Why ‘A Christmas Carol’ Should Scare The Dickens Out Of You
When he was 12 years old in 1824, Charles Dickens worked 10-hour days in a rat-infested shoe-polish factory for six shillings a week. That’s the equivalent of $41+ today.
It was all the money he had to get by.
His father, mother, and five siblings aged 2-11 were in prison because the family was in debt. This is what Western society did with the poor in the mid-1800s. If you fell behind on your bills or couldn’t pay legal fines, you and your family went to flea-ridden government workhouses where you would labour to earn your keep.
Your work did not, however, pay off your debts – you could spend the rest of your life there. If you died in a debtor’s prison, your body was given to anatomists to dissect in the name of science.
Needless to say, Charles Dickens grew to hate the system and rail against it in his works.
In his seminal novella “A Christmas Carol,” which was published on December 19, 1843, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by two portly men raising money for the poor.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said one of the gentlemen, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“A few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
The only thing Scrooge gave the men was advice. He helps fund those prisons and workhouses; “They cost enough,” Scrooge says, “And those who are badly off must go there.” He adds, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Interpretations of “A Christmas Carol” have often tried to turn it into an assault on the wealthy, critiquing capitalism’s effect on society. It is not. There is nothing wrong with being very wealthy in Dickens’ book.
The evil in society comes from indifference towards fellow people and a reliance on a governmental system that does more harm than good.
It is not until Scrooge can put a familiar face to the problem, that he begins to rethink his position on poverty.
Accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge visits the holiday celebration of Bob Cratchit, with its tiny pudding to serve a family of seven. Bob works 60 hours a week and earns 15 shillings – about $120 today.
An employee of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit is working-poor and without the financial wherewithal to fully provide for his family. No where is this more noticeable than in the care of Cratchit’s ailing son, Tiny Tim, who is certain to die. To this reality, Scrooge asks, “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
It’s easy for Scrooge to feel sorry for Tiny Tim. It’s someone he knows – a single instance with a face and a personality. But it’s harder to feel compassion for large swathes of people, for faceless segments of the population.
As we all know, Scrooge awakes from his last ghostly visit a new man. He buys Bob Cratchit a turkey and pays the two portly men hefty sums to help the poor. Then he goes to celebrate Christmas at a sumptuous party thrown by his nephew Fred.
Again, “A Christmas Carol” is not an attack on wealth.
Scrooge remains wealthy in the end, and the ideal Christmas is a celebration filled with excesses of food, drink and gifts. But it condemns the violence of looking away, ignoring the evils foisted on people who cannot afford to survive in society, and the political structure that keeps mortifying poverty in place.
Dickens didn't dislike wealth; it was greed that he hated. He was against income inequality so stark that the people at the bottom could barely survive, and that people who could not work were better off dead.
Dickens also believed it’s never too late for redemption.
“A Christmas Carol” teaches that people who turn a blind eye to suffering are still inherently good in their deepest heart. They are just unable to put themselves in the shoes of the less fortunate. Possibly they are so overcome with the enormity of society’s problems that they are stricken with paralysis.
To that, the story provides an elegant solution – enjoy your life, help those around you that you can have an immediate effect on, and work to change a system that propagates destitution.
‘A Christmas Carol’: Sending the Poor to Prison
By Matthew Caruchet