Monday, November 11, 2013

One of the creepiest and most surreal moments in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is when Marley's ghost appears.

Marley had been dead for seven years, and Scrooge hadn't given his partner of many decades a single thought since (Dickens says). A Christmas Carol occurs on a Christmas Eve in which it is so bitterly cold that ice-fog has formed in the streets of London. Indeed, the ice-fog is so thick by the time Scrooge gets home that he cannot see his hand in front of his face. He casts about with his walking stick in front of him, like a blind man, groping through the dense, dark fog across the square in front of his house until he reaches the front step.

Scrooge looks at the door knocker in front of his face -- and it appears to turn into Marley's face for a moment. Scrooge goes inside, and a ghostly hearse drawn by two horses gallops up the wide staircase in front of him. (This scene is uniformly deleted from plays and films.) Scrooge chalks this up to the effects of the fog, and goes upstairs.

Scrooge has a cold, and his housekeeper has left a pot of gruel for him simmering on the hearth. He undresses and puts on his pajamas, robe, scarf, slippers, and night-cap. As he eats, he notices the tiles which form the decorative mantel around his fireplace. The tiles, which are Dutch in origin, depict various Biblical scenes. But as Scrooge watches, the faces of the people in each tile turn into the faet of Marley! Scrooge dismisses the incident, believing that his cold or his stomach is causing him to see things.

Then an unused bell (used to summon servants) in the corner of his room begins ringing. Every bell in the house rings -- and then goes silent. Scrooge hears the rattling of chaing and heavy thumping coming up the stairs. Then, suddenly, in through the closed door comes the ghost of Marley!

Now, everything up to this point has failed to frighten Scrooge. Dickens tells us that Scrooge, like any other man, is frightened by what he's seen. But he is also a total rationalist, and comes up with excuse after excuse to dismiss the terrifying things he's seen.

Scrooge is even less impressed by the appearance of Marley himself. When the ghost sits down on a chair, Scrooge seems to interpret this as evidence that Marley is not a "real" spirit. (How could a "real" ghost sit on a chair?) Scrooge then debates with Marley, noting over and over that the slightest thing can upset his senses -- and that undoubtedly Marley's appearance is nothing more than a hallucination brought about by a "bit of underdone potato".


To modern readers, this is a creepy and surreal moment: A large kerchief is wrapped about Marley's head. Marley unties the scarf, and his jaw drops -- RIGHT DOWN ONTO HIS CHEST!

To modern readers, this is just surreal and creepy. But it is also pointless.

But it was not pointless to readers of Dickens' novella in 1843. These readers were well-acquainted with death. Most people who died did so at home, and the body stayed in the house for several days while mourners paid their respects. There was no embalming, so the home would be crowded with flowers, spice plants, and bunches of herbs to reduce the odor of decay. Funerals were held at home, and finally the body was buried.

People in 1843 were thus well-acquainted with the stages of death: Pallor (the loss of color in the skin), algor (the body sheds its heat), and then rigor mortis.

Immediately after death, the dead human body is flaccid and easy to move. But after about three or four hours, the muscles of the body begin to stiffen due to the body's inability to process the chemicals that cause muscle contractions. Maximum stiffness is reached in about 12 hours. It remains for about 48 hours, then begins gradually dissipating. After 60 hours (three days) after death, the body is flaccid again.

Rigor mortis causes the jaw muscles to tighten, keeping the jaw closed. But a true corpse's jaw muscles will eventually relax -- causing the jaw to drop open. Conscious people cannot relax their jaw very far, but a corpse's jaw will drop practically down onto the chest. A scarf or kerchief was usually tied aboud the head to prevent this from happening.

This is exactly what happens to Marley: He removes his kerchief, and proves that he is a corpse by the way his jaw falls down onto his chest.


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