First Lines: A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

Charles Dickens was a true master of the opening line. So masterful in fact that it is very hard to pick one novel over another.

That being said, A Christmas Carol has perhaps one of the most memorable starts of them all. The gloomy opening perfectly sets the world of the novel whilst also providing a little hint at the themes that will occur throughout its course.

But it is the first six words that resonate so well through time. Right from the off Dickens sets the scene by telling the reader in no uncertain terms that one of the characters – Marley – is dead. He then goes on to clarify this statement by providing the witnesses (in the form of the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner) to his death. Then – as if it needed anymore clarification – he continues to announce that the death was officially signed off by Scrooge  (who goes on to become the main character) whose reputation is in turn described as beyond repute.

In five sentences, Dickens has created a character who is so undeniably dead that he may as well have nailed the coffin shut with the doornail that he describes with the last word.

And yet, as we all know, Marley will soon make a dramatic reappearance as a ghost. The rest of the story basically works on the presumption that death is not the end of our existence, so why does Dickens make such an effort to clarify this?

The answer, quite simply, is that Dickens is creating an air of finality about the character of Marley. He is dead and he isn’t coming back. Whatever has happened in his life is nothing more than past history. In short – Dickens is tapping into the mindset of Scrooge himself – a man who believes that everything of importance happens when he is alive. By creating such an air of finality in Marley’s death, Dickens is setting up the shock and distress that Scrooge will experience when Marley returns to warn him that all his past misdeeds will terrorise him long after his death – a key factor in what eventually causes Scrooge to change his ways by the end of the novel.

In these first few lines, Dickens has not only set up the dramatic premise of the story, but he is also given an insight into the story’s key theme – albeit in a subtle way. Death and loss play a key part in A Christmas Carol and here – in the opening passage – we have a keen examination of an individual’s death, but there is no hint of loss displayed. Everything about Marley’s death is described in a clinical way – right down to Scrooge’s part in proceedings – something that becomes a key attribute of Scrooge’s character in the early stages of the novel.

As an opening passage, it is brilliant. And if you need anymore proof of that, I recommend you asking anyone who has ever read it to recite the first line – I’d be very surprised if anyone gets even one word of the first sentence wrong.

Nick R B Tingley is a crime writer from the UK. After several years working as a ghostwriter, Nick released his debut novel The Bluebell Informant – the first in his DS Evelyn Giles series. He is currently working on the second in the series – The Court of Obsessions – as well as a Victorian-era mystery novella called The Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow. 

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