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Marley was dead: On the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens

To look at the relevance to us of Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol.

by Helen Bryant

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To look at the relevance to us of Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol.

Preparation and materials


  1. ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ – one of the most famous book opening sentences that there is. This is how Charles Dickens opens one of his most famous books, A Christmas Carol. This book was published in December 1843 and, like all of Dickens’ books, it is not only a cracking story, it also has much to say about the social environment of the time.
  2. But what can this book, written nearly 200 years ago, say to us now? Well, quite a lot, in fact, because, as you will see, there is nothing new under the sun.

    First, however, we should meet the main protagonist of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge, a tight-fisted miser, hated by everyone, whose famous words, ‘Bah! Humbug!’ are oft quoted.

    (Play the clip from The Muppet Christmas Carol.)

    That was taken from the Muppets’ version of A Christmas Carol, and there are many versions out there.

    This story is all about the change that happens within Scrooge. He goes from being a miser to being someone who realizes not only that the actions that he does in life will affect him in death, but that he also needs to give love to others in order to receive it and be liked.
  3. The story starts on Christmas Eve. That evening, and later on in the night, Scrooge is visited by four ghosts.

    The first ghost is Marley, his old business associate, who warns him of what is to become of him in the afterlife. Marley himself is doomed to roam the world for ever, carrying a long, heavy, clanking chain that is wound round him. This chain has been forged by his actions in this life. Marley warns Scrooge that he too has a chain, a ‘ponderous chain’, longer and heavier even than Marley’s. Marley tells Scrooge that he has one hope of escaping Marley’s dreadful fate, and that will come through the visit of three spirits.

    (That Scrooge will suffer in the afterlife for his failure to be generous and kind in this life is not dissimilar to the idea of judgement within Christianity; and also to Karma, which is the Buddhist and Hindu teaching that you reap what you sow.)

    Later that night, when a church clock strikes one, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past. He is then visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present and after that by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

    The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge elements of his life that have made him the way that he is. We see that Scrooge was a lonely child, sent away from home because his father could not bear to see him after the death of his mother. This shows us that we can become the product of our experiences.

    The Ghost of Christmas Present shows that Christmas can be celebrated with love and joy even in the poorest of places. The ghost takes Scrooge to the home of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s down-at-heel and trodden-upon employee. Bob Cratchit and his wife and children are very poor, because Scrooge pays Bob the meanest of wages, but on Christmas Day they make the best of the little they have, even toasting ‘Mr Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast’.

    One of the children, Tiny Tim, is the means by which the ghost shows Scrooge how his mean behaviour affects others. Tim is a little boy who is ill, and is unable to walk. Without the correct medical care and good food, he will not survive.

    ‘“Spirit,” said Scrooge . . . “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
    ‘“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost . . . “and a crutch without an owner . . . If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”’

    The ghost then throws back at Scrooge some words Scrooge had spoken earlier: “‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”’

    When Scrooge sees how callous he has been, he is filled with remorse.

    The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge the future. Tiny Tim will die, and Scrooge himself will also die. But whereas Tiny Tim will be mourned by many, Scrooge will be mourned by no one and spoken of as if he were nothing.

    Scrooge realizes that if he is to avoid Marley’s fate and if Tiny Tim is to live, he must change his ways. He pleads with the Ghost to give him a second chance. He promises that he will honour Christmas in his heart and keep it all the year.

    Scrooge then wakes to find that it is Christmas morning. He is full of the joy of Christmas. He buys the biggest bird in the butcher’s and sends it to the Cratchit household. Instead of moaning, ‘Bah! Humbug!’ and complaining that Christmas is for fools, he calls out ‘Merry Christmas’ to everyone he sees.
  4. This is a conversion experience on a scale of massive proportions. Scrooge has escaped the doom that Marley warned him of, and has experienced redemption.

    What is important is not just the transformation of this miserly old man, but the fact that he understands that his actions affect what will happen to him. He resolves to be good to his fellow men and women throughout the year. That is a message that we can take with us now and into the future, or beware the visits from the three ghosts when the clock strikes one!

Time for reflection

Play the clip again and ask the children to think about how the Muppets might sing about each of us in the future – would it be good, or bad?

How can we build upon the good in our lives?


‘I danced in the morning’ (Come and Praise, 22)

Publication date: April 2012   (Vol.14 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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