The quote is said by Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, introducing the cold-hearted, miserly nature of the character to the reader.
Scrooge is visited in his counting-house by two benefactors wishing to make provision for the poor and destitute at this time of year. Scrooge angrily replies that prisons and workhouses are the only charities he is willing to support and the gentlemen leave empty-handed. Scrooge’s words imply he would rather the poor be dead, as he views them as a burden to society if they are not able to support themselves. Later on that night his words are used against him by the three ghosts that visit.
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).
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “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 off 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. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.
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