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Symbols in A Christmas Carol
Because of the story’s allegorical nature, many characters and events are symbolic:
Marley’s Chains: The chains that Scrooge’s deceased partner wear are important because of their material. Whereas normal chains are forged from metal, Marley’s are constructed from what he valued in life—versions of material wealth. Dickens uses this image to suggest that actions in life may have inescapable consequences even in death.
The Ghost of Christmas Past: The first ghost to visit Scrooge symbolizes the experiences and memories that have made him into the callous person he is today. The spirit’s glowing head suggests the location of the memories Scrooge holds.
The Ghost of Christmas Present: The second apparition brings with him visions of feasts and a transformed room in Scrooge’s house, which contrasts Scrooge’s cold home with the abundance of other families. Though the others do not have material wealth, they are rich in happiness and familial warmth. The ghost also carries a scabbard but no sword, symbolizing lasting peace.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: The final spirit, silent and clothed in black, symbolizes the uncertainty and fear of the future. The presence is mysterious and without identifiable features, showing that the future is not yet set.
Scrooge’s Gravestone: Shown to him by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the gravestone symbolizes Scrooge’s potential fate if he does not change: a lonely death, inconsequential to those who know him.
Ignorance and Want: These two children, who cling to The Ghost of Christmas Present, represent the rich and the poor’s struggles. While the poor are weighed down by Want, it is clear that Ignorance is the more dangerous of the two—and that Ignorance is Scrooge’s vice, since he has not bothered to learn more about his employees’ conditions.
Turkey: A changed man, Scrooge purchases a large turkey to provide for the Cratchits. Scrooge’s purchase symbolizes his transformation from stingy to generous, illustrating his renewed commitment to Christmas’s values.
Symbols Examples in A Christmas Carol:
"It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel...." See in text (Stave One)
Notice what makes up Marley’s chain; it is not typical metal, but instead symbolically comprised of what Marley valued in life. Now, in the afterlife, his material assets trap and bind him. This serves as a warning to Scrooge, suggesting a potential fate for the greedy man.
"but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light..." See in text (Stave Two)
The light shining from the Ghost of Christmas Past symbolically represents all of Scrooge's memories. These memories pain him so much that he tries to rid himself of them. He struggles to hide the light (repress his memories) but is unable to do so, as they shine through the extinguisher-cap in full force. This symbol supports the theme of the importance of memory and its ability to cause change.
"a great extinguisher for a cap..." See in text (Stave Two)
The first ghost’s head casts a bright light, making visible those things that might not otherwise be seen. However, note that the ghost carries a cap that can act as an “extinguisher” for the light. The ghost holds the power to decide what is seen and unseen, shedding light on something or keeping it hidden. Light becomes a way of forcing Scrooge to face his own reality and the reality of those less fortunate that he has ignored. It will continue be used throughout the story as a symbol for his growth and development.
"but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased...." See in text (Stave Three)
The children, clinging to the Ghost of Christmas Present, represent two concepts that man must be cautioned against. Though both are dangerous, Scrooge’s personal downfall will come from ignorance rather than want since he already has all the material things he desires. It is heartening, however, that the doom foretold on the boy’s forehead can be erased, foreshadowing Scrooge’s choice between change and stasis.
"antique scabbard; but no sword was in it..." See in text (Stave Three)
Note that the second ghost carries a torch that resembles “Plenty’s horn,” or the cornucopia, therefore symbolizing abundance. Consider also, that the ghost carries an old, rusty scabbard with no sword in it, suggesting a lack of use for a long time. The scabbard, then, serves as a symbol for peace, making the second ghost symbolize both abundance and peace.
"read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE...." See in text (Stave Four)
The gravestone is a symbol of Scrooge’s eventual fate if he does not change his ways. His neglected grave shows that no one cares about his death, as there is no one to tend to his grave. Despite all his material attachments, they are worth very little in death.
"“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?” said Scrooge...." See in text (Stave Four)
Note that the third and final ghost “seem[s] to scatter gloom and mystery.” As the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, it is no wonder that it is mysterious, as we do not know what the future holds. The fact that the ghost is “shrouded in a deep black garment” only adds to this mystery since its identity is completely unknown. If we also note the ghost’s resemblance to Death, or the Grim Reaper, it can be seen as a symbol of both the fear of uncertainty and the fear of death.
"Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”..." See in text (Stave Five)
Scrooge’s willingness to buy not just any turkey but the largest one is a symbol of just how much he has changed. While any gift of food would be helpful to the Cratchits, Scrooge goes above and beyond what is simply adequate, showing a depth of apparent and profound generosity.
"It's a wonderful knocker..." See in text (Stave Five)
Recall that Scrooge first encountered Marley's ghost when he saw Marley's face in the knocker. The knocker still reminds Scrooge of Marley, but while initially this left Scrooge feeling terrified, he now views the knocker as being "wonderful." The knocker has become a symbol of the happiness that Marley gave Scrooge the opportunity to achieve.