Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol illustrates many themes of the Victorian era. Poverty, charity and greed are major themes of this work. This essay highlights examples of these themes as portrayed by Dickens.
Poverty was a striking characteristic of Victorian England, especially noticeable in the cities. The population grew exponentially during the nineteenth century so it is a very practical suggestion offered by the Ghost of Christmas Present when he observes of Tiny Tim, “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population”(Dickens).
As a result of overpopulation, there was huge pressure on housing which in turn led to poor sanitary conditions and rampant destitution. ‘The ways were foul and narrow, the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt” (Dickens).
Children from lower class families suffered hugely as a result of poverty during this era.
Families sometimes had to turn their children out because they couldn’t afford to keep them. In Stave Two, Scrooge’s sister Fan says, “Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that
I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home and he said yes you should” (Dickens). Children all too often, were the open faces of poverty during this era. At the end of Stave Three, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his legacy as a result of his greed i.e. two very destitute children. “The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want” (Dickens).
With huge poverty, came the birth of social conscience amongst the middle and upper classes. Many charities that exist today have roots in the Victorian era. Scrooge gets a sudden attack of charity after seeing himself alone as a child.
He says, “There was a boy singing a Christmas carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something, that’s all” (Dickens). Philanthropy also, was a growing practice and to die without leaving money to the less fortunate especially during such times of poverty, was almost unthinkable. “What has he done with his money?” asked a red-faced gentleman. “I haven’t heard”, said the man, “left it to his company, perhaps. He hasn’t left it to me. That’s all I know” (Dickens).
Christmas time was the perfect opportunity to illustrate the charitable obligation of the rich to the poor. Christmas time stressed traditional values of neighborliness, charity and good will. Accordingly, Scrooge buys the largest turkey he can find for the Cratchits in order to change the course of the future.
In Stave Two, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a scene from Mr Fezziwig’s Ball in order to illustrate that happiness and cheer can be given to people without costing a fortune. Scrooge concludes, “The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune” (Dickens).
Whilst a lot of charity and philanthropy no doubt resulted from an honest desire to ease the suffering of the poor, guilt also played its part. Many assuaged their guilt by giving to charity but they also didn’t want to waste charity on the undeserving. If we were giving Scrooge the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is why he chose not to give his money away. “No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle” (Dickens).
The opposite of charity is greed. The Ghost of Christmas Present says, “There is nothing on which it is as hard as poverty, and there is nothing on it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth” (Dickens). Like Scrooge, if one dedicated his life only to the accumulation of wealth, he was likely to pay for it in death. “It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral” said the businessman, “for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it!”(Dickens)
Victorian society norms dictated that it was literally unthinkable to be greedy. In Stave One, Scrooge is visited by men asking for donations. “What shall I put you down for?” asks the man. Scrooge replies, “Nothing!” The man misunderstands Scrooge, “You wish to be anonymous?” The church played an important role in imparting the virtues of charity and the consequences of greed. The Ghost of Christmas Present says to Scrooge, “It may be that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child” (Dickens).
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