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The primitive Keynesianism of Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol'

The traditional interpretation of Scrooge is of an avaricious miser graced by visitations which convert him into an enthusiast for Christmas. But from a Keynesian point of view, Scrooge is a hoarder with an obsession for maintaining almost complete liquidity in deflationary times like the early 1840’s. Even then, Dickens recognised the problem and understood the cure…

I.

Dickens’s description of Scrooge bespeaks distasteful personal experience with money-lenders. We know from the first pages that Scrooge is the most cold-hearted of penny-pinchers: “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.” Further, although Scrooge has inherited a fortune as Jacob Marley’s business partner and sole surviving heir, he is still living in Marley’s old chambers in a building where all the other rooms are being rented as commercial offices and where a wine merchant has stored his casks in the cellars. Scrooge has changed nothing about the rooms, added nothing to them, and spends almost nothing on his own creature comforts. He has only a low fire for himself on a bitter winter night and takes only gruel for his cold. Further, as we later discover, his scavenged belongings would bring only a few shillings and pence from the rag-and-bone shop man. Indeed, although Scrooge is a rich man, he has spent almost nothing of his wealth but instead apparently has hoarded his money as liquid capital for his firm, which has a place on the Royal Exchange and evidently handles foreign exchange and discount bills. That is, he deals in private and commercial credit.

His financial practice is represented by the “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel” that weigh down old Marley’s Ghost, and which the Ghost says are also weighing down Scrooge. To remain financially sound, Scrooge has remained extremely liquid so as to have cash and to meet any bill presented to him for immediate payment. However, as John Maynard Keynes remarks in his General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, ”of the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity”. The worst thing an individual can do in financial crises and the thing that, according to Keynes, has the most “disastrous, cumulative, and far-reaching repercussions” is not to spend one’s income on either investment or consumption, but to hoard it, as Scrooge has done, under lock and key.

Ebenezer ScroogeOriginal artwork for openDemocracy by Hannah Abbo

As Scrooge’s fiancée Belle rightly points out, the psychological motivation for Scrooge’s economic behaviour is fear. In releasing him from their engagement, she tells him that, “You fear the world too much” and that, “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach”. In particular, Scrooge worries about losing his reputation for being a financially sound businessman. In this regard, like others of his time, Scrooge feared not just the Sprit of Christmas Yet to Come but the financial future, which seemed likely in the deflationary moment of December 1843 to be very bleak. On Tuesday, December 19, 1843, the day that A Christmas Carol appeared…   the prices of goods in England had been falling for the past four years and had fallen during that time a total of 22.72 percent. During this period, the rate of deflation had thus been 5.68 percent a year; and, in particular, retrospective price indexes show that prices had fallen and the purchasing power of a pound had risen by five-and-a-half percent from the end of 1842 to the end of 1843. As a consequence, those with income in excess of their needs were spending no more at present than they had to spend, since they expected that tomorrow their pounds would likely buy more. Further, demand for borrowed money was historically low since most businessmen feared that they would not only have to pay back their debts in more valuable pounds but also that the demand for goods would continue to decline and reduce the return on any new investment…

By thinking that things will get worse, Scrooge has profited in the declining market that has prevailed since Marley’s death seven years before on Christmas Eve, in 1836. Indeed, his constant discovery that every pleasant thing is “humbug” represents his immediate discounting of any present pleasure against future pain. This general fear of the future felt by the English financial markets in 1843, and especially by Scrooge, is symbolically transmuted by the Ghost of Jacob Marley and the Spirits of Christmas, who, like the Fates, offer progressively more frightening consequences of not spending one’s money and who allow Scrooge to imagine a fate worse than his own bankruptcy and death.

In this atmosphere of business pessimism, there were more goods being produced than there was effective demand to consume those goods. As the Spirit of Christmas present shows Scrooge, the stores and shops are overflowing with good things to eat on Christmas Day:

“The poulterer’s shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”

Scrooge

The very amplification of Dickens’s catalogue attests to the abundance available, even begging, to be consumed. Indeed, the English were ironically in the midst of a Malthusian glut or what Carlyle, writing in Past and Present  also in 1843, accurately identified as “over-production”. And, of course, when Scrooge awakens from his visions on Christmas Day, the large prize turkey is still hanging in the local poulterer’s shop and has not yet been purchased by anyone. However, as we are shown by the Spirit of Christmas Present, the Cratchits, who only have Mr.Cratchit’s fifteen shillings a week and the prospect of a position paying five shillings and sixpence a week for the young Master Peter Cratchit, must make do at their Christmas dinner with a greasy goose “eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes”, a small pudding “like a speckled cannon-ball,” followed by apples and oranges and “a shovel–full of chestnuts on the fire”...

If the Bob Cratchits of England cannot possibly afford to buy the prize turkeys in the local shops, those with incomes like Scrooge can. For this reason, A Christmas Carol in both its message and its physical appearance as a book was aimed at wealthy readers and sought to create an atmosphere of cheerful consumption. As Keynes remarks, in his proposal for curing the crises of confidence which afflict the economic life of the modern world, “a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic”. Scrooge obviously is in accord with Keynes’ thinking, for as he wakes up from the visitation of the Christmas Spirits (and I can’t help but think here of Alastair Sim playing the role in the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol) he declares, “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am merry as a schoolboy. I am giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”. Scrooge’s transformation is also signalled by the bubbling over of his sudden access of good humour after he has impulsively and extravagantly spent his money and has ordered the cab to Camden Town: “The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried”. It is certainly the impulsive, spontaneous character of Scrooge’s new beneficence that Dickens emphasises.

Scrooge

II.

Dickens explicitly counters the gloomy Malthusianism that had previously informed Scrooge’s first response to the gentlemen raising charitable donations: “If they would rather die… they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population”. Dickens’s vision of the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner imagines a humanity quite different from the one portrayed in the following extraordinary and controversial passage from the 1803 edition of Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population:

“A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents, on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed; the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders against all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.”

Such a remorselessly self-righteous vision has no place for those like Tiny Tim who is a “fresh comer” at a full table and who is likely, as the Spirit of Christmas Present tells Scrooge , to be hurried away to the grave. In just this spirit, William Bridges Adams, a noted railway inventor, reviewing Henry Hengist Horne’s  New Spirit of the Age (1844) for the Westminster Review, sneered in passing at Dickens’s Christmas Carol:

“ A great part of the enjoyments of life are summed up in eating and drinking at the cost of munificent patrons of the poor; so that we might almost suppose the feudal times were returned. The processes whereby poor men are to be enabled to earn good wages, wherewith to buy turkeys for themselves, does not enter into the account; indeed, it would quite spoil the dénouement and all the generosity. Who went without turkey and punch in order that Bob Cratchit might get them – for, unless there were turkey and punch in surplus, some one must go without – is a disagreeable reflection kept wholly out of sight.”

Adams explicitly recalls Malthus’s logic that for every person eating there must be someone starving and that the demand for goods far outstrips both the supply of those goods and the ability to pay for them. Further, as a sceptical representative of the dismal science of political economy, Adams clearly cannot imagine that either turkeys or punch could ever exist in surplus or that consumer demand might ever be in need of stimulation.

Ironically, in Dickens’s world everyone is potentially a beggar at “nature’s mighty feast”, for even Scrooge finds that he must ask to be admitted to his nephew’s Christmas dinner. Scrooge, who felt that the prisons, Union work-houses, Treadmill and Poor Law furnished sufficient “Christmas cheer of mind or body to the multitude”, is soon lectured to by the Ghost of Christmas Present about his own possible worthlessness in heavenly eyes:

‘ “ 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!”’

The man with more money is cautioned against thinking of himself as much more than “the Insect on the leaf,” which fortunately has food and by pure chance lives above “his hungry brothers in the dust.” To think that one’s good fortune somehow gives one the right to decide whether someone else has the right to live or die is to Dickens obviously morally wrong.

III.

Victorian readers and hearers of A Christmas Carol found irresistible its message to eat well at Christmas and to invite others to do so. Perhaps the best-known reaction to A Christmas Carol is that of Thomas Carlyle. Jane Welsh Carlyle, in a letter to Jeannie Welsh of December 28, 1843, tells how after her husband had read the presentation copy that Dickens had sent him earlier in December, he was inspired to hold a series of dinners:

“A huge boxful of dead animals from the Welshman [Mr.Redwood] arriving late on Saturday night together with the visions of Scrooge – has so worked on Carlyle’s nervous organisation that he had been seized with a perfect  convulsion of hospitality, and has actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties with only a day between – Now the  Improvisation  of dinner parties is all very well for the parties that eat them, simply, but for those who have to organise  them and help to cook them, c’est autre chose ma chere! I do not remember that I have ever sustained a moment of greater embarrassment in life than yesterday when Helen [her cook] suggested to me that “I had better stuff the Turkey as she had forgotten all about it”! I had never known “about it”!

But rather than admit her ignorance to her servant, Mrs. Carlyle then triumphantly recalls her success: “I proceeded to stuff the Turkey… ‘Fortune favours the brave’ – the stuffing proved pleasanter to the taste than any stuffing I ever remember to have eaten – perhaps it was made with quite new ingredients! – I do not know!” Perhaps thinking of Carlyle, Thackeray, at the end of his February 1844 review in Fraser’s Magazine of A Christmas Carol, comments on the story’s effect upon its readers:

“A Scotch philosopher, who nationally does not keep Christmas-day, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dine – this is a fact! Had the book appeared a fortnight earlier, all the prize cattle would have been gobbled up in pure love and friendship, Epping denuded of sausages, and not a turkey left in Norfolk. His royal highness’s fat stock would have fetched unheard-of prices, and Alderman Bannister would have been tired of slaying. But there is a Christmas for 1844, too; the book will be as early then as now, and so let speculators look out.”

There is also an especially touching instance of a New England manufacturer who, after hearing Dickens read the story in Boston on Christmas Eve in 1867, gave his employees the next day off and beginning the next year gave all his employees a Christmas turkey. No doubt, many others were similarly inspired.

What matters from the Keynesian perspective, however, is not so much Scrooge’s new-found generosity to the gentleman who had solicited him earlier on behalf of the poor but his extravagance in spending his own money. Not only does he have the little fellow standing outside his window fetch the poulterer’s man with the prize turkey but he also promises him half a crown if he returns with the man in five minutes. Scrooge is suddenly willing to pay two and a half shillings to a boy for five minutes’ work, which is what Bob Cratchit, working six days a week, was paid for a whole day’s labor. On top of that, Scrooge is eager to send the poulterer’s man with the turkey by cab to Camden Town, more than five miles from the City of London, in order to deliver the turkey to the Cratchit family. So, while we don’t learn how much Bob Cratchit’s new, increased salary will be, we do recognize that Scrooge is quickly learning how to take pleasure in spending his money and is doing so in high style.

"The Primitive Keynesianism of Dickens's A Christmas Carol" was originally published in vol.30, Studies in the Literary Imagination,no.1(1997):pp.51-66

This reprint of sections I-III (of IV), (pp. 51-58) is in memory of Lee Erickson who died in May 2008, and with thanks to his partner, Ellen Martin, who brought this piece to our attention.

About the author

Lee Erickson became professor of English at Marshall University (Huntington, West Virginia) in 1981. Specialising in the literary and publishing history of British poetry in the Romantic and Victorian eras, he wrote The Economics of Literary Form: English Literature and the Industrialization of Publishing:1800-1850 (Johns Hopkins,1996), and Robert Browning: His Poetry and His Audiences (Cornell,1984).


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