Marley's Chains

December 7, 2020

Susan Zieger, Professor of English at UC Riverside, discusses two essential elements in the interactions between Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley's Ghost in Stave One of A Christmas Carol: humor as a counterpoint to the last judgment and the metaphor of chain. 



Hello, I'm Susan Zieger. I teach at the University of California Riverside, and I'm speaking to you from Los Angeles. I'm going to read to you a little bit from A Christmas Carol, Stave One.

"How now!" said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. "What do you want with me?"

"Much"--Marley's voice, no doubt about it.

"Who are you?"

"Ask me? Who I was?"

"Who were you then?" said Scrooge, raising his voice. "You're particular, for a shade." He was going to say "to a shade," but substituted this, as more appropriate.

"In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley."

"Can you--can you sit down?" asked Scrooge, looking doubtfully at him.

"I can."

"Do it, then."

Scrooge asked the question, because he didn't know whether a ghost so transparent might find himself in a condition to take a chair; and felt that in the event of its being impossible, it might involve the necessity of an embarrassing explanation. But the ghost sat down on the opposite side of the fireplace, as if you were quite used to it.

"You don't believe in me," observed the Ghost.

"I don't," said Scrooge.

"What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?"

"I don't know," said Scrooge.

"Why do you doubt your senses?"

"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre's voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones.

To sit staring at those fixed glazed eyes, in silence for a moment, would play, Scrooge felt, the very deuce with him. There was something very awful, too, in the spectre's being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.

"You see this toothpick?" said Scrooge, returning quickly to the charge, for the reason just assigned; and wishing though it were only for a second, to divert the vision's stony gaze from himself.

"I do," replied the Ghost.

"You are not looking at it," said Scrooge.

"But I see it," said the Ghost, "notwithstanding."

"Well!" returned Scrooge, "I have but to swallow this, and for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you! humbug!"

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

"Mercy!" he said. "Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?"

"Man of the worldly mind!" replied the Ghost, "do you believe in me or not?"

"I do," said Scrooge. "I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

"It is required of every man," the Ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world--oh, woe is me!--and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!"

Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

"You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?"

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"

Scrooge trembled, more and more.

"Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of a strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It has a ponderous chain!"

Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.

"Jacob," he said imploringly. "Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob!"

"I have none to give," the Ghost replied. "It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house--mark me!--in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!"

It was a habit with Scrooge, whenever he became thoughtful, to put his hands in his breeches pockets. Pondering on what the Ghost had said, he did so now, but without lifting up his eyes, or getting off his knees.

"You must've been very slow about it, Jacob," Scrooge observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference.

"Slow!" the Ghost repeated.

"Seven years dead," mused Scrooge. "And traveling all the time!"

"The whole time," said the Ghost. "No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse."

"You travel fast?" said Scrooge.

"On the wings of the wind," replied the Ghost.

"You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years," said Scrooge.

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Ward would have been justified and indicting it for a nuisance.

"Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironned," cried the phantom, "not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

"But you were always a good band of business, Jacob," faltered, Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"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 and the comprehensive ocean of my business!"


So, I like a few things about this passage. First of all, the humor of it: Scrooge's bad jokes, all of the musings about whether or not the Ghost can sit, you know, his sort of chiding him for thinking he should have traveled further in seven years. And I think that humor is kind of, put in counterpoint with the mortal judgment, the last judgment for one's wasted life. And Dickens tells us that, that Scrooge is making these jokes because he's terrified and doesn't want to face it. So all that humor is blended in there at the same time as this existential dread. And, of course, we have the wonderful lines that are quoted so often, "I wear the chains I forged in life," and "mankind was my business."

So, there's just the wonderful texture of Dickens's writing. And then there's also this metaphor of traveling far and wide as a metaphor for doing good and transforming misery to happiness. As penance, it becomes the sentence of wandering without rest or a home. So, this is the kind of cosmopolitan spirit of inclusive, liberal modernity that widens the social sphere, the idea that we can reach out to other people and make a difference to them. And it's the basis of reform as opposed to legislative politics, the idea that each individual can improve themselves.

I think it's interesting, especially how Dickens materializes the metaphor of the chain, to symbolize this paradoxical sentence. Because we typically associate freedom with mobility, but here mobility is the imprisonment. And in this way, I think Dickens is performing some pretty interesting cultural work because when he's writing in the 1840s, in not too distant past, in cultural memory, there would have been, the specter of the slave trade. It was through chains that African people were kidnapped, made to endure the middle passage, and transported throughout the United States. So, this was over, in the English sphere, although it continued through the Portuguese and in the U.S. by the time Dickens was writing.

So the chain was now available to suggest self-inflicted harm the irony and the iron. Marley appears as someone who enslaved himself, and the chain symbolizes that. So, I think Dickens is also getting at a truth that still endures, the wisdom that in making others happiness, we make our own.

And I couldn't really think of a more apt passage, as we head back into lockdown in our own narrow chambers, and limited spheres, that we still have so many ways, more than ever, probably, to travel beyond our little rooms and our hearts and spread happiness to others.

So, happy holidays and check back for another Dicken-to-Go. Thank you.


Susan ZiegerSusan Zieger, Professor of English at UC Riverside, specializes in nineteenth-century British and related literatures and cultures, with an emphasis on the novel, ephemera, and other mass media forms. Her first book, Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature (University of Massachusetts Press), describes how metaphors of addiction such as exile, self-enslavement, and disease circulated through literature and culture to forge the new identity of the addict. Her second book, The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century (Fordham University Press, 2018), contends that our twenty-first-century moment of digital media saturation was formed through nineteenth-century encounters with printed ephemera. Zieger is currently researching Logistical Life, a cultural history of the rise of logistics and its relationship to modern consumption, from 1750 to the present.


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