Jacob Marley, the business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge, died seven years ago. On a dingy Christmas Eve, Scrooge, a cold, unfriendly miser, works in his counting-house while keeping an eye on his clerk, a small man named Bob Cratchit. Scrooge's nephew wishes Scrooge a merry Christmas, but Scrooge answers him with a disdainful "Bah! Humbug!" He believes Christmas is the same as any day of the year, a day in which one must still pay bills. His nephew, Fred, thinks of Christmas as a "kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time." He invites Scrooge to dine with him tomorrow, but his uncle rejects the offer.
Two portly gentlemen enter and ask Scrooge for charity for the poor. Scrooge believes that prisons and workhouses are sufficient, and he dismisses them. Outside, it gets colder. A Christmas caroler tries to sing at Scrooge's door, but the old man scares him away. Scrooge closes up the counting-house and tells Cratchit he expects him to work on Christmas day. Cratchit goes home.
Scrooge goes through his dreary routine of dinner in a tavern, then goes to his gloomy home. Scrooge sees the dead Marley's face in the knocker of his door until it turns back into a knocker. It gives Scrooge pause, but he resolves not to be frightened. He thinks he sees a locomotive hearse going up the stairs before him. He walks through his rooms to make sure no one is there. After, he warms himself by a small fire. A bell in the room starts to ring, and soon all the other bells in the house do. After some time, the bells stop, and Scrooge hears the cellar-door open.
Marley's ghosttransparent and bound in a long chain made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy pursesenters the room. Scrooge claims he does not believe the ghost exists, but soon he admits he does. Marley says his spirit has been wandering since he died as punishment for being consumed with business and not with people while alive. He has come to warn Scrooge and perhaps save him from the same fate. He tells him Three Spirits will come to him over the next three nights. Marley makes incoherent, sorrowful sounds, then leaves. Scrooge looks out the window and sees the sky filled with other chained spirits, some familiar to him, who cry about their inability to connect with others. He goes to sleep.
A Christmas Carol is foremost a Christian allegory of redemption about, as Fred says, the "kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time" of Christmas. Scrooge is a skinflint businessman who represents the greediest impulses of Victorian England's rich. He subscribes to the guidelines of the Poor Laws, which oppress the underclass, and has no warmth in his spirit for anything but money. Cratchit is the underclass's representative, a humble, powerless man who has no choice but to kowtow to his employer's demands.
Yet underneath the simple Christian allegory, Dickens investigates the complicated nature of time in a capitalist system. The references to signifiers of time are numerous in the chapter; the bells ring to herald Marley's arrival, and even the repetitive discussion of Marley's death at the beginning emphasizes the present tense in which Scrooge is stuck.
Why the present tense? Capitalism functions in the now. Always aware of the clock, of how much time has passed and how much is left, capitalism is foremost concerned with what can be done at the present to accumulate money. Scrooge believes Christmas time is simply "capitalist time," to coin a phrase, whereas Fred believes it constitutes a departure from capitalist time.
Scrooge's temporal problem, then, is his inability to hold a more humane version of the present tense. Moreover, he is unable to combine the three tensespast, present, and futureinto a singular redemptive vision of humanity. Scrooge foreshadows the concept of the epiphany when he asks for all three ghosts at once; perhaps the epiphany somehow depends on time in such a universal way.
Dickens also structures A Christmas Carol with the musical notation of five "staves." Dickens's choice to call his story a song emphasizes the communal themecarolers rarely sing alone, after alland perhaps to underscore the temporal theme at play, since songs are temporal forms that rely on repetition of the chorus.