What is the role of characterisation in ‘A Christmas Carol’?

“If they would rather die, then they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Ebenezer Scrooge’s words encapsulate how he is characterised as a largely disagreeable, morally vacuous man. Silhouetted against the backdrop of Victorian England, a time period rife with avarice and social stratification, the construction of character in Charles Dickens’ novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ is what gives the tale its allegorical nature. However, it is not only Scrooge’s characterisation which is instrumental to Dickens’ novel, as Jacob Marley also acts as a medium through which Dickens cautions the reader of the deleterious ramifications of leading a uncharitable life. Without doubt, while the Cratchits additionally serve to juxtapose the repugnant nature of the rich against their benevolence, the constructions of the Ghosts of Christmas underscore the how it is important to adhere to tradition in the face of relentless social upheaval.

It is through the characterisation of Scrooge and Marley in Dickens’ tale that the consequences of self-interest are unveiled. Scrooge, being a caricature for the miserly, misanthropic rich man who “no warmth could warm” is the vehicle through which Dickens comments upon the moral vacuousness of the middle and upper classes of Victorian society in their belief that the poor deserved whatever fate befell them. It is in portraying Ebenezer Scrooge, the very embodiment of the self-interested middle class man as a “covetous old sinner” that Dickens insinuates that those who engage in self-interested behaviour are just as despicable as Scrooge himself. As “solitary as an oyster” as he is, the reader is enlightened so as to not be in Scooge’s likeness lest they, too, become isolated to the degree that Scrooge is. It is also through the construction of the spectre of Jacob Marley that Dickens attempts to instil fear in the reader through his lamentation of having “no rest [and] no peace” due to his parsimonious nature in life. Marley, further characterised as being beleaguered with the “incessant torture of remorse”, acts as the vehicle through which Dickens cautions his 19th century readership to be less self-centred, lest they meet the same fate as rich men such as Jacob Marley.

Contrasted against Scrooge and Marley, the Cratchit family ironically embody the warmth and goodwill which those in upper-middle class Victorian England oftentimes lack. Undeniably, the impoverished Cratchit family ironically embody generosity being as “happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time” as they are, even in the face of adversity. Being the very antitheses to Scrooge, the Cratchits are the embodiment of charity, even though they cannot afford to give away anything of substantial monetary value. However, it is in presenting a family in such a disadvantageous position as being some of the most morally upstanding characters in the novella that Dickens alludes not only to how it would be erroneous to assume that one cannot be generous if they are not affluent. Through the characterisation of the Cratchits as being both upstanding and the polar opposites of Scrooge, the reader is cautioned of what they cannot possibly be if they are more interested in themselves than in the matters of others as is the case with Scrooge.

It is not only the characterisation of the Cratchits that drives the plot forward, as the characterisation of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come also contribute to how the novella is didactic. As a personification of memory, the Ghost of Christmas Past is an allusion to how it is imperative to look back to the “shadows of things that have been” to relearn positive and negative lessons from it in order to grow as a human being. With “its open hand, its cheery voice”, the Ghost of Christmas Present not only represents material generosity, but generosity of spirit. In teaching Scrooge that he must discover “What the surplus is, and Where it is”, he is the medium through which Dickens relays the message that benevolence is what lies at the true heart of human life. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come not only instils fear with its silence, but also by its symbolism of a march of time towards an undeniably fixed end. As a 19th century audience fixated with the idea of death and the afterlife, the Ghost would perturb the reader with its pessimistic predictions of the future presenting the notion that “men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends”, disturbing the reader further through the implication that the decisions that they make in the present may also follow them to the grave.

Indeed, while there are other aspects other than the construction of character that aid in the significance of the novella, characterisation is the crux of Charles Dickens’ allegory A Christmas Carol. Through such means, Dickens confronts the reader with the notion that upper class Victorian society may not be able to change their morally vacuous ways until they feel remorse for the ramifications of their actions, or lack thereof. In the words of Jacob Marley, “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

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