Exploration of Themes of Regret and Responsibility in A Christmas Carol

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Written in 1843 by Charles Dickens, across five staves, A Chistmas Carol depicts the mean-spirited and miserly character of Ebenezer Scrooge, who is haunted by four spirits, in an attempt to transform him into a kinder; more charitable man. On a surface level, the First Stave, introduces the greedy and harsh character of Scrooge, seven years after his partner’s death, being vexed by those who indulge in the joy of Christmas. He is later visited by the ghost of Marley, who warns him of the consequences of the selfish life he leads, and the manifestation, of 3 more spirits – the focal point of the extract. On a deeper level, however, Dickens uses Marley’s heavily symbolic, spectral chains and empty, broken description to explore the themes of regret and responsibility in the extract. Whereas, in the context of the entire Stave, Dickens incorporates these themes in his portrayal of Scrooge’s scornful lack of a sense of responsibility, and the harrowing, swarm of regretful, fettered spirits.

Firstly, Dickens uses the retribution, imposed on Marley in the form of the hardened chains that burden him, to force us to consider the weight of accountability, and how whether it takes years, decades, or even a lifetime, for avarice and guilt to catch up to us and backfire, everyone receives their comeuppance in the end. The writer makes it evidently clear that, although Marley is inflicted with the shackles in death, he forged them out of his own decisions and heartlessness – while he still breathed. Dickens writes: “I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it”. This image, thoroughly encapsulates the theme of how the choices we make as mortal beings, always have consequences, and how as Marley shunned all life and colour in his world, and looked down contemptuously from his desolate kingdom of fortune, he tightened the screws on his manacles; hammered down on the weights that would hold him in place, and bring him back down to Earth, dooming him to an eternity of boundless torment. This idea of ‘karma’, is highlighted by the parallel structure of the statement, which hints at the cyclical nature of Marley’s life: gradually building the chain up as he grew older, before wearing it, and being brought back to where he started in the first place. The repetition of the term ‘free will’, emphasizes that these fetters weren’t forced upon him, and they aren’t the product of some deranged and merciless higher power’s blind rage. They were, in fact, created by his own volition, and by acknowledging this, and rehearsing it to himself as if in punishment, and loathing for what he used to be, it is highlighted that he blames himself for where he is, perpetuating this theme of regret, and showing that Scrooge can yet be saved from this dire fate, only by taking responsibility for his sins. Furthermore, Marley’s ominous warnings, begin to escalate into passionate cries of caution and remorse. In the list of three, “Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed”, the statements come like punches in the sea of more subtle, gloomy build-up from which they came, fix themselves into our minds and enforce Marley’s intense feelings of repentance. The short-sentence and exclamation, ‘Oh!’, forms a gripping sense of tension and passionate woe, as we begin to see the imprisoned soul in a new light, drenched in agonizing regret, and being presented with an undertone of begging; pleading for Scrooge to seek redemption and not walk the path that he had walked in life, for these were the chains of a prisoner, a prisoner to a past that can’t be escaped. In addition, the dynamic verb ‘bound’, reflects how Marley has constrained himself to remain anchored to his suffering and reinforces the notion that his fate has been sealed, and that he will never be given the chance to break free from his misery.

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Secondly, in his meticulous description of Marley’s figure, Dickens conveys his guilty, empty presence and how he cannot escape the disdainful, money-obsessed man he was in life’s stain on his very being. The writer illustrates how Marley’s shortcomings as a mortal, have burnt a whole in his humanity and turned him into a cold, incomplete wreck of a soul. In Dickens’ detailing of the spirit as ‘transparent’, this idea is brought to life as he is shown to have lost virtually everything that makes him human – including a heart. His transparency, further indicates the wasted presence he had on earth, without an impact or connection of any kind. Marley did not, however, pass over to the other side empty handed as we already know; it is made apparent that his lust for riches and substance followed him to the grave, and remains in the form of the chain, tormenting him. Through the semantic field of money, “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel”, Marley’s once immensely gluttonous, and – via the intertwined semantic field of security – twisted desire to protect the material goods that he had no use for, is portrayed to still cloak, and pull him down, in reckoning. Moreover, the use of the adjective ‘wrought’, sets a sharp tone of aggressiveness that reveals the severity of his misdeeds, and forms the visual and auditory imagery of metal striking metal, as a hammer is brought down upon steel, creating a sense of intention and confidence in Marley’s previous wickedness, that would soon be turned to mere ashes. Slightly earlier in the paragraph, Marley’s chain of regret is depicted to wind about him ‘like a tail’. This simile, delineates his former rapacity as almost animalistic, and his wealth as predatory. Now as it surrounds him, it is suggested to be preying on him, as he did on the poor.

Thirdly, from a broader perspective, reflections of the themes of regret and responsibility are present throughout the first stave owing to Dickens’ expression of other characters and aspects of this section of the novella. In his portrayal of Scrooge, the writer conveys the complete absence of a collective mindset, and sense of responsibility, in actively contributing to the community. Scrooge scorns that he “can’t afford to make idle people merry”. This suggests that he has a pathological, inability to see compassion as a mutually beneficial, form of human connection rather than a transaction. Thus, a superiority complex is established in Scrooge’s mind, that assigns a value to other humans, and feeds him the lie that the beggarly and starved aren’t worthy of his investment, so it isn’t his responsibility to try and help them. The adjective, ‘idle’, is used to display Scrooge’s views on the poor as lazy and undeserving; illustrating that from his frame of mind, the poverty-stricken have chosen this fate in their idleness, and in his blindness, forgetting to evaluate his own worthiness. Additionally, considering the idea of regret, Dickens uses the swarms of woeful spirits in his horrifying conception of Hell, to present guilt and sorrow on an immense scale. In the visual imagery, “phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste”, the spirits are shown, rushing in hysterical urgency, when in reality they travel without any true purpose, as if stuck in a frustrated and panicked loop of despair, as it is too late for them to interfere and help, in a world of suffering people that can now finally be seen with clear vision. This iteration of Hell, parallels Scrooge’s current situation, of devoting his entire existence to accumulating wealth to spend on nothing; with no objective except for amassing more of it – resulting in an infinite cycle of gluttony and selfishness, and highlighting the regret that all who have lived a life such as this, have or will come to experience. The noun ‘restlessness’, implies a lack of fulfillment within the anguishing phantoms that doesn’t allow them to arrive at a state of peace, and traps them with the knowledge that they never found a purpose, and that their achievements in life were futile.

In conclusion, through the description of Marley’s absent, soul-destroyed figure, held down by the adamantine chains he forged in life, themes of regret and responsibility are comprehensively considered. Furthermore, increasing the scale, and focusing on the overall composition of Stave One, Scrooge’s stubborn soullessness, that caused him to distance himself from all accountability and compassion, and the mindlessly rushing, guilt-stricken phantoms, each continue one of these powerful ideas. I believe that these themes of guilt and culpability, best capture the essence of both the positive and negative perspectives that the novella expresses, and undoubtedly, displays the conflict within every human choice. Moreover, it is in my belief that Dickens’ purpose in exploring these concepts was to challenge Christian beliefs of salvation and to emphasize the significance of life and meaning.

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