Charles Dickens Chesterton

On The Teachings of Dickens' Ghosts: Christmas, An Obstacle to Modern Progress

1:40:00 PMAnne Foster

"Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons..."
"And the Union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir..."
"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."

Here is when my Father pauses the VHS tape (yes, his favorite version of A Christmas Carol is still on a VHS tape) and my older brother and I look to each other, saying to the other with our eyes, “here it comes ...” He then proceeds to explain to us, as he does every year, the meaning behind that famous dialogue, particularly the line: “ If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” He reminds us of the well known economist named Thomas Malthus, famous for the Malthusian Theory of Population, to whom this line refers. His theory proposed the concept that population growth would soon outstrip the agricultural growth and thereby the human race would not have enough resources to sustain them. Thus, he concluded that a form of population control should be introduced. Scrooge’s mention of “the surplus population” is Dicken’s way of alluding to Malthus’ theory which was still prevalent and current among the British intellectual circles of his day.  My Father would then remind us of the important role Dicken’s tale played by exposing the errors of the “zero population growth” mentality. Dickens placed a face on the marginalized, the “surplus population”, compelling Scrooge to recognize that the life of poor cripples such as Tiny Tim ought not be placed on the same scales as his gold coins. For there is an incomprehensibly deep abyss which lies between the life of the poorest beggar and Scrooge’s money purse. 

But, perhaps the spirit of Malthus lives on in the Zeitgeist of today.  Although we may not give much thought to theories of population per say, it’s difficult to deny success, profit, and progress do not still captivate our attention and our hearts. This year while watching one of the many adaptations of this famous story, I realized that like with most classics, again and again new insights can be drawn from their antiquated lines. I then asked myself, when was the last time I stood in Scrooge’s slippers and allowed the ghosts to accuse me of these very same sins. What idols have taken hold of my own heart? 

Early on in the story Scrooge tells the ghost of Marley that he was “ a good man of business”. To which the ghost replies, 

"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!"

These powerful lines struck me. For they encapsulate the disparity which exists between man’s earthly work and his divine purpose. We live in an era which values technological progress, invention, and producing, above alms giving, prayer, and penitence. Nevertheless, once a year, amidst the cold and the fog, a 2,000 year old Spirit intrudes upon our homes. The wheels of progress stop turning. For Christmas has arrived.

G.K.Chesterton, in one of his yearly Christmas reflections, wrote, “Christmas is an obstacle to modern progress.”  Science has no need for a history lesson, and the talk of miracles cannot impress those of common sense. “Christmas is not made on the pattern of that great age of the Machine, which promises to the masses an epoch of even greater happiness and prosperity … Christmas is a superstition. Christmas is a survival of the past.”(1) 

Not only does the spirit of Christmas dismount our machines from their thrones, but it puts in their place a small infant babe.  It reminds us that when our Savior comes again all our material possessions will be reduced to ashes and only the souls of the “surplus population” will remain. This is the truth which Charles Dickens makes his reader concerned with: that the soul of Scrooge and the body of Cratchit become our business. (2)

Thus, let us embark upon this new year equating “good business” with love of neighbor. For although the Nativity set only comes once a year, the Crucifix is always on the wall.(3)  

I leave you readers with these Ideas, may they haunt your houses pleasantly for not only the remainder of this Christmas season but till the end of your days.

"And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Everyone!"


1. Chesterton, On Christmas
2. Chesterton, All Things Considered: Christmas.

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