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Near the end of Stave 3 of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a Christmas party hosted by Scrooge's nephew Fred. Fred's wife plays a song that was familiar with Scrooge's late sister Fan (Fred's mother):

Scrooge’s niece played well upon the harp; and played among other tunes a simple little air (a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes), which had been familiar to the child who fetched Scrooge from the boarding-school, as he had been reminded by the Ghost of Christmas Past. When this strain of music sounded, all the things that Ghost had shown him, came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton’s spade that buried Jacob Marley.

Overall, the paragraph seems to be saying that Scrooge thinks that if he had listened to his sister's song more, he might have been more disposed to building a life filled with kindness, rather than the bitter miserly life he led. That said, I'm confused by the ending of the last line of this paragraph. What is meant by "without resorting to the sexton's spade that buried Jacob Marley"?

I get that a sexton's spade in this context would be a gravedigger's shovel. But the way it's phrased it makes it sound like burying Marley is in some way related to cultivating kindness. But that doesn't seem to make sense, so I'm not sure what the phrase is actually supposed to be saying.

3 Answers 3

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I think that by this point in the story, Scrooge can sense himself starting to reform.

In this scene he is saying that had he devoted more time to paying attention to little, pleasant things like Fran's song, he might have reformed then - rather than needing Marley to die, and then visit him as a ghost, to kick off the ghostly visitations that are causing him to instead begin to reform at that moment.

He seems to be recognizing Marley's death as the inciting act, here - but imagining a different path he might have taken, where that inciting act would not have been necessary.

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    I like this interpretation a lot, and it fits well with the scene and the words and phrasing used.
    – M. Justin
    Mar 11 at 0:39
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I think the play on words is a bit simpler than that. "Cultivate" is a word primarily used for gardening or farming, requiring a spade to turn the soil. Thus, Dickens is making a play on words, saying that Scrooge could have "cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness" without using a spade, such as the one used to bury Marley.

1 : to prepare or prepare and use for the raising of crops
Some fields are cultivated while others lie fallow.
also : to loosen or break up the soil about (growing plants)

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    +1 I think yours and tbrookside's answer together give the complete answer.
    – Andreas
    Mar 11 at 14:53
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Marley was the same as Scrooge before he died. It's for his sins that he's forced to walk the earth in torment as a ghost, a form of purgatory. Scrooge is saying that he had (and has, though that realization is not quite yet) an opportunity to learn from his mistakes and improve himself before death, unlike Marley who died without making penance.

This matters particularly because the ghosts are powerless to set things right:

The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

so compassion and understanding gained before death is much more valuable than that gained afterwards.

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  • I agree with Hobbs. Scrooge wanted to learn the easy way, through beauty in life, rather than the pain of compulsion in purgatory/hell. Mar 10 at 19:02
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    So in other words, he wishes he would have addressed the issue through cultivating happiness now that he's alive, rather than after he's dead and buried (like what happened to Marley after he died and was buried by the sexton's shovel).
    – M. Justin
    Mar 10 at 20:19
  • To me the text strongly implies that Scrooge has already "resorted to the spade that buried Marley", and since Scrooge is still alive the mention of the spade can't reasonably allude to Scrooge's own burial. Did I misunderstand your answer?
    – Andreas
    Mar 11 at 14:48

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