A Christmas Carol.
  • If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population‘ is a quotation from A Christmas Carol (Stave 1).
  • 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.


Quotation said by Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of the story 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 Christmas time. Scrooge angrily replies that prisons and workhouses are the only institutions he is willing to support and those who are badly off must go there. When one of the benefactors points out that many can’t go there; and many would rather die, Scrooge goes further with a Malthusian view that those that are poor or ill are surplus to the needs of society and if they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

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 Scrooge’s words are used against him when The Ghost of Christmas Present rebukes him, saying ‘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?.

Illustration from the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.
Illustration from the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing Ebenezer Scrooge (left), here being visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, bound by the chains he forged in life.

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, has died. The Ghost of Christmas Present then rebukes Scrooge with these Malthusian words (Stave 3).

Themes in A Christmas Carol: Social Injustice.

Charles Dickens used A Christmas Carol to attack social injustices of the time, particularly the indifference of wealthy people towards the poor. The introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act took away local parish help for the poor and institutionalized the process with Union workhouses. In return for food and shelter, the poor had to live semi-incarcerated lives in institutions where families were often split apart and made to do menial tasks to earn their keep. The businessman Ebenezer Scrooge has more than enough to share some of his money, particularly at a traditionally charitable time such as Christmas as reflected by two visiting charity collectors who explain it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. Not wanting to part with his money, the miserly Scrooge hides behind a Malthusian excuse that if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Scrooge views the poor and economically inactive (which he terms idle) as a burden to society, better off in a workhouse or even dead. He wants the Poor Law, workhouses or prisons to deal with the destitute, questioning the collectors whether The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then? before commenting that I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. Later on, in a vision presented by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge will see the impact of poverty in the household of Bob Crachit, his underpaid clerk, and their disabled son Tim. The Ghost warns Scrooge that Tim will die unless his life alters, repeating Scrooge’s callous remarks back to him If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Dickens’s attack on social injustice is most graphically shown by the two figures of an emaciated boy and girl, known as Ignorance and Want, shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Present. They represent contemporary problems in society caused by the attitude of the wealthy towards the poor. When Scrooge is touched by their plight, the Ghost again uses his words against him, saying to Scrooge Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Dickens use of children to represent societal ills of Ignorance and Want suggest that there is time to change. Later in the story, in a vision shown by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, we witness some of the poorest people in society, living in a squalid slum area, dividing up Scrooge’s stolen belongings to make a living, one of them commenting every person has a right to take care of themselves. He always did.


Taken from the following passage of Stave 1 (Marley’s Ghost) of A Christmas Carol:

“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.


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 goodwill towards men. The spirit transports Scrooge around the city, showing him scenes of festivity and also deprivation that is 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 his 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 naming 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?‘.

Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most famous characters created by Charles Dickens and arguably one of the most famous in English literature. The protagonist of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is the cold-hearted and mean-spirited accountant. His business partner, the equally mean Jacob Marley, died seven years previous and he lives alone, having never married. Through a visit one Christmas Eve by the ghost of Marley and three subsequent spirits, Scrooge is awakened to his meanness and the impact it has on others.

  • The term Scrooge has entered the English Language to represent a mean person, known as a literary neologism. Neologisms are relatively recent terms, words, or phrases in the process of entering common use. Other examples of Dickens neologisms include butterfingers (to mean a clumsy person) and doormat (metaphor for taking advantage of a person).
  • In screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol, the character of Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by actors that include Alastair Sim (1951 film), Albert Finney (1970 musical film), Michael Hordern (1977 TV Movie), George C. Scott (1984 TV Movie), Michael Caine (1992 musical fantasy film), Patrick Stewart (1999 TV Movie) and Guy Pearce (2019 TV Mini-Series). Michael Hordern had previously appeared alongside Alastair Sim in the 1951 film (titled Scrooge), this time playing the character of Jacob Marley.

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If they would rather die, they'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
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