A Christmas Carol: Novel Summary: Stave 2
Select a Chapter:
Stave Two: "The First of the Three Spirits" Scrooge awakens in the night and at first thinks he has slept either through an entire day: nearby church bells are striking twelve, and Scrooge had gone to bed after two in the morning. Confused, Scrooge reflects on his meeting with Marley's Ghost. He cannot decide whether the experience was real. As if to test his earlier hypothesis that the entire encounter was "humbug," Scrooge stays awake until the hour of one o'clock, when Marley had claimed that the first of three spirits would arrive. Just prior to the striking of the chimes, Scrooge is convinced that nothing will happen. As soon as the hour of one sounds, however, lights flash in his room and a hand draws the curtains from around his bed.
This strong hand belongs to a delicately-built being who is like both a child and an old man, with long white hair and no blemish of age on its face. The figure has bare arms and legs but wears a white tunic and shining belt, and carries "a branch of fresh, green holly," even though the being's garb is "trimmed with summer flowers." A "bright, clear jet of light" springs from the figure's head; Scrooge surmises that the large cap under the figure's arm serves at times as "a great extinguisher." The figure is the Ghost of Christmas Past. While Dickens refers to this being as the first of three "spirits," the term "ghost" must now be understood as a synonym-not, as in the previous chapter, the word with which we are familiar, an immortal soul haunting the world of the living. Archaic usage of the term "ghost" to mean "spirit" can still be found in the Christian liturgy with which Dickens and his Victorian society would have been familiar: e.g., naming the Persons of the Trinity as "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."
The physical details with which Dickens describes the Ghost of Christmas Past are evocative. If the Ghost is taken as an embodiment of the "spirit," or essence, of past Christmases, its indeterminate age suggests that experiences from childhood can, if we allow them to do so, remain with us well into maturity. This suggestion will prove to be one important lesson Scrooge must learn in order to find redemption. Further, these memories can light our way into adulthood; even as they shape the people we become, they summon us to keep them alive in the present. The presence of the "wintry emblem" of holly alongside "summer flowers" reinforces this analysis. For the purposes of Dickens' tale, memories of Christmas in particular are not to be packed away when the holiday passes; rather, they are to be allowed to blossom throughout the year and throughout our lives.
Scrooge asks if this mysterious figure is the first of the three spirits whom Marley told him to expect. The Ghost responds, "I am!," in a voice the narrator notes is "singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside [Scrooge], it were at a distance." This seemingly trivial detail actually illustrates the "distance" at which Scrooge has kept the memories of his past. Further evidence of this distance appears when Scrooge asks the Ghost if the "Christmas Past" of its name refers to the "[l]ong past"-in other words, a generic past, an ancient past with little to no bearing on Scrooge himself. The Ghost does not allow Scrooge to cling to this misconception: "No. Your past." The direct response puts Scrooge on notice: even though, as readers will see, he will not be able to interact with the people whom the Ghosts show him, Scrooge cannot remain detached from them. The way in which Scrooge keeps himself at a distance from his "fellow-passengers to the grave" (see Scrooge's conversation with his nephew in Stave One) will not be allowed to stand. Scrooge's redemption-or, to use the Ghost's word, his "reclamation"-will depend upon his reintegration with the rest of the human race.
Scrooge feels an inexplicable desire to have the Ghost cover its light-filled head. The Ghost reacts to this suggestion with vehement disapproval: "What! Would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow?" To this point in the book, readers have not seen Scrooge particularly passionate about anything, save his money. It seems to be exactly this passion to which the Ghost refers. Scrooge's obsession with earning money in his present has obscured the light shining from the valuable lessons to be learned from his past. (See again the description of the Ghost's physical appearance two paragraphs previously.)
The Ghost commands Scrooge to rise and follow. Scrooge, seeing that the Ghost intends to lead him through the same window by which Marley exited earlier, protests that he will fall. The Ghost assures him that, should Scrooge "bear but a touch of my hand" upon his heart, he will be "upheld in more than this." Once more, Dickens is symbolizing the function the past may play in our lives, and issues a warning about the perils of forgetting it ("bonneting" it, as Scrooge, albeit unconsciously, has done to the Ghost).
Immediately, Scrooge finds himself in a country field. He recognizes the place: it is where he spent his childhood. An overwhelming flood of sensory connection with the place even brings a tremble to Scrooge's lip and a tear to his cheek-evidence that, in a moment, the past has become more alive to Scrooge than ever before. This moment marks a notable change in Scrooge. Recall that, in Stave One, Scrooge mentions Marley's death to the charitable solicitors, and even remarks that Marley died exactly seven years prior, on Christmas Eve itself. Yet the narrator tells us-and we can safely assume that he is a reliable source-that Scrooge gives no further thought to Marley until the strange apparitions at his lodgings begin. How remarkable that the same man who could spare no thought to his deceased business partner on the anniversary of his death now trembles and tears up when confronted with the memories of his youth! Clearly, Scrooge's transformation-first signaled with that unfinished "Humbug" at Stave One's close-is continuing at a rapid pace.
Scrooge and the Ghost walk to a small town. The sound of the villagers greeting each other with "Merry Christmas" makes Scrooge glad. The Ghost reminds Scrooge that the local school is not quite empty: one boy remains behind, by himself, not headed home for Christmas with his fellow students. Scrooge weeps to remember how he spent the holiday alone as a child in a school that cannot help but remind readers of both Scrooge's own counting house and apartment: "There was . . . a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat." These suggestive details may lead readers to consider whether this adolescent experience of isolation destined Scrooge for his misanthropic and solitary later life, or whether he could have resolved to live differently as an adult. To what extent need our past determine our present and future? This question touches on the thematic heart of A Christmas Carol, and is a question with which all of its readers should wrestle.
Scrooge sees himself as a boy, passing the time alone by reading-and so we discover that Scrooge was not entirely alone, at least not in his imagination. He seems to see, physically, the colorful characters he encountered in literature; for example, Ali Baba (of The Arabian Nights, one of Dickens' own favorite books and one he connected with Christmas [Hearn 58]), and Robinson Crusoe and Friday (from the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe which, by Dickens' day, had become a standard gift for boys at Christmas [Hearn 60]). Recall that in Stave One, the narrator informed us that Scrooge "had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man." In this touching scene, we learn that he was not always so. Seeing his former self, Scrooge feels empathy for the young boy who attempted to sing a Christmas carol at the counting house: "I should like to have given him something, that's all." In other words-to borrow language from that carol's absent, last stanza (see the discussion in Stave One)-he would have liked to "embrace" that boy "with true love and brotherhood."
The Ghost presents a vision of a later Christmas to Scrooge. Young Scrooge is still alone in the schoolhouse, which has grown darker and dirtier. This Christmas, however, Scrooge knows joy. His sister, Fan, arrives to bring him home. Fan tells Scrooge that their father has changed: "Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like Heaven!" With this glimpse into the changed character of Scrooge's father, Dickens may be further preparing readers for the experience of Scrooge's similar transformation.
Fan announces that Scrooge's school days have ended; he "is to be a man" now. As if to symbolize this transition into adulthood, the schoolmaster-a figure Scrooge has up to this point feared (much as Scrooge's own clerk fears Scrooge)-offers Scrooge and Fan cake and wine. Although we can infer from the post-boy's rejection of the wine that the refreshments are perhaps not of the finest quality, the schoolmaster seems to offer them in the finest spirit: a spirit of generous celebration-qualities which mature Scrooge, of course, must recover in order to recover himself. Indeed, Scrooge's heart must grow to match his sister's. Based on the flow of the dialogue between the Ghost and Scrooge as this vision ends, readers could justifiably conclude that her "large heart" is the reason that Fan "died a woman." In other words, one-such as Scrooge-may grow to physical maturity, and still die as less than a full man or woman, since a large heart defines a full human being. The Ghost, somewhat impishly, forces Scrooge to acknowledge his nephew: the Ghost states that Fan left "children" behind when she died, and Scrooge must amend the plural form to the singular. The moment is small, but it seems to jolt Scrooge into recognizing that his nephew is his only remaining tie to Fan. Here, again, we see the "light" that the past can-if allowed to do so-shine on the present.
The Ghost now takes Scrooge to a city, bustling with activity as its residents prepare to celebrate Christmas. The Ghost asks Scrooge if he recognizes a particular warehouse. Scrooge does; it is the warehouse where he served as an apprentice to one Mr. Fezziwig. Scrooge watches in delight as Fezziwig instructs the young Scrooge and his fellow apprentice, Dick Wilkins, to stop their work and to prepare the warehouse for a holiday dance. It is at this point that readers first learn that Scrooge's first name is Ebenezer, a Hebrew word meaning "stone of help." In 1 Samuel 7:12, the prophet Samuel gives the name to a rock that commemorates an Israelite victory over their enemies the Philistines, saying, "Hitherto hath the LORD helped us" (KJV). While some readers have charged Dickens with anti-Semitism on the grounds that he gives miserly Scrooge a Hebrew name, the author need not necessarily have been drawing a stereotyped character. Given the book's central theme of redemption, Scrooge, when Christmas morning finally dawns, may find more meaning in his name than ever before!
Young Ebenezer and Dick quickly clear the warehouse floor, and soon a festive party fills the space. The narrator remarks that "the great effect of the evening" occurs when Fezziwig himself joins the festivities, dancing with his wife: "Top couple, too, with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them . . . people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking." The narrator states that a "positive light appear[s] to issue from Fezziwig's calves" as he dances-an image that might provoke snickers from some modern readers, but a significant detail, as it continues to develop the imagery of light in the book. The light which the past may shine on the present does not kindle itself; rather, it shines due to the goodwill and joy of people like Fezziwig.
The light proves contagious; as the party breaks up and the guests depart, we read a mention of "the bright faces of [Scrooge's] former self and Dick," and note that "the light upon [the Ghost's] head burned very clear." The Ghost seems to mock Fezziwig for his generosity, but, as before, it is provoking a self-incriminating reaction from Scrooge. When the Ghost asks whether Fezziwig's inexpensive celebration deserves to be praised, Scrooge insists that his praise of his former master is due, not to the amount of money Fezziwig spent on the party, but to the fact that Fezziwig chose to make his apprentices and all around him happy. As the Ghost surely intended, Scrooge's remarks make him wish he could "say a word or two" to his clerk. This Ghost's behavior, as well as that of the Ghost of Christmas Present, finds biblical precedent in the prophet Nathan's confrontation of King David, in which he goaded the king into confessing his own sin (see 2 Samuel 12). How appropriate that the Ghosts should resemble biblical prophets, who preached against hypocrisy and social injustice as did Dickens himself. No doubt Dickens intended A Christmas Carol to provoke in his readers an awareness of their own complicity in social sin, to recognize the "Scrooge" within themselves. Indeed, according to contemporary reports, people who read A Christmas Carol often immediately engaged in more charitable behavior than before, or with a new spirit. The book continued to have this effect even after Dickens' death; for instance, in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to a friend that, after having read several of Dickens' Christmas stories, "I want to go out and comfort some one . . . . I shall give money; not that I haven't done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now" (Hearn, p. xxxviii).
The Ghost presents Scrooge with another vision of the past, set still later in time. In this scene, Scrooge is "in the prime of his life," but his face already shows "signs of care and avarice." He sits with a young woman (here unnamed; compare the absence of name for the clerk and Scrooge's nephew in Stave One) who is dressed in mourning clothes; significantly, the tears in her eyes are illuminated by the light from the Ghost. She is mourning, not the death of a person, but the death of a relationship. We see, then, that he light of the past can expose not only the pleasant, but also the painful; Scrooge must see both if he is to be redeemed. The young woman accuses Scrooge of abandoning her for his love of money. She tells Scrooge that he is too afraid of the world, and that his fear has driven him to seek security by shedding his "nobler aspirations" in favor of greed. For his part, Scrooge sees his change only as a sign of wisdom. The girl insists that Scrooge is no longer the man with whom she fell in love, and "for the love of him you once were," she releases him from their betrothal. With the prediction that, one day, Scrooge will look back on their failed relationship as only "an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke," his former fianc�e leaves Scrooge to the solitary, loveless life that he has chosen.
The Ghost then shows Scrooge a final vision. Scrooge is in the home of his former betrothed, who is now married with raucous, vivacious children of her own. He is witnessing the life that might have been his. The children's father arrives home, Christmas presents in hand. He tells his wife (whom we now learn is named Belle-the French word, of course, for "beauty") that he saw "an old friend" of hers: Scrooge, alone in his counting-house, seven years previously, as his partner Marley lay dying. "[T]here he sat alone," Belle's husband tells her. "Quite alone in the world, I do believe."
Scrooge reacts to this vision with hurt and anger. The Ghost reminds him, "That [these shadows of the past] are what they are, do not blame me!" Scrooge begins to wrestle with the Ghost, in whose face he now sees "fragments of all the faces it had shown him." Whether deliberately crafted to do so or not, the scene echoes Genesis 32:24-31, in which the biblical patriarch Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure (variously interpreted as an angel or as God himself), and emerges from the struggle as a man with a new name, a new identity, and a blessing. The scene may foreshadow the blessing Scrooge will receive by the story's end for having wrestled with his past (and present, and future!). In the moment, however, Scrooge presses the Ghost's cap down upon its head with all his might, but "he could not hide the light." Having seen and understood his past for the first time in years, if not in his entire life, Scrooge cannot now go back to willful ignorance or denial of it. At the point of exhaustion, Scrooge falls asleep