In literature, symbolism is the use of symbols within a piece of writing to represent themes or deeper meanings within that work. Charles Dickens uses symbolism in A Christmas Carol to highlight some of the themes within the novella. These are some of the most obvious symbols that Dickens uses within the work.
In Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens uses the imagery of supernatural chains as a metaphor for mental imprisonment and torture in the afterlife. Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former business partner who died seven years ago on the same day (Christmas Eve). Scrooge observes that Marley is wrapped in a chain that was long, and wound about him like a tail. The chain is made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel, items used to hold or record wealth. Marley explains that during his life on Earth, he created his chain by his own actions, telling him, I wear the chain I forged in life. He warns Scrooge that it is required of every man, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. Scrooge is told that he has made for himself an even longer chain that he will wear in death, Marley warning him that his own chain was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!. Marley’s ghost serves to make Scrooge fearful of afterlife and that his accumulated wealth will become a burden if it is not liberated by sharing amongst those less fortunate. As Marley leaves, Scrooge became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. Looking out of the window he sees the air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went … every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost, some linked together and some who Scrooge recognises from when they were alive. Dickens uses the symbolism of chains to warn Scrooge, and the readers, that the things you prioritise in life will be shackled to you for eternity.
Death: Ebenezer Scrooge.
In Stave 4 of A Christmas Carol the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come reveals to Ebenezer Scrooge a vision of the body of a man plundered and bereft, unmatched, unwept, uncared for. His possessions are robbed because no one is there to care for his dead body. Even the bed curtains, sheets and clothes are taken from around his lying body. In an impoverished part of the city, people are profiting from his death, selling items they have stolen. Who’s the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose says a laundress who is selling items that belonged to Scrooge whilst a charwoman comments that he frightened every one away from him when he was alive, to profit us when he was dead! It is not just criminals that do not mourn his passing. We may sleep tonight with light hearts says a husband to his wife, both owing money to Scrooge but unhappy with his collection methods. A group of fellow businessmen have no sympathy for his passing. Old Scratch has got his own at last comments one. It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral, another jokes, for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it, although one, in his own meanness, might be persuaded to attend for free food, saying I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided. Even after death, Scrooge’s legacy is one of remaining alone and uncared for, his grave unattended to in a neglected churchyard. Later in the Stave, Scrooge realises this vision of death is that of his own after he reads upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name. He is frightened into asking for help, falling down in front of the Ghost, begging it to assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! In this climax of the novella, the visions of his own death are a final wakening call that prompts Scrooge to seek redemption, telling the Ghost that I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.
Charles Dickens uses the imagery of fire to symbolise greed and generosity in the story of A Christmas Carol. Fuel was an expensive commodity for many at the time the novella was written so the amount burnt, reflected by the size of a fire, reflected the generosity of a character. The image of small fires at the start of the story reflects the mean-spirited characteristic of Ebenezer Scrooge, who keeps a very small fire at his place of work, and for his clerk Bob Cratchit‘s he was even meaner as his fire resembled a lump of coal despite it being a bitterly cold Christmas Eve. Scrooge keeps the fuel in his own room, frightening Cratchit into wearing extra clothing and trying to warm himself by a candle. When he gets home, Scrooge would rather save money and live in discomfort, keeping a very low fire for himself, described as nothing on such a bitter night to which he is forced to lean over just to extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel. By contrast, scenes of happiness and generosity are represented by large fires, such as that of a party in a scene from the past held by Fezziwig, where fuel was heaped upon the fire, so much so that the generous host had a positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves which shone like moons. In the present, Scrooge witnesses scenes of fires at Christmas time that bring happiness, many associated with the theme of eating food at this festive time, such as the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful and the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cosy dinner, He sees scenes associated with the coming together of family at this time of year, such as that of a miner and his family who are a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. Through Scrooge’s transformation in this allegorical tale, we also see his attitude to using fuel change. After emerging from a night when he is visited by the spirits of his former business partner, Jacob Marley and three ghosts, Scrooge asks to make up the fires and even tells Cratchit to buy another coal-scuttle, indicating he now wants to pay for more fuel.
Food is used within A Christmas Carol to highlight individual characteristics and complement some of the themes that run through the story, such as Christmas and the importance of family. At the start of the novella, imagery of food is used to show characteristics of the protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge as a closed, self-isolated character when he is described as being as solitary as an oyster. On Christmas Day morning, Scrooge is shown city streets full of delicious food prepared for the festive period. Charles Dickens pays detailed attention to describing some of the food and often adds humour to the depictions, almost giving them their own personality such as great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, and ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars. We read of the Cratchit family sitting down to a small roast goose dinner on Christmas Day. Goose was a cheaper meat than Turkey, reflecting the poverty of the family. The meat is eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, reflecting the Cratchit’s making do with cheap accompaniments. Poor households did not have their own ovens so the goose is cooked in the ovens of a local baker and a clothes-washing pot is used to cook the small pudding for a large family, causing the cloth to have a smell like a washing-day! Bob Cratchit makes a festive punch-type drink of a hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, gin being a cheap alcoholic ingredient to add. Despite the meagre meal the dinner at the Cratchit’s shows the Christmas tradition of bringing the family together and the emotional warmth within the household. After he is visited by the spirits of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and three ghosts, we see Scrooge, a changed man, purchasing a large turkey for the Cratchits, symbolising his transformation from miserly to a generous character.
Weather is used as a motif in A Christmas Carol to represent the transformation in Scrooge’s character. As we are introduced to Scrooge the weather is cold, bleak, biting with a heavy fog that permeates at every chink and keyhole. This bleak weather reflects the coldness of Scrooge’s character whilst the fog is symbolic of masking what he cannot see, namely that he is ignorant to the plight of those less fortunate around him. After Scrooge harshly dismisses two charity collectors the fog and darkness thickened and the cold became intense. Even the spirit of the weather appears when we learn the fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold. Towards the end of the story, when Scrooge has resolved to be a changed man, he looks out and, although it remains a cold winter’s day, the weather has also turned, with no fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air.