A Christmas Carol | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero. "A Christmas Carol Study Guide." October 27, 2016. Accessed October 3, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Christmas-Carol/.


Course Hero, "A Christmas Carol Study Guide," October 27, 2016, accessed October 3, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Christmas-Carol/.

Stave 4: The Last of the Spirits

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Stave 4: The Last of the Spirits of Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol | Stave 4 : The Last of the Spirits | Summary



The final spirit, which resembles a Grim Reaper, floats silently toward Ebenezer Scrooge, seeming to "scatter gloom and mystery." It has a large black shroud over its head, leaving "nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand." The spirit looms over Scrooge, neither speaking nor moving. Scrooge knows it is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, even though the spirit does not speak. It points downhill and Scrooge begins walking on trembling legs. Scrooge admits being terrified, but by now knows the spirit is here to teach him a lesson: "I know your promise is to do me good, [and I hope] to live to be another man from what I was."

The spirit first brings Scrooge to the business sector of town where three businessmen discuss a wealthy man's death the night before. "I thought he'd never die," one man says distastefully. They discuss what will become of the man's great fortune, that he will likely have a "very cheap" funeral, and that no one is particularly moved to mourn him. Farther down the street, in a poorer, more rundown neighborhood, a man sifts through a pile of "iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal" inside his "low-browed, beetling shop." Two women and a man enter with heavy bundles of junk and dump everything at the man's feet. He, Old Joe, rifles through the items, which have all been stolen from the dead man's home, while the women cackle about what they were able to snatch, including the very bed linens wrapped around the dead man's corpse and the shirt in which he was to be buried. Scrooge is horrified to see the dead man treated with such disrespect, but the women rationalize that he should have had "somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself." Hearing this, Scrooge is overcome with emotion, begging for mercy from the spirit—he sees the error of his ways! The spirit pulls Scrooge to the next vision, the dead man's room, too black to distinguish anything except the corpse: on the bed, "plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this man." The spirit gestures repeatedly to Scrooge to uncover the corpse and look on the man's face, but Scrooge declares that he cannot do it. Some part of him realizes that he is being shown the aftermath of his own death, although he cannot face it yet.

Scrooge begs to see anyone who mourns the man's death, and the spirit obliges. It brings Scrooge to a living room where a mother and children eagerly await someone's return. Eventually, the husband arrives and joyfully announces that their debt holder—the man—is dead. While their loan will certainly be transferred to another debt collector, it's unlikely they would be burdened with one as "merciless" as the one who died. Desperate to see "tenderness connected with a death," Scrooge is overwhelmed when the spirit brings him to Bob Cratchit's house. The living room, which had previously been busy and rambunctious with Christmas joy, is now heartbreakingly quiet. The children sit still around the fire waiting for their father to return home, but now they are deeply saddened. When Bob arrives, he tries to be joyful telling the children about Tiny Tim's burial spot, but he's overwhelmed: "My little, little child!" he weeps. When he composes himself, he tells his family that he encountered Scrooge's nephew, Fred, who extended heartfelt condolences. He happily reports that he believes Fred will try to get Peter, the eldest Cratchit son, a better position to help support the family. He asks that they all remember Tiny Tim in their hearts and resolve that "they shall not quarrel easily" among themselves, instead following the example of Tim's mild, patient spirit. "I am very happy," Bob musters.

Scrooge can feel the spirit leaving him and begs to know whether the events he has seen tonight can be reversed: "Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?" Wordlessly, the spirit pulls Scrooge back to the churchyard where the dead man is to be buried. The "inexorable finger" continues to point toward the grave. Scrooge scrambles toward the tombstone and cries out when he sees the name EBENEZER SCROOGE etched into the stone. Hysterically, Scrooge pleads with the spirit: "I am not the man I was ... I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future." The spirit appears to take pity on Scrooge—its hand begins to shake—as Scrooge grasps hold of it. Scrooge clings desperately to the spirit, which shrinks, collapses, and "dwindle[s] down into a bedpost."


Although Ebenezer Scrooge had become relatively comfortable with the spirits, the arrival of the final spirit once again leaves him trembling in fear. The spirit is the embodiment of death, physically intimidating, relentless, and impossible to reason with. Whereas the first two spirits were generally kind, the final is terrifying. Scrooge quickly realizes he shouldn't fear the spirit (death) itself, he should fear what happens after death. In this way, the secular novella embodies a Christian message—death brings an eternity in hell, unless one lives a life worthy of heaven. The "hell" Scrooge is destined for is one of disrespect and loneliness on earth, followed by a Marley-like afterlife, wandering the earth dragging chains. He is right to feel terrified. By witnessing the public's reaction to his death—general apathy, even happiness at his passing—Scrooge realizes that his life's worth means nothing. His wealth is stolen and squandered, no one mourns him, and he doesn't have a single friend willing to attend the funeral unless a free lunch will be served. This is contrasted with the heartbreaking death of Tiny Tim. Tim, who was poor and invisible, is deeply mourned. So mourned, in fact, that his father lives in a constant state of depression, too sad to walk quickly or finish a sentence without bursting into tears. The only "joy" in Bob Cratchit's life now is the possibility that his eldest son might find a better position as a child worker to help support the family.

The situational irony of Scrooge's fate is that his corpse is surrounded by people who value money and business far more than they value human life. While he was alive, Scrooge only cared about his business dealings and his growing wealth. In his death, people only care about how much they can make off of his belongings. Seeing the vulture-like thieves pilfer his belongings to make a quick buck and the callous businessmen who are too busy to mourn Scrooge's passing makes Scrooge realize how meaningless his life has been. Interestingly, Scrooge had so little relationship with the businessmen who helped build his fortune that he doesn't recognize that they are talking about him. He is so ignorant of his surroundings, in fact, that he doesn't even recognize his own bedroom in the dark when the spirit brings him there to view the corpse. He had been single-minded in his pursuit of wealth, blocking everything else from his thoughts. In death, with no one to protect or mourn him and with his expensive belongings stripped away, Scrooge is buried like an unknown pauper. Harshly, he realizes that the world will be a better place once he's dead.

Scrooge's death scene is sharply contrasted to Tiny Tim's. Although Tiny Tim was undervalued by society, he is missed deeply by his family. The entire family comes together in their grief, and even Scrooge's nephew, Fred, mourns the family's loss. In the vision, Bob is returning home from the plot where Tiny Tim will be laid to rest, remarking how beautiful and green it is. Mrs. Cratchit and her daughters have been hand-sewing a colorful burial garment for the child, which Bob remarks will be done before Sunday, when Tim will be buried. He plans to visit the grave every week, breaking down into hysterical tears at the thought of it. There is no one in his own life, Scrooge realizes, to keep vigil by his body after his death or to visit his resting place—no one to water the grass, plant flowers, or otherwise keep his memory "green." Not even Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's dedicated employee, mentions Scrooge's death to his family. It is a secondary, inconsequential death to Tiny Tim's. Life moves quickly on after Scrooge's passing, and every trace of his existence is swept away: his office is sold, the furniture replaced, and the sign removed. The only reminder that Scrooge had ever lived is his name etched into his tombstone. In a further turn of situational irony, Scrooge actually pleads with the spirit to "sponge away the writing" from his tombstone; he clearly realizes that this most permanent of memorials is far inferior to his name and memory being "written" on the hearts of friends and family. As he pleads, the spirit disappears—in a sense, granting his request.

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