On a frigid, foggy Christmas Eve in London, a shrewd, mean-spirited cheapskate named Ebenezer Scrooge works meticulously in his counting-house. Outside the office creaks a little sign reading "Scrooge and Marley." Jacob Marley, Scrooge's business partner, has died seven years previous. Inside the office, Scrooge watches over his clerk, a poor diminutive man named Bob Cratchit. The smoldering ashes in the fireplace provide little heat even for Bob's tiny room. Despite the harsh weather Scrooge refuses to pay for another lump of coal to warm the office.

Suddenly, a ruddy-faced young man bursts into the office offering holiday greetings and an exclamatory, "Merry Christmas!" The young man is Scrooge's jovial nephew Fred who has stopped by to invite Scrooge to Christmas dinner. The grumpy Scrooge responds with a "Bah! Humbug!" refusing to share in Fred's Christmas cheer. After Fred departs, a pair of portly gentlemen enters the office to ask Scrooge for a charitable donation to help the poor. Scrooge angrily replies that prisons and workhouses are the only charities he is willing to support, and the gentlemen leave empty-handed. Scrooge confronts Bob Cratchit, complaining about Bob's wish to take a day off for the holiday. "What good is Christmas," Scrooge snipes, "that it should shut down business?" He begrudgingly agrees to give Bob a day off but insists that he arrive at the office all the earlier the next day.

Scrooge follows the same old routine, taking dinner in his usual tavern and returning home through the dismal, fog-blanketed London streets. Just before entering his house, the doorknocker on his front door, the same door he has passed through twice a day for his many years, catches his attention. A ghostly image in the curves of the knocker gives the old man a momentary shock: It is the peering face of Jacob Marley. When Scrooge takes a second re-focused look, he sees nothing but a doorknocker. With a disgusted "Pooh-pooh," Scrooge opens the door and trudges into his bleak quarters. He makes little effort to brighten his home: "darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it." As he plods up the wide staircase, Scrooge, in utter disbelief, sees a locomotive hearse climbing the stairs beside him.

After rushing to his room, Scrooge locks the door behind him and puts on his dressing gown. As he eats his gruel before the fire, the carvings on his mantelpiece suddenly transform into images of Jacob Marley's face. Scrooge, determined to dismiss the strange visions, blurts out "Humbug!" All the bells in the room fly up from the tables and begin to ring sharply. Scrooge hears footsteps thumping up the stairs. A ghostly figure floats through the closed door—Jacob Marley, transparent and bound in chains.

Scrooge shouts in disbelief, refusing to admit that he sees Marley's ghost—a strange case of food poisoning, he claims. The ghost begins to murmur: He has spent seven years wandering the Earth in his heavy chains as punishment for his sins. Scrooge looks closely at the chains and realizes that the links are forged of cashboxes, padlocks, ledgers, and steel purses. The wraith tells Scrooge that he has come from beyond the grave to save him from this very fate. He says that Scrooge will be visited by three spirits over the next three nights—the first two appearing at one o'clock in the morning and the final spirit arriving at the last stoke of midnight. He rises and backs toward the window, which opens almost magically, leaving a trembling Scrooge white with fear. The ghost gestures to Scrooge to look out the window, and Scrooge complies. He sees a throng of spirits, each bound in chains. They wail about their failure to lead honorable, caring lives and their inability to reach out to others in need as they and Marley disappear into the mist. Scrooge stumbles to his bed and falls instantly asleep.

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The opening "Stave" of A Christmas Carol sets the mood, describes the setting, and introduces many of the principal characters. (Stave is a British word for "staff," a set of five horizontal lines on which musical notes are written.) The opening Stave also establishes the novel's allegorical structure. (Allegory, a type of narrative in which characters and events represent particular ideas or themes, relies heavily on symbolism. In this case, Scrooge represents greed, apathy, and all that stands in opposition to the Christmas spirit. Bob personifies those who suffer under the "Scrooges" of the world—the English poor. Fred serves to remind readers of the joy and good cheer of the Christmas holiday.) The opening section also highlights the novel's narrative style—a peculiar and highly Dickensian blend of wild comedy (note the description of Hamlet, a passage that foreshadows the entrance of the ghosts) and atmospheric horror (the throng of spirits eerily drifting through the fog just outside Scrooge's window).

The allegorical nature of A Christmas Carol leads to relatively simplistic symbolism and a linear plot. The latter is divided into five Staves, each containing a distinct episode in Scrooge's spiritual re-education. The first Stave centers on the visitation from Marley's ghost, the middle three present the tales of the three Christmas spirits, and the last concludes the story, showing how Scrooge has changed from an inflexible curmudgeon to a warm and joyful benefactor. Underlying the narrative and paralleling the more ostensible theme of moral redemption, lies an incisive political diatribe. Dickens takes aim at the Poor Laws then governing the underclass of Victorian England. He exposes the flaws of the unfair system of government that essentially restricts the underclass to life in prison or in a workhouse. (Dickens' own father served time in debtor's prison.) Dickens' sympathetic portrayal of Bob Cratchit and his family puts a human face on the lower classes. Through Scrooge's implicit defense of the Poor Laws (his argument that prisons are the only "charity" he cares to support), Dickens dismisses the excuses of the indifferent upper class as an irresponsible, selfish, and cruel defense.