A Christmas Carol: Novel Summary
In keeping with the title of his work, A Christmas Carol, Dickens has divided his story not into chapters but into "staves"-that is, verses of a song.
Note: Some analytical comments in the following commentary are indebted to Michael Patrick Hearn, ed., The Annotated Christmas Carol (1976; New York: Norton, 2004). Page references are given in parenthetical documentation.
Stave One: "Marley's Ghost" Before beginning his story, the narrator shares two important points of information with his readers: the physical death of Jacob Marley (which, we learn, occurred exactly seven years prior to the beginning of the story, on a Christmas Eve), and the emotional-spiritual death of Ebenezer Scrooge. The narrator states four times, "Marley was dead," leaving no room for misunderstanding. And while Marley's business partner Scrooge is still physically alive, the omniscient narrator's description of Scrooge's character makes readers wonder what kind of "life," if any, Scrooge actually has. Scrooge is drawn as a character so hard, solitary, and unfeeling-especially in contrast to the people and city around him-that it can be said he too, in a sense, is dead. Readers can surmise that Scrooge's emotional-spiritual "death," just as Marley's physical one, "must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story" the narrator is about to tell.
One Christmas Eve-the narrator goes so far as to use the phrase, "Once upon a time," thus alerting readers to what genre the story that follows belongs-Scrooge is busily at work in his chilly counting-house. The exact nature of Scrooge's work remains unspecified, but it is clearly financial, and that is what matters to Scrooge. As he works, Scrooge watches his (here unnamed) clerk, who struggles to keep warm by the meager light and heat of a candle on his desk. Scrooge keeps the coal for the fire in his own office, and will not allow his clerk access to it-a small, almost sadistic detail that highlights Scrooge's misanthropic attitude.
Scrooge's miserable character is thrown into further relief with the introduction of his (also here unnamed) nephew, who arrives with glad Christmas greetings for his uncle. Scrooge famously responds, "Bah! Humbug!" With unfailing joviality, and radiating a physical glow that must emanate as much from a good heart as it does from his rapid walk in the fog outside, Scrooge's nephew defends Christmas to his uncle as a season worthy of celebration. His speech is important because it sounds one of the defining themes of A Christmas Carol. Christmas, the nephew declares, is "the only time . . . when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys." While the nephew's words may strike some twenty-first century ears as overly sensitive to class, readers should recognize that class distinctions mattered in Victorian society. People generally did not move between social strata as freely as they may today. The nephew's words represent, therefore, an attack on his class-conscious society, recognizing its faults even while celebrating its ability to transcend them-at Christmas, at least. More broadly, the nephew's words fix our attention on Scrooge's prime failing: an inability or unwillingness to view those around him as fellow human beings. Scrooge-and, surely in Dickens' mind, each person who is like Scrooge-does not have a generous enough spirit to grant others human status!
Scrooge's nephew invites his uncle to dinner, an invitation Scrooge refuses. Scrooge's nephew leaves after extending warm season's greetings to Scrooge's clerk. As Scrooge's nephew exits, two other gentlemen enter. They seek donations to charitable work: "We choose this time," they explain, "because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices." (Note the capitalization of these abstract nouns; the use of capital letters nearly personifies the two concepts. Look for a similar, albeit more dramatic, personification of abstractions at the close of Stave Three.) Through the words of the solicitors, Dickens attacks his society's inequities. Scrooge responds only with sneering sarcasm, asking the charity workers if such institutions as debtors' prisons and workhouses are still in operation: "[T]hose who are badly off must go there." Scrooge believes that his taxes, which help fund these establishments, constitute sufficient support of the poor on his part. He further insists that the lot of others is not his business. Dickens does not, at this point, allude to Cain's question to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4:9, KJV; but see the fireplace scene still to come). Scrooge's attitude, however, certainly shares much in common with that of the world's first murderer. When the charity workers respond that many would rather die than be institutionalized, Scrooge snaps, "[T]hey had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Dickens' insistence on the solidarity of the human race (refer back to the nephew's comments) could lead readers to infer that he regards any failure to help another human being as fratricide.
Sensing the futility of further argument, the charity workers depart. As the cold outside intensifies-mirroring, no doubt, the intense cold within Scrooge's heart (e.g., the narrator refers to "misanthropic ice" on the streets)-people of every social station, from the Lord Mayor himself to a simple tailor, nonetheless prepare to celebrate Christmas.
Readers may at this point note, as Michael Hearn points out, that A Christmas Carol did more than merely record customs we associate with a "Victorian Christmas." Indeed, it went a large way towards rescuing them from obscurity. By the mid-eighteenth century, many of the old holiday traditions we see throughout the book's pages-decorating homes with holly and ivy; enjoying lively music and dancing; feasting on plum pudding and playing parlor games-were nearly gone altogether. Under the reign of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century, Parliament outlawed all Christmas observances, including religious ones; and during the Industrial Revolution in the next century, many factories continued to operate during the holiday. Dickens has sometimes been seen as saving what modern readers consider a "traditional Christmas" from these social forces which might have otherwise banished it (see Hearn, pp. xiv-xvi).
A young boy begins to sing a Christmas carol outside Scrooge's door. The moment may deserve attention because, after all, the title of the work is A Christmas Carol, and this boy's song is the only actual carol specifically quoted. Perhaps Dickens chose to cite this carol because its final verse-which the boy is not able to sing before Scrooge scares him away-speaks of embracing each other "with true love and brotherhood." By its absence, then, the stanza may serve to reinforce the importance of people treating and caring for each other as brothers and sisters, a prime concern for Dickens.
When the end of the business day arrives, Scrooge reluctantly closes his office. He complains about the fact that his clerk will be taking Christmas Day as a paid holiday. Scrooge makes his clerk promise to arrive at work earlier the day after to make up for lost time. Despite Scrooge's gruff treatment of him, his clerk still finds the enthusiasm to slide down a hill with boys twenty times in honor of the holiday. The narrator notes that the clerk has no greatcoat (heavy overcoat) to help him keep warm, as Scrooge has-a further detail that contributes to Dickens' indictment of social inequities.
Scrooge continues to work even through dinner at a "melancholy tavern": he reads newspapers and his banker's book while eating. He then heads for home. Readers see that, for all his money, Scrooge lives as cheaply as possible. (Compare the laundress' comment in Stave Four, that Scrooge is "a wicked old screw," or miser [Hearn, p. 135].) He is the sole resident of an old and dreary office building in an out-of-the-way neighborhood. He occupies a suite of rooms that once belonged to Marley-whose face Scrooge sees that night in place of the door knocker. Marley's hair is being blown "as if by breath or hot air," and wears an expression of horror. Suddenly, Scrooge sees only a knocker again. Surprised and experiencing fear for the first time in many years, Scrooge pauses to peer behind the door as he enters; seeing nothing else unusual, he shuts the door and dismisses the incident. As he goes up the stairs, however, he believes he sees a hearse going ahead of him.
After inspecting his rooms for strangers and finding no one hiding-unusual behavior for, as the narrator has stated, a man who has "as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London," and yet understandable given his recent strange visions-Scrooge double-locks himself in, "which [also] was not his custom." He believes himself to be "secured against surprise"-a sure foreshadowing that surprise is exactly what he will receive!
Scrooge dresses for bed and sits before a small fire to eat a small dish of gruel, a thin, oatmeal-like substance. Gruel was common fare among the poor in Victorian England; readers will perhaps be reminded of another Dickens character, young Oliver Twist, daring to ask for another serving of gruel at his orphanage. Again, Dickens' attention to detail conveys much information. Scrooge is a man who chooses to live well below his means, not out of any noble commitment to modest living, but out of the simple desire to hoard his wealth. He refuses to spend any more than a bare minimum on food, heating, or lighting; as the narrator comments, "Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it."
The fireplace in front of which Scrooge sits is lined with tiles illustrating stories from the Bible. While every tile may not carry symbolic significance for the story, a few may be legitimately considered as important. One tile depicts Cain and Abel, figures in the story of the human race's first murder (Genesis 4:1-16; see the comments about Gen. 4:9 above). Cain slew his brother Abel, and his image on the tiles may offer mute commentary on the discussion which will soon take place between Scrooge and Marley's Ghost: the crimes of neglect against his fellow humans to which Marley confesses may be seen as tantamount to murder. Another Scriptural figure illustrated on the tiles is Belshazzar, who was judged by God for the sin of pride (Daniel 5). Whereas Belshazzar's hubris took the form of extravagant feasting, Scrooge's miserliness could be viewed as no less prideful, for his attitude is that only he and his money matter. Whether the tiles serve a symbolic function or not, Scrooge is preoccupied with Marley's face. The text is ambiguous as to whether or not the dead man's face actually appears on each tile, but Scrooge is unsettled enough that he feels compelled to utter a dismissive "Humbug!"
Suddenly, a long-silent bell connected to a room elsewhere in the building begins to ring, gradually growing louder. Scrooge also hears "a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain . . . ." He recalls stories in which chained ghosts haunt houses, but he refuses to believe he is being haunted. All the same, the chains grow louder as they near Scrooge's door. The fire flares, as if alarmed, as Marley's Ghost enters the room, indeed wearing a heavy chain of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." Scrooge notes that he can see straight through Marley's body, and remembers that he "had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels"-meaning no "bowels of compassion," a phrase archaic in today's English but more common in the Victorian Era, familiar from the King James Version of the Bible: "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" (1 John 3:17) The question is applicable, of course, not only to Marley but also to Scrooge-although readers may ask how much of others' need Scrooge actually does see. Indeed, the ghostly visitations he is about to receive will help him see such need as if for the first time.
Even when confronted by Marley's Ghost, Scrooge admits he does not believe in it. When Marley asks why Scrooge doubts his senses, Scrooge notes that they can be affected by things such as undigested food. "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" he quips. The line illustrates Dickens' fondness for puns throughout the book, but it also represents, as the narrator notes, yet another uncustomary act on Scrooge's part. Here, Scrooge's attempt at humor is an attempt to hide from his fear. The fear is probably caused in part by the fact that the Ghost's hair and clothing are "still agitated as by the hot vapor from an oven." Dickens seems to be suggesting that Marley has been damned by drawing on traditional conceptions of Hell as an inferno. Readers may note the influence of Dante's Inferno on Dickens' work. Just as Virgil guided Dante through the various circles of Hell, so will Scrooge's supernatural visitors guide him through various "hells" on Earth-some of which are of Scrooge's own making, for himself and for others.
When Scrooge dismisses Marley's Ghost as humbug-the same way, of course, in which he earlier dismissed Christmas-the specter shouts and shakes his chain loudly. He also unwraps the bandage around his head, allowing his lower jaw to drop to his chest. (Hearn notes that, in Victorian society, corpses were often so bound to prevent their faces from making unpleasant expressions [p. 42].) This demonstration convinces Scrooge of the Ghost's reality. He asks Marley why spirits walk the earth. Marley tells Scrooge that the spirits of all people must walk with their fellow human beings-if not in life, than in death. Dickens here presents a view of human beings much at odds with a view often advanced in the modern age. We are not (or ought not to be) autonomous, isolated individuals. Rather, we know who we are only in relationship with others. Human identity depends upon connection with other humans.
When Scrooge asks Marley why he is chained, Marley expresses surprise that Scrooge does not understand. He tells Scrooge that he (that is, Marley) forged his own chain while he was living. He informs Scrooge that he (that is, Scrooge) wears an even heavier chain. Scrooge looks at himself, but sees nothing. He begs Marley for some words of comfort. Marley tells him that he has none to give, and that he cannot linger. In life, his spirit never wandered outside his and Scrooge's counting-house; in death, however, his spirit must wander forever. His journeys are an "[i]ncessant torture of remorse"- another allusion to familiar ideas of Hell, yet the unending torture is here suggested to be emotional-spiritual rather than physical (see the notes on various kinds of "death" at the beginning of this commentary). Marley laments that any human spirit not aware of the good it may do, even in its own small sphere of influence, is "captive, bound and double- ironed . . . . Yet such was I!" Scrooge-whom, the narrator notes, is at last beginning to apply Marley's words to himself-reminds Marley that he (that is, Marley) was always a good businessman. Given the narrator's comment regarding Scrooge's fledgling self- awareness, readers may surmise that Scrooge's words are an effort to console himself as much as-or perhaps more than-an attempt to reassure Marley. To be sure, Marley is not comforted. He retorts that his profession was not the same as his "business," the true business given to all human beings: "charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence." The Ghost's words rebuke Scrooge for his earlier comment to the charitable workers that the lot of the poor was none of his business. Here again, Dickens plays the role of social prophet. Marley's words may contain an allusion to the denunciation of an unjust society given by the Old Testament prophet Micah: "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8, KJV).
Marley tells Scrooge that he suffers most during the Christmas season. While alive, Marley never raised his eyes "to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode." He asks, "Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?" Dickens is alluding to the biblical account of the Magi's visitation of the child Jesus, found in Matthew 2:1-12. The Magi, of course, gave costly treasures to the child, who-as Luke's birth narrative (2:1-20) emphasizes more than Matthew's-was born into poverty. Marley is expressing regret, then, that he shared neither financial nor emotional treasures with the poor who surrounded him, yet whom he ignored. Once again, we see here Dickens' concern for the oft-neglected lower classes.
Marley tells Scrooge that he does have one chance of escaping damnation. Three Spirits will visit Scrooge-a prospect Scrooge clearly does not relish. Marley says the first Spirit will arrive at one o'clock on Christmas morning, the second on the following night at the same hour, and the third on the next night at midnight. As Marley moves toward Scrooge's window, which opens by itself, Scrooge hears "incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret" from outside. Marley joins the "self-accusatory" chorus and floats out, through the window, into the night. Looking after him, Scrooge sees countless ghosts filling the air, some of whom he recognizes, every last one of them in chains.