illustration of Ebenezer Scrooge in silhouette walking toward a Christmas tree and followed by the three ghosts

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens
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What effect do these adjectives from A Christmas Carol have on the reader? Scrooge is "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner."

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First, those particular adjectives have fairly negative connotations. They give the reader the impression that Scrooge is desperate in a lot of ways. Take the phrase "grasping at straws," for instance. That's a hopeless image; as is someone who is "scraping the bottom" of something. There is nowhere lower for that person to go.

It might be interesting to discuss these words as they relate to advertising techniques. Two advertising techniques stand out to me. The first is the name calling technique: an effective way to get somebody to admire your product is to insult the competition. If readers are meant to view Cratchit as positive, then it makes sense to insult his "competition." The other advertising technique that comes to mind is something called "card stacking." Card stacking occurs when an advertiser expounds benefit after benefit about a product. In general, card stacking uses positive associations, but there is no reason a writer can't stack the deck against someone or something else by heaping on negatives. Dickens makes sure that readers know there isn't much positive to say about Scrooge, because negative after negative is stacked in association with him.

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Straight away, we are left in no doubt as to Scrooge's true nature. This unpleasant but extraordinarily vivid litany exerts a kind of drip-drip effect upon the reader, burying its way deep into the imagination. The words are particularly effective when read out loud. (Try it yourself.) Dickens would often stage elaborate public performances at which he would act out scenes from his novels. He would lovingly declaim each word with the skill of a trained actor, making his stories come to life like never before. We can well imagine the ill-disguised relish with which he would deliver this particular extract from A Christmas Carol.

The adjectives Dickens uses are trochaic, their emphasis on the first syllable. This creates a kind of stabbing rhythm; it is as if Scrooge is being condemned by a hanging judge in a court of law. There is an element of foreshadowing here, hinting at the damning judgments that the Spirits will pass upon Scrooge when they come to pay him a visit.

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By putting this list adjectives describing Scrooge so close to the beginning of the story, Dickens establishes our impression early on of Scrooge as a distinctly unpleasant man. As for particular techniques Dickens uses, the first relies on the sounds of the words—all have a guttural, grinding quality. These are words you can hear and feel—harsh words. As such they convey a physical sensation of what Scrooge's hard soul is like. Second, they symbolize the rough, scraping, heavy chain that we will soon find out that Scrooge has been forging all these years, just as Marley did, through his behaviors of grasping and clutching at money. 

We can also see that this pile up of adjectives reflects the metallic piling up of money that Scrooge has amassed over the years. Further, by putting this list of adjectives in the context of the paragraph in which they appear, we perceive Dickens' use of another technique: alliteration, or using the same first consonant repeatedly in the same line or lines:

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

In this larger context, we read the alliteration in grindstone and grasping, and in Scrooge, squeezing, scraping, sinner, steel, struck, secret and self-contained.

All of these words have a relentlessly harsh or hissing effect, which leads the reader to understand Scrooge as a hard-hearted man through and through.

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