King's College London
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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

Scrooge and the unclaimed

Front cover in red cloth with title and decoration stamped and tooled in goldFront cover of A Christmas Carol, originally published 1843The opening page of A Christmas Carol beginning, Marley's ghostThe opening page of A Christmas Carol, originally published 1843Whereas Dickens's protagonist Oliver is a tender and innocent victim of the Poor Law regime, the focus of A Christmas Carol is the hard-hearted employer Mr Scrooge, who endorses that system unreservedly. Dickens describes him as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner".

Scrooge is rich, but witnessing his own possible future sees that he dies utterly alone, and all his belongings - including his shroud - are taken by predators who have no sentiment whatever for the nameless man whose utter selfishness absolves them of a sense of guilt:

'"If he wanted to keep 'em after he was dead, a wicked old screw," pursued the woman, "why wasn't he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself."

"It's the truest word that ever was spoke," said Mrs. Dilber. "It's a judgment on him."'

And although Scrooge has an identifiable grave, no-one mourns his passing: his body is essentially an unclaimed corpse. For all his money, he is utterly destitute.

John Leech's illustration depicting Scrooge kneeling before a grave stone bearing his own name. The black ghost points downward to the grave.'The last of the spirits' illustrated by John LeechAt the time A Christmas Carol was written in 1843, there was a counter-Christian culture of blame and meanness operating against the poor. But, as Dickens showed in the figure of Scrooge, poverty of spirit is itself the evil. Scrooge is the embodiment of the mean and miserly anti-Christian spirit Dickens perceived to be at work in the workhouse system, and in Victorian society more generally. Scrooge is a moral pauper. The story makes manifest Dickens's view that the moral bankruptcy of tightfistedness is infinitely more blameworthy than the poverty of the working poor. Scrooge's spiritual awakening is the moral heart of the book, revealing that kindness and generosity bring happiness all round.

Listen to Miriam Margolyes reading the opening paragraphs of A Christmas Carol in our December In the Spotlight web pages, used by kind permission of AudioGO Ltd and of Miriam Margolyes.

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