Background.

A Christmas Carol.
  • If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” is a quotation from A Christmas Carol (Stave 3).
  • A Christmas Carol is a novella, or short story, written by Charles Dickens and first published in the Christmas of 1843. The allegorical tale tells the story of the transformation of the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge through the visits of the spirit of his former business partner and three ghosts over the course of a Christmas Eve night. It remains a much-loved traditional Christmas tale.

Context.

Quote said by The Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebenezer Scrooge. The Ghost of Christmas Present is the second of the three spirits that haunt the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, in order to prompt him to repent his selfish ways.

In Stave 3 of A Christmas Carol, The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Ebenezer Scrooge to witness the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Scrooge sees a table prepared for the Christmas meal. Bob comes home from church with their youngest child, ‘Tiny’ Tim, who is disabled and walks with a crutch. He asks the Ghost if Tim will live. The Ghost replies that he see’s an empty chair, if these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die. Scrooge is saddened by this and asks the Ghost for him to be spared. The Ghost replies with these words, repeating a Malthusian view that Scrooge exhibited earlier.

In Stave 1, we saw Scrooge dismiss some charity collectors who had visited his business, asking for money for the poor at Christmas time. Refusing to give them money, Scrooge sent them on their way, saying if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. The Ghost uses this view against Scrooge by suggesting that if Tim is likely to die from his illness, then he will help decrease the population.


Illustration from Stave 3 of the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing the
Ghost of Christmas Present visiting Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ghost of Christmas Present.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is the second of the three spirits that haunt the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, in order to prompt him to repent. He appears to Scrooge as a jolly giant with dark brown curls, wearing a fur-lined green robe and on his head a holly wreath set with shining icicles. He carries a large torch, made to resemble a cornucopia, and appears accompanied by a great feast, and a scabbard with no sword in it, a representation of peace on Earth and good will toward men. The spirit transports Scrooge around the city, showing him scenes of festivity and also deprivation that are happening as they watch, sprinkling a little warmth from his torch as he travels. Amongst the visits are Scrooge’s nephew, and the family of his impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit and hs disabled son Tiny Tim. The spirit finally reveals to Scrooge two emaciated children, subhuman in appearance and loathsome to behold, clinging to his robes, and names the boy as Ignorance and the girl as Want. The spirit warns Scrooge, ‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.‘ The spirit once again quotes Scrooge, who asks if the grotesque children have ‘no refuge, no resource,‘ and the spirit retorts with more of Scrooge’s unkind words: ‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?‘.

Malthusian view.

Scrooge’s view of decreasing the surplus population was a contemporary idea introduced by the economist Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834). Malthus argued that increases in population would overtake the development of sufficient land for crops and diminish the ability of the world to feed itself. His rather apocalyptic conclusions that poverty and mass starvation was an inevitable result of population growth were still current in British intellectual thinking at the time that A Christmas Carol was written, although Malthus had died nine years before. Dickens was opposed to the views of Thomas Malthus and uses the mean character of Scrooge to show this. Later on in the story, Scrooge will witness what poverty has done to the family of his own employee, Bob Cratchit, when he witnesses a vision of their desperately ill son, Tiny Tim, having died. The Ghost of Christmas Present then rebukes Scrooge with these Malthusian words (Stave 3).

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Stave 3 (The Second Of The Three Spirits) of A Christmas Carol:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? 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. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Scrooge bent before the Ghost’s rebuke, and trembling cast his eyes upon the ground. But he raised them speedily, on hearing his own name.

“Mr. Scrooge!” said Bob; “I’ll give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast!

The Founder of the Feast indeed!” cried Mrs. Cratchit, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.

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If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
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