The narrator states that there was no doubt about Marley’s death. Scrooge, Marley’s business partner, signed the register of his burial. The narrator considers that the phrase “dead as a doornail” doesn’t even describe Marley's lifelessness well enough. He adds that Scrooge very much knew that Marley was dead, having been his partner and only friend. The narrator adds that he's focused on this point because it is vital to what follows, as the death of Hamlet’s father is vital to Hamlet.
The opening establishes not just the friendship between Marley and Scrooge but also Scrooge's fundamental aloneness—it's not just that they are friends; they are each other's only friends. The insistence on Marley's dead-ness and reference to Hamlet, one of the most well-known ghost stories of the time, hints that Marley is about to be un-dead and in so doing significantly change Scrooge's life, just as Old Hamlet's appearance changed Hamlet's.
Scrooge did not seem to grieve much (apart from the loss of business), and got a bargain price for Marley’s funeral. Since the firm’s name has always been Scrooge and Marley, Scrooge has taken to answering to both names. The narrator describes Scrooge as “Hard and sharp as flint.” His appearance matches his character, with cold-looking, pointy features. He keeps his office cold, not even heating it at Christmas time. Consequently, everybody who comes into contact with Scrooge avoids him. Even the beggars in the street are silent when he passes. But this is exactly the way Scrooge likes it, says the narrator.
Scrooge is not just a grumpy old man – he is a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”. Dickens fills this first Stave with superlative and vivid descriptions of Scrooge’s miserly character and in so doing sets him up for quite a transformation. Already, the poor townsfolk are elevated above Scrooge in moral standing – he is a caricature of a lonely miser. He chooses being alone.
On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is in his counting house. It is a freezing, foggy day and is quite dark even though it’s only three o’clock. Scrooge has a small fire, but his clerk, Bob Cratchit, who works in a little cell attached to Scrooge’s office, barely has a coal to warm him. Scrooge keeps the coal bucket and will not allow Cratchit to take any.
The dark, wintry night, and the approach of Christmas Day, should provide the conditions for some seasonal camaraderie between Scrooge and his clerk, but Scrooge’s misery wins out over all. His greed is so extreme that he will not even spend the money to allow Cratchit to be warm in the office.
Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, enters the office, wishing a merry Christmas. Unlike Scrooge, he is a picture of health and happiness. Scrooge replies with “Bah! Humbug!” He says he doesn’t understand how his nephew can be merry when he is so poor. Fred wittily responds that Scrooge has no right to meanness when he is so rich. Scrooge protests that he is living in a world of fools, and anyone who wastes their time being merry when they should be paying their bills should be “buried with a stake of holly through his heart”.
Fred is the opposite of Scrooge in appearance and spirit. Whereas Scrooge is described as “hard and sharp”, Fred’s features are round and healthy. Though Fred is poor (though not as poor as Cratchit), his attire is colorful and he is generous and sociable with his Christmas provisions. But Scrooge sees any such human sentiment—anything that interferes with the accumulation of money—as foolishness. Note how Scrooge here condemns such fools to death, when over the next few nights it will be he who learns that he is condemned to a terrible death.
Scrooge tells Fred to leave him alone, that Christmas has never done any good. Fred responds that though it hasn’t brought him any profit, Christmas has done him good. Apart from its sacred meaning, it is a time for goodness and charity. Bob Cratchit applauds from his cell and Scrooge threatens to fire him if he makes another sound.
Scrooge sees "good" as referring solely to profits. Fred knows this, and counters that "good" means something else entirely. For characters like Fred and Bob Cratchit, Christmas represents the Christian ideal of goodness and moral prosperity, but Scrooge is at his most miserly when Christmas is mentioned. As we will later learn, his bitterness originates at Christmas time and has warped his perspective of it.
Finally, Fred asks Scrooge if he will dine with him and his wife for Christmas dinner. Scrooge objects to Fred having married at all. He especially objects to Fred’s reason for marrying: that he fell in love. Scrooge refuses to hear anymore. He drowns out Fred’s questions with an angry “good afternoon!” Fred leaves kindly and on his way out wishes Cratchit a Merry Christmas. Scrooge mutters that Cratchit, with a wife and family and nothing to live on, can’t possibly be merry.
Despite Scrooge's ill temper Fred generously and authentically invites him over. Scrooge could have family, if only he would allow himself to. But he does not. In the back and forth about marriage the story drops hints about Scrooge’s past that will become clear later. Scrooge is especially disgruntled when Fred mentions his wife, for example.
Two gentlemen call next, asking Scrooge which one of the two partners listed above the door he is. Scrooge informs them that Marley died seven years ago this very night. The two gentlemen hope that Scrooge will be as generous to their cause as Marley was. They say the poor are especially in need at Christmas time.
Through the two gentlemen, we get a glimpse into Scrooge’s past as half of the business duo Scrooge and Marley. From this exchange, it sounds like Marley was at least somewhat generous. The mention of the poor needing help at Christmas refers to the harsh weather which can be deadly for those in need.
Scrooge inquires about the prisons and workhouses, and, hearing that they still exist, doesn’t see any reason why anyone should be worried about the poor. The gentlemen reply that the workhouse hardly encourages Christian seasonal merriment, and that some would rather die than be put there. Scrooge responds that the poor deserve to die and relieve the surplus population. The gentlemen leave and Scrooge goes back to work in even more of a temper.
Scrooge represents the ignorant attitude of the wealthy classes that Dickens despised in his own society. Scrooge sees the workhouses as a solution to a problem, and shuts out the idea that their inhabitants are real feeling human beings. He is smug and condescending about the poor, and refuses to listen to the gentlemen’s reasoning. Scrooge's logic is somewhat consistent—he sees money as being the sole important thing in the world, and therefore sees anyone lacking money as being unimportant. He does not see the basic human value in all people.
As the day passes, the fog and cold become more severe. The clock tower that looks down on Scrooge’s office chimes. The shops, decorated with seasonal regalia, are strangely bright in the gloom. Meanwhile the Lord Mayor gives orders to his servants to enjoy Christmas. The cold deepens. A youth out in the street crouches to Scrooge’s keyhole and sings “God bless you, merry gentlemen”. Scrooge, now in a miserable mood, throws a ruler at the door, scaring the poor boy off.
The power of light and music to shine through the winter gloom is a visual way of showing the moral of this story. It suggests that even though cruelty seems to reign, the goodness embodied by the Christmas message can always find a way through, through the fog, through the keyhole. Scrooge, however, aggressively fights it off.
At closing time, Scrooge turns to Bob Cratchit and taunts him for wanting the day off for Christmas day. He doesn’t understand why he should pay a day’s wages for no work, but he lets Cratchit leave on the condition that he will arrive early on Boxing Day. Scrooge goes to have dinner at his usual miserable tavern and Cratchit performs a Christmas eve tradition of going down a slide twenty times, before going home to his family. Scrooge, meanwhile, goes home to a suite of gloomy rooms that used to be Marley’s. The narrator describes the building as completely out of place, as if it was once playing hide and seek and got stuck in its hiding place. It was dark and deserted and surrounded by a dark yard.
Scrooge and Cratchit both live on routine. Cratchit, despite his poverty, celebrates Christmas with a childlike ritual of sliding down a hill with the street boys. In contrast, Scrooge’s routine is deliberately isolated and miserable. His stash of money could afford him a rich, luxurious Christmas but he avoids these traditions. Dickens sets up Cratchit and Scrooge as opposite figures, Cratchit symbolizing joy despite poverty and hardship and Scrooge symbolizing the grave-like sobriety of greed.
Before telling us the incident with the door knocker, the narrator makes a point of telling us that Scrooge’s door knocker had always been a very ordinary door knocker, and Scrooge himself a very somber, sane man. He also mentions that Scrooge had not been thinking about his late partner Marley. The narrator then explains what a surprise it is to Scrooge when he looks at his door knocker that night and beholds Marley’s face. It isn’t a trick of the shadows but a real ghost in the shape of Scrooge’s old partner, as if alive but motionless.
In order to make this night stand out as a unique milestone in Scrooge’s routine existence, the narrator focuses first on Scrooge's sanity and the usual normality of his world. The narrator wants to make it clear that what is to come are not the imaginings of a tired, eccentric man, but rather the appearance of real ghosts. It is, in a sense, a Christmas miracle.
But as Scrooge looks, the ghost turns into a knocker again, and Scrooge hurries indoors, annoyed by the apparition. He stops briefly to check that the back of Marley’s head is not similarly behind the door. Again scorning his fear, Scrooge goes upstairs to bed. The narrator describes the staircase as wide enough for a carriage to pass through sideways, and this may explain why Scrooge has a vision of a funeral hearse leading him up the stairs. He is not afraid of the dark, though. In fact, he likes its cheapness. Scrooge checks that his rooms are in order. Everything is as it should be, everything simply furnished and a saucepan of gruel on the stove.
Just as Scrooge seems unaffected by the cold and darkness, he also shuns his feelings of fear and refuses to trust his senses or give in to them. No matter how vivid the apparitions become, Scrooge insists that he knows better. Marley is a figure of both terror and kindness – it will become clear that instead of wanting revenge on Scrooge, he has come to protect him. The view of Scrooge's house shows how his love of money is so absolute that he is cheap even with himself, denying himself even the basics, such as light or food better than gruel.
Scrooge bends over his weak fire. The fireplace is adorned with tiles that illustrate stories from scripture but over all of these famous figures comes Marley’s ghostly face again. Scrooge dismisses the vision with a “Humbug!” but suddenly a bell in the room, which has been out of order for some time, starts to toll, and is followed by the chiming of all the other bells in the house. After a long minute of this cacophony, the bells stop and are replaced by a clanking noise, coming closer and closer. Scrooge remembers hearing ghost stories of spirits dragging chains. He refuses to believe it until the door actually opens before him and he sees with his own eyes: “Marley’s ghost!”
Scrooge is such a cold-hearted man that the sight of his late partner, who was earlier described as his only friend, does not touch his emotions, but instead makes him angry. By showing Marley’s face among the faces of legends and saints from scripture, Dickens puts him in a saint-like position, showing Scrooge the light like a religious leader. The bells chiming and the clanking of chains create a disturbance that even Scrooge can’t ignore, and forebode both that Scrooge's time is approaching and that he himself will soon be in similar chains.
The ghost appears just as Scrooge remembers Jacob Marley, except that he is totally transparent and carries a huge chain about him. But even as he perceives the very texture of Marley’s hair and handkerchief, Scrooge cannot bring himself to believe it. He demands to know who the ghost is and the ghost answers that he was Jacob Marley when he was living.
Scrooge refuses to believe in Marley, just as he refuses to believe in Christmas. Marley represents a kind of family for Scrooge, even though they are not blood-related. Christmas is a time of family, and despite his scary appearance, we get the feeling that Marley is here to help.
Scrooge asks Marley to sit. He wonders, because of his transparency, if he is able to sit, but Marley takes the seat with ease and confronts Scrooge about his disbelief, asking him why he doubts his senses. Scrooge responds that he can’t trust a thing that is affected so easily, by indigestion for example. He then makes a joke that Marley is more “gravy” than “grave”. He feels the “infernal” power of the ghost’s eyes on him, and tells the ghost to look at a nearby toothpick, which Scrooge says would cause no end of specters if swallowed.
Marley's questions and Scrooge's answers about the senses are important. Scrooge doesn't live by his senses in any aspect of his life. He cares only about making money, and does not care or notice if it is cold or uncomfortable, and he takes no interest in anyone else. Scrooge sees the senses as pointless, as easily fooled or manipulated. He believes solely in money. And yet the way he denies the truth with joke-making, shows his fear. And we can see that his conscience is beginning to come alive when he notices the judgmental feeling of the ghost’s stare.
At this, Marley shakes his chain and makes a terrifying sound. Scrooge admits that he believes now but questions why a ghost should come to pursue him. Marley explains that he is destined to walk the earth to change the wrongs he failed to change in life – the chain represents this self-made trail of regrets. Marley warns Scrooge that he is making a terrible chain for himself. Scrooge asks for comfort, but Marley cannot give any. He says it is not his job to bring comfort.
Marley’s ghost is a terrifying figure - his huge clanking chain makes him look like an exaggeration of a typical Victorian prisoner. Yet we have heard that Marley was at least somewhat generous in his lifetime. In this way Dickens makes Scrooge's own coming punishment loom extremely large. Marley brings only warnings; he cannot himself help Scrooge.
Marley cannot stay long, with many journeys ahead of him. Scrooge jokes that he must have been wandering slowly, having taken seven years to get here, but Marley says he has travelled incredible lengths – there is much remorse in the world. Scrooge doesn’t understand, because Marley was a “good man of business”. Marley is affronted at this phrase. He says business is nothing in comparison to the trade of human woes that he deals in. He says it’s even worse at Christmas, seeing all the poor folks that he did not help when he was alive.
Marley's purgatorial afterlife is described as a wasteland of endless journeying. Part of the lesson that Scrooge must learn is that life is short but regrets are long and haunting, and have an affect even after death. Note also Marley's disgust at the connection of the words "good" and "business", which Scrooge also used earlier in his conversation with Fred. Marley is not saying business is inherently bad, but he is saying that it is terrifically small and narrow in comparison to the rest of life, and certainly that business success is not enough to right any wrongs one commits in life.
Scrooge is now terrified and vows to listen. Marley tells Scrooge that he will soon be visited by three spirits, and he has the chance to avoid Marley's fate of purgatory. But if Scrooge chooses not to listen to these visitors, there is no hope for him. Marley tells Scrooge that the first spirit will appear at one o’clock that night, the next at the same time the following night and the third the night after that. Lastly, he implores Scrooge to remember what he has said, and, with his eyes fixed on Scrooge, walks backwards as the window behind him slowly opens.
Marley really makes things clear for Scrooge. Though it seems threatening, he is offering Scrooge a very tangible way to improve his fate. The fact that there are three spirits and that they will arrive at the same time for the next three nights creates a definite, easy structure for Scrooge, and the story, to follow.
Then, Marley’s ghost beckons Scrooge over. Scrooge begins to hear a chorus of wailing sounds, which Marley’s ghost joins. Then Marley floats out through the window. Scrooge looks out and sees the air filled with chained spirits, including many that he recognizes as figures from his past who had not regretted their actions in time. Then somehow the spirits fade and the night is as it was. Scrooge begins to utter his “Humbug!” but stops and goes directly to bed.
The narrator sets Scrooge up as the quintessential sinner, the most miserable man in the whole city. But alongside this caricature of Scrooge, through the wailings of the multitude he also paints a picture of a spirit realm that’s full to bursting with chained-up repentors. In other words, Scrooge is not alone; many people, while perhaps less obviously awful than Scrooge, share his sinful failings. In this way, Dickens universalizes his message. This is not just a tale of one man's redemption; it is a kind of call to arms for all people to take to heart. Scrooge has already