A Christmas Carol

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Past, Present and Future – The Threat of Time Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Past, Present and Future – The Threat of Time Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Greed, Generosity and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Christmas and Tradition Theme Icon
Social Dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Christmas Carol, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Past, Present and Future – The Threat of Time Theme Icon

Three ghosts appear to Scrooge to show him how he is living sinfully and what the consequences will be if he doesn’t choose to live a better life. The three-part ghost story shows the reader a clear path – sins in Scrooge’s past leading to his present misery and the continuation of that sin leading in the future to death, symbolized by the hooded figure. Each ghost shows Scrooge a vision of life gone wrong, set in a chronological path to destruction. At the same time, the ghosts’ appearance threaten ultimately the absence of time, what will happen after Scrooge’s death if he continues down this path: the purgatory of endlessly wandering the earth that Marley’s ghost warned him was his fate.

Time in the story is distinguished by several motifs. First, bells tolling and chiming fit into the story’s song-like structure and also recur at key moments, reminding Scrooge of the time and of time passing. Second the chains that Marley shakes at Scrooge to scare him are a visual reminder of the endless prison sentence of purgatory awaiting Scrooge in the afterlife.

Time in the story is also threatening because of the changes its passing will enact in traditional society. Tradition is important for all of these characters – be it Scrooge with his obsessive money counting and nightly rituals or Cratchit with his love of Christmas – and the changing of the city during these industrial times threatens to break down all of these traditions through its transformation of economic conditions and the grinding poverty it inflicts.

Past, Present and Future – The Threat of Time ThemeTracker

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Past, Present and Future – The Threat of Time Quotes in A Christmas Carol

Below you will find the important quotes in A Christmas Carol related to the theme of Past, Present and Future – The Threat of Time.
Stave 1 Quotes

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Related Characters: Jacob Marley
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

At the very beginning of the story, the narrator establishes that Marley, Scrooge's business partner and sole friend in the world, is dead. This quote epitomizes the amusing emphasis that the narrator puts on the fact that Marley is definitely deceased--which makes it all the more shocking and supernatural when he appears, as a ghost, in Scrooge's room the night before Christmas. (It's also worth noting that Dickens is not the source of this common colloquialism, which is actually quite ancient, but this sentence does foreshadow Marley's ghost appearing in the door knocker.)

Marley's definitive dead-ness also shows that ever since Marley died seven years ago, Scrooge has been totally isolated from other human beings, besides the ones he is required to interact with (like his clerk Bob Cratchit). This is entirely by choice: Scrooge is a miser not just in money, but in affection, too. Though Marley was Scrooge's only companion, the tone of this quote suggests that he thought of his business partner like one might think of a door-nail: necessary and useful, but otherwise insignificant. Thus, when Marley dies, Scrooge ensures that he gives his old friend a cheap funeral and never changes the name on the door to their business; he takes to responding to both names. This quote therefore establishes Marley's death, winks at his future arrival in Scrooge's room, and shows the reader the crassness with which Scrooge treats other people, even those for whom he musters slight fondness. 

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'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'

Related Characters: Jacob Marley (speaker), Ebenezer Scrooge
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Marley's ghost, wrapped in chains, visits Scrooge in his room that night. He is bound by his sins--represented by the chains--to roam the earth in purgatory. He thus visits Scrooge to warn him to change his ways or face a miserable fate like his after death. Scrooge expresses surprise at Marley's sentence, saying that he was a "good man of business." In this quote, Marley is upset by Scrooge's statement, noting that the business of dealing with goods and finances is but a small aspect of life; paying respect to his fellow mankind should have been his business, as he has only seen too late. 

Marley visits Scrooge to show him what kind of fate--or perhaps worse--awaits him if he continues his miserly ways. Scrooge's only delight in life is the making and hoarding of money, and Marley here urges him to think of the "common welfare," which Scrooge refuses to acknowledge. Scrooge thinks every person's misery is their own fault, and to be poor is to be lazy and to be wealthy is to have high morals. In making and keeping his own wealth, spending very little and giving away absolutely nothing, Scrooge equates his thrift to morality and assumes that this will buy his way into heaven. Marley refutes this thinking and tells him quite the opposite: to ignore one's fellow men in need is to buy one's way down towards Hell. Just because Scrooge chooses to ignore everyone in need, doesn't mean that his inaction cannot be counted against him at St. Peter's Gate: he is equally at fault for what he does not do (give affection or charity to anyone or anything) than what he does do (hoard his money). Marley's apparition serves to warn him of what will happen if he continues to live a solitary and mean life--an afterlife of regrets and woe. 

Stave 2 Quotes

It was a strange figure-like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child's proportions.

Related Characters: The Ghost of Christmas Past
Related Symbols: Images of Age and Youth
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

When the ghost of Marley leaves, it tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts. The first one arrives as the clock strikes one o' clock, and tells him it is the Ghost of Christmas Past--not all Christmases past, but all of Scrooges'. 

This quote describes the ghost's appearance, which is both aged and youthful. The incongruity of its appearance--a child-like face and demeanor, but stooped and small like an old man--speaks to the tension between memories of the past and the time that has actually passed since Scrooge's childhood. The contrast between old and young within the same ghost shows the tactic by which he will attempt to educate Scrooge on the true meaning of Christmas and empathizing with his fellow men: he will show Scrooge how, over time, his fondness for the company of others was worn down by the trials of life. At one point, deep in the past, Scrooge did approach life with the optimistic joy of a child. The Ghost of Christmas Past will attempt to bring old Scrooge into the mindset he held as a young child, and show him how his current attitude is part circumstance and part pessimism--and he is now being given the chance to amend his ways. 

'The school is not quite deserted,' said the Ghost. 'A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.'
Scrooge said he knew it. And he sobbed.

Related Characters: The Ghost of Christmas Past (speaker), Ebenezer Scrooge
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

The Ghost of Christmas Past first brings Scrooge to his old boarding school, which he attended as a child. Though it is mostly deserted because the students went home for the holidays, young Scrooge remains behind for unclear reasons. In this quote, Scrooge weeps at the lonely memory. 

Thus far in the story, Scrooge has been a mean and unfeeling character, immune to the woes of others. This sudden onset of tears reveals Scrooge's hidden softer side, and shows his capacity for empathy, inspired by his younger self. The first stop on teaching Scrooge the error of his ways is showing him his own trials and tribulations--Scrooge, like everyone else, has a past full of both struggles and happiness, that has served to shape him into the man he is today. His meanness is not spontaneous or voluntary, just like other people's poverty is not due to laziness or a lack of morals. Opening up Scrooge to the realities of his past is the first step in teaching him the true meaning of generosity, charity, and of the Christmas spirit. 

'Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.'

Related Characters: Belle (speaker), Ebenezer Scrooge
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

The Ghost brings Scrooge to a scene that occurred when he was a young man. In this scene, Scrooge's girlfriend at the time, Belle, tells him that it is time they part ways--though they have made many plans together, and are even engaged, his ambitions and thirst for money have changed him such that she no longer loves him. 

In this quote, Belle notes that they were once content to be poor in money yet rich in love, but now Scrooge's greediness has changed him into a new person entirely, one whom she neither knows nor loves. Like the Christmas that Scrooge spent at school as a child, this is evidence of why Scrooge has become a hard, mean old man, in particular about the topic of Christmas. Each Christmas becomes the anniversary when he lost his beloved, and marks the day that he descended into a truly miserly, lonely existence. His money and business sense became the only thing he had in life, so he has clung onto his wealth and success while refusing the company of those who may end up hurting him, like Belle did. This scene brings Scrooge immense pain, further evidence that it is a wound he has carried with him for many years. 

Stave 3 Quotes

In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge, The Ghost of Christmas Present
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

The second Ghost that visits Scrooge is the Ghost of Christmas Present. In this quote, the narrator describes his physical presence, which, though large and imposing, is friendly and genial. 

The Ghost's torch is symbolic of this Ghost's method of enlightening Scrooge as to the importance of being kind to others and having empathy. The Horn of Plenty (or "cornucopia") is a symbol of generosity and charity, qualities which Scrooge sorely lacks but which his next peek into others' present Christmases will soon inspire him to embody. The torch itself is utilized to both physically and metaphorically "shed its light on Scrooge." The Ghost will show Scrooge how other people in his life, like Bob Cratchit and Scrooge's nephew Fred, celebrate Christmas. This will illuminate him as to the woes and struggles of others, but also their willingness to put difficulties aside and enjoy the little things in life on the holiday occasion. The Ghost, in demeanor and likeness, is entirely the opposite of Scrooge--large, jolly, and generous. By showing Scrooge the happiness and joy that even a little bit of generosity can provide, Scrooge begins to make large strides in his journey towards learning to empathize with his fellow man. 

Stave 4 Quotes

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

The fourth Ghost that visits Scrooge is the Ghost of Christmas Future. In this quote, the Phantom is described as very somber, draped in a cloak, and reminiscent of the Grim Reaper. He is silent and grim, a direct contrast to the Ghosts of Past and Present. The Ghost's very demeanor brings Scrooge to his knees.

The morbidity that surrounds the presence of this Ghost, particularly compared to the youthful glow of the Ghost of Christmas Past and the jolly generosity of the Ghost of Christmas Present, is an ominous sign for Scrooge's Christmases to come. Though Christmas, as all of the Ghosts attempt to show Scrooge, is a time when generosity and charity are supposed to be available to all, if Scrooge does not change his ways, his future Christmases will be ones of misery and despair. Comparing his Christmases past, present, and future will inspire Scrooge to revise his attitude towards himself and his fellow man so that what he views as the future in its current state will never actually come to be. 

'If he wanted to keep them after he was dead, a wicked old screw,' pursued the woman, '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.'

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge
Related Symbols: Images of Age and Youth
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

The Ghost of Christmas Future brings Scrooge to the room where people are picking apart the possessions of a man who recently died. In this quote, an enterprising woman who is taking the deceased man's things argues that if the old man wanted to keep his things or give them to a person of his choosing, he should have been kinder (more "natural") in life. Due to his meanness, the reader learns that this man died entirely alone, "gasping out his last...alone by himself."

As Scrooge soon learns, the man in question is him--and this solitary death is to be his fate if he does not change his ways. As a wealthy but stingy man, the townspeople who hear of his death revel in taking from Scrooge the things that they could never have for want of resources. Had Scrooge been more generous with his time, kindness, and wealth, he may have had friends and family surrounding him as he gasped out his last breath. But due to his miserly ways, he had no one, and died completely alone. As a result, there was no one to protect his estate after his passing, rendering his possessions completely up for grabs. To those whom Scrooge spurned in his living days, stealing the dead man's possessions is a kind of revenge on his stinginess in life--if he wouldn't be generous and donate his time or money, then they would take what they needed in his death, if only out of spite. When Scrooge realizes that the man they so despise is himself, he suddenly sees that this is not how anyone should aspire to end their days. Scrooge soon learns that empathy and kindness is worth far more than its weight in gold, and the company and love of others during and after one's life will always be more important than how much is in one's bank account. 

He recoiled in terror, for the scene had changed, and now he almost touched a bed: a bare, uncurtained bed: on which, beneath a ragged sheet, there lay a something covered up, which, though it was dumb, announced itself in awful language.

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

The Ghost brings Scrooge to a terrifying scene in this quote: a dead body, alone and covered by a "ragged sheet" on a bare bed.

This body is the dead man that the people spoke of as they stole his things. Entirely stripped of his possessions, the body is left alone on a bare bed with only a torn sheet to cover it. This image symbolizes what the man has once his money and items are gone: no one, and nothing. Without any friends or loved ones to mourn him, the body left behind is nothing more than an empty vessel devoid even of the mean spirit that used to occupy it. This stark and scary scene jolts Scrooge. Though the body does not announce itself because it is "dumb," it does so in "awful language," that of silence. Scrooge realizes that this "awful language" of silence, in which the Ghost itself also converses with him, is all that he looks forward to for the rest of his days and beyond if he does not learn how to form, cultivate, and care for human connection. 

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Ghost finishes taking Scrooge to multiple scenes of people rejoicing over the death of a disliked man, the Phantom brings Scrooge to one final location: a grave yard. Though Scrooge has been demanding to know who this man is, he finally realizes the man's name when he sees his own upon a "neglected grave": Ebenezer Scrooge.

The ominous demeanor of the Ghost, reminiscent of the Grim Reaper of Death, is because the only Christmas that Scrooge has in his current future is that of death. Without people who love and care for him, Scrooge is destined to die alone. His death, as he has been shown, is currently fated to be rejoiced by all the people whom he wronged and was deliberately unkind to during life. Before being introduced to the inner lives and worlds of those whom he disparaged, Scrooge was not mindful of the struggles of others. However, thanks to the scenes the Ghosts have shown him, he understands how and why certain people act the way they do and live by more meager means: to others, it is more important to cultivate love and relationships than it is to conduct ruthless business in the pursuit of money. By seeing the love and happiness that people poorer than he enjoy, Scrooge learns to re-prioritize his life and embody the generous Christmas spirit 365 days a year in order to avoid this grim fate. 

Stave 5 Quotes

'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!'

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge (speaker), Jacob Marley
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

After the final grim visit to the grave yard, Scrooge awakens the next day with a firm resolve to change his ways. In this quote, he thanks the Ghost of his one and only friend, Jacob Marley, for showing him the importance of rejecting their mutual miserly ways to avoid a purgatorial fate like his. 

Scrooge resolves to embody all three spirits: the youthful reminiscence of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the joy, understanding, and generosity of the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the somber foresight of the Ghost of Christmas Future. He knows now that it is important to understand one's own context and perspective, as well as those of others, to properly conduct oneself with kindness and charity. Scrooge has some good reasons for acting particularly bitter around Christmas--there are unhappy memories from his past that make the holiday a sore subject--but he also has very happy memories that he has now learned to try and evoke, such as old Fizziwig's ball. As he has awoken on Christmas Day itself, he now has the chance to evoke the spirit of Christmas Present, and immediately spread joy and generosity on the people who deserve and need it.