How Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ Depicts the Faces of Poverty

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843)

A Christmas Carol, that classic story by Charles Dickens set in 19th-century London about Ebenezer Scrooge and his negative, bah-humbug attitude toward Christmas, needs no introduction. It is a well-known description of the change that comes over a cold-hearted, selfish miser after he experiences ghostly visitors on Christmas Eve. The ghosts his former business partner and three others of past, present, and future Christmases, show him scenes which result in his having a permanent change of heart.

Marshalsea Prison, London

It is during this transformation that Dickens depicts the harshness of being poor in 19th-century London by contrasting Scrooge’s opinion with the realities of those who are facing poverty. Early in the story, he is asked for a donation to assist the poor. His response asking if there are no workhouses or prisons refers to the debtors’ prisons which existed for people who could not pay their bills. These were not just limited to England, but existed in much of Western Europe, and the United States until the mid-1800s. Dickens’ father, John Dickens, was sentenced in 1824 to the prison of Marshalsea for a debt he owed to a baker. Young Charles, at age 12, dropped out of school to get a job to help provide for his family.

Not all debtors had family members or benefactors to pay off their debt. For those who did, they were allowed some freedom a few hours a day to work, thus earning money, while serving out their sentence. For those who did not have any financial assistance, the debt increased over time because of the fees connected with being in prison. The poorest of the debt prisoners had little food and death by starvation was a common occurrence.

Another face of poverty is that of Bob Cratchit’s family. Cratchit is employed by Scrooge but his salary is far too small for his family, particularly for the medical expenses needed for his son, Tiny Tim. The family tries to make the best of hard times, thanking God for what they have and for the love they share. Tim, who is crippled, remains positive in his outlook, saying, “God bless us, everyone.”

Scrooge seeing Want and Ignorance (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, John Leech, illustrator, 1843)

In addition to seeing those who work long hours for little money, and often in stark conditions, Scrooge is shown poverty in its harshest form. Two children, a girl and a boy, are dressed in rags, dirty, cold, and hungry. The Ghost of Christmas Present informs him that the girl is Want; the boy is Ignorance. Anyone who denies the existence of the two only succeeds in making the outcome worse. Either way, by denial or acknowledgment, humankind must face the consequences. These characters were inspired by the destitute children Dickens saw in schools set aside for the poorest of the poor. These ragged schools, as they were called, offered a basic education to children who otherwise would not get one.

The criminal element of poverty follows Scrooge’s death when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him thieves who are trying to sell items they took from his house. They receive money for their efforts, all the while trading jokes and laughing at him. This upsets him and he wants to know if there is anyone who feels genuine emotion about his death. The spirit shows him a married couple suffering from loss of income. They are tenants of his but are facing eviction because the husband is unable to find work. The news of Scrooge’s death gives them more time to come up with the money needed to pay the rent.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, John Leech, illustrator, 1843)

The spirit leads Scrooge to a return visit to the Cratchit house where all the previous light and laughter have been replaced by quiet and sadness. The family is mourning the death of Tiny Tim and Scrooge witnesses the poverty brought on by grief. The slightest word or action reminds the family of something the child would say or do. They vow to never forget Tiny Tim no matter what life has in store for them.

Scrooge, himself, represents the poverty of loneliness. The ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present remind him of how he once was as a boy growing up, falling in love, and planning to marry. But, along the way, greed replaces his love for his fiancée, and soon, the greed becomes an obsession to the point where that is all he has. He is rude to everyone, has no interest in helping others, has no sympathy for Tiny Tim, and repeatedly turns down invitations from his nephew to join the family for Christmas dinner. He has isolated himself beyond reason and insists that he likes it that way.

Fortunately, the spirits “have done it all in one night.” Scrooge pays for the Cratchit family to have a large turkey dinner, he gives money to the poor, pays for Tiny Tim to have the best medical care possible, raises Cratchit’s salary, and visits his nephew’s family regularly. It is through his acts of kindness that the cycle of poverty, previously locked around him, begins to change.  A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and continues to inspire and warm hearts throughout the world.

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For more information:

Charles Dickens Museum