A Christmas Carol – The Passage of Time Problem

TitleA Christmas Carol
AuthorCharles Dickens
FinishedDecember 13, 2021

I read this wonderful little book every couple of years in the run up to Christmas. Scrooge’s reclamation never fails to bring me a bit of cheer and hope that things aren’t really as bad as they seem. In 2016 I had the realization that A Christmas Carol is a classic hero journey (as described by Joseph Campbell).  I’ve always been troubled by the passage of time in this story and decided to pay more attention to that this year and now understand the time problem when set in the hero’s journey framework.

The Hero’s Journey

Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve to tell him the three spirits will visit on three consecutive nights.

“‘Expect the first tomorrow when the bell tolls One.’

‘Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate.'”

Page 12

But when Scrooge wakes up after the three visits it is Christmas day. Knowing that Dickens was a serial writer I always explained it to myself that Dickens changed his mind midway through the story but the early pages had already been published. This just doesn’t hold up though. Going in, Dickens knows the story starts on Christmas Eve and will end on Christmas day. The solution to the time problem is wrapped up in the hero journey where the hero leaves the known world to enter an unknown one; one that doesn’t necessarily conform to our notions of time.

Let’s review a few other references to time in the novel. Scrooge first wakes up before the first ghost appears

“To his great astonishment the heavy bell went on from six to seven, and from seven to eight, and regularly up to twelve; then stopped. Twelve! It was past two when he went to bed.”

It is actually earlier than when he went to bed. Marley is the threshold guardian who has helped Scrooge enter the unknown world. 

Next, Scrooge is awake before the second ghost appears…

“Awaking in the middle of a prodigious tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, Scrooge had no occasion to be told that the bell was again upon the stroke of One.”

Page 27

He assumes it is one o’clock again; he waits

“Now being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the  clock proclaimed the hour.”

Page 28

My understanding is that the second spirit shows up at two o’clock – an hour later than foretold. Scrooge is awake before one o’clock and waits more than an hour for the second spirit. The Ghost of Christmas Past appeared right on the stroke of one; so, if he woke up before one o’clock for the second ghost, Scrooge has either slept through the night, Christmas day, and another night, or he is living in a world separate from time. He certainly doesn’t seem concerned at this point that he has slept through the day. The cares of the known world are beyond his concern now.

“‘Spirit’, said Scrooge submissively ‘conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion… Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.’”

Page 29

At the end of the Spirit of Christmas Present’s visit, Scrooge is aware that things are not as they seem.

“It was a long night, if it were only a night; but Scrooge had his doubts of this, because the Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together.”

Page 41

At the end, Scrooge has returned to the known world; only then does he begin to care about the passage of time.

“‘I don’t know what day of the month it is!’ said Scrooge. ‘I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits.’ “

Page 54

When he learns it is Christmas Day from the boy passing beneath his window, Scrooge has his realization.

“‘It’s Christmas Day!’ said Scrooge to himself. ‘I haven’t missed it. The spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like.”

Page 55

When I first started thinking about this problem of time I did some research to see if others have tackled this problem. And of course they have. On May 6, 2019 Christian Sidney Dickinson (with that name you may have to become a Dickens scholar) of the Baptist College of Florida published an article on the Dickens Society website. Whereas my understanding is seen through the lens of the Hero Journey, Dickinson frames the issue in terms of Christianity.

“The necessity for a Christian understanding of linear time, ever-present and ever-active, is the message that Dickens wishes to communicate to readers through Scrooge’s experience of temporal reversal.”

Linked above

Dickinson’s article helped me understand Dickens’ choices were intentional. Of course, Joseph Campbell didn’t publish his groundbreaking work on myth – The Hero with a Thousand Faces – until the mid 20th century, so it is unlikely (impossible) Dickens had the Hero Journey framework in mind. I imagine his intentions were closer to Dickinson’s understanding, However, that is exactly what Campbell proved: stories from all cultures from the beginning of recorded time follow this Hero Journey structure. Dickens upsetting the regular time flow is intentional. It both serves his theme of charity (Scrooge promises to live in the past, present, and future), it also fits into the hero’s journey motif. 

To finish the hero journey description, Scrooge is ushered into the unknown world by Jacob Marley’s ghost; once there he challenged by the three ghosts and ends up facing his own death (seeing his body on its deathbed and seeing his name on the gravestone). The experience transforms Scrooge. He atones for his errors with the men who came to collect for charity, with his nephew, and with Bob Cratchit. Scrooge then goes on to share his boon (money) with Cratchit and the community.

Finally, if you are like me and resisted A Christmas Carol for years because of the cloying “God bless us, everyone”, give it another chance; it is a short book and breaking it up over 5 nights leading up to Christmas is fun. Or watch the George C. Scott version on TV.

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