Malthusian Malpractice of the Socioeconomic Status of Poor People

Jerry Bowyer wrote the article “Malthus and Scrooge: How Charles Dickens Put A Holly Branch Through The Heart Of The Worst Economics Ever” which examined Malthusian economic theory of Victorian England as seen through the lens of A Christmas Carol. While everything Bowyer mentions is true, we feel it is also important to recognize the religious aspects of Malthus’ theory and how these coincide with his views on population control.

Malthus theorizes that God created poverty so that people will not succumb to greed and help each other out. He thought that starvation was God’s test to see if you were a good moral person: if you are strong enough you will survive, and if not, society should not interfere with God’s will. On the flip side of the coin, it was thought that the upper class’s personal wealth and luxuries reflected their strong religious and moral standing.

An obvious connection of Malthus’ theory is to Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest.” Darwin’s Origin of Species was heavily influenced by Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population. The irony of this lies in the Church’s later denunciation of Darwin’s work, despite the fact that its inspiration was drawn from the writings of a reverend.

Looking at his theory objectively, we feel that Malthus’ ideology was derived from the need of a religious explanation for the poor economic conditions of the time. This method not only provided an explanation for the aforementioned social issues, but also absolved the upper class of any responsibility for maintaining the health and safety of the lower classes. For this reason, the upper class was Malthus’ primary source of support. However it is worth noting that Malthus was heavily critical of the Poor Laws, claiming that they limited mobility of labor and provided lower classes with too much comfort. According to Malthus, workhouses were not harsh enough to galvanize the poor to rise above their situation.

Despite Malthus’ generally assoholic nature, he was willing to financially support children of the lower class by means of small allowances. In addition, he also showed great interest in what we now call the Industrial Revolution, however he feared that any technological advancements could not keep up with the increasing population.

Discussion Question: Malthusian economic theory is mentioned and criticized by Dickens in A Christmas Carol through Scrooge’s initial disregard for the fate of the “surplus population.” How does the religious aspect of Malthus’ views (that God created tough situations to test one’s morality) relate to and contrast with Dickens’ views on religion and its role during the Christmas season?

Discussion Question: In A Christmas Carol, Dickens creates a narrator who has a certain stance towards or outlook on the world, whose narration projects certain values and a certain disposition towards humanity. The narrator’s purpose in telling the story, one might say, is to promote that stance or outlook, those values, that disposition — and to discredit the very different outlook, values, disposition embodied in Scrooge. What words best characterize these opposing outlooks, values, and dispositions? How are the narrator’s outlook-values-disposition embodied in his narration? How are Scrooge’s embodied in his words and actions?

7 thoughts on “Malthusian Malpractice of the Socioeconomic Status of Poor People

  1. Paul Schacht

    I’m going to take a stab at clarifying some of the terms in the discussion question we arrived at on Friday. The terms “stance,” “outlook,” and “disposition” are used as synonyms in the question. But synonyms for what?

    One way to begin answering this question is to ask yourself another one: When you wake up in the morning, what kind of world is it that you find yourself living in? Is it, for example, a world filled with spirits, some kind of realm or dimension that you would call “spiritual,” or is it a world that operates strictly on material principles?

    • Is the world you find yourself living in a world full of people who are out for themselves, out for whatever they can get? Or is it a world of neighbors, motivated by a desire to know and help one another?
    • Is it a world in which to be alive is to inhabit a scene of dark suffering or an arena of possibility?
    • Do you approach this world mainly in fear or mainly in expectation?
    • Is it a world in which the pursuit of bodily pleasure seems suspect, or a world in which that pursuit seems harmless if not noble?
    • Is the world you find yourself in a world in which telling stories is a distraction from the truth and a waste of time, or a world in which these activities have something important to offer you?
    • Is it a world in which giving your hard-earned money to a beggar is a foolish waste of personal resources, or a world in which doing this is a harmless risk or even a noble act?
    • Are the people of this world fundamentally different in important ways? If so, what makes them different? If not, what is the source of their basic equality?
    • What does it mean to you to experience yourself, in this world, as “free”?

    Now ask yourself how you think Scrooge would answer these questions and others like them. Then, how the narrator of A Christmas Carol would answer. Then, how you know (or think you know) what their answers would be.

    The result will be some sense of how each comes at the world: the stance each takes up toward it; how each is disposed to view what happens in it; how each is disposed to act in it.

    Behind the discussion question lies an assumption that the answer to it might matter for our understanding of Dickens’ story. Perhaps Dickens’ use of Malthus in the story is best understood within the larger frame this question draws. Perhaps.

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    1. Erin Duffy

      Group 4: Jake Trost, Angie Carson, Heather McFarlane, Cassandra Ballini, Erin Duffy

      The narrator of A Christmas Carol remains fairly objective in his role within the telling of the story in that although we are never given an outright opinion of the matter, it is clear that the narrator disapproves of Scrooge’s actions and behavior by way of language and imagery.

      The narrator’s views on the matter at hand are prominently shown early in the plot, when charity workers come to Scrooge’s office to ask for donations to the poor. When he refuses, the narrator’s opinion is juxtaposed with Scrooge’s in the following quote: “Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge returned his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him” (Dickens, 24). The narrator’s negative opinion is evident in that Scrooge has, objectively, expressed a tremendously selfish viewpoint and yet still has a good opinion of himself. This paints Scrooge as someone who holds monetary value above family and altruism, and the juxtaposition of terms like “facetious” and “better opinion of himself” against an objectively immoral standpoint shows that the narrator disagrees with Scrooge without outwardly stating an opinion.

      The narrator’s opinions are also presented when describing the atmosphere of Scrooge’s office versus the Cratchit’s neighborhood during his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present. While describing the former, the focus is almost entirely on the setting itself: “the fog and darkness thickened,” the “ancient tower of a church…with a gruff old bell,” with “some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes” of the streetlamps (Dickens, 24). The language is also extremely drab and lends itself to the atmosphere in general. On the other hand, the Cratchit’s neighborhood is described by the narrator not in terms of weather or general appearance, but in terms of the happy disposition of the crowd: “soon the steeples called good people all to church…and away they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes and with their gayest faces,” (Dickens, 91). Readers can see quite plainly that while Scrooge leads a solitary life that focuses on the material, the Cratchit family–by all accounts the embodiment of joy and thankfulness–focuses on their morals and the value of love and family. The warmer tone of the Cratchit’s neighborhood is indicative of the narrator’s favoritism towards their values and lifestyle.

      However, one of the few instances in which the narrator does outwardly state his opinion occurs in the following sentence: “If you should happen, by any unlikely chance, to know a man more blest in a laugh than Scrooge’s nephew, all I can say is, I should like to know him too. Introduce him to me, and I’ll cultivate his acquaintance” (Dickens, 113). By openly expressing a positive opinion of Fred- a friendly and earnest character- we can infer that the narrator is inclined to approve of people of this temperament rather than miserly people like Scrooge.

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  2. McKennaMiller

    Dickens uses Scrooge to show that Christmas is supposed to be a family-centric holiday. He suggests that the loneliness that Scrooge experiences in his present comes from isolating himself early on; this isolationist disposition was clearly detrimental, both to Scrooge’s lifestyle, and the community’s perception of him as an individual. Dickens portrays the scene with the Cratchit family as beautiful, and as being the ideal Christmas scene. Meanwhile, Scrooge, like his Christmas, is miserable and alone. These descriptions are how Dickens responds to the idea of a church- or individual-centered Christmas. He demonstrates through Scrooge’s misery and the Cratchit’s happiness that alienating all one’s friends and loved ones is not the best way to live (especially at Christmas time). An example of this is when a spirit showed Scrooge the Cratchit family at Christmas: “And perhaps it was the pleasure the good Spirit had in showing off this power of his, or else it was his own kind, generous, hearty nature, and his sympathy with all poor men, that led him straight to Scrooge’s clerk’s; for there he went, and took Scrooge with him, holding to his robe; and on the threshold of the door the Spirit smiled, and stopped to bless Bob Cratchit’s dwelling with the sprinkling of his torch. Think of that! Bob had but fifteen “Bob” a-week himself; he pocketed on Saturdays but fifteen copies of his Christian name; and yet the Ghost of Christmas Present blessed his four-roomed house!” With his, the narrator also shows Scrooge’s distinct lack of generosity. The narrator praises those who are generous and condemns Scrooge for being stingy and selfish. Scrooge once again makes his point with unhappiness, showing that being selfish makes oneself unhappy. Dickens is showing, through the Scrooge/narrator disconnect, that generosity embodies the Christmas spirit and is incredibly important for making oneself and others happy. Dickens intended for the reader to agree with the narrator and disagree with Scrooge, using the character’s response as the negative idea and the narrator’s reaction as the perfect Christmas ideal.

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  3. John Panus

    Group 6

    The narrator of A Christmas Carol makes his beliefs about Christmas very clear through his narration of Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball. Towards the end of the cheerful party the narrator claims there were “dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled… But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled,” when old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig.” The narrator does not deny that good food is nice to have, but more importantly the narrator makes it clear that the happiest moments of the ball came out of companionship. Furthermore, the companionship at Fezziwig’s ball is described by the narrator with words such as “jovial,” “wonderful,” “loveable,” and “affectionate.” By using these specific words to describe the friendship at the Christmas ball, the narrator supports his claim that Christmas time is all about spending time with one’s friends and family, and the narrator rejects the idea that one can gain happiness from material possessions while isolated from friends and famiy – which is the very belief embodied by Scrooge. To demonstrate Scrooge’s beliefs, there is an instance when the narrator satirically embodies Scrooges stance on Christmas, effectively ridiculing Scrooge for his ludicrous views about the holiday. After Scrooge’s nephew and the clerk exchange “greetings of the season,” Scrooge is unable to see why the clerk is so happy about Christmas time: “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.” Scrooge cannot understand that his clerk is happy precisely because he has a wife and family to spend Christmas with. The narrator – embodying Scrooge’s beliefs – refers to the clerk as a lunatic, even though the narrator has already made it clear that Scrooge’s beliefs are incorrect by describing him as “cold,” “melancholy,” “tight-fisted,” and a “covetous old sinner,” who was “bitterer than” any cold wind. Using these words to describe Scrooge, the narrator makes his satirical embodiment of Scrooge’s stance on Christmas unmistakable, and reinforces his belief that is embodied by the nephew and the clerk, that Christmas is a time to be spent in the company of one’s friends and family.

    John Panus

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  4. Lizzie Messana

    Group 1

    As Group 4 mentioned in their presentation, Dickens disagreed with many of Thomas Malthus’ principles which led to the creation of 1834 Poor Laws and the workhouses. In an effort to reform this influential and prevalent Victorian notion of letting the poor fend for themselves, Dickens creates a narrator whose depictions of Scrooge and his nephew demonstrate a stance for more generous and communal society.

    As we talked about in class, Scrooge is the most obvious representation of Malthusian ethics in A Christmas Carol. Thus, his outlook on society is a selfish one, intent on keeping in place the institutions that do no substantial help for the poor. He supports “‘prisons…Union workhouses…the Treadmill and the Poor Law…in their useful course” (Dickens 14-15). Dickens makes specific reference to Malthus through Scrooge when he says: “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” (14). Malthus was known for his opinions on population growth. Dickens presents an opposing outlook through the gentleman who asks Scrooge for a donation: “Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude” (15). Here, Dickens is speaking against Malthus, who used Christianity to promote his austere society. Dickens’ narrator also comments on Scrooge’s stance, depicting him “in a more facetious temper” (15), which demonstrates his opinion of the ignorance of Scrooge’s declarations. Further, the narrator often describes Scrooge and his surroundings as cold, dark, melancholy, and gloomy in an effort to depict Scrooge’s way of life unfavorably.

    From the beginning of the novel, we can clearly discern the narrator’s perspective through his depiction of Scrooge’s nephew, who, in contrast to Scrooge, is described as gay, handsome, glowing, and cheerful, which suggests the narrator’s favor. After the nephew’s speech about Christmas as a “as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time… when men and women seem… by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys ” (12), the narrator says that the clerk “involuntarily applauded.” The phrasing in this is significant because of the fact that the applause was “involuntary”, which indicates that the nephew’s message was powerful enough to arouse a reaction from someone without their control. In addition, it treats the idea of charity and forgiveness as natural human tendencies, which society is denouncing as “improper”. This scene works to depict the strength in the idea of Christmas as a time to be grateful and caring towards others, rather than adopting Scrooge’s perspective of Christmas being a time to focus on material wealth, selfishness, and greed.

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  5. Matt Spitzer

    Group 5: Joseph Fennie, Courtney Cavallo, Klarisa Loft, Kristen Druse

    Dickens shows his obvious displeasure of Malthus’ religio-economic views by his saving of the two lives at stake in A Christmas Carol: first, of Scrooge himself, by telling us directly through the spiritual visitants that a more social existence full of Christian charity would do better for his soul; secondly, of Tiny Tim: “[Scrooge] did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father.” Explicitly, Dickens is challenging Malthus on religious and economic terms by arguing that suffering does NOT need to exist (thus Dickens’s “maintaining of the surplus population” by saving poor Tiny Tim), which we think stems from the common religious background of Dickens’s and Malthus’s economic views. Simply put, Dickens views Christianity as removal of suffering, while Malthus’s views demand suffering and trials, especially for the poor.
    Under Dickens’s hand is his Narrator, who doubly reinforces Dickens’s views of Malthus’s pessimistic and harsh beliefs through his subtle voice and bias. For instance, immediately following the line in which Tiny Tim is said to have lived due to Scrooge’s charity, the narrator continues through his own voice, remarking in a way that conveys his/her own view on life: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” In case it is too subtle– Scrooge now has much good.
    This calls to mind another of the narrator’s tinted narrations: “If you should happen, by any unlikely chance, to know a man more blest in a laugh than Scrooge’s nephew, all I can say is, I should like to know him too. Introduce him to men, and I’ll cultivate his acquaintance.” (Here is the aforementioned laugh that will no doubt make you smile: “Ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha!” Just beautiful. Lovely old lines.)
    All this struggle between Dickens and Malthus stems from the line the then-Malthusian Scrooge delivers in Stave I: “‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides – excuse men– I don’t know that.'” (Then, the narrator… “Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so… the cold became intense…”) This nearly explicit allusion sets the stadium Dickens’s wishes to cheerily contend in.
    In all cases the narrator tacks on his own window-to-the-world on top of Dickens’s narration, explicating the lines with his opinions, beliefs, and mood. While the plot points, settings, characters, &c., are the arguments of the author, the narrator’s voice peeps through here and there throughout the text to give an emotive power to Dickens’s argument for, of course, literature does not deal in strict logical or factual argumentation of population, economics, &c., but depends on the skill of a storyteller and his tale. Malthus wrote “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” full of rhetoric and clear arguments, while Dickens’s wrote fiction, depending on this layered subtlety and emotional disposition of a narrator.
    Unfortunately Thomas Malthus died shortly before A Christmas Carol was published, so we didn’t get to see the satisfaction of his immediate surrender of his ideas to Dickens’s story which argued against him– for who the hell could want Tiny Tim dead! He’s just, absolutely, adorbs. (Note his last word over Malthus: “God bless us, Every One!“)

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  6. Kevin O'Connor

    Group 2: Posted by Kevin
    Malthus and others during the Victorian era encouraged people to fill certain with regards to social interaction, stressing a constructed personal identity over a social identity. Simply put Malthus urged woman to fill a social sphere that required modesty and those in poverty to fill a lower social roll in interpersonal discourse because they did not work as hard as the affluent. We believe that Dickens’ narrator challenges this Victorian notion of modesty and more broadly disagreed with people behaving within separate spheres that required them to behave a certain way. Specifically, the narrator’s perceptions of Christmas as a social holiday reinforced the notion of a natural social identity that could be shared with those celebrating over a falsely constructed personal one. Dickens shapes this opinion of personal identity when he writes, “For his pretending not to know her; his pretending that it was necessary to touch her head-dress, and further to assure himself of her identity by pressing a certain ring upon her finger, and a certain chain about her neck; was vile, monstrous! No doubt she told him her opinion of it, when, another blind-man being in office, they were so very confidential together, behind the curtains.” The depiction of blind man’s buff comes off as overtly sexual, allowing people to open up in ways that a Victorian expectation would not allow. The fact that the blind fold disguises identity from the personal identifiers of clothing and other physical features requires Topper to identify everyone within the context of social interactions, that is he can figure out who his victim is by gauging peoples reactions socially. Dickens’ narrator appears to stress that this type of identity has a liberating effect that allows people to construct identities in a natural way; this contrasts well with Scrooge’s obsession with identification through isolation and money.

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