Background.

A Christmas Carol.
  • Candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air” is a quotation from A Christmas Carol (Stave 1).
  • A Christmas Carol is a novella, or short story, written by Charles Dickens and first published in the Christmas of 1843. The allegorical tale tells the story of the transformation of the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge through the visits of the spirit of his former business partner and three ghosts over the course of a Christmas Eve night. It remains a much-loved traditional Christmas tale.

Context.

This quotation comes at the beginning of Stave 1 of  A Christmas Carol. The author, Charles Dickens, has already introduced the reader to the character Ebenezer Scrooge and his deceased former business partner, Jacob Marley. He is now telling us the story is set on a cold and foggy Christmas Eve, where Scrooge is working late at his counting house (along with his clerk, Bob Cratchit).

Dickens uses this quotation to help paint a picture of how thick the air is with fog and pollution. The flame of candles from nearby office windows are blurred by the fog so that they appear as ruddy smears upon the air, which is described a palpable brown, a reference to the pollution from the smoke from fires heating the houses on this cold day that is mixing with the fog. On foggy days smoke from chimneys tends to hover at ground level, which we now know as smog. Ruddy is a word used to mean having a reddish colour.

Dickens uses the term ruddy three times in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol, to describe the appearance of a candle flame, to describe the appearance of the glowing face of Fred (Scrooge’s nephew) and also to describe the appearance of the faces of passing people in the lamp heat of windows.

Illustration from the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.
Illustration from the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing Ebenezer Scrooge (left), here being visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, bound by the chains he forged in life.

Literary Technique.

This is an example of the figurative language Charles Dickens uses in his works, here using the literary technique of hyperbole (exaggerated language) in the form of a simile to compare the flame of a candle to a ruddy smear. The use of similes helps an author to strengthen a description, and for the reader it helps to better visualize a character or scene in their heads.

Source.

Taken from the following passage of Stave 1 (Marley’s Ghost) of A Christmas Carol:

Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

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Candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.
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Resources.

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