illustration of Ebenezer Scrooge in silhouette walking toward a Christmas tree and followed by the three ghosts

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens

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Student Question

In A Christmas Carol, what is the role of Marley and the three spirits in reforming Scrooge?

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It is interesting to note that initially, Scrooge seems to be not impressed at all with the ghost of Marley. He actually goes as far to suggest that Marley's ghost is not real, or that he is just dreaming up its presence. He goes to great lengths to justify why his senses are not to be trusted, and to retain his cynical approach to life and what he is witnessing. Note, for example, how he makes a joke when confronted with Marley's ghost: "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" 

This attitude is completely absent from Scrooge's character when he has endured the three visitations. Note, for example, what he says to the final Ghost who visits him, when he is confronted with his gravestone, and how he demonstrates that his character has reformed:

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.

The ghostly visitations that Scrooge endures, therefore, have the effect of shocking him into realising just how miserly he has become, and they enact the change in his character that he needs in order to restore him to the young, carefree and loving man that he used to be so many years ago. The change in his character is demonstrated in the final chapter when he demonstrates what it means to "honour Christmas" in his heart. 

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At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is miserly and bitter, as evidenced by his wish that:

...every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. 

Scrooge changes, however, as he encounters a series of apparitions. The first is Jacob Marley, his former business partner, who warns Scrooge that he must reform himself. Morley then announces that Scrooge will be visited by a series of apparitions, the famous Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The first spirit takes him back to when he was a young man, and and apprentice of Old Fezziwig, a kindly old man that Scrooge remembers fondly. He also sees his former fiancee Belle, who left him due to his miserly ways. 

The second spirit shows him the house of his employee Bob Crachit. Scrooge is particularly moved by the plight of Tiny Tim, Crachit's sickly old son. He is also exposed to the poverty and squalor in which many people are forced to live on Christmas. The third spirit shows Scrooge a future in which he has just died. People are not only not sad to see him dead, but are actually relieved, especially his debtors. He will die unmourned and alone. 

Scrooge is profoundly moved by these experiences, and arises on Christmas Day a changed man. He goes out of his way to be generous to all, and even spends money to pay for medical care for Tiny Tim. 

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What is the role of the three ghosts in helping to reform Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens?

These ghosts, sometimes referred to as "spirits" in both the novel and the play adaptation will take Scrooge on a hellish night of time-travel that will be the catalyst for a major paradigm shift in how he approaches his life.  The first, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge back to exactly that--his past.  Scrooge sees himself alone and lonely as a little boy at boarding school, left there by his cruel father at Christmastime; he sees his sister come to get him, a few Christmases later, after their father has agreed to let him return home; he sees a Christmas party he attends as a young apprentice, given by his first employer, Fezziwig, and he is witness to the Christmas his fiancee breaks their engagement because Scrooge's priorities have become about money, and she has no dowry.  This ghost reminds him how painful it was to be rejected, how much he loved his little sister, Fan, how much his first employer's generosity meant to him as a young apprentice, and how his priorities cost him what might have been a long and happy marriage. 

The Ghost of Christmas Present, resplendent in a wild fur-lined, green robe, takes Scrooge to see how various people are celebrating Christmas, beginning with his employee, Bob Cratchit, whose impoverished family is making the best of what little they have, thanks to Bob's meager earnings at the hands of the tight-fisted Scrooge.  The Cratchits appreciate being together, and try not to dwell on their poverty, or the illness that threatens their youngest child's life.  This ghost also shows Scrooge a group of poor miners in camp, and a crew on a ship at sea celebrating the holiday, and then the Christmas party at his nephew's house, where everyone is very merry.  Scrooge becomes aware at this point of two things:  1)  Christmas celebrations apparently aren't as linked to money as he thought they were, and 2) he himself is not terribly popular with his employee, his nephew, or their respective friends and family.  This ghost also reminds Scrooge of the societal problems of Ignorance, and Want, and uses Scrooge's own words against him:  "Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?"

The final ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Future, shows Scrooge how his own death will be received if things do not change:  businessmen joking in the street about how cheap his funeral is likely to be, and discussing how they really don't want to go unless lunch is involved, others mentioning his death in the same sentence as the weather forecast, and thieves pawning his possessions at a pawn shop even as they joke about what a miser he was and how it didn't bother them to steal from him. 

When Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning and realizes that it's not too late, he is a changed man.  The man who the day before told his nephew that "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart," begins to "keep Christmas well" by raising Cratchit's salary, giving him time off, making amends with his nephew, paying for Tim Cratchit's lifesaving medical care and even becoming a sort of surrogate father to Tim.

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