In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly businessman who has no use for holidays and resents Christmas. He only begrudgingly gives his clerk, Bob Cratchit, the day off. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits, who will show him the Christmases of his past, present and future. He warns Scrooge to turn away from his miserly ways before it is too late.
Stave 4, entitled "The Last of the Spirits," is the story of the Ghost of Christmas Future’s visit. The spirit “seemed to scatter gloom and mystery,” and Scrooge bends on one knee in apprehension, as he is filled “with a solemn dread.”
The spirit is clad in a “dusky shroud,” behind which “there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.” The spirit is silent, but in response to Scrooge’s questions, he ominously points to what he wants Scrooge to see.
They see a group of businessmen, and “Scrooge advanced to listen to their talk.” The men are discussing an acquaintance who died the night before. None of them seem particularly moved by the man’s death. Their general lack of empathy is further shown when they laughingly agree that the only way they would attend the funeral is if lunch were provided.
“It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,” said the same speaker; “for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer?”
Scrooge does not yet realize that he is the recently deceased man who has left the world with no one mourning his loss.
They then leave for “an obscure part of the town.” They come upon an untidy shop, where the merchant is visited by two women carrying bundles. The reader learns that these women have taken items from the dead man’s home to sell. One says, “Who’s the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose.” Scrooge is horrified:
Scrooge listened to this dialogue in horror. As they sat grouped about their spoil, in the scanty light afforded by the old man’s lamp, he viewed them with a detestation and disgust, which could hardly have been greater, though they had been obscene demons, marketing the corpse itself.
Clearly, the dead man was neither charitable nor kind. As a result, he died alone, friendless and soon forgotten. The same woman says, “Why wasn’t he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he’d have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself.”
Scrooge still does not understand that he is the dead man. “Spirit!” said Scrooge, shuddering from head to foot. “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now.”
In an instant, Scrooge and the spirit are transported to the dead man’s deathbed: “[U]pon the bed; and on it, plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this man.” Mutely, the phantom points to the man’s head.
Scrooge thinks to himself with irony that the man’s avarice has
brought him to a rich end, truly! He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him.
Scrooge asks to leave, but the spirit merely continues to point at the deceased’s head. Scrooge cannot bear to look. He begs, “If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man’s death...show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!”
Instantly, they are transported to the scene of a man and wife discussing the dead man, who obviously was their creditor. They fear the transfer of their debt to another individual. However, the man observes that anyone else would have more empathy. “It would be a bad fortune indeed to find so merciless a creditor in his successor.” Scrooge realizes that “The only emotion that the Ghost could show him, caused by the event, was one of pleasure.”
In despair, Scrooge asks the spirit, “Let me see some tenderness connected with a death.” They then are transported to Bob Cratchit’s home, which is clearly a loving one but is mourning the recent loss of Tiny Tim. Finally, Scrooge asks at last for the name of the deceased man. They are transported to a cemetery and the spirit points to the headstone.
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
The phantom merely points. Scrooge approaches the grave and reads his own name: EBENEZER SCROOGE.
“Am I that man who lay upon the bed?” he cried, upon his knees. The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again. “No, Spirit! Oh no, no!...Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man."
Scrooge repents and vows to keep Christmas going forward.