Symbolism In A Christmas Carol

What are five symbols that appear in A Christmas Carol?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Charles Dickens uses symbolism to amplify the message of kindness in A Christmas Carol. Set during the Christmas season, which is itself a symbol-laden holiday, the story reminds us at the outset that Christmas

is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

These capitalized abstractions, like the ghosts who visit Scrooge, take on the kind of symbolism one expects to find in an allegory.

Speaking of ghosts, each bear the symbolic quality of the abstractions best suited to them. Marley comes wrapped in a chain

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. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind. Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

Dickens playfully literalizes Marley's character. Like Scrooge, Marley cared for money and the bookkeeping that enabled his wealth. Having no bowels is idiomatic for lacking compassion, and the chain is symbolic of the choices he made while alive:

“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.”

Like a Dante allegorical contrapasso, Dickens is turning the inner character outside here and visualizing the moral deficiency in which Marley lived.

Ghosts of past, present, and future are equally symbolic. The Past is described as

a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man . . . . Its hair . . . was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. . . . It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible

The flickering light and promise this Ghost of Christmas Past suggests is the hope and opportunity Scrooge squandered by caring more for wealth than people.

The Ghost of Christmas Present suggests abundance and hospitality, which Scrooge shunned earlier in rejecting his nephew's invitation to Christmas dinner and the request for charitable donations to the poor. This ghost comes

clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. . . . Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.

Like the prior ghost, this ghost is decked in green and boughs of holly. Green is symbolic of hope and fecundity, and holly takes part in that symbolism while adding the Christian association of a crown of thorns marked by eternal green (symbolizing hope and life) and red (symbolizing martyrdom or Christ's sacrifice). Holly is a natural symbol of promise for those who believe.

The Ghost of the Future, on the other hand, is shrouded in black silence. To Scrooge, his inscrutable features are more terrifying that the others, for he senses in this silent ghost the darkness of his own future. This ghost also shows him a future in which Tiny Tim, a child hampered by illness and poverty, dies.

Throughout the story, Dickens adds additional symbolic touches. For instance, while more a motif than a symbol, the quality of walking is repeatedly used to indicate a moral quality. Scrooge walks alone, for instance, and even dogs shun sharing the sidewalk with him. The poor who are punished in the poor house are forced to walk in circles on the Treadmill, a cruel and exhausting punishment for those who could not pay their bills. Marley's ghost tells him,

It is required of every man . . . that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!

Like Scrooge, the reader is meant to see the many symbolic elements and to see through what seems like aspects of realism in Dickens's depiction of London life.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Bob Cratchit's severely disabled son, Tiny Tim, is a very important symbol in the story. He represents the general condition of the poor and downtrodden in the Britain of Dickens's day.

Dickens plays on his readers' heartstrings in his sentimental portrayal of Tiny Tim in order to make them more understanding of the condition of those less fortunate than themselves. At the time when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, most people in society, if they were being honest with themselves, shared Scrooge's belief that poverty was largely a consequence of fecklessness and immorality. In other words, they believed that the poor only had themselves to blame for their condition.

In the figure of Tiny Tim, we can see a conscious attempt on Dickens's part to challenge such a heartless notion. Far from being feckless or idle, Tiny Tim's father is incredibly hardworking. But because he's chronically underpaid by his mean old skinflint of a boss, he's unable to provide adequately for his family.

When Scrooge finally sees the error of his miserly ways and gives Bob Cratchit a hefty pay rise, we can observe another symbol in operation. As with the huge turkey that Scrooge buys for the Cratchits, the pay rise he gives to the head of the household symbolizes Scrooge's remarkable transformation from a thoroughly nasty old miser to a kind, benevolent man full of the milk of human kindness.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Symbols are widely used throughout A Christmas Carol. Below are some that you can find in the text:

  1. Scrooge's home in stave one is dark, cold, and unwelcoming. Therefore, it represents the social isolation which he craves and acts as his sanctuary from the rest of the world.
  2. Marley's chains also appear in stave one, and they function as a reminder that our actions have consequences. As Marley comments, he made the chain around his neck by being selfish and greedy throughout his life ("I made it link by link, and yard by yard"). As such, Dickens uses the chains as a warning to the reader that one cannot escape the consequences of such behavior.
  3. The children "Ignorance" and "Want" appear in the third stave and not only represent the plight of Victorian children (and the poor, more generally) but also the dangers of social neglect. By creating these children, Dickens reminds us to be inclusive as a society and to care for those who are in need of help. 
  4. Scrooge's gravestone in the fourth stave is symbolic of his heartless and miserly ways. Notice that it is described as "neglected." Scrooge has nobody to tend to it because he did not foster good relationships when he has alive.
  5. The turkey which Scrooge buys in the final stave is symbolic of the reformation of his character. The fact that Scrooge buys the biggest one is evident of the strength of his change: he is totally reformed and ready to live a good and selfless life.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Here are few symbols in A Chirstmas Carol.

1. The three ghosts are very symbolic; they represent Scrooge's life in the past, present, and the future.

2. The light from the Ghost of Christmas Past is very symbolic of the truth, and the truth it reveals is that Scrooge's past Christmases were mostly filled with loneliness.

3. The Ghost of Christmas Present symbolizes all the joy and generosity of Christmas which is very evident by the mound of food it is sitting on when Scrooge meets him, and by the torch it bears which bestows blessings upon poor meals the most.

4. The chain around Marley's waist is symbolic of his greed and misplaced values in life, as well as his penance.

5. The hearth in the Cratchit's home as well as "fire" which is prevalent throughout the entire Carol are strong symbols. The hearth symbolizes love and family, and the fire represents hope, human compassion, and the Christmas spirit

6. Scrooge is a symbol of the Victorian aristocracy who viewed the poor as a scourge upon the earth and thought the world would better if they died, as Scrooge alludes to in the Carol.

A Christmas Carol is full of symbols, and these are but a few of them. By the way, recognizing symbols is part of the enjoyment of reading, so have some fun by looking for some of your own.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial