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A Christmas Carol is a defense of charity — and capitalism

Scrooge and Tiny Tim.
Scrooge and Tiny Tim.
(Walt Disney Studios)

Marley was dead: to begin with.

That's one of the most famous opening lines of any work of English literature. It is, of course, the beginning of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, his 19th-century tale about the miserly Scrooge, who, after a visit from three holiday sprites, discovers the joy of the holidays.

Dickens published the novella in December 1843, and it was an instant hit, first in his home country and then across the pond in America. In fact, since it was published some 170 years ago, it hasn't ever been out of print. But in spite of the popularity of the work, Dickens was disappointed by his earnings from the book.

As Jon Michael Varese notes in the Guardian, the book sold its first printing of 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve 1843. By the close of the following year, the book had sold more than 15,000 copies. Dickens made £726, a sum of money that he found disappointing.

In a letter to John Forster, his literary advisor, Dickens wrote that he'd hoped to bring in at least £1,000. "What a wonderful thing it is," he wrote, "that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!" Varese, too, thinks the publication wasn't a financial success.

Still, it's worth noting that £726 was a lot of money in 1843. Correcting for inflation over 170 years isn't an exact science, but the Bank of England says £726 in 1843 is around £80,000 ($125,000) in today's money. For comparison, the protagonist of A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit, made 15 shillings, or £0.75, per week. So Dickens made almost as much from two years of Christmas Carol sales as Cratchit would have made in 20 years of working for Mr. Scrooge.

Forster believed they could have made even more from the book if they'd charged more for it. The book sold for 5 shillings (£0.25), which was, in fact, high for that time period. But considering Dickens's lavish requirements for his publisher — gold lettering on the front and back, four full-page color etchings, gilded page edges, a bright red and green title page — 5 shillings was less than it could have sold for.

As Varese notes, Dickens set the price at an affordable rate so that it could be easily accessible to most people. And not just because he wanted to provide all of London with Christmas cheer, but because he wanted to give them a lesson in economics.

Why Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol

In the fall of 1843, Dickens visited Samuel Starey's Field Lane Ragged School, a school that "educated slum children," according to the New York Times. Dickens easily empathized with such children living in poverty, coming, as he did, from a poor childhood himself — a fact that set him apart from many other English authors, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, who enjoyed the social and class privilege of their births. To this day, Dickens is remembered for his empathy with those living in poverty. As his tombstone reads, "He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed..."

When his father was sent to debtors' prison, 12-year-old Dickens had to take a job at a blacking factory, where for up to 12 hours a day he pasted labels onto pots of boot polish. He was paid 5 or 6 shillings (£0.25 to £0.3) a week for his labor, and that price went directly to help his family make ends meet.

On October 5, Dickens was asked to deliver a lecture at the first annual meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum, an institution that provided education and recreation to the laboring classes. Dickens used the opportunity to speak against systemic poverty and injustice: "Thousands of immortal creatures are condemned ... to tread, not what our great poet [Shakespeare] calls the 'primrose path to the everlasting bonfire,' but over jagged flints and stones laid down by brutal ignorance."

After delivering the address, Dickens planned to write a pamphlet titled, "An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man's Child," treating many of the themes he'd spoken about in Manchester. However, the pamphlet was never written, as the author chose instead to give his economic ideas flesh and blood — and, importantly, a wobbly leg — in the form of a story.

Scrooge, everyman

The word "Scrooge" has become synonymous with greed, the word we use for someone miserly, penny-pinching, and merciless. As Dickens writes of his main character, Scrooge was "a tight-fisted hand ... a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner."

But though he doesn't give away any of his money, and though he feels no sympathy for those less fortunate than he, Scrooge, as Dickens makes clear, is no criminal. He works hard for his money, day in and day out. And though he seems heartless, he's clearly not villainous, like Dickens's Sikes, the dog-beating criminal from Oliver Twist who ends up murdering his girlfriend.

He's also, as English professor Lee Erickson writes, quite similar to others of his day, who "feared not just the Sprit of Christmas Yet to Come but the financial future, which seemed likely in the deflationary moment of December 1843 to be very bleak." That is, Scrooge, like many other mid-19th-century businessmen, was concerned about the future of the economy, and was therefore "tight-fisted," in case things took a turn for the worse.

As Erickson notes, by the time Dickens published A Christmas Carol:

the prices of goods in England had been falling for the past four years and had fallen during that time a total of 22.72 percent. During this period, the rate of deflation had thus been 5.68 percent a year; and, in particular, retrospective price indexes show that prices had fallen and the purchasing power of a pound had risen by five-and-a-half percent from the end of 1842 to the end of 1843. As a consequence, those with income in excess of their needs were spending no more at present than they had to spend …

In the opening scene when we meet Scrooge, two men show up to his office to ask for charity. Scrooge, of course, offers no money, since, he argues, there are prisons and union workhouses, not to mention poverty laws, to provide for the lower classes. Scrooge didn't protest these government programs — he just thought they were sufficient for those in need.

But as Dickens powerfully argues, those programs are not sufficient. Charity is still necessary.

The economics of A Christmas Carol

Some have read A Christmas Carol as espousing socialism, but the book doesn't decry capitalism. To be sure, Dickens condemns greed, but that is just one negative effect of a free market, not its defining feature.

In Dickens, the remedy to greed is not socialism — it's charity.

After being convinced by three spirits to mend his ways, Scrooge does in fact improve himself, and becomes something of a philanthropist. He provides dinner for the Cratchits and medical care for Tiny Tim, none of which would have been possible for Scrooge if he hadn't been a successful, shrewd businessman. In other words, capitalism was the very condition that made Scrooge's philanthropy possible. Scrooge's wealth, Dickens argues, is actually a very good thing, when generously distributed.

And Dickens practiced what he preached. He earned a comfortable living as a writer, and he used his wealth and influence to help those less fortunate. One of Dickens's main projects was helping to establish Urania Cottage, a 19th-century safe house where women who led lives of crime and prostitution were given shelter, an education, and a chance to start over.

Though Dickens's classic story is set at Christmastime, the principles at its heart are meant to be read — and practiced! — year round. This is all the more apparent once you understand the author's noble reasons for publishing the work. It was Dickens's hope that all of his readers would come to the same conclusion as his repentant Scrooge:

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!"