A Christmas Carol: Novel Summary: Stave 4
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Stave Four: "The Last of the Spirits" In Stave Four, Dickens employs irony to great effect. Each vision the Ghost shows Scrooge leads to the revelation of Scrooge's own death in the future, yet Scrooge remains unaware (whether deliberately or not, readers must decide) of the visions' significance until the last possible moment.
All Scrooge can see of the final Ghost is its outstretched hand. Scrooge surmises that this dreadful apparition is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which the phantom itself neither confirms nor denies; it will remain silent throughout its time with Scrooge. For his part, Scrooge admits that he fears this visitor more than the others, but that he is ready to learn the lessons it has to offer him.
The Ghost takes Scrooge to the Royal Exchange, "the financial center of London" (Hearn, p. 8), where it directs Scrooge's attention to a group of merchants deep in conversation. They are discussing a man's (Scrooge's) death. They make light of it, idly speculating on what the deceased has done with his money, and whether anyone will attend the funeral; one man offers to go only if lunch is provided afterwards.
The Ghost then points Scrooge to two more businessmen who are discussing the same man's death. Scrooge recognizes the men as wealthy and influential; indeed, "[h]e had made a point of standing well in their esteem." They discuss the man's death only briefly-"Old Scratch [that is, the Devil] has got his own at last, hey?"-before changing topics to discuss the cold weather.
Scrooge does not know of whom these people are talking. He surmises that the dead man cannot be Marley, since this Ghost is concerned with the future; neither can Scrooge think of anyone with whom he is associated who might be the subject of these conversations. Yet, as he has already told the Ghost, Scrooge knows that he is supposed to learn a positive lesson from all he sees, so he "resolve[s] to treasure up every word he heard"-an ironic allusion on Dickens' part to the biblical Christmas story (see Luke 2:19): where the Virgin Mary ponders the words of shepherds which anticipate her son's life, Scrooge ponders the words of businessmen which point (though he does not yet realize it) to his own death. Dickens compounds the irony by telling readers that Scrooge has been waiting to see himself in the future; he assumes "the conduct of his future self would render the solution of these riddles easy." Scrooge is more correct than he knows!
The Ghost then takes Scrooge to a poor part of the city he has never before visited, an area that "reek[s] with crime, with filth and misery." There, Scrooge watches "old Joe," proprietor of a makeshift store, purchase items brought to him by a charwoman (house servant; she is named Mrs. Dilber), laundress, and an undertaker's employee. The odds and ends-including bed-curtains, "rings and all"-used to belong to a dead man. Scrooge is appalled by this scene, and tells the Ghost he realizes that "[t]he case of this unhappy man might be my own." As if to move him closer to the inevitable realization, the Ghost takes him to the corpse's curtain-less bed, now "plundered and bereft." The stiff body lies under a sheet. The Ghost beckons Scrooge to move the sheet and look at the corpse's face. Scrooge is tempted to do so, but does not. Instead, he reflects on how this dead man's concern with money has not ultimately profited him: he has died alone, with only a cat and some rats expressing any interest.
Scrooge asks the Ghost to show him anyone who feels emotion at this man's death. The Ghost obliges, and takes him to a mother with children, who are anxiously waiting for the man of the house to return home. He does, and tells his wife (who is named Caroline; we never learn his name) that the man to whom they are in great financial debt has died. Caroline's first reaction is happiness, even though she is then ashamed of her reaction. The family's debt will be transferred to someone else, but before it is due, the husband plans to have the money to repay it. "The only emotion that the Ghost could show [Scrooge}, caused by the event, was one of pleasure."
Scrooge begs to see "some tenderness" linked to the event, and so the Ghost returns him to Bob Cratchit's house, where the noise of the dinner in Stave Three has been replaced by sad silence. Bob's son Peter is reading aloud from the Bible: "And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:2)-a text in which Jesus teaches his disciples that those who hope to enter the Kingdom of Heaven must become like children. Apparently overcome with emotion, Peter stops reading. Mrs. Cratchit and her daughters are sewing clothes; she stops, saying, "The colour hurts my eyes." Although the text does not specify, we know the color is black and the clothes are for mourning garb, for the narrator laments, "Ah, poor Tiny Tim!" Mrs. Cratchit remarks that her husband is late getting home; Peter comments that his father has been walking more slowly than usual. The entire family recalls how Bob used to walk quickly when carrying Tim on his shoulder. When Bob at last arrives, he breaks down in tears; he has been visiting Tim's grave. He goes upstairs to sit in an empty chair-the one foreseen in Stave Three by the Ghost of Christmas Present. Bob tells his family that he had a chance meeting in the street with Scrooge's nephew Fred, who expressed sympathy over Tim's death and offered his assistance in any way needed. Bob hopes that Fred will arrange good employment for Peter. Before Scrooge and the Ghost depart, they see the family embracing as they remember Tiny Tim. "Spirit of Tiny Tim," the narrator declares, "thy childish essence was from God!" In connecting "childish essence" with divinity, in reminding readers of Jesus' words regarding child-like faith, Dickens is in fact advocating for a segment of his society's population often exploited, overlooked, and undervalued.
The Ghost still will not tell Scrooge who the dead man is. It instead takes him to a churchyard-located near his counting house, which now has a different occupant. The Ghost points Scrooge to a specific headstone in the cemetery. Before Scrooge looks at it, he asks the Ghost if the visions he has seen represent "things that Will be, or . . . things that May be." Again, the Ghost says nothing. It only points at the headstone, which reads, EBENEZER SCROOGE. Even then, Scrooge must still ask, "Am I that man who lay upon the bed?" The Ghost nods its head in confirmation. Scrooge clutches at the Ghost, appealing to it for intercession and pity. The Ghost's outstretched seems to shake for the first time-a visible clue, perhaps, that Scrooge's redemption is indeed still possible. Scrooge pledges to honor Christmas in his heart, and to live by the lessons his supernatural visitors have taught him. Once more, Dickens is most likely alluding to Jacob's wrestling match with an angel/God in Genesis 32 (see commentary at the end of Stave Two), for he writes: "In [Scrooge's] agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it"-even as Jacob detained the stranger at the Jabbok river, saying, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me" (Gen. 32:22, KJV). As he clutches the Ghost, it shrinks in size. Scrooge discovers that he is clutching his own bedpost.