Background.

A Christmas Carol.
  • A Christmas Carol is a novella, or short story, written by Charles Dickens and first published in the Christmas of 1843. The allegorical tale tells the story of the transformation of the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge through the visits of the spirit of his former business partner and three ghosts over the course of a Christmas Eve night. It remains a much-loved traditional Christmas tale.

Context.

This quote is a description of Ebenezer Scrooge and appears in the last paragraph of Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge has been visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who died seven years prior to the setting of the story. Still in disbelief at the apparition before him, Scrooge becomes aware that Marley is not the only supernatural presence that evening when he hears the wailing of other ghosts outside.

Like Marley, these ghosts also doomed to wander the Earth regretting the actions they did in life. Scrooge goes to the window and witnesses the air … filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, including one man known to him – now with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle – who is tormented at being unable to help a poor woman and her child on a doorstep near to Scrooge’s house. Having finished his visit to Scrooge, the ghost of Jacob Marley joins the other ghosts floating the in the air outside. As Scrooge closes the window, he is about to dismiss the apparition with the word Humbug, a common word at the time to rubbish something and one we have already seen Scrooge use more than once that evening. but stops at the first part, Hum…. This could be because of Scrooge’s tiredness, or it could hint at the first signs of his path to redemption, being frightened enough to stop his own normal negative manner in its tracks.

Illustration from the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing phantoms outside Scrooge's house, tormented at seeing a destitute woman and child who they are unable to help.
Illustration from the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing phantoms in the street outside Scrooge’s house, tormented at seeing a destitute woman and child who they are unable to help.

Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most famous characters created by Charles Dickens and arguably one of the most famous in English literature. The protagonist of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is the cold-hearted and mean-spirited accountant. His business partner, the equally mean Jacob Marley, died seven years previous and he lives alone, having never married. Through a visit one Christmas Eve by the ghost of Marley and three subsequent spirits, Scrooge is awakened to his meaness and the impact it has on others.

Jacob Marley.

In life, Jacob Marley was the business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge. Together, as the firm of Scrooge and Marley, they became successful yet hard-hearted bankers, with seats on the London Stock Exchange. Seven years to the day of his death, on a Christmas Eve, Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge. Bound in chains and tormented, the ghost is doomed to wander the earth forever as punishment for his greed and selfishness when he was alive. Marley visits Scrooge to offer him redemption from his own fate, in the hope of changing his mean ways. He tells Scrooge that three spirits will visit that night.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol:

The apparition walked backward from him; and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley’s Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped.

Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, he could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together; and the night became as it had been when he walked home.

Scrooge closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. He tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose; went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep upon the instant.

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He tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable
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