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A Christmas Carol | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol | Symbols


Tiny Tim

When the reader is first introduced to Tiny Tim, he is being carried on his father's shoulders because he is too disabled to walk. He lives in a constant state of suffering, yet he is optimistic and kind, even hoping that his disability will serve to bring people closer to God as they remember, "who made lame beggars walk and blind men see." Tiny Tim, even more than his father, is a symbol for the sympathetic poor, who hobbled through life using crutches (a representation of workhouses and Poor Laws) to survive. Even his limbs are "supported by an iron frame." What Tiny Tim and the Victorian poor actually need, however, is interest from wealthy benefactors who could single-handedly change their lives. Dickens believed personal relationships with rich individuals were the best way to lift the poor out of the trenches, so it is through this type of personal charity that Tiny Tim is saved.

Marley's Chain

When Jacob Marley appears in Scrooge's home, he's dragging a heavy chain made of "cashboxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." These items clearly suggest that the heavy chain was created by and signifies Marley's greed. Like Scrooge, Marley valued money over humanity and as a result is doomed to wander the afterlife dragging his greed along with him. Scrooge won't be carrying the chain simply because he loves money. He will be punished for loving money more than he loved the needy. As Marley says, "I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it," meaning that he built the chain freely, through his own choice to turn his eyes away from the needy to focus solely on his money. The weight of Marley's (and Scrooge's) chain also suggests a heaviness of heart. Scrooge is lonely and depressed, trudging through life as if he's carrying a heavy burden. When he is redeemed at the end of the story, however, the chain is lifted and he shouts that he feels "light as a feather."

Ignorance and Want

After the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the effects of his greedy behavior on Fred and the Cratchits, he lifts his robe, revealing two filthy, starving children beneath. Ignorance, the willful refusal to know, symbolizes how wealthy members in society ignore the obvious plight of those around them. For example, when the charity collector asks Scrooge what the poor should do without donations, Scrooge sputters, "I don't know ... it's not my business." In that moment, Scrooge chooses to ignore the plight of the poor or offer a solution. He chooses to be ignorant.

Want is a more straightforward symbol for poverty. The poor lack many things, especially at the holidays. The spirit warns Scrooge to "Beware them both, and all of their degree." When Scrooge embraces Ignorance and ignores Want, he perpetuates society's problem and adds more weight to his chain.

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