The Economy of Dickens

Charles Dickens may be one of the most wordy authors in the English language in the sense that he was prolific, creating something like 20 novels, four short story collections and nine volumes of nonfiction, poetry and plays. He wrote a lot of words. But interestingly, allowing for Victorian style, his prose was economical. Here is the first graph of A CHRISTMAS CAROL:

“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 door-nail.”

This is pretty succinct even for a writer today. And its brevity – specifically its brevity – tells the reader a lot: Not only was Marley dead but Scrooge was sure he was dead. The world at large had also signed off on him: the church, the state, the tradesman and the person who had been hired to mourn his passing. Marley was gone – and forever. He could not possibly appear anywhere on earth, which is exactly what he does later.

These few sentences tell us something about Marley in that he had no grieving family and friends. They tell us something about Scrooge. He was a respected man of business. Good upon ‘change means that he had good credit.

They also foreshadow what is to come. Marley being dead as a door nail hints at his appearance as a door knocker later in the book.

Dickens doesn’t muck it up with extraneous detail. Nowhere in the book does he tell us anything about the circumstances of Marley’s death, what he died of or where. Dickens does tell us when, Christmas Eve seven years earlier. He has a reason for that; the book takes place significantly on the anniversary of Marley’s death. What Dickens chooses to say about Marley is that the world regarded him as interchangeable with Scrooge, often mistaking Scrooge for him. And doesn’t that reveal a lot about Marley? His life was similar, if not identical, to Scrooge’s.  `Nuff said.

There is a lesson in this for would-be writers. Think about what you are choosing to include in your writing. And have a reason for every word you use.