Charles Dickens—Using Symbol, Theme & Allegory to Create Enduring Stories
Why are there certain stories we just can’t get enough of? Why do some stories fade away while others become staples for every generation? Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been made into all kinds of movies, plays, cartoons, musicals and there are countless variations of Dickens’ original story: A grumpy old miser who is transformed by the power of love.
Today we are going to explore the many brilliant layers of a very simple and timeless tale and maybe even extract some lessons to make our own writing even better.
One of my all-time favorite movies for the holidays is The Muppets Christmas Carol. I believe I’ve seen this movie a few
hundred thousand times. I’ve worn out three VHS tapes and at least three DVDs. I play the movie over and over, mainly because, well, duh, MUPPETS! I drive my husband nuts playing this movie over and over…and over.
I’m worse than a three-year-old.
Muppets aside, I also can’t get enough of the music. I love the story of A Christmas Carol no matter how many times I see it, no matter how many renditions, and I am certainly not alone. Charles Dickens’ story of a redeemed miser is a staple for holiday celebrations around the world and across the generations.
This story is virtually synonymous with “Christmas,” but why is it such a powerful story? Why has it spoken so deeply to so many? Why is it a story that never grows old? Today, I want to talk about a couple of the elements that speak to me, because they rest at the heart of great writing.
A Little Background
A Christmas Carol is a beautiful story, but I find it’s true beauty when it’s explained in the Christian context that inspired it. A couple years ago, Toddler Spawn was watching Bubble Guppies and they tried (dismally) to tell the same story inserting “holiday” so as not to offend anyone, I presume.
Yet, the story fell flat.
The PC had ruined the beauty of this tale and made it more of a lesson about embracing shallow commercialism once a year than a story of love’s power to redeem the irredeemable. Thus, this post will use scriptural and religious references to explain why I believe this story is so moving and timeless.
Charles Dickens was a Christian and his beliefs are wound all through the story, thus this post is only to explore in light of that reality. For instance, if we were parsing apart The Golden Compass we’d be approaching from a vastly different ontological angle. Namely, Pullman is an atheist and thus his fiction is also an extension of his values.
Back to A Christmas Carol…
Instead of Dickens preaching his beliefs, he created the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and then through theme, symbols, motifs and allegory drove home very powerful lessons.
The Power of Names
Naming characters can be vital. Great writers use the power of parsimony. Each element should serve as many purposes as possible. A name is more than a name. It has the power to be a story within a story.
I recall the moment I was first introduced to what would become my favorite hymn, Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings. One verse stood out:
Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here by Thy great help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home.
Ebenezer? Raise an Ebenezer? I needed to know more. Ebenezer is actually ??? ????, Even Ha’Ezer, which literally means stone of help or monument to God’s glory and is referenced in the book of Samuel.
Thus, when Dickens chose a name for his protagonist, he chose the perfect name for the redeemed sinner. What is a better testament to a God of grace, than the hardened heart melted by the power of love? The current climate of political correctness aside, A Christmas Carol is most definitively a Christian story and the theme is reminiscent of Proverbs 25:22:
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat
and if he is thirsty give him water to drink
for you will heap burning coals on his head
and the Lord will reward you.
Very often this verse is misunderstood. “Yeah! BURN ‘EM! THAT’LL TEACH THEM TO MESS WITH ME! COALS! BURN BABY BUUUURN!” Yet, if one looks to the ancient Hebrew, the heaping burning coals is literally the holy fire of LOVE that melts the hardened heart so it can be remade (think of melting a weapon of war to remake it into something of beauty or a tool for healing or farming).
The path to redemption is love, for only love holds the power to redeem those who have committed grave wrongdoings. Only love can repair what’s been broken and “remake” it into something entirely new.
The Christian story is a story of love, of redemption, of second chances and not because one has earned it or deserved it.
Scrooge is a dreadful man, yet as the story unfolds, not only does Scrooge’s heart begin to melt as he’s faced with the truth of who he is, but our hearts melt toward Scrooge as we travel through the past, present and future and see what has created such a embittered, cruel person. We empathize and start to have compassion and love the unlovely.
Scrooge has done nothing to earn redemption, but his redemption is precisely why we cheer at the end.
The spectral visits serve to show Scrooge the truth, which again is reminiscent of scripture; and then you will know the truth and it is the truth that will set you free (John 8:32). Scrooge cannot change what he cannot see and it is the three ghosts who come to reveal what he’s failed to see on his own.
Repentance is not the mumbled and counterfeit “Sorry.” Rather, it is finally seeing the truth of who we are and what wrong we’ve done. It’s a decision to make things right and turn away from wrong.
By the end of the story, Ebenezer is authentically repentant. He’s a changed person determined to share the love and grace that was freely given to him when he didn’t deserve it.
Again, what a wonderful testament to God’s love. What a lovely “Ebenezer.”
Jacob Marley is another symbolic name. Jacob Marley is the name of Scrooge’s old business partner, and it is he who intervenes to try and redeem his old friend before Ebenezer is sentenced to share Marley’s fate. The name “Jacob” actually means “thief and liar.”
In the Bible, Jacob stole his brother Esau’s blessing, then manipulated, lied, stole and connived until it came back to bite him multiple times (Jacob later wrestled with an angel until he could be given a new name, Israel and he’d become the father of a great people). What better name to give someone sentenced to roam as a specter for eternity carrying the weight of his ill deeds than a name that literally means thief and liar?
The Power of Symbol
When the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge:
The chain he drew about his waist was clasped about his middle. It was long and 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…
Why cash-boxes? Why deeds? Why purses?
In life Jacob was a money-lender. He was ruthless in his dealings and never forgave a debt. Yet, Matthew 6:12 (part of The Lord’s Prayer) reads: Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.
Jacob forged his chains in life. He refused to show mercy, compassion, or kindness. He was ruthless and legalistic, thus he has sealed his fate. God has promised to forgive us the same way we forgive others, which is why the scripture pleads for grace, compassion and mercy. Also, forgiveness of debts is the heart of what Christmas is about, for unto us a child is born.
Christians believe God sent His only begotten son (God in the form of Man) to pay a debt we cannot hope to pay. God loves us as His children, and our actions have left us hopelessly out off our depth, incapable of paying our debts.
Yet, Love cancels the debt.
Christ’s last words on the cross, “It is finished” literally translate “Paid in FULL.” Jacob turned away from the grace freely offered, so now he wanders, burden by the debts he cannot pay.
Jacob now finds opportunity to warn Scrooge of the chains he is now forging with his actions (and inaction), chains that are longer and heavier than even his. The only way for Scrooge to free himself is to learn to value himself and his fellow human beings.
Smaller Truths Reveal Larger Truths
Dickens makes it a point to show us that Scrooge is a miser. Scrooge shows no mercy, has no warmth, shares none of his wealth…with anyone, including himself. Scrooge is a very wealthy man, yet he wears old clothes, lights no coals for warmth because coal costs money. His home is threadbare and his food measly and meager.
The full story of redemption is that Scrooge not only sees his fellow man differently—worthy of compassion, love and generosity—but in changing how he views his fellow man, his view of himself changes (and heals) as well. The three spirits not only heal Scrooge’s relationship with his Maker, but with himself and others. Scrooge, for the first time, becomes part of the human experience, no longer content to be “solitary as an oyster.”
The POWER of WORDS
This point should resonate particularly with writers. There is a REASON the Ghost of Christmas Future refuses to speak. Words have creative power. If one looks at the first chapters of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth and all living things by speaking. “And God said…”
It was only humans He breathed life into. Everything else was created by speaking. Throughout the Old and New Testament, there are countless scriptures referencing the power of the tongue, of words, and warning they carry both the power of life and death.
This idea carries into Ebenezer’s story because, by the time he has this final visit, he still has choice over what his future will be. The specter cannot speak because words would cast his future and it isn’t for the Spirit of Christmas Future to decide.
Scrooge deserves the death he’s shown by the Spirit of Christmas Future. He deserves to die alone with those “closest” casting lots for his garments. This is what he has sown with his lifetime of greed, hate and spite.
Yet, he is pardoned.
Scrooge is the resurrected heart, the dead brought to life. When God promises “everlasting life” it isn’t a promise that we get to float around on a cloud in Heaven after we die. Rather, it’s a promise that life begins at the moment we decide to accept mercy and love.
Scrooge has been “alive” but not “living.” He was existing. When he is redeemed, given a new chance, he changes. Out of gratitude for the mercy he is given, he reaches out to give what he’s been given. LOVE, MERCY, GENEROSITY.
Sure, God could have rained down a miracle that healed Tiny Tim and landed Bob Cratchit a better job with a better boss, but Dickens saw God as a God in the business of finding and changing the lost, miserable and broken. Instead of giving the miracle to Cratchit and his family, God, instead, gives it to Scrooge, the least deserving of a miracle.
Because God is about working through people. Many of His miracles come from ordinary people performing extraordinary acts of kindness and sacrifice. By changing Scrooge, God could create a man who would become a benefactor. Cratchit has now a kind and generous boss, the community now had a passionate philanthropist, and Tiny Tim lives and the family thrived because one man’s heart could be melted.
It is no great feat to love the lovely. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much (Matthew 5:46). This story is so powerful namely because it shows that every human has value and is worth and an opportunity for redemption. God is in the business of changing hearts, and Dickens wanted to show that. A Christmas Carol is a masterful exploration of the true nature of Christianity, what it should be, what it was meant to be. Love. Above all.
What is your favorite version of A Christmas Carol? What do you love about this story? What is your favorite part? I love The Muppet’s Christmas Carol (already told y’all that), but THIS is my FAVORITE part!
Also, here is my favorite hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I cry every time I hear this:
Remember to check out the new classes listed at W.A.N.A International. Your friends and family can get you something you need for Christmas. Social Media for Writers, Blogging for Writers, and Branding for Authors.
Also, I have one craft class listed. Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line. Our stories should be simple enough to tell someone what the book is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t do this, often there is a plot problem. This class is great for teaching you how to be master plotters and the first TEN SIGNUPS get their log-line shredded for free, so you will be agent ready for the coming year.
Enough of that…
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
NOVEMBER’S Winner of the 20 page critique is Toni Kennedy. Please send your 5,000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. Congratulations and thanks for supporting my guest blogger!
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.