time Marley said a spirit would visit him, a light bursts into the room and a spirit draws back the curtains around Scrooge's bed. The spirit has a strange appearance, like a child and yet also like an old man: "Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin." Its arms are long and muscular, yet its legs are "delicately" formed. A strange, "bright, clear jet of light" springs from the top of its head, and it holds a cap with which it can extinguish the light as needed. When Scrooge asks him to put it out, the spirit protests, asking him, "would you soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give?" With a soft, gentle voice the spirit introduces itself as "the Ghost of Christmas Past."

As the spirit pulls Scrooge out of bed, he attempts to argue that the weather is too bad or the hour too late for a walk, but the spirit ignores him. The spirit pulls Scrooge straight toward, and then through, the wall. They stand "upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city [has] entirely vanished." Immediately Scrooge recognizes the surroundings as the village where he grew up: "He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long forgotten!" Returning to this place is so emotional he begins to cry, although he denies it. As they walk along the road, Scrooge recognizes and remembers everything, overcome with emotion as they reach the boarding school where he spent his childhood. The spirit tells Scrooge that these images are shadows of what has been—they can be seen but not interacted with. School has just been released for the Christmas holiday but one "solitary child, neglected by his friends" remains behind. Remembering that the child is himself, Scrooge begins to sob, crying unreservedly now. The loneliness of the building is everywhere: "Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the paneling, not a drip from the half-thawed waterspout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless bough of one despondent poplar." Lonely Scrooge's only company is an imaginary friend named Ali Baba, a character from the popular collection of Middle Eastern folktales, Arabian Nights. Although elated to remember the fun times he had with Ali Baba, and other fictional characters, he also remembers the painful memories of his loneliness, which remind him of the caroling boy he sent away from his door the previous night.

The pair moves on to another Christmas. They remain in the same school but a few years later. Once again, Scrooge is alone after the rest of the students have gone home for the holidays. Instead of reading books, young Scrooge paces the room, staring at the door. Finally it opens and a beautiful young girl bounds through. It is Fan, Scrooge's younger sister, who has come to bring him home. "Father is so much kinder than he used to be," she says excitedly, "home's like Heaven." Young Scrooge is overwhelmed with happiness. Old Scrooge, too, feels his heart swelling with warm memories and love for his sister. The spirit reminds him that Fan died a woman—possibly in childbirth, although this is not specified—and left behind her son, Fred. Scrooge is uneasy with this memory and desires to move on.

Next, the spirit takes Scrooge to a Christmas when he was a young man. One of his first jobs was apprenticing for a joyful, generous man named Fezziwig, a man filled with laughter, benevolence, and a "comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice." On Christmas Eve this year, Fezziwig tells his workers to quit early and clear the room for their party. A fiddler arrives, along with Mrs. Fezziwig, her daughters, and a handful of young men who wish to dance with them, the housemaid, the baker, the cook, the milkman, and various other neighbors. The music starts and the dancing begins. Everyone dances happily until they are red in the face and panting with laughter. Fezziwig has ordered two meals prepared, along with mince pies and plenty of beer. Although Fezziwig hasn't spent much money on the party, Scrooge recognizes its value: "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil ... The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune." Realizing this, he wishes he had been kinder to Bob Cratchit the night before.

In the final vision before the spirit disappears, he and Scrooge revisit an older Scrooge, "in the prime of his life" with another beautiful young woman, his fiancée: "There was an eager, greedy restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root" in Scrooge's life. Scrooge's fiancée sees it, too, and on this Christmas Eve "releases" him from the contract of their engagement. She says that Scrooge has changed and now loves his money much more than he could love her: "A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of [our engagement], gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke." The memory breaks Scrooge's heart, and he begs to be released from the spirit's grasp, but the spirit is relentless. He brings Scrooge quickly to another scene, when the fiancée is now much older, with a room full of her own children laughing and tumbling about. Her husband enters and, after distributing Christmas presents to the gleeful children, tells his wife that he has seen Scrooge, sitting alone in his counting house, his partner Marley said to be on the point of death. When the spirit refuses to remove Scrooge from this scene, Scrooge lunges at him and pulls the extinguisher cap over its face: "he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground." Still, he is transported back to his own bed before quickly dropping into a heavy sleep.

Analysis

Time is the central theme of Staves 2 through 4 as Ebenezer Scrooge explores his past, present, and future with the spirits. Appropriately, clocks are visible, ringing, striking, and chiming, throughout the section. Each of the ghostly visits is meant to take place on its own evening—Scrooge even falls asleep between visits—yet, confusingly, they all take place on Christmas Eve. This stave opens with Scrooge trying to understand time: he remembers going to bed at 2 o'clock in the morning, yet he has somehow woken at midnight. This, along with the visits of ghosts past, present, and future, suggest that one cannot live in the present without also considering the past and the future. There is no present moment without a deeper understanding of what has passed and what is yet to come. Throughout these staves, Scrooge learns to value memories (past) and hopes (future) alongside his wealth (present).

The Ghost of Christmas Past has an unusual appearance: it looks like a child and yet also like an old man. This symbolizes the power of memory in a person's life. Even as an old man, Scrooge is powerfully moved by the sights and smells of his childhood, enough that he is brought to tears. Even though he has forgotten or pushed away happy memories from his childhood, they all come rushing back. Scrooge keenly remembers being the young boy in the schoolhouse, feeling the emotions anew, even though many years have passed. Each of the memories reopens a sealed-off emotion in Scrooge's heart. Remembering his childhood joy at the imaginary adventures he had with Ali Baba, for example, he wishes he had been kinder to the young boy singing carols at his door the night before. In the moment he thought the boy was a nuisance, but remembering his childhood emotions softens him.

Each memory not only teaches Scrooge a lesson, but also gives the reader some insight into Scrooge's character. He had a rough childhood, and was sent away from his beloved sister to a boarding school by a cruel father. For many years, young Scrooge was completely abandoned: he was the only child in school over the Christmas holidays, without even a visitor or letter. He had no friends, only imaginary ones like Ali Baba from his books, and even the headmaster "glared on Master Scrooge with a ferocious condescension." During those formative years, Scrooge suffered terribly from isolation and loneliness. Unsurprisingly, he built an emotional wall, blocking out happiness and joy lest they break his heart. The only person able to penetrate that emotional wall was Fan. When they are reunited, Fan is overwhelmed with happiness to see him, "darting in, and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him." Throughout their childhood, Fan brought Scrooge much joy, but like everything positive in Scrooge's life, even Fan breaks his heart by dying before her time.

As he matures, Scrooge believes the only "happiness" that won't let him down is money. It becomes the most important thing in his life; even more important than love. Scrooge and Belle were engaged while Scrooge was still poor, but when becomes richer, Belle breaks off their engagement because "another idol has displaced [her]" and because she is convinced that, if asked to choose a wife "to-day, to-morrow, [or] yesterday," Scrooge would never choose a "dowerless girl" such as herself. Scrooge protests weakly, yet he doesn't try to stop her. Belle is a strong woman, particularly given the era, leaving rich Scrooge because he doesn't make her happy: "A very, very brief time [will pass], and you will dismiss the recollection of [our engagement]," she tells Scrooge, "gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke." Little insight is given into Scrooge's mindset at the time—he likely thought that, as a rich man, he could buy happiness later, or he might have been relieved not to have to share his fortune with a wife and children—but old Scrooge, who has lived a miserly, lonely existence, immediately sees the error of his ways: "Spirit," he shouts, "show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me!" But the spirit isn't finished. It shows him an older Belle happily surrounded by family in material circumstances that are comfortable though not luxurious. Through the memories of Fan and Belle, the spirit's lesson to Scrooge—and Dickens's message to his audience—is clear: family is more important than money.

In an interesting contrast, this stave compares Scrooge to his first boss, Fezziwig. Old Scrooge remembers being delighted by his old boss's generosity, particularly at the holidays. Although Fezziwig wasn't a wealthy man, he closed shop early on Christmas Eve to throw a party for his employees and neighbors. He brought in food, music, and liquor: "the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire" and the water-house transformed into a ballroom. This makeshift party is a sharp contrast to Christmas Eve at Scrooge's office, where poor Bob Cratchit huddled over a single lump of coal to stay warm. It's notable that Fezziwig's party wasn't just for his family and employees: he also invited neighbors, including "a boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master." The presence of this boy, likely underfed by the master with whom he lives, highlights the benefits Scrooge receives from his own generous master, and makes his later stinginess all the more surprising and reprehensible. Fezziwig expects nothing from his guests, only that they have a good time. Scrooge notes that "the happiness [Fezziwig] gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune." Through this comparison, old Scrooge learns the important lesson that generosity doesn't have to be expensive, and that the true meaning of Christmas can be found in sharing the holiday with others. Again, Scrooge quickly sees the error of his way: "I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now," he wishes.

It's unclear what happened between Scrooge's time with Fezziwig, when he was still happy, to his time with Belle, where "there was an eager, greedy, restless motion in [his] eye," but it's safe to assume that he became successful. He began hoarding money as happiness, perhaps to cover the loneliness he felt after leaving Fezziwig, after Fan's death, and after Belle's departure. Seeing the happiness he has missed out on overwhelms Scrooge and he attacks the spirit, extinguishing the light so he won't have to see any more.

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