Study Guide

A Christmas Carol Time

By Charles Dickens

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Stave 1

At length the hour of shutting up the counting-house arrived. With an ill-will Scrooge dismounted from his stool, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant clerk in the Tank, who instantly snuffed his candle out, and put on his hat. (1.71)

The only thing Cratchit has any control over is how he spends his time away from work, which is why every second of this time counts for him.

Stave 2

When Scrooge awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of bed, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of his chamber. He was endeavouring to pierce the darkness with his ferret eyes, when the chimes of a neighbouring church struck the four quarters. So he listened for the hour.

To his great astonishment the heavy bell went on from six to seven, and from seven to eight, and regularly up to twelve; then stopped. Twelve! It was past two when he went to bed. The clock was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works. Twelve! (2.1-2)

Okay, so here's a question (and it's kind of a doozy): do the ghosts make time go backwards?


You wouldn't believe how those two fellows went at it! They charged into the street with the shutters—one, two, three—had 'em up in their places—four, five, six—barred 'em and pinned 'em—seven, eight, nine—and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.

"Hilli-ho!" cried old Fezziwig, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. "Clear away, my lads, and let's have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Dick! Chirrup, Ebenezer!"

Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn't have cleared away, or couldn't have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. (2.90-92)

See, Scrooge? This is how to spend your time. There isn't a wasted moment in the rush to set the Fezziwig place up for the party. The text even counts out the seconds as Ebenezer and Dick bustle around, and we are treated a bunch of colloquialisms having to do with time going lickety-split: "in a minute," "before a man can say Jack Robinson," and comparing the apprentices to "race horses charging" to the hunting party cry of "Hilly-ho!".

Stave 3

It was a long night, if it were only a night; but Scrooge had his doubts of this, because the Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together. It was strange, too, that while Scrooge remained unaltered in his outward form, the Ghost grew older, clearly older. Scrooge had observed this change, but never spoke of it, until they left a children's Twelfth Night party, when, looking at the Spirit as they stood together in an open place, he noticed that its hair was grey.

"Are spirits' lives so short?" asked Scrooge.

"My life upon this globe is very brief," replied the Ghost. "It ends to-night […] at midnight. Hark! The time is drawing near."

The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment. (3.131-136)

Okay, so let's get this straight. For the ghost, biological time is rushing forward at breakneck speed as it gets older and older as Christmas passes. Meanwhile, human time within the vision is advancing normally. And at the same time, real time is going backwards because Scrooge will wake up earlier than when he fell asleep. Whew.

Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it. (3.3)

Again, we get the text counting out the time. But instead of it bringing a rush of fun, like at Fezziwig's house, now the counting highlights Scrooge's fear and dread of time passing.

Stave 4
Ebenezer Scrooge

"Spectre," said Scrooge, "something informs me that our parting moment is at hand. I know it, but I know not how." (4.141)

Scrooge is now operating on ghost time. Sweet.

Stave 5
Ebenezer Scrooge

"I don't know what day of the month it is!" said Scrooge. "I don't know how long I've been among the Spirits. I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!"

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious! (5.10-11)

And those bells from the church bring us back full circle. Don't forget that the visitations of the ghosts were also announced by the ringing of bells, too. We've gone from supernatural bells to real world ones, as the narration yet again counts the moments of time that pass.

Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!

"I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. "The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!" (5.1-2)

Scrooge now finally has the correct relationship with the time. Win! He realizes that it is a finite quantity that he has to spend appropriately rather than hoard or waste. It's all about being generous with your time, so you can reap those rewards.

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