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.