December 21, 2023

#08-367: Jacob Marley - The Forgotten Ghost

Scrooge and Marley: together again (Wikipedia)

Note: Like any good book (or film), Dickens's A Christmas Carol never gets old, and we can find something new in it each time we read it. Let's zero in on the often-forgotten character of Jacob Marley: the fourth ghost.

Get Ready: What would it take to convince most people to change their bad habits?

We live in an age of short attention spans. In a recent survey (by Amazon Books U.K.), 64% of readers said that they would stop reading a book if the opening lines weren't interesting enough. And 43% believed that the opening lines of a novel can "make or break" it.

But this isn't a strictly recent phenomenon. As more people became literate and more books were written for popular audiences, authors recognized this concept. One thinks of one of the greatest opening lines in American literature: "Call me Ishmael," at the start of Herman Melville's 1851 novel, Moby-Dick.

Then there's one of the greatest in British literature, at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859): "It was the best of time, it was the worst of times..."

But for my money, the greatest opening line by Dickens (or any other author) is the first six words of his novella A Christmas Carol: "Marley was dead: to begin with."

I am re-reading this very short novel for the umpteenth time, and am struck as much by the importance of Marley's character as by the general cleverness of Dickens's writing.

What does that mean, "dead: to begin with"? Isn't dead just, well, dead?

But no, because the crux of this first chapter (Dickens pretentiously called them "Staves") is a visit from Marley's ghost!

Ask the average literate American or Englishman, "How many ghosts visited Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve?" and he'll answer with certainty, "Three!" But that's not right.

Jacob Marley is "the forgotten ghost." True, in Staves Two, Three, and Four, Scrooge is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come; and in the fifth and final Stave he is converted from miserliness and cruelty to charity and kindness through the influence of these visits.

But the process begins when his old partner Marley appears to warn him that his behavior is forging chains that he will carry through eternity. If he does not change his ways--if his spirit does not "walk abroad among his fellowmen" while alive--he will be "condemned to do so after death... to wander through the world... and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!"

If I were Scrooge, that right there would have changed my attitude. But he was a stubborn old cuss, and needed to see more ghosts--and, ultimately, his own lonely death--before he changed his ways.

Marley's ghost pointed the way.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. crux
  2. cuss
  3. forging
  4. literate
  5. miserliness
  6. pretentiously
  7. spans
  8. strictly
  9. stubborn
  10. umpteenth
  1. able to read
  2. lengths of time
  3. as a pose; not authentically
  4. exactly
  5. an undetermined large number
  6. an annoying person
  7. making; creating
  8. key point
  9. not easily changing one's mind
  10. stinginess; greed

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 21, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. h; 2. f; 3. g; 4. a; 5. j; 6. c; 7. b; 8. d; 9. i; 10. e