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In Dickens' famous tale A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Jacob Marley clearly states to Scrooge that he is to be visited on three consecutive nights:

“Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.”
“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” hinted Scrooge.
“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.”

However, as the tale unfolds it is clear that the visitations are occurring all on the same night: Scrooge sleeps the entire time between each spirit, and the action moves from Christmas Eve when the tale opens to Christmas Day when it ends. Scrooge, however, doesn't seem to realise this and checks in the morning what day it is:

“What’s to-day!” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“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. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!”

As an aside, it's interesting to note that in many of the film adaptations of the story they miss out Marley's statement about the three nights but retain Scrooge's question, making him seem ridiculously confused.

Anyway, this seems a curious way for Dickens to shape the story. He could quite easily have done it "all in one night" as the films do, or simply started the story three days earlier. As it stands there's a strange inconsistency where Scrooge apparently believes he has twice slept for 24 hours but never actually remarks on how bizarre this would be.

So the question is: why does Dickens do this and what purpose does it serve in the story?

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    I'd disagree with the assertion that all of the visitations are on the same night, as the first two spirits show up as the clock is tolling one, and the third spirit, oddly enough, shows up at midnight instead. Dec 12, 2022 at 15:36
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    @SeanDuggan the giveaway is that it's Christmas eve when Scrooge is visited by Marley, and Christmas Day when he wakes following the third spirit. Hence Scrooge's statement that "they did it all in one night".
    – Matt Thrower
    Dec 12, 2022 at 15:38
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    Indeed, and that is the miracle, that after three days of visitations, he still wakes up as if only one day has passed. As regards his lack of reaction, he does have a moment before the first ghost where he speculates of having slept the day away, but after the first ghost, he falls asleep and wakes again right before 1, then the third ghost shows up right before midnight, so I think he just never had the chance to stop and reflect how odd it was that he should have slept through each day. Dec 12, 2022 at 15:41
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    In many adaptations Scrooge experiences Christmas Eve repeatedly to space out the visits, so they both are and aren't spread across consecutive nights, and it wouldn't surprise me if this were to address the confusing point you raise.
    – J.G.
    Dec 13, 2022 at 16:40
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    It might be worth noting that time in dreams is often compressed, so a dream which subjectively lasts days, months, or years can occur in a single night. 30 years is my personal best. Dickens may have just intended that as one of the surreal aspects of the dreams. Dec 13, 2022 at 17:18

3 Answers 3

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The visitations do happen over the course of three days as seen by that Scrooge goes to bed at past two in the morning, the first two visitations have Scrooge awakening shortly after midnight, and waiting to hear the clock strike one before the ghost appears. As per Marley's statement, the third ghost, the the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come appears right after midnight. Scrooge does note the first time passage and is astonished. At the second, he is so bemused from his experience that he does not know what to expect. And, of course, the third ghost appears in the wake of the second.

First Ghost

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. The clock was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works. Twelve!

....

“Why, it isn’t possible,” said Scrooge, “that I can have slept through a whole day and far into another night. It isn’t possible that anything has happened to the sun, and this is twelve at noon!”

....

“The hour itself,” said Scrooge, triumphantly, “and nothing else!”

He spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy One. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of his bed were drawn.

....

The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.

He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He gave the cap a parting squeeze, in which his hand relaxed; and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.

Second Ghost

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously 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....

Gentlemen of the free-and-easy sort, who plume themselves on being acquainted with a move or two, and being usually equal to the time-of-day, express the wide range of their capacity for adventure by observing that they are good for anything from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter; between which opposite extremes, no doubt, there lies a tolerably wide and comprehensive range of subjects. Without venturing for Scrooge quite as hardily as this, I don’t mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.

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....

Third Ghost

The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

Given that the second ghost, ostensibly showing him the present, brings him to Christmas Day, it seems that the ghosts are not moored to time, and therefore can rewind the day as necessary to bring him all three visits, and have it still be Christmas Day upon his waking for the final time. As far as I know, Dickens never commented on the timing of the visits, but I have seen commentaries linking it to the three days before Jesus rose from the dead (along with more tying it to being Christian allegory), or to Scrooge being a man who lived only in the present, having rejected his past and gathering money not for any future purpose, but to have it now (and yet, doing nothing with it, living in virtual privation), and therefore he was already detached from time.

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IMP Dickens was making the story up as he went, and changed how it played out from he first intended. Instead of re-writing the previous verse, he clumsily added the "did it all in one night" business.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Dec 22, 2023 at 18:24
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    A Christmas Carol was not published in installments, so nothing prevented Dickens from going back and rewriting the first stave after he'd realized he had been inconsistent. So either your answer is incorrect, or Dickens was a lazy and incompetent author.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 22, 2023 at 19:15
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Scrooge's entire life is played in the course of the 3 visits, even though it all happened in one night. Obviously spirits aren't confined to our timekeeping anymore.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Dec 25, 2022 at 18:59

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