Death's Dominion

"Death's Dominion," vignette for "Stave 4. The Last of the Three Spirits" by Sol Eytinge, Jr., 7.1 cm high by 9.2 cm wide. The fourth vignette for the Diamond Edition of Dickens's A Christmas Carol in Prose: being a ghost story of Christmas (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1869), top, page 84. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

The scene in what is actually Ebenezer Scrooge's bedroom, devoid of curtains on either the bed or the window, indicates that the room's occupant, still lying under a sheet, has died friendless, untended, and alone. Dickens emphasizes the deep darkness of the room to explain why Scrooge fails to recognize the bedroom as his own, but Eytinge has not rendered the room as dark. Furthermore, to fit the bed into the illustration, Eytinge has had to make the bed unusually narrow, even coffin-like; however, this foreshortening is not particularly troublesome for the viewer, whose eye Eytinge directs well forward,towards the obscure, dark, faceless, mute spirit of the future and his charge. Scrooge, having achieved a certain degree of enlightenment about his own moral condition from the two previous spirits, ironically postulates that the capitalist whose death is the subject of general conversation on the London Exchange and that the dead man whose apartments Mrs. Dilber and laundrywoman have plundered has much in common with himself:

"My life tends that way, now. Merciful Heaven, what is this!"

He recoiled in terror, for the scene had changed, and now he almost touched a bed: a bare, uncurtained bed: on which, beneath a ragged sheet, there lay something covered up, which, though it was dumb, announced itself in awful language.

The room was very dark, too dark to be observed with any accuracy, though Scrooge glanced round it in obedience to a secret impulse, anxious to know what kind of room it was. A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon the bed; and on it, plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this man.

Scrooge glanced towards the Phantom. Its steady hand was pointed to the head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest raising of it, the motion of a finger upon Scrooge's part, would have disclosed the face. He thought of it, felt how easy it would be to do, and longed to do it; but had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at his side.

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! ["Stave Four, The Last of the Three Spirits"]

While the past and present subjects in the previous vignettes have been relatively light-hearted and realistic (Scrooge at the door of his office block; young Scrooge left alone in the schoolroom; and Bob Cratchit's carrying Tiny Tim home from church), the more metaphysical "Death's Dominion" is grim in subject and singularly lacking in ornamental details. The viewer is not charmed, beguiled, or even engaged by what he or she sees. Given the biblical nature of Dickens's prose, the solemnity of the text proved a challenge for the illustrator, since it is not the visual element in the scene but rather the verbal, what Scrooge observes of himself and allocutes, that is the focus of Dickens's funereal sermon. Eytinge cannot cope with the ambiguity of the initial darkness of the room, the "pale light, rising in the outer air," and the extended homily that Scrooge pronounces in his head. The sounds of a cat "tearing at the door" and of "gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone" likewise defy the visual medium. And yet Eytinge might have depicted the Spirit of Yet To Come pointing at the head of the corpse, as he does throughout the scene: "Still the Ghost pointed with an unmoved finger to the head." More significantly, the illustrator fails to communicate Scrooge's overwhelming curiosity about the dead man's identity, or Scrooge's absolute dread of what he will discover if he removes the ragged sheet to reveal the corpse's face.

Reference

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol in Prose: being a ghost story of Christmas, il. Sol Eytinge, Junior. The Diamond Edition. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1869.

Hearne, Michael Patrick, ed. The Annotated Christmas Carol. New York: Avenel, 1989.


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Last modified 1 January 2011