Money as a Social Panacea in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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‘”What is money, Papa … [and] what can it do?’”, Paul Dombey, Dombey and Son. Charles Dickens in his writings strove to recreate the world around him and its issues, and so it is fitting that money occupies a central place in his novels. He uses fiction to indicate the numerous problems brought to light with industrial progress such as the pursuit of money, which results in social and economic inequality. He criticises a society where the accumulation of money represents the only reason for living while ignores the plight of the poor. This paper attempts to show Dickens’ views on money and what it does in his fiction by exploring his A Christmas Carol novella. Dickens has a double attitude toward money, which is represented as both, the source of social problems and their apparent solution. Dickens uses his fictional ghost story to draw the attention of the reading public to the consequences of the wrong use of money through de moral development of his hero Scrooge.

Dickens was contemptuous of moneylenders like Scrooge whom he describes as a cruel, greedy and solitary person from the opening pages of the novella. To Scrooge money itself is represented as a destination. He is dominated by the making of money, by acquisitions, as the ultimate purpose of his life. He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

Scrooge embodies the greed and selfishness of nineteenth-century society. The only thing that matters to him is to make money. Love and sympathy have no place in a society governed by money. Scrooge refuses his nephew’s invitation to the Christmas dinar because he considers money and materialism more important than love and human relationships. ‘Why did you get married because you fell in love! As if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas.’ To Scrooge, any pleasant connection between individuals is 'Humbug'. His ambition changes his persona from being a gentile child to a cold man. For his lifestyle is hated by everyone around him except by his nephew and his clerk. ‘Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say “My dear Scrooge, how are you when will you come to see me?”’

Dickens considers that viewing money as an end in itself, as a lifelong goal, leads to a sort of moral emptiness. Victorian ideas considered that money inculcates cruelty on people and the values that vanish in the human being who has money. Money is seen as a disease, which contaminates who has it and wishes it. However, Dickens considers the ills that arise from the accumulation of money are owing to the nature of the people like Scrooge seeking it and the means in which they do so. Scrooge’s failure is not he’s rich but he does not spend his money. He has hoarded the fortune he inherited from his business partner, Jacob Marley. He has spent nothing of his wealth on his own comfort. He lives in the same house Marley used to live, he lights only one room in the house, and his Christmas Eve dinner is a bowl of gruel. He hoards his money and seemingly lives in impoverished circumstances, which suggests a relationship between wealth and poverty. Money can purchase anything but Scrooge does not spend anything. Money is considered a measure of success and he fears to lose his place of a reputable businessman in society. Hence, he is a slave of the money he worships.

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This attitude towards money makes everyone around him miserable, particularly Bob Cratchit. ‘Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller than it looked like one coal.’ It’s not convenient and it’s not fair’ to give to his clerk a day off at Christmas day because that stops Scrooge from gaining half-a-crown for it. His sole happiness is derived from gaining a quick profit. The Cratchit family represents the plight of the poor in Victorian England. Scrooge underpays his clerk Bob who struggles to support his large family despite working hard for his boss. However, Bob has no choice or means to improve his situation and that of his family. “Let me hear another sound from you, and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation!”’ Bob remains loyal, dedicated and humble employee despite being treated harshly by Scrooge. These characters are not able to survive in the world of competitive capitalism. The tale urges a change in the perspective of the poor by treating them with dignity and respect. ‘I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.’ The intention of Dickens is to raise awareness of the existence of a poor social class, which works and is deserving of help. Dickens attributes the increasing disparity in wealth to laissez-faire capitalism, which is unchecked by law. Hence, this group of workers continues to be exploited and abused.

The middle-class mentality was to close its eyes to unwelcome realities. Dickens uses Scrooge to represent that mentality of ignorance: ‘But you must know it; It’s not my business; It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.’ Scrooge refuses to give any money for private charity because he invests in public charity and sees his poor rates as quite sufficient. Are there no prisons?, And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” 'The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then? Oh, I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,' I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.

To Dickens is morally wrong to think that one’s fortune gives one the right to decide whether someone else has the right to live or die. The effort of the government to deal with the huge amount of suffering that existed in early Victorian England with the New Poor Law was considered harsh and of lack of concern for individual dignity. ‘“Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.'' Scrooge places himself in a position of superiority to judge the people's worth. ‘“If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides I don’t know that.”’ Dickens detested the men of business who measure everything in terms of gain and profit, by considering all human beings, all living things and inanimate objects to have a real existence only if they make money or help to make it. This idea is represented through Scrooge’s attitude toward the poor. ‘What right have you to be merry? What reason has you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

Dickens uses Tiny Tim, as pathos to make the wealthy of London be aware of the influence they had on people’s lives. Readers are lead to believe that Tiny Tim will die due to the lack of medical treatment provided because of lack of money. In the same way, the novel stresses the evil environmental effects of poverty through a boy and a girl who were ‘yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish, but prostrate, too, in their humility.’ Dickens takes a materialistic and deterministic view of the relationship between character and environment. Ignorance and Want are included in the story to demonstrate how they have been forgotten and neglected by the middle classes. Among the excess of an industrial society those children will die of starvation. Dickens establishes a link between bounty and degradation. To Dickens poverty is something evil in itself. Those children are representative of the class of poor children who need to be helped in order to change their fate. The absence of education does not give them the possibility of changing their social status and leaves them in the misery where they will die from diseases due to bad nutrition or lack of hygiene.

Money dehumanises and degrades people morally. The three Christmas spirits and Marley's inform him about the insubstantiality of wealth. ‘You have a chance yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.' The inappropriate use of their wealth during their lives condemns the ghosts to remain linked to their commodities after death when it is too late to change. After their death, they lose their economic power. Scrooge lives in his bachelor apartment surrounded by cash-boxes, keys, padlocks and so forth, which represent his financial practice. His apartment is a reflection of his inner self, a space in which he makes money and does not spend anything. For people like Scrooge, every human being has only the value of a commodity. Scrooge is immune to his nephew’s humanising influence until the very end of the story when he sees his own future death. The ghost of the past confronts him with the moment in his life when he chose wealth over love. Bell says she has been replaced by ‘a golden idol.’ Memory reminds Scrooge of a time when he still felt emotionally connected to other people before closed himself off in an austere state of alienation. Scrooge needs to develop compassion for others in order for him to be able to use his money in a different way.

After Scrooge's redemption, he becomes more generous. He improves the life of the whole Cratchit family. He increases Bob's salary and buys them a turkey. He makes a generous donation to the two gentlemen who were collecting money the day before and he thanks them for accepting his donation. The novella emphasizes the need for placing correct feelings toward the poor. If people were more generous, society would be a better place to live in. Through fiction Dickens wants to reestablish a sentimental link between the middle-class and the poor. He exposes the social problems existing in the capitalist society however; he does not advocate major changes in the social system. Scrooge is not supposed to give up his business, nor is the capitalist system supposed to be altered in any way. Neither Scrooge nor the reader can ever escape from the fundamentals of capitalist exchange. Dickens’s intention is to urge the masters of society to have compassion for others and do not worry only about profitability. They need to take responsibility in the general well being to preserve the existence of society. Affection and kindness are essential in the preservation of humanity.

To summarise, Dickens emphasises the importance of money as a social panacea. All social problems are organised under the overarching theme of Money. Money can purchase anything. It defines a place within society. Nevertheless, Dickens criticises that money alone forms the cement of a society no longer held together by human bonds. The reformed Scrooge no longer sees wealth as a goal in itself but as a way to do well in the world. The tale emphasises how Scrooge becomes a better capitalist by using his money for charitable purposes. It is only through feeling compassion for others that he puts his money into circulation and, paradoxically, contributes to alleviating the inequalities generated by capitalism. Therefore, Dickens does not formulate a rational explanation of poverty, simply creates a bridge between the world of money and the scenes of poverty, which Scrooge had consciously overlooked or ignored. Dickens reports the misanthropy toward the poor and urges the readers to have more compassion toward those less fortunate, especially at Christmas, a time where the social differences are more visible.

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