A Christmas Carol Questions and Answers
by Charles Dickens

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In "A Christmas Carol," Marley's chains are an important symbol in the story. What are they made of? What is hanging from them? What might these things symbolize?

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Marley's chain is symbolic of his guilt as well.  He says that he forged it during his life, of his own free will.  He is guilty, indeed, of heavy sins against his fellows, sins that he chose to commit, and guilt that he chose to accrue.  In fact, we see this symbolism in the ghosts that Scrooge sees outside the window, too.  The narrator says that 

Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.  Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives.  He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.  The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

All of these individuals are guilty as well, guilty—apparently—of failing to help their fellow human beings while they were alive, and now their chains symbolize that guilt.  Marley's chains contain ledgers and cash boxes, indicating the specific ways in which he is guilty of failing humanity; likewise, the ghost here has a chain containing a huge iron safe, which probably indicates that he failed his fellows by hoarding his money rather than helping those in need (like Scrooge, which explains why Scrooge recognizes him).  Since these ghosts are all miserable because they cannot now help the living, it is reasonable to infer that this is what causes their guilt: their failure to help their fellows when they had the chance.  This is why Scrooge's chain would be so much longer and heavier than Marley's; he's had seven more years of denying people help, and seven more years of guilt for it.

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Thomas Mccord eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the first stave (or chapter) of A Christmas Carol, we meet Marley, Scrooge's deceased business partner, who is encased in heavy chains. These chains are made of steel and are weighed down with "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses."

Further on, we learn why Marley is forced to wear this chain in the afterlife:

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it." 

This chain, then, is symbolic of Marley's business affairs and his pursuit of wealth when he was alive. Like Scrooge, he focused on enriching himself instead of caring about the plight of others. As a result, he is forced to wear this chain in the afterlife to remind him of his neglect of others and to encourage redemption. This has clearly worked: Marley's conversation with Scrooge shows how his character has transformed.

The chains are also symbolic of Marley's attempt to reform Scrooge's character. It is interesting to note, for example, that Marley clanks his chains every time that Scrooge says something negative or reminds him of his previous misdeeds. For instance, when Scrooge mentions that Marley was always a good man of business, he shakes his chains in response. In this respect, the chains symbolise the beginning of Scrooge's transformation and the heavy price he will pay should he fail to see the errors of his ways.  

 

 

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