Friday, 21 October 2011

When did the three ghosts visit Scrooge?

I grew up on movie versions of Scrooge long before I read the original A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. One element of the story that most film adaptations have in common is Jacob Marley's promise that the spirits would appear to Scrooge one after the other -- the first when the bell tolls one, the second when the bell tolls two, the third when the bell tolls three.

I was quite confused, therefore, when I read the Dickens novella closely, to discover that Marley's ghost said the visitations would occur over three nights (from Stave I):
"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one." 
"Couldn't I take `em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?" hinted Scrooge. 
"Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!"
This, of course, makes sense of the miser's later surprise when he wakes up on Christmas morning (from Stave V):
"What's to-day, my fine fellow?" said Scrooge. 
"To-day?" replied the boy. "Why, Christmas Day." 
"It's Christmas Day!" said Scrooge to himself. "I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!"
The spirits did everything in one night. Interestingly, this bit of dialogue is almost always retained in the films, even though it makes little sense if Marley promised they'd all turn up on the same night anyway. (At least one movie version is faithful to Dickens on this point: Disney's A Christmas Carol (2009).)

I like this aspect of the story. It tells us that even mixed in with Scrooge's horrible experience was grace and mercy. He requested that the spirits come "all at once," and -- although, God knows, Scrooge didn't deserve such mercy -- his plea was heard.

10 comments:

  1. Thought you might like my machinima version of A Christmas Carol featuring Marley's Ghost :D
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9SBebs3A5I

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  2. well i wanted to know when the first ghost would visit scrooge and you guys never gave me an answer

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    1. The First Spirit arrived at 1 o'clock in the morning (late Christmas Eve/early Christmas Day).

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  3. I'm curious about this too. It definitely sounds like Marley is telling him 3 nights.

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  4. The first ghost to visit Ebenezer was old Jacob, so he had 4 ethereal visitors and not three. Good pub quiz question! The fourth when the toll has ceased to vibrate. My fave line from the book is wnen ES states "anyone who goes around with Merry Christmas" on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of Holly through his heart!" Grand stuff and great for a T-shirt.

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  5. I was confused by the fact that the spirits were meant to come over three nights yet Marley visits scrooge on Christmas eve and scrooge still wakes up Christmas day! thank you for this its really helped got my exam tomorrow .. fingers crossed :)

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  6. The answer is simple in its complexity. They came on a single night, Christmas Eve, but in three temporal planes of existence The first "night" was the Past, the second was the "Present", and the third was the "Future".

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  7. I've thought about this a lot, and the conclusion I've come to us that Dickens wants his readers to wonder whether or not Scrooge was dreaming -- because, ultimately Scrooge changes, whether by intervention of the ghosts or by a dream -- something caused a permanent change in him for good -- the cause is unimportant.

    (This is much like the ending of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving -- whom Dickens admired greatly -- where the "truth" is revealed, that Ichabod Crane is still alive...and yet the story concludes that the old wives were the best judge of these things, and that Crane was spirited away by the Headless Horseman)

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  8. I'm playing Scrooge in the musical version this December and have been thinking a lot about this "transformational" journey that Scrooge goes on. My theory here is that Jacob is "merely" a spirit (lower case) - and therefore fallible and not omniscient. By the end, Scrooge is praying to The Spirit, who sent the others. To my mind, Dickens was trying to distinguish between Marley - an ex-human ghost - and God as Trinity, who's mercy and grace ultimately saves Scrooge. If The Spirit wants to do it all in one night, he can.

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    1. I think what you say makes perfect sense. Hope your performance went well!

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