Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Lesson in Tone from Dickens' A Christmas Carol

Writers labor to create a tone that reveals meaning. They do this by selecting appropriate words, details, and images. Still, readers may misunderstand tone, and if they do, they misunderstand meaning.

Charles Dickens does not lead his readers astray with A Christmas Carol. He signals that the ending will be a happy one with his first words. The December 1843 Preface to A Christmas Carol reads:

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 house pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

As you can see, Dickens warns his readers that his purpose is to instill in them an idea without the tremors or long-lasting effects of a nightmare. In fact, readers will be haunted pleasantly, he hopes. But should a reader skip past the Preface or forget about it quickly, the opening lines of A Christmas Carol will set him straight.

Stave One, “Marley’s Ghost,” announces and repeats that Marley was as dead as a door-nail, a sobering detail made light by the narrator’s puzzling over door-nails as living or dead:

I don’t mean to say that I know of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country’s done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail. ((Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Weathervane Books, 1977. 3-4)

With these words, Dickens establishes that his narrator ponders the meaning of things, including clichés, that he yields to the wisdom of ancestors, and that he has a sense of humor by his use of litote in tying his country’s safe future to upholding tried and tired clichés. None of these remarks would be appropriate in a sober treatment of one man’s death and that man’s ghost returning to haunt the living. These remarks signal that what will soon unfold is not a tale with which to terrify children, but one that will simultaneously entertain and enlighten.

Reading Challenge:

Read the opening paragraphs of a story you love. Upon reflection, do those words suggest the final paragraphs?

Writing Challenge:

Review your own writing. Have your opening paragraphs misled readers about meanings?