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Literary Devices in A Christmas Carol

Allegory: An allegorical story is one that teaches a moral lesson, often using characters as symbols. Typically the meanings of such stories are straightforward and fixed in order to make their lessons as clear as possible. In A Christmas Carol, main character Scrooge is representative of the selfish, uncaring aristocratic upper class, who have no idea what the average experience of the English poor is like. Dickens employs Scrooge’s character change to elicit similar transformation in the wealthy, attempting to spur them into becoming kinder, more generous citizens.

Furthermore, Fred represents an ideal member of the middle class, who takes notice of his employees’ plights and treats them warmly in accordance to the spirit of Christmas; he is a model employer. Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, as representatives of the lower-class poor, are hardworking, optimistic, and worthy of readers’ pity. Their sympathetic portrayal is important because they are the people Dickens wishes to help most with his story by showing that they are necessarily worthy of assistance.

Frame Story: A frame story is a literary technique in which a part of a narrative is introduced at the beginning of a text and then finished at its end, with at least one other narrative occurring in between the story’s two halves. A Christmas Carol establishes Scrooge’s character in its first stave and shows his dramatic personality shift in the final stave. For Scrooge’s transformation to occur and have meaning, it is necessary to explore several brief stories of his past, present, and future lives in order to set up this change.

Literary Devices Examples in A Christmas Carol:

Stave One

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" bones are gnawed by dogs..."   (Stave One)

Dickens commonly personifies the weather throughout his writing. Here, the cold is shown to be a cruel, brutal force which eats away at the people outside. Readers feel increased sympathy for the poor, as they lack sufficient shelter or clothing for these harsh conditions.

"whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first...."   (Stave One)

The expression Dickens is hinting at here is “see you in Hell.” As such, Scrooge’s retort is a rather comical one—while Fred is bidding him to come see him at Christmas, Scrooge states that he will see him in “that extremity” (Hell) first. This hyperbolic statement underlines Scrooge’s dramatic refusal to join his nephew’s family for Christmas celebrations, and again shows Scrooge choosing isolation over togetherness, loneliness over family.

"Marley's Ghost..."   (Stave One)

A “carol” is a religious hymn that is typically joyous and often associated with Christmas tales advocating charity and kindness. A “stave,” also known as a “staff,” is a group of five horizontal lines on which musical notes are written. A Christmas Carol is an allegorical story (a story with a moral lesson) and Dickens cleverly calls the five chapters “staves” as a means of creating an extended metaphor for his novel.

"You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail..."   (Stave One)

Dickens uses an omniscient narrator and often speaks directly to the reader, as in this case.

"No more work to-night. Christmas Eve, Dick. Christmas, Ebenezer!..."   (Stave Two)

With these first words, Fezziwig reveals more about his character to us. Since he tells his employees to stop working on Christmas Eve, this puts him in contrast with Scrooge, who had his clerk work that day instead. This is an example of indirect characterization, in which we can infer character traits from what it said and shown rather than being told directly by the narrator.

"and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice..."   (Stave Two)

One of the first things we learn about Mr. Fezziwig is that he has “a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice.” This is an example of a literary device known as direct characterization, in which Dickens quickly tells readers the qualities that bring Fezziwig’s personality to life.

"as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow..."   (Stave Two)

The narrator addresses the reader directly here, insinuating that the narrator’s spirit stands right beside the reader much like the first ghost stands beside Scrooge. Dickens thus suggests that the reader can learn from Scrooge’s story just as much as Scrooge can, directly setting the tale up to be allegorical.

"The quarter was so long..."   (Stave Two)

The passage of time has become irregular and unpredictable for Scrooge. Dickens manipulates time here to illustrate the intensity of Scrooge’s anxieties and fears about the ghosts. Scrooge anxiously awaits the first spirit’s arrival partially due to fear, but also due to the fact that he now has a limited amount of time to change his fate.

"Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit,..."   (Stave Three)

Notice that the Ghost of Christmas Present quotes Scrooge’s statement from the First Stave that if the poor would rather die than go to workhouses, it would only “decrease the surplus population.” Prompting us to evaluate these words in relation to Tiny Tim, Dickens puts a human face on the plight of London’s poor and uses Scrooge’s own words to show his growth.

"“There are some upon this earth of ours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name,..."   (Stave Three)

What Dickens points out here is the hypocrisy of those who preach generosity, kindness, and “Christmas spirit,” but do not actually practice what they preach. Scrooge may be guilty of being greedy, grumpy, and uncharitable, but not every person who preaches “good cheer” is automatically righteous, selfless, and kind.

"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 a rhinoceros would have astonished him very much..."   (Stave Three)

The narrator often interrupts the story to speak directly to the reader, as he does here. Sometimes his comments express social criticism, sometimes they are satirical, and sometimes they are just funny. The narrator's sense of humor is evident here in the way he juxtaposes the image of a baby with that of a rhinoceros. The contrast is so silly that it's amusing.

"skrieks..."   (Stave Four)

This word seems to be an instance of onomatopoeia invented by Dickens. The rusty door evidently makes some unpleasant, high-pitched noises when moved. It may also be a portmanteau—the combination of two words to create a blended meaning of both—of verbs “shriek” and “screech.”

"the city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act...."   (Stave Four)

Notice how Scrooge seems to have little agency in this description of the city, which surrounds him and directs its actions. Scrooge will be a passive observer in this journey with the ghost, emphasizing that the events he will witness are what will happen if he carries on the path he’s already chosen for himself.

"Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death..."   (Stave Four)

Note that the narrator speaks to “Death” in this sentence. This is an example of a literary device called “apostrophe” in which the speaker addresses a person, object, or force of nature that is not present. Since the novel uses a third person limited narrative point of view, Dickens’s use of apostrophe allows deeper insight into Scrooge’s emotional state, without using a direct statement from Scrooge.

"Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God..."   (Stave Four)

Dickens's writing style was often noted, and sometimes criticized, for being very sentimental. This passage is an example of the diction which generated the attention of those who reviewed his work.

"He was at home in five minutes...."   (Stave Five)

Both Scrooge and the reader may be wondering whether or not Fred will welcome Scrooge into his home despite Scrooge’s cold manner over the years. However, Fred and his family welcome Scrooge with open arms and immediately make him feel at home. Their willingness to forgive Scrooge for his actions in the past aligns with the ideals of the Christian faith, and the family becomes a symbol of the real meaning of Christmas spirit.

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