A Christmas Carol Questions and Answers
by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol book cover
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How does Dickens use tone to describe the main character and create atmosphere in the beginning of "A Christmas Carol"?

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Dickens uses a lot of figurative language to describe Ebenezer Scrooge very harshly.  He also carefully establishes the dark yet hopeful mood of the story.

Tone is the author’s attitude toward the subject.  The description of Scrooge is not sympathetic at all.  Scrooge is described in detail, with very harsh and caustic language that drips of imagery.

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! (stave 1)

Dickens also uses figurative language and other heavily descriptive language to describe Scrooge.

Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. (stave 1)

Scrooge is not physically attractive, and he does not have a good personality.  Everything about him is hard and cold.  Scrooge says that the “cold within him froze his old features.”  The excessively descriptive and figurative style really helps the reader picture Scrooge, because a complete understanding of Scrooge’s character and personality is just as important to the story as understanding that “MARLEY WAS DEAD: to begin with.”

Tone is also used to establish a unique setting that is alternately dreary and uplifting.  The weather is mentioned many times.  It is Christmas Eve, and December in London was rough in Victorian England.

It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement-stones to warm them. (stave 1)

At the same time, there are some pleasant and playful descriptions of the setting, especially the Christmas festivities.

The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. (stave 1)

These descriptions provide contrast for Scrooge.  While he may be bitter and harsh, the rest of the people are not.  The stores are merry, and people are in a good mood.  Everyone is feeling festive.  Scrooge’s distance from the spirit of Christmas is therefore reinforced.

This description of Scrooge along with the two sides of the season foreshadows the two sides of Scrooge we will see, once he begins his transformation.  Just as the weather is harsh, Scrooge is harsh.  Just as there is joy in the season, there will be joy in Scrooge.

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