A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.


'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens followed 'The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton' (published in The Pickwick Papers), a tale about a sexton very much the same as our Mr. Scrooge. They are the ultimate Christmas tales but more so A Christmas Carol because Christmas could not be complete without a reading, or at least a viewing, of it. It was published on the 17th December 1843: one hundred and seventy years ago last week, to be precise. It is a part of Christmas now: a Christmas tradition. A tale of the redemption of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge through the four spirits who haunted him: first his former business partner Jacob Marley, then the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. But what is frightening is not the ghosts, it's the fact that it is still relevant today.

As Bob Cratchit wrapped himself in his white comforter and tried (and failed) to warm himself by a candle having been threatened with dismissal the last time he attempted to get more coal for the fire, David Cameron suggests putting on a jumper as Britain's energy prices soar, despite an estimated 31 000 deaths during last winter's freeze.

Meanwhile, our Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith refused to meet with the Trussell Trust, a charity who supplies food to food banks used by some 500 000 people (a much needed resource in our 'age of austerity' where benefits have been slashed). He accused them of scaremongering. When a charity that helped the impoverished approached Scrooge, they asked him, "What shall I put you down for?", he replied, "Nothing!" (I wouldn't want to suggest that Iain Duncan Smith refuses to support any charity, I should say that).

In this country, you cannot follow politics without hearing the phrase "hard working" every day. Our government rewards "hard workers", the official catchphrase of the Conservatives: "for hard working people". And Mr. Scrooge observes, when asked for the aforementioned donation, "I can't afford to make idle people merry".

It should be remembered (as I'm sure people do remember) that A Christmas Carol is not simply a heart-warming Christmas tale, it is, particularly with Stave Three's the Ghost of Christmas Present, an attack on the Malthusian economic system of the mid-19th Century. The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus wrote in An Essay on the Principles of Population (1798),
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world. 
This is known as "the Malthusian catastrophe", and is echoed by Scrooge's comment, "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Charles Dickens personifies this "surplus population" at the end of Stave Three:
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish, but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.  
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. 
'Spirit! are they yours?' Scrooge could say no more. 
'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!' cried the Spirit, stretching out his hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!' 
'Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge. 
'Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses?'
And, how could we forget Tiny Tim, another one of the "surplus population"; as the Spirit urges Scrooge to discover "what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."

Fortunately, the Spirits ultimately convince Scrooge to change his ways. By the Ghost of Christmas Past Scrooge is shown how he changed into a miser and what he gave up as a consequence, by the Ghost of Christmas Present his economic and social philosophies are torn apart, and by the Ghost of Christmas Future he is shown his legacy, which is compared to Tiny Tim's - that the poor boy, one of the "surplus population" invoked such love and tenderness, whereas Scrooge's death left behind bed curtains, bed clothes, and other inconsequential items, as well as some relief to those who owed him money. Those who were inclined to attend his funeral would only do so if lunch was provided.

This is a heart-warming Christmas tale because of Scrooge's redemption, but it is one with a very powerful and deliberate message. It is Dickens at his absolute finest.

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Comments

  1. Beautifully said. Thank you!

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  2. Thank you for the gentle reminder that this novella, old as it is, is still so sadly relevant today. If only we would ALL better learn Scrooge's lessons.

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    1. Yes, there are certainly some politicians (both Labour and Tory) who would do well to read A Christmas Carol...

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  3. Your review is so enlightening! Such a good point you make about Tiny Tim being sorely missed and Scrooge being not missed at all - I now see what Dickens was trying to do there.

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    1. Thank you. It's only recently I've truly appreciated A Christmas Carol. I have always loved it, but I don't think I *got* it as well as I perhaps thought.

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