Christmas and decreasing the surplus population

In many places during this season you will see productions of plays based on Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol.

Here is something you might not be aware of that could spark conversation, especially with your young’uns. I confess: I didn’t know this.

Here is an article from Forbes:

What Was Charles Dickens Really Doing When He Wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’?

“Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly of must go there.” “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

That phrase–surplus population–is what first tipped me off to Dickens’ philosophical agenda. He’s taking aim at the father of the zero-growth philosophy, Thomas Malthus. Malthus’ ideas were still current in British intellectual life at the time A Christmas Carol was written. Malthus, himself, had joined the surplus generation only nine years before. But his ideas have proved more durable.

What was Dickens really doing when he wrote A Christmas Carol? Answer: He was weighing in on one of the central economic debates of his time, the one that raged between Thomas Malthus and one of the disciples of Adam Smith.

Malthus famously argued that in a world in which economies grew arithmetically and population grew geometrically, mass want would be inevitable. His Essay on Population created a school of thought which continues to this day under the banners of Zero Population Growth and Sustainability. The threat of a “population bomb” under which my generation lived was Paul Ehrlich’s modern rehashing of the Malthusian argument about the inability of productivity to keep pace with, let alone exceed, population growth.


Read the rest there.

And read lots of Dickens! What a great author. I don’t anyone should get out of their youth, at least out of their twenties, without having read Dickens’ major works.

And try to see some of the good TV productions of his novels … after you read the books, of course. Two I can wholeheartedly recommend are the recent series of Little Dorrit.   And right behind that is Bleak House.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Jack Hughes says:

    Even though they removed allot of the subplots Little Dorrit is an indication that the liberal broadcast media (bbc) still can do wonderful drama

  2. benedetta says:

    So many people still adhere to Malthus’ erroneous preaching yet style themselves as caring “friends of the poor”. But the sort of friendship they extend to the poor is exactly the same as what Scrooge advocated, no different at all. Sadly some of these people also style themselves “Catholics” and teach and preach this population control dogma to others dressed as “Catholic social doctrine”.

  3. Ed the Roman says:

    I heartily recommend Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Songs by Jule Styne.

  4. mamajen says:

    Great Expectations is one of my favorite books. His work really is timeless.

  5. Angie Mcs says:

    Father, I agree with you wholeheartedly that young people should be introduced to Dickens, and if not in school, then they should start on their own. So much of what he said pertains to us today.
    Sadly, many high school English departments think of him as just another “old white guy” and have taken his books out of their curriculum in favor of PC authors, many of whom have little to say except to speak about their own experiences. That can be interesting to know, but it is more important to see that an author from the 19th century has something of great importance to say to us today. Dickens often shows us the development of maturity and happiness as individuals, as young as Pip, or as old as Scrooge, move from being self centered to learning that Mankind is their business, that unless one follows the Golden Rule, one becomes inwardly rotten, like Miss Havisham. I volunteered for many years in a high school writing lab and was dismayed to see “Great Expectations” dropped in favor of a comparatively mediocre book written by a minority woman. The new English Dept. head was PC oriented, and the kids were happy they didnt have to slog through all those pages with big words. I cant help but feel that the students were short changed all four years. I used to subtly put in a good word for the old gentleman, that they give him a try. I hope some of my words sparked an interest and they picked up a book by Dickens on their own, later in life. I also believe that “A Christmas Carol” ,a beloved staple of the season, could be a great factor in readers going on to his other works. As far as the suplus population, why did Bob Cratchit have so many children when he could barely feed them and could not take care of his Tiny Tim? In the end, it was love. Love kept them all together and happy in each other’s company, and Scrooge’s change of heart, his new love for all mankind, helped Tim heal. Dickens knew the answer, the value of each and every one of us, as expressed by Tiny Tim : God Bless Us, every one.

  6. LadyMarchmain says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z. for the link! Let’s not forget the “superfluous women” of Dickensian England as well. “The Old Curiosity Shop” with Derek Jacobi is another excellent dramatization.

    And let’s not forget the wonderful custom of reading aloud! Nothing so enjoyable as reading Dickens aloud; especially homeschool families can do this, but one good friend started a family tradition of reading aloud every day after dinner, once the table was clear and dessert was served. (The mom started it as she was trying to skip dessert, so would read aloud instead).

  7. Del says:

    We can be sure that there were many great authors of the English language during the 19th century, but only a handful have works that survive today.

    Charles Dickens almost fell into the dustbin of history. It was GK Chesterton who wrote a book on the life and work of Dickens, rescuing him for a new generation. It is only because of Chesterton that we have Scrooge and Pickwick and Oliver Twist to enjoy today.

    Read lots of Dickens! And read lots of Chesterton! Your hearts will be glad for it.

  8. Bedens says:

    Father Z, Dickens is one of my favorite authors.

    I especially love “A Tale of Two Cities” because of its strong religious overtones and also the 1935 film adaptation of this novel starring Ronald Coleman and Basil Rathbone. The guillotine scene at the end of this film is so incredibly moving, as is the depiction of the storming of the Bastille. (I often wonder if some of our current political leaders have ever seen this film and that scene in particular. LOL If not, they need to! ;)

  9. Ttony says:

    It was the BBC production of David Copperfield, which is certainly the broadest, if not the deepest, of Dickens’ great stories, which convinced my kids that he was “seriously OK”. An extra point when somebody recognises Harry Potter for the first time.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    I have read Little Dorrit so many times, I have forgotten. I also love Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and others. I have a tendency to re-read the same things over and over.

    That Dickens was sensitive to the evils of the modern world does shine through his works. God bless him. Thanks for this post.

  11. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Following on from Angie Mcs and Lady Marchmain, A Christmas Carol (especially read aloud: some families have an annual Christmas tradition, even down the generations) does seem a good place to start discovering how enjoyable he is. His original punctuation was deliberately chosen by him to help people read him aloud (I don’t know what, if any, of this survives in various editions). He also published books in magazine installments, so nibbling away at longer works is an ‘authentic’ Dickens experience. Pearl Buck, if I remember aright, with access to the family library, had read all of his works when she was 8 or so: I suspect (something like) this need not wildly unusual for anyone undaunted by (plugging away at) long books. (Sadly generally daunted myself, I have never read all of them, yet, but have also been pleasantly surprised at how undaunting long ones are, in practice if you just keep reading.)

    Also, I don’t know what professional unabridged audiobook versions there are, out there (in public libraries), but has a couple hundred longer and shorter works to try (and Chesteron’s book, and a collection of shorter Chsteron pieces, about him and his works).

    Would a discussion about the Ghost of Christmas Present on opening hours be worth engaging in? (That is something which I am not sure had ever survived into an adaptation…)

    I am usually of Fr. Z’s mind as to reading the book first, and then trying visual/dramatized versions, but having happened to see old films of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and I think even A Tale of Two Cities on television as a child, before reading them (though we read the Tale at school at around age 11-12), I am inclined to be more flexible where Dickens is concerned. I have yet to read Martin Chuzzlewit, but am very glad to have seen the Paul Scofield version!

  12. UncleBlobb says:

    And listen to the audio books narrated by our friend, Simon Vance! ;)

    [The reader of the Aubrey/Maturin books!]

  13. Lin says:

    Loved Pickwick Papers!

  14. Hank_F_M says:


    To make a comparison between arithmetic and geometrical growth one needs at least 3 data points.

    At the time Dr. Malthus was writing the the British government was engaged in making a comprehensive survey that would be the first data point. The data to confirm or deny Malthus’s theory did not exist when he made the proposal.

    The XXth Century saw the largest growth of population in history. But the level of the economy, health and nutrition increased even more. The theory failed to predict the actual results.

  15. Mary T says:

    I love Dickens’ books too but I am just wondering how many of you have read his “Child’s History of England.” It is an extremely anti-Catholic book, not just in the overall viewpoint but even in many nasty little bigoted side comments, and it makes me very sad to realize how untold numbers of English children grew up with this poison in their minds. When you train up a child in this way, few are able to depart from it.

    Very sad.

  16. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Mary T,
    I have only dipped into that Child’s History – I msut take a closer look. What do you think of Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (1840-41), about the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots? I remember it as much more sympathetic, but it is ages since I read it. (I see the Wikipedia article includes this as a quotation, describing the Protestant mob as “sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations, and the worst conceivable police.” Are “honest zealots” anything like the Marxist ‘good people’ of the recent Papal interview?)

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