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A Christmas Carol | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits of Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol | Stave 3 : The Second of the Three Spirits | Summary



When Ebenezer Scrooge awakens it is just before one o'clock again, and he prepares for the second ghostly visitor by pulling back the bed curtains himself, so he won't be taken by surprise. A terrifying light pools into Scrooge's room, which leaves him trembling in bed, "powerless to make out what it mean[s]." When he opens the door to the adjoining room to investigate, he sees that the room has been transformed: it is decked floor to ceiling in decorations, "so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove": glistening berries, holly, mistletoe, and ivy hang festively from the greens, glistening in the light of thousands of tiny mirrors. The spirit sits at the head of a giant table overflowing with a feast of "turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes, and seething bowls of punch."

The spirit introduces himself as the Ghost of Christmas Present. The huge spirit is dressed in a long green robe bordered with fur, wears a crown of holly around his head, and has a cheery voice. Although the spirit appears friendly, Scrooge is too intimidated to look him in the eye. The spirit seems confused that Scrooge has never met another spirit like him, claiming to have "more than eighteen hundred" brothers. The spirit orders Scrooge to "touch [his] robe," and instantly they leave the decorated room and are standing in the middle of the street on Christmas morning. Scrooge's neighbors are already out shoveling snow from the streets and bustling to and from shops in preparation for the celebrations. If anyone quarrels or disagrees, the spirit sprinkles incense from his torch and "their good humour [is] restored directly." The spirit says he likes to sprinkle his incense on the poor because they need it most.

Continuing down the road, Scrooge and the spirit arrive outside Bob Cratchit's home. He sprinkles a generous dusting of incense on the Cratchit door, which Scrooge finds excessive for such a poor man. Mrs. Cratchit and her daughter, both wearing threadbare dresses but bedecked in cheap ribbons to look festive, prepare the house for their Christmas dinner, a goose, which the children eagerly anticipate. Bob arrives home soon after, carrying his youngest son, Tiny Tim, on his shoulder. Tiny Tim is disabled and carries a crutch, but it does not dampen his joyful spirit. Bob inquires whether Martha, his eldest child, has come home from her job as apprentice to a milliner. Mrs. Cratchit claims Martha had to work late, but to everyone's delight, Martha bursts from a hiding spot and leaps into her father's arms. With the whole family together, everyone begins working in unison to move their feast to the dinner table, which everyone compliments and admires as they eat. Mrs. Cratchit admits to worrying that there wouldn't be enough food to go around—funds, as always, are tight—but everyone compliments her thrift.

After the meal, the family retires to the hearth where Bob pours drinks into the family's two glasses (which they must share among them) and raises a toast; "God bless us, every one," Tiny Tim chimes in. Scrooge feels deeply moved by the family's tenderness despite their crippling poverty and asks what will become of precious Tiny Tim. The spirit tells him bluntly, "If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die." Scrooge is horrified and heartbroken, yet the spirit reminds Scrooge of his own cruel words: "If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the population." Scrooge snaps back into the moment as Bob's speech continues, thanking Scrooge and calling him "the Founder of the Feast." Although Bob is serious, his family scoffs at the toast. Mrs. Cratchit sulks and calls Scrooge "an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man." Yet Bob insists that without Scrooge, he wouldn't have a job at all. Because it's Christmas, a time of kindness and forgiveness, the others begrudgingly raise their glasses to Scrooge's health. They discuss the children's various jobs and the wages they earn, which are a pittance but also a great help to the family. Scrooge watches the family with curiosity, struggling to understand their happiness: "They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty ... but they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time." As he and spirit leave, Scrooge finds himself unable to look away from poor Tiny Tim smiling by the fire.

The city streets are dark when Scrooge and the spirit return to them, yet they are bustling with people rushing to and from parties. They stop briefly at the deserted village "where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth" to watch the workers enjoying a family party; then to the coast, where two lighthouse men exchange a Merry Christmas; then to a ship on the "black and heaving sea" where each sailor "hum[s] a Christmas tune." Before Scrooge knows it, they are back on the London streets, standing outside Fred's apartment, where the room is filled with laughter. Fred is retelling the story of his invitation to Scrooge—which was met with a "Bah humbug!"—to his wife and their guests, who are both entertained and annoyed. She doesn't understand why Fred continues to engage with his nasty uncle. Fred admits that he "feels sorry for [Scrooge] ... Who suffers from his ill whims? Himself, always." He goes on to say that while Scrooge misses a fine dinner and a nice party, he himself loses nothing in extending the invitation: "I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him." The rest of the party guests laugh heartily at Fred's perseverance.

The party moves on to the entertainment portion, with Fred's wife playing beautifully on the harp. Scrooge finds himself whistling along to the Christmas songs he remembers from his time in boarding school. Later, the guests play party games like Blindman's Bluff and a guessing game called How, When, and Where. Scrooge heartily plays along, although the party guests cannot hear him, and when the spirit says it's time to go, Scrooge begs to stay another half hour. In the next game, Yes or No, guests must guess the object another player is thinking of by asking "yes" or "no" questions. Through quick-fire questions, it's revealed that Fred is thinking of "a rather disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and lived in London, and walked about the streets ...." The guests laugh uproariously as they determine that the "animal" is, in fact, Fred's Uncle Scrooge. Despite making him the butt of the joke, Fred, like Bob Cratchit, insists on raising a glass and toasting his uncle's health.

The spirit finally pulls Scrooge away from the party, traveling past sick beds, foreign lands, "an almshouse, hospital, and jail" where every man celebrates Christmas is some small way, despite his poverty or misery. Outside Scrooge's door, the spirit lifts his robe to reveal two filthy, starving children hiding beneath: "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both," he warns Scrooge. Horrified, Scrooge asks how the "wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable" children can be helped. Echoing Scrooge's cruel words, the spirit fades into the night saying, "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" The spirit disappears as the clock strikes midnight; trembling, Scrooge sees the third spirit approaching him.


Once again time is twisted, as Ebenezer Scrooge awakens at nearly the same time he fell asleep. Unlike the night before, he spends little time trying to understand it. By pulling back the curtains and waiting, Scrooge thinks he has the situation figured out—that he can control it in the same way he controls business ventures. And this makes him feel better, because the spirits surprise him at every turn, leaving him vulnerable and nervous: "he was powerless to make out what [the light] meant," leaving him "taken with a violent fit of trembling." Scrooge needs to be in control; when he isn't, his facade of strength and insensitivity crumbles.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is a literal play on words for the sentiment of "Christmas spirit": spirit being both a ghost and a joyful feeling. The "Christmas spirit" of generosity and joy is sprinkled directly from the spirit's torch, immediately transforming quarrels and sadness into cooperation and joy. During its visit, the spirit makes clear that Scrooge doesn't need a sprinkling of the magic incense, he needs a dousing! When Scrooge first sees the spirit, it and the room are decked out in traditionally British holiday dress: green, red, and gold are the dominant colors; greens and ivy (hung traditionally before Christmas trees became popular in the mid 1840s) surround the spirit; and he sits in front of a huge feast of game birds, fruits, and pastry. He urges Scrooge to "Come in! and know me better, man!"—a direct response to Scrooge's lack of Christmas spirit. The spirit mentions his "more than eighteen hundred" brothers, referencing the number of Christmases since Christ's birth (the first Christmas). Despite this reference to Christ, A Christmas Carol does not have a religious message. The Ghost of Christmas Present even warns Scrooge—as they watch the poor take their holiday meals to bake shops to be cooked, a practice which some Victorians wished to ban on Sundays—not to heed those who pretended to hear the spirit for their own ends. In fact, the novella was groundbreaking for its lack of Christian themes, instead highlighting the secular themes of generosity and good will. Christmas had been a quiet, reverent Christian holiday, but A Christmas Carol helped transform it into a festive day of celebration with its vivid descriptions of food, drink, and fun.

While the novella celebrates secular Christmas traditions like shopping, partying, and feasting, it also offers social critique of overconsumption. When Scrooge and the spirit first step onto the streets, the reader is given a long description of busy shops and bustling shoppers:

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence ... the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, [the] raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious.

These descriptions create a mood of indulgence and gluttony. While shoppers are eager to fill their baskets and bellies, at the end of the stave, the spirit warns Scrooge (and readers) not to ignore Ignorance and Want, created by man through their selfish and conspicuous consumption. The message of this stave is to enjoy the holidays—be merry with friends and family—but don't forget those less fortunate.

For Scrooge, the less fortunate man is his clerk, Bob Cratchit. The kind clerk lives in a tiny home in a poor neighborhood with his optimistic family. Bob's wife does her best to make the home festive with ribbons, holly, and tasty food. Even though they are abysmally poor, their home is warm and merry, a sharp contrast to wealthy Scrooge's bleak home. Through Dickens's sympathetic portrayal of the Cratchit family, he is able to explore political themes close to his heart, most notably, the loss of childhood. Martha and Peter, the eldest Cratchit children, are forced out of school and into the workforce to help support their large family. Despite their lost childhoods, the children are eager to contribute, kind-hearted, and generous. Even Tiny Tim, weak and disabled, has a pure heart, wishing everyone—even cold Mr. Scrooge—a happy and blessed Christmas. This highly sentimentalized depiction of the Cratchit family helped to give London's working poor a face and name, encouraging richer members of Victorian society to view the poor as individuals rather than statistics—instilling empathy for fellow human beings rather than blind support of workhouses and debtors' prisons. To create this emotional response, Dickens had to portray pure, nearly faultless characters whom even heartless readers (like Scrooge himself) would want to help.

The novella offers many ways for Scrooge (and readers) to embrace the Christmas spirit: donate to a charity, host a party, exchange gifts, even sing a cheery song. As Scrooge and the spirit travel across the country, traveling farther and farther away from civilization, they are able to find the Christmas spirit everywhere: in a mining village, in a lighthouse, even on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Only Scrooge, it seems, ignores the holiday altogether. The rest of mankind is unified through cheer and celebration. When Scrooge finally experiences a family celebration at Fred's, he finds that he enjoys himself—so much so that, like a child, he begs the spirit to let him stay longer. Perhaps this is because he sees, for the first time, that he would be welcome. Even though Fred and his guests tease Scrooge, Fred's invitation is warm and genuine. Fred's insistent invitation highlights the hollowness of Scrooge's wealth. Fred says, "His wealth is of no use to [Scrooge]. He doesn't do any good with it. He doesn't make himself comfortable with it ... Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always." Scrooge's wealth does little to better his own life. He is clearly miserable. Happiness, the novella suggests, is not found in money but in shared experiences—physical, emotional, and spiritual. In this way, Fred, Bob, and even the lonely lighthouse workers are far richer than Scrooge.

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