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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What is the purpose of the discussion between Joe and Mrs. Dilber in A Christmas Carol?

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The point of the long discussion between Joe and Mrs. Dilber in A Christmas Carol is to reveal to Scrooge how much people hate him and how insignificant he is. He has, by his actions and attitude, made himself a nobody in the eyes of others, and they will have no respect for him when he's gone.

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The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come gives Scrooge a depressing glimpse into how people will remember him when he's gone. If old Ebenezer doesn't change his ways, then he'll die alone, friendless, and without anyone to mourn for him. His death will go unlamented, as people won't want to waste their grief on a man who brought so much misery to so many people.

The Ghost allows Scrooge to be privy to a long conversation between a couple of ne'er-do-wells in the very dregs of society. One of them, Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's charlady, has stolen some of Scrooge's belongings, including the very shirt from his back.

And yet it's clear from her conversation with Joe that she has no moral compunction whatsoever over her crime. As far as she's concerned, Scrooge got what was coming to him. She says that this is a judgment on Scrooge, an indication that old Ebenezer got what was coming to him for his miserliness in life.

What goes around comes around, as they say, and Mrs. Dilber and Joe can use Scrooge's meanness and lack of charity as an excuse for their own crimes. They can also take advantage of the fact that Scrooge was so friendless in life that there was no one to take care of his belongings when he passed away.

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When the last of the spirits, the Ghost of the Future, appears to Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," he takes the old miser to "a low-browed, beetling shop" in a terrible quarter of London that "reeked with crime, with filth, and misery." There sits an old "rascal" of nearly seventy, smoking a pipe near a stove behind a tattered curtain.  Into this place come a charwoman, a laundress, and a man in faded black.  When they encounter one another, they burst into laughter.

These people are the jackals of society, for they have plundered what things they could obtain from the house of the dead Scrooge.  The charwoman has even taken the curtains--to the amazement of even the vile Joe--from his bedroom and stolen the very shirt from Scrooge's back, showing absolutely no respect for the dead. In fact, Mrs. Dilber laughs at the thought of their stealing in this manner from Scrooge.  The charwoman scoffs,

'If he wanted to keep 'em after he was dead, a wicked old screw,...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.'

To this remark, Mrs. Diber agrees,

'It's the truest word that ever was spoke...It's a judgment on him.

Old Joe chalks the sums of what he owes them onto his wall.  These acts of the unconscionable people is somewhat suggestive of those who barter over the robe of Jesus, solitary and betrayed by Peter, as He was led to his crucifixion.  So, perhaps, Scrooge realizes how greatly he is despised when even the lowest of London society laugh at him and desecrate his corpse, carrying his final belongings to a filthy, disreputable rag shop.

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The point of that scene towards the end of the story is to prove to Mr. Scrooge that after his death, not only is he being disrespected, but his possessions have been stolen and are being sold, taken right out from under his dead body. With no family to protect him or his possessions, he is left vulnerable to thieves and opportunists. 

It is a way for the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come to prove to him that his life has no value in relationship to other people.  No one will miss him, no one values him enough to respect him even in death.  The behavior of Mrs. Dilber is so shocking to Scrooge, so vile, that he is jolted into an eye opening understanding of how little people thought of him as a person.  Of particular significance in this conversation is the talk about Scrooge's bed curtains,

"Joe went down on his knees for the greater convenience of opening it, and having unfastened a great many knots, dragged out a large and heavy roll of some dark stuff.    'What do you call this?' said Joe. 'Bed-curtains?'    'Ah.' returned the woman, laughing and leaning forward on her crossed arms. 'Bed-curtains!'    'You don't mean to say you took them down, rings and all, with him lying there?' said Joe.  'Yes I do,' replied the woman. 'Why not?'  'You were born to make your fortune,' said Joe, 'and you'll certainly do it.'" (Dickens) 

Mrs. Dilber thought so little of Scrooge that she stripped the bed curtains while he was still lying in the bed.  Even though he was laying there dead, she didn't think that it was wrong to take his bed curtains and his blankets and his nightshirt.

"'Don't you be afraid of that,' returned the woman. 'I an't so fond of his company that I'd loiter about him for such things, if he did. Ah! you may look through that shirt till your eyes ache; but you won't find a hole in it, nor a threadbare place. It's the best he had, and a fine one too. They'd have wasted it, if it hadn't been for me.'"

Joe is even shocked when he sees that she stripped his blankets and nightshirt. 

It is designed to shock Scrooge into understanding how far removed he is from people.  His housekeeper does not even consider him enough to respect his corpse.

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In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, old Joe is a fence (a buyer of stolen property) who purchases many of Scrooge's possessions from Mrs. Dilber (Scrooge's laundress), the charwoman (cleaning lady), and the undertaker. Mrs. Dilber and old Joe carry on a conversation as she enters the “shop” and presents the goods she has taken from Scrooge—everything from teaspoons and sugar-tongs to sheets and towels to boots and clothing. Old Joe mentions that Scrooge certainly isn't “the worse” for losing his possessions. He's dead, after all, and Mrs. Dilber declares that losing his possessions in such a way is “a judgment on him.”

The charwoman also participates in this discussion. She declares that Scrooge was unnatural during his life, and that if he had been more open and “natural,” he would have had someone with him at the end instead of dying alone. This charwoman even has stolen Scrooge's blankets and bed curtains. Joe hopes that Scrooge didn't die of something contagious, and the woman assures him he did not, for she wouldn't have taken the things if he had. She presents Joe with Scrooge's best shirt as well, which he was to be buried in. But, she proclaims, calico is “good enough” for burying, and Scrooge will look just as ugly anyway. She ends with a laugh and remarks that “He frightened everyone away from him when he was alive, to profit us when he was dead!”

This conversation between old Joe, Mrs. Dilber, and the charwoman reveals some important facts to Scrooge, who is watching the scene in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge is a joke to these people. They hate him for his miserliness and disagreeableness, and they are perfectly content to laugh at him and profit by his death. Scrooge is no more to them than other people are to Scrooge himself—namely, objects to be used. Scrooge also learns how insignificant he really is in the grand scheme of things. He is dead and gone, and no one cares. In fact, they think he got exactly what he deserved, and now he will be forgotten. He is not important at all, not even with all his money and the power he thought it gave him. He has made himself a nobody, and he is forced to face that reality.

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