Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’ life and works understands the extent to which class divisions in Victorian England influenced his writing.
Though Dickens enjoyed a relatively stable early childhood, he was forced to abandon his formal schooling at the age of 12 when his father was imprisoned for failing to pay outstanding debts. Soon, the stability Dickens once enjoyed was gone—and he was sent away from his family and forced to work long hours in a shoe-blacking warehouse. There, Dickens became aware of the miserable, unsanitary working conditions to which so many impoverished citizens were beholden—and there, Dickens found inspiration for the themes and characters he developed in the writing he would do as an adult.
Central to Dickens’ works is the criticism of social policies that promote class division and ignore the plight of those living in poverty. In Oliver Twist, for example, Dickens calls attention to the inhumanity of child labor and the commonly-accepted Victorian stereotype that people living in poverty were criminals; in Great Expectations, he guides readers to the conclusion that a person’s worth is determined by his character—and not by social status; and in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens extends his examination of social injustice to show the commonalities between the mistreatment of the impoverished populations in both England and France.
But Dickens’ most accessible, widely-read, and recognizable moral tale, A Christmas Carol, provides the most direct warning of the consequences of ignoring poverty. Scrooge insists that he will not give any money to support “idle people”– because, by paying his taxes, he already contributes to government relief programs: prisons, the Treadmill, and workhouses. Such institutions were established to provide assistance to and work for “inmates” (those who were too poor or sick to take care of themselves), but the conditions in many workhouses were so poor that public and religious opposition prompted government officials investigate these claims. When one of the gentleman visitors insists that “many would rather die” than go to a workhouse, Scrooge snaps, “if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” He concludes by saying that supporting the poor isn’t his problem: “it’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.” This lack of concern for the plight of his fellow citizens—and the insistence that it’s acceptable to ignore societal problems that don’t immediately affect an individual—are central to the selfish character so many of us know Scrooge to be.
Dickens scholars note that the author was an ardent critic of Thomas Malthus, a British economist whose writings in the 1800s influenced the ways in which many British government officials and citizens viewed and responded to the issue of poverty. In short, Malthus believed that poverty was the result of population growth that exceeded the rate at which food could be produced—and that impoverished people were actually responsible for this disproportion:
They are themselves the cause of their own poverty; … when the wages of labour will not maintain a family, it is an incontrovertible sign that their king and country do not want more subjects, or at least that they cannot support them; that, if they marry in this case, so far from fulfilling a duty to society, they are throwing an useless burden on it, at the same time that they are plunging themselves into distress; and that they are acting directly contrary to the will of God, and bringing down upon themselves various diseases, which might all, or the greater part, have been avoided, if they had attended to the repeated admonitions which he gives by the general laws of nature to every being capable of reason.
Yes, you read that quote right.
In other words, food shortages, diseases, and money shortages were God’s way of punishing people for their laziness and irresponsibility–and that poor people who married and reproduced were burdening society. This was a commonly-accepted belief in Dickens’ time, so it’s no surprise that much of Dickens’ writing was in direct response to Malthus’s philosophies and the government programs that supported them. Scrooge’s reference to the “surplus population” is often cited as evidence of as much.
Perhaps the broadest societal warning in A Christmas Carol comes in Stave 3, when the Second of the Three Spirits uses Scrooge’s own words from Stave 1 to reinforce the dangers of ignoring poverty. Two children, “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” emerge from within the folds of the Spirit’s robe—and Scrooge asks to whom they belong:
‘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 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 its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And abide 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?’
Though throughout the course of A Christmas Carol the spirits show Scrooge the large scope of poverty in England, the episodes involving children (Scrooge as a child at boarding school, Ignorance and Want, and Tiny Tim) have the most profound effect on Scrooge. It is through them that Scrooge understands the extent to which children are beholden to and affected by their circumstances—and the extent to which the adults in any society must improve conditions for children at any cost in order to have any hopes of improving society as a whole.
In today’s American society, most people who dictate education reform policies are both 1) rich, and 2) quick to discount the effects poverty has on students’ ability to thrive. Just as Scrooge does, they place supreme importance on financial gain—and at the same time, turn a blind and privileged eye to the very real and very crippling effects of poverty in our country.
The moral of this lesson: Scroogey reformers who seek to blame teachers (particularly those who teach in urban settings) for failures of society and claim that teachers use poverty as an excuse for students’ poor academic performance would do well to focus their efforts and money on improving societal conditions for children. They should open their eyes to and seek to improve the conditions in which many of America’s students live. Only then will these children be able to succeed.