A Christmas Carol

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Social Dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Past, Present and Future – The Threat of Time Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Greed, Generosity and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Christmas and Tradition Theme Icon
Social Dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Christmas Carol, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Social Dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws Theme Icon

A Christmas Carol has attracted generations of readers with its clear parable-like structure and compelling ghost story. It’s a moral tale that has proven timeless, but Dickens also wrote the story with a very present problem in mind, and his structure was designed to make the real issues of Victorian London stand out and provide greater awareness in the reading masses. For instance, the two gentlemen that ask for Scrooge’s charity are kindly but unable to inspire Scrooge’s sympathies. In Scrooge’s easy assurance that the poor not only belong in but actually deserve to live in the poor house, the story conveys a message about the visibility and effectiveness of charity being swamped by common misconceptions that the poor house is a functional institution keeping poor people usefully employed. In fact, the poor house was an institution that did nothing to help the poor. Rather, it was a terrible place that served primarily to keep the poor out of view of those who were better off. Scrooge’s repetition of his dismissive phrase “Humbug!” is a symbol of the insensitivity and ignorance of the middle class looking down on and dismissing the poor.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows us not only Scrooge’s miserable future but also the future of his contemporaries, the traders and bankers that are discussing his funeral lunch and not caring at all that he has died. Dickens shows us that meanness is often connected to the pursuit of wealth. Further, he shows how such meanness is a cycle, almost catching. Scrooge, then, transforms a larger fate than his own when he discovers charity.

In fact, A Christmas Carol has had a tangible effect on poverty, at least on a small, individual scale – stories abound of factory owners and merchants being so affected by readings of A Christmas Carol that they sent their workers gifts and changed harsh conditions.

Social Dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Social Dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws appears in each chapter of A Christmas Carol. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Social Dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws Quotes in A Christmas Carol

Below you will find the important quotes in A Christmas Carol related to the theme of Social Dissatisfaction and the Poor Laws.
Stave 1 Quotes

Oh! But 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.

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

In establishing the setting and characters of the novella, the narrator makes sure to impart upon the reader that Scrooge is not just a grumpy, jaded old man--he is mean to the core, and makes sure no one mistakes him as otherwise. This quote illustrates the narrator's emphatic attempt to use every adjective to describe Scrooge's meanness, and epitomizes Dickens' characteristically descriptive (and here amusing and rather lighthearted) prose. 

This quote illustrates a number of images that help the reader to understand just how cruel Scrooge is: he is not just tight-fisted in terms of his finances, but rather "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping," to the point that he pinches every penny and will not let one coin fall out of his grasp for a poorer soul to snatch. And yet, despite his hoarded wealth, he is still a "covetous old sinner," who wants more and more yet refuses to spend one bit of it (covetousness, or greedy envy, is one of the seven deadly sins). He is "hard and sharp as flint," suggesting he is caustic and mean to anyone who comes close enough to be pricked by his words, and "no steel had ever struck out generous fire," meaning no human being has ever coaxed him into exuding any kind of warmth or philanthropy. Like an oyster that keeps its pearl inside, and only relinquishes its inner jewel when pried open and ultimately dead, Scrooge thoroughly intends to keep his wealth to himself until the day he dies--and, ideally, to his own earthly grave.

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'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'

Related Characters: Jacob Marley (speaker), Ebenezer Scrooge
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Marley's ghost, wrapped in chains, visits Scrooge in his room that night. He is bound by his sins--represented by the chains--to roam the earth in purgatory. He thus visits Scrooge to warn him to change his ways or face a miserable fate like his after death. Scrooge expresses surprise at Marley's sentence, saying that he was a "good man of business." In this quote, Marley is upset by Scrooge's statement, noting that the business of dealing with goods and finances is but a small aspect of life; paying respect to his fellow mankind should have been his business, as he has only seen too late. 

Marley visits Scrooge to show him what kind of fate--or perhaps worse--awaits him if he continues his miserly ways. Scrooge's only delight in life is the making and hoarding of money, and Marley here urges him to think of the "common welfare," which Scrooge refuses to acknowledge. Scrooge thinks every person's misery is their own fault, and to be poor is to be lazy and to be wealthy is to have high morals. In making and keeping his own wealth, spending very little and giving away absolutely nothing, Scrooge equates his thrift to morality and assumes that this will buy his way into heaven. Marley refutes this thinking and tells him quite the opposite: to ignore one's fellow men in need is to buy one's way down towards Hell. Just because Scrooge chooses to ignore everyone in need, doesn't mean that his inaction cannot be counted against him at St. Peter's Gate: he is equally at fault for what he does not do (give affection or charity to anyone or anything) than what he does do (hoard his money). Marley's apparition serves to warn him of what will happen if he continues to live a solitary and mean life--an afterlife of regrets and woe. 

Stave 3 Quotes

The sight of these poor revellers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Scrooge beside him in a baker's doorway, and taking off the covers as their bearers passed, sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch.

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge, The Ghost of Christmas Present
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

The Ghost takes Scrooge onto the streets of London, where everyone, rich and poor, is celebrating Christmas merrily. When they notice two people getting into an argument over dinner, the Ghost sprinkles incense from his horn of plenty onto their food. Immediately, the quarrel ends, as the arguers suddenly reason that there is no point fighting on the joyous day that is Christmas. 

In this quote, the Ghost shows Scrooge the merits of helping others, even if their misfortunes do not directly apply to him. The Ghost has no personal, vested interest in ensuring that these two people make amends, but it makes him happy to make them happy. Scrooge has more than enough wealth to do some good in the lives of those less fortunate, but refuses to engage in any kind of generosity, as he does not feel any impetus to help in the plight of others. He cites the poorhouse and jails as forms of welfare that already exist, thus, as he believes, rendering those who remain poor to be lazy and foolish for not finding ways to change their present situation. (Dickens was a famous opponent of both institutions, which did nothing to relieve poverty or crime.) In this quote, the Ghost shows Scrooge that just a little bit of generosity goes a long way, and can inspire a good feeling in both giver and receiver. Charity, Scrooge begins to learn, is a worthy cause regardless of whether he has any sort of tangible debt towards those less fortunate. He has more than he needs, and using his means to put a smile on another's face is cause enough to join the charitable spirit of Christmas. 

Stave 4 Quotes

'If he wanted to keep them 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.'

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge
Related Symbols: Images of Age and Youth
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

The Ghost of Christmas Future brings Scrooge to the room where people are picking apart the possessions of a man who recently died. In this quote, an enterprising woman who is taking the deceased man's things argues that if the old man wanted to keep his things or give them to a person of his choosing, he should have been kinder (more "natural") in life. Due to his meanness, the reader learns that this man died entirely alone, "gasping out his last...alone by himself."

As Scrooge soon learns, the man in question is him--and this solitary death is to be his fate if he does not change his ways. As a wealthy but stingy man, the townspeople who hear of his death revel in taking from Scrooge the things that they could never have for want of resources. Had Scrooge been more generous with his time, kindness, and wealth, he may have had friends and family surrounding him as he gasped out his last breath. But due to his miserly ways, he had no one, and died completely alone. As a result, there was no one to protect his estate after his passing, rendering his possessions completely up for grabs. To those whom Scrooge spurned in his living days, stealing the dead man's possessions is a kind of revenge on his stinginess in life--if he wouldn't be generous and donate his time or money, then they would take what they needed in his death, if only out of spite. When Scrooge realizes that the man they so despise is himself, he suddenly sees that this is not how anyone should aspire to end their days. Scrooge soon learns that empathy and kindness is worth far more than its weight in gold, and the company and love of others during and after one's life will always be more important than how much is in one's bank account. 

Stave 5 Quotes

He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk – that anything – could give him so much happiness.

Related Characters: Ebenezer Scrooge
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Scrooge dashes out of his house, eager for the first time in years to interact with and enjoy the presence of his neighbors. For the first time, he derives pleasure from seeing people come and go, and delights at the very feeling of such happiness. 

In this quote, Scrooge embodies for the first time the true spirit of Christmas as it has been imparted on him in the night. Though he has valued only business and money for decades, he suddenly realizes that it did not actually provide him with any happiness to make and hoard his wealth. His journeys with the Ghosts have shown him the importance of prioritizing the presence of people in his life, and the great gift of having the means to be generous and charitable. When he is dead and gone, he will not be able to enjoy his wealth and bitterness in the afterlife--the only thing he will be able to carry with him are the memories of his interactions with his fellow man. Marley, for his part, is bound to bear the weight of his meanness and miserly ways in the form of heavy chains. (He seemingly wasn't given the same supernatural aid as Scrooge.) Scrooge, now that he has understood the true meaning of empathy, charity, and of Christmas (as a kind of charitable ideal, not the literal Christian meaning), is free--in his present, and presumably after his death as well.