Just as last week’s chapter began with Scrooge alone in bed, this one does too. Once again, Scrooge has shrunk back from a message critical of his actions. First he retreated somberly and almost automatically to bed after meeting Marley’s ghost, but now, he has also more aggressively shut out the warning from the Ghost of Christmas Past.
That spirit had shown him something that pained Scrooge – his own steady transformation into the person he is at present. Although the seeds for self isolation and miserliness had always been in him, a lengthy series of choices led him to embrace those parts of his life, and be pickled in his own vitriol and contempt.
Isolated in his room again, awaiting yet another spirit, he’s beginning to have something of a change of heart, however. After awakening in bed, he doesn’t passively await the spirit while insisting they won’t come. Instead, “finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new specter would draw back, he put them every one aside with his own hands, and lying down again, established a sharp lookout all round the bed.” Previously impervious to cold and socially withdrawn, him being spurred to interaction by a chill shows the beginnings of a changed nature.
This spirit, perhaps reacting to Scrooge’s inching towards a return to social life, awaits him this time around, in the next room. The light emitted from him eventually draws Scrooge from bed – again, having him relinquish his isolating tendencies – and Scrooge walks in on the spirit. The spirit makes a luxurious first appearance, which is often lovingly rendered in stage and video adaptations:
“It was [Scrooge’s] own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceilings were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which bright, gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there, and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney as the dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time or Marley’s, or for many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-checked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy stat 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.”
Where the Ghost of Christmas Past appeared before Scrooge almost faded – a mixture of forgotten good moments and ignored negative ones – this spirit comes as a loud proclamation of what Scrooge is missing out on. His bounty appears before Scrooge as physical and even edible. As they go on another Christmas tour, through the present holiday not Scrooge’s past, he seems to imply it isn’t ultimately one that you have, let alone eat. Instead, it’s one that you share.
As they travel, Scrooge witnesses the spirit blessing a number of meals, of all different sorts of people, and this conversation happens between them:
“‘Would [the blessings] apply to any kind of dinner on this day?’ asked Scrooge. ‘To any kindly given. To a poor one most.’ ‘Why to a poor one most?’ asked Scrooge. ‘Because it needs it most.'”
With that, they begin a rather harrowing look at how the other half lives, which Scrooge so casually dismissed from concern in the first chapter. The tour begins with Scrooge’s own underpaid clerk, who is cheerfully reunited with his eldest daughter, who has moved out of home to be a milliner’s apprentice. Even amid the joy in seeing her, however, the tone of the day has somber moments. Scrooge’s clerk had previously been at Church with his youngest and disabled child – Tiny Tim.
When discussing him with his wife and eldest children, his “voice was tremulous when he told them [about their morning at Church] and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty. His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool beside the fire, and while [Scrooge’s clerk], turning up his cuffs – as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby – compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round”.
This is the life that someone in comparatively good economic standing could have in Scrooge’s time. He is not ensnared in poverty and hardship – which will be seen later – but he and his family live with constant interruption, reminding them of how fragile their lives are and how economically vulnerable they remain. Nothing, I think, shows this better than the description of their Christmas dessert as they bring it out:
“A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastry cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’ next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered = flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Oh, a wonderful pudding!”
Unlike others, soon to be seen, the Cratchits do live with a certain amount of material comfort. But even in their celebrations there are the looming prospects of how much they must do (and soon) to maintain what little good things they have, making even a pudding not just a triumph but one that reminds them of a series of different economic activities. In our era in which the presence of basic comforts is so routinely used to cast doubt on the seriousness of economic vulnerability or limitation, this stands out as a profound portrayal of how living without enough, even a small amount less, is debilitating.
The labor they need to perform permeates even their rest days and the ominous threat of costs that can never be fully covered – most obviously proper nutrition and otherwise treatment for Tiny Tim. Scrooge, watching these private moments is moved, and asks if Tiny Tim will live, presumably meaning to a reasonable, adult age.
“‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost, ‘in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.'”
He then gives Scrooge something of a ticking clock, by implying it is most likely to happen before the following Christmas. Scrooge is horrified to hear this, only to have the spirit hurl his words back at him: “‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the population.'”
From this, the spirit guides Scrooge through miners’ and sailors’ Christmas celebrations, showing those in even more precarious standing and with even less to celebrate with than Scrooge’s clerk and his family. In this, Scrooge sees the faces of those he had so coldly called expendable surplus lives the day before.
They travel everywhere, however, and ultimately see Scrooge’s nephew’s celebrations. The games at their party ultimately culminate in a kind of older version of twenty questions, in which it is ultimately revealed that the moody animal that walks the streets of London is revealed to be none other than Scrooge, who declined to join them.
Scrooge laughs off the joke, showing a previously unseen sense of humor, but an often overlooked exchange comes about after that reveal among the guests. “[S]ome objected that the reply to ‘Is it a bear?’ ought to have been ‘Yes,’ as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.”
What’s suggested here are two things – that Scrooge has become a distant and often overlooked subject to many of these people and that when he is considered, it’s not entirely in human terms. It’s at that point that Scrooge sees something also curiously between human and animal protruding from his accompanying spirits cloak. “‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply” before he lifts the hem of its robe, showing “two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, [and] miserable.”
The spirit disavows parenthood of them, saying that they belong to men. He introduces them: “‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow, I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’
Often, this is read as a warning that those with fewer resources – for education or more immediate wants and needs – are a scowling, almost subhuman threat if left unfed. Reading this immediately after Scrooge himself is noted to be similar at the edge of humanness and has come to grips with his ignorance of what life in poverty is like, however, it seems more as though Scrooge is the clawing child. He maybe be threatened by the “Doom” written upon him, but he is also the unsavory and dangerous threat himself.
This is the second spirit’s last moment with Scrooge, for it then disappears at the stroke of midnight, leaving him alone except for “a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, to him.”