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 is the actual definition of "stave" in the novel A Christmas Carol?

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A stave is a chapter in A Christmas Carol.

If you look at the title of the book, you can see the significance of the chapters being called "staves."  Dickens is acting as if the book is a Christmas carol, and each chapter is part of the song.  Stave is another word for “staff.”  In music, a staff is how music is written.  It is the lines on which the notes are displayed.

Dickens could have just named his chapters as chapters, but what would be the fun of that?  By calling the chapters staves, Dickens reinforces the idea that the book is a song.  Songs are short, as this book is, and at the holidays carols often have deeper meanings.

The metaphor continues with Dickens’s use of other imagery.  You will notice as you read the book that Dickens is very descriptive, and loves to use similes, metaphors, and symbolism throughout the book.  Even Dickens’s note to the reader contains a metaphor.

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. (Note)

When Dickens says the book will “haunt” his readers’ houses, that is a metaphor for people bringing the book into their homes and making it a part of their holiday celebration.  Just look at the description of Scrooge, which is full of figurative language.

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. (Stave 1)

Scrooge is described as “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone” even though he was a banker and did not use a grindstone.  This metaphor is coordinated with several similes, including “sharp as flint” and “solitary as an oyster.”  These descriptions add to the poetry of the book and reinforce the idea that it is like a song.

Dickens wanted to create a book that would help people celebrate the holidays, but would also be meaningful.  The lesson he wanted to teach his readers was that during the holiday time of year, it was their responsibility to look out for the less fortunate.  The book is so powerful that, like a Christmas carol, it is still loved by many around the world over a hundred years later.

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