From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1843)
Early in the novel, Ebenezer Scrooge is speaking to two men who are trying to solicit a donation to the poor. When he says he’ll donate “nothing,” they ask if he wishes to remain anonymous.
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [prisons and workhouses]: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”’
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,”’ said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Much later, Ebenezer Scrooge is speaking to the ghost of Christmas Present concerning Tiny Tim.
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “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.
“Man,” said the Ghost, ” if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered 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.”
From The Chimes, by Charles Dickens (1844)
Dickens wrote several Christmas novellas, not just the most famous one with Ebenezer Scrooge.
Context: Mr. Filer just heard a friend explaining how terrible marriage is to a young couple after they say they’re planning to marry. The young woman’s father is also present. “Such people as those” refers to people in poverty, three of whom are in front of him listening to him say this.
“A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,” said Mr. Filer, “and may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those: and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ‘em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ‘em that they have no earthly right or business to be born. And that we know they haven’t. We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!”
Dickens’ Christmas Carol . . . is a polemical work: Dickens was sparring with the laissez-faire capitalists whose influence in industrializing Britain sought to limit concern for the poor to running poor houses and treadmills. . . His other target was Thomas Malthus. Malthus, the intellectual granddaddy of zero population growth, had argued that population increase would inevitably lead to disaster. . . Scrooge gives voice to the elite opinion of his day when, dismissing the businessmen who come to his office seeking charitable contributions, he opines that those who would rather die than go to a poorhouse “had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
John M. Grondelski, National Catholic Register, December 17, 2011
For another Christmas literature commentary in our blog, see: