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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In A Christmas Carol, what are Marley's chains made of and what might they symbolize?

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In "A Christmas Carol", Marley's chains are made of steel, weighed down with items such as cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses. They symbolize his guilt and the sins he committed during his life, specifically his fixation on wealth and neglect of his fellow human beings. The chains also signify the heavy price of ignoring the needs of others, serving as a reminder and a warning to Scrooge about the consequences of his actions.

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Marley's chain is symbolic of his guilt as well.  He says that he forged it during his life, of his own free will.  He is guilty, indeed, of heavy sins against his fellows, sins that he chose to commit, and guilt that he chose to accrue.  In fact, we see this symbolism in the ghosts that Scrooge sees outside the window, too.  The narrator says that 

Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.  Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives.  He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.  The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

All of these individuals are guilty as well, guilty—apparently—of failing to help their fellow human beings while they were alive, and now their chains symbolize that guilt.  Marley's chains contain ledgers and cash boxes, indicating the specific ways in which he is guilty of failing humanity; likewise, the ghost here has a chain containing a huge iron safe, which probably indicates that he failed his fellows by hoarding his money rather than helping those in need (like Scrooge, which explains why Scrooge recognizes him).  Since these ghosts are all miserable because they cannot now help the living, it is reasonable to infer that this is what causes their guilt: their failure to help their fellows when they had the chance.  This is why Scrooge's chain would be so much longer and heavier than Marley's; he's had seven more years of denying people help, and seven more years of guilt for it.

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In the first stave (or chapter) of A Christmas Carol, we meet Marley, Scrooge's deceased business partner, who is encased in heavy chains. These chains are made of steel and are weighed down with "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses."

Further on, we learn why Marley is forced to wear this chain in the afterlife:

"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." 

This chain, then, is symbolic of Marley's business affairs and his pursuit of wealth when he was alive. Like Scrooge, he focused on enriching himself instead of caring about the plight of others. As a result, he is forced to wear this chain in the afterlife to remind him of his neglect of others and to encourage redemption. This has clearly worked: Marley's conversation with Scrooge shows how his character has transformed.

The chains are also symbolic of Marley's attempt to reform Scrooge's character. It is interesting to note, for example, that Marley clanks his chains every time that Scrooge says something negative or reminds him of his previous misdeeds. For instance, when Scrooge mentions that Marley was always a good man of business, he shakes his chains in response. In this respect, the chains symbolise the beginning of Scrooge's transformation and the heavy price he will pay should he fail to see the errors of his ways.  

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Jacob Marley, like his former business partner Scrooge, was exceptionally good at his job. He was an astute businessman with a keen eye for making a profit. Unfortunately, business took over his life to such an extent that he became positively obsessed with making money. For Marley, as for Scrooge, nothing mattered but the bottom line.

As Marley never truly repented for being so greedy and grasping—though on his deathbed he did try to warn Scrooge to change his ways—his ghost has been forced to wander round for all eternity, weighed down with chains consisting of cash-boxes, keys, and heavy purses. All of these items symbolize money, which for Marley was the most important—indeed, the only important—thing in his life.

While he was alive, Marley's soul was weighed down by his obsession with making money. And now that he's dead his unquiet ghost is literally weighed down by the symbols of his earthly obsession. Scrooge needs to take a hint. Just one look at Marley's ghost should tell him that unless he stops being such a greedy old miser then he'll end up the exact same way as his former business partner. Unfortunately, it doesn't, and it will take the visits of three more ghosts to convince Scrooge that he needs to change his ways.

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