Scrooge and Malthus: Satire versus Satirical Writing

Mr. Jerry Bowyer is an economist, author, Great Books lover and friend of this blog (HogPro All-Pros will recall it was Jerry and Susan Bowyer who spotted the ‘House of Gaunt’ with its ‘Dark Mark’ in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair). Forbes magazine ran a fascinating column by Mr. Bowyer last December on the allegorical and satirical meaning of Dickens’ Christmas Carol called ‘Malthus and Scrooge.’ I bring the column to your attention for two reasons.

First, it’s spot-on brilliant, it’s well written, concise, and it opens up the familiar Christmas pageant story to an aspect of Dickens’ writing that escapes most 21st century readers, namely, the 19th century targets at which Dickens was aiming.

Second, I think it’s helpful in understanding what literary satire is. There is satirical writing, which is essentially manners-and-morals fiction, that just holds up bad behavior for ridicule and a few laughs, and then there is satire proper. Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery are satirical writers, for example, but calling them satirists I think inevitably means confusing them with writers like Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, and, yes, Charles Dickens. Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, and Christmas Carol have specific people and ideas as targets for our reflection rather than generic human types (if they also paint brilliantly in broad strokes).

This distinction is important because, while both satirical writing and satire are didactic and moralistic, the specific teaching and idea of right and wrong picked up by the reader depends on his or her identifying correctly whether the writer is after one thing, the other, or both.

In Carol, we usually see Scrooge when we read his story today as just a greedy guy who is taught an important lesson by his late night, supernatural visitors. Mr. Bowyer points out that this is a valid reading but misses the depth of Dickens’ lesson about Nativity (and the birth of Christ in every man) and the specific idea Dickens thinks was crippling Scrooge spiritually. Without grasping the Malthusian error that Dickens is portraying in story, we’re left with a generic rich black-hat whose rebirth we misunderstand and pigeonhole as something less meaningful to us than it is. Malthusians live among us; they staff your local Planned Parenthood center and abortion clinic, for example, and Dickens is writing to readers who work there or support such things.

In Harry Potter, we have Aunt Marge. As I write in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures, this wonderful character is allegorical on two levels. She is a caricature, of course, of every pompous relation that is willing (especially after a few drinks) to run down those people even in their own families whom they want to believe are less worthy than they are. Harry’s Aunt Marge is simultaneously, though, a carefully drawn Cruishankian cartoon of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, whose conservative politics and legacy Ms. Rowling finds deplorable. Missing this pointed satire, both with respect to the specific target and the political beliefs involved, means much of the artistry of this chapter and what Harry is enraged by is lost.

I’d add one note here that is explained at much greater length in Bookshelf. C. S. Lewis said that the aim of allegory is not to bring the reader out of the experience of the story to note the referents and didactic meaning but to draw them further in to a greater appreciation of the good or evil quality or idea represented.

In this respect, satirical writing is often, in my opinion, much more powerful and effective in reader engagement and transformation than satire, per se. Animal Farm is a delight but it is also an intellectual exercise in tracking characters and corresponding historical figures, events, and ideas. Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, in contrast, are relatively easy to enter in and experience the lesson viscerally and subliminally, which lesson I think becomes an aspect of the serious reader’s understanding, even his or her identity.

In some books, though, say, Christmas Carol and Harry Potter, missing the satire means missing the depth of the social commentary and allegorical level of meaning. Without it, we’re left with surface and moral meanings and have no passage to the more edifying anagogical or mythic layer at story’s heart.

I as for your comments and corrections, as always.

Malthus And Scrooge
Jerry Bowyer 12.25.08, 12:00 AM ET

“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.”

That phrase–surplus population–is what first tipped me off to Dickens’ philosophical agenda. He’s taking aim at the father of the zero-growth philosophy, Thomas Malthus. Malthus’ ideas were still current in British intellectual life at the time A Christmas Carol was written. Malthus, himself, had joined the surplus generation only nine years before. But his ideas have proved more durable.

Malthus taught the world to fear new people. An amateur economist, he created a theoretical model which allegedly proved that mass starvation was an inevitable result of population growth. Populations grow, he said, geometrically, but wealth only grows arithmetically. In other words, new people create more new people, but new food doesn’t create new food.

Malthus’ influence, unfortunately, grew geometrically and not arithmetically. His ideas provided fodder for Darwin, and Darwin’s lesser mutations used the model to argue for the value of mass human extinction.

Hitler’s hard eugenics and Sanger’s (founder of Planned Parenthood) softer one, both owed a great debt of gratitude to Thomas Malthus. So do the zero-growth, sustainable-growth, right-to-die, duty-to-die, life boat bio-ethicists who dominate so much of our intellectual discussion. Malthus turned out to be, ironically, right in some sense. His prediction of mass death has taken place; not because he was right, but because he was believed.

Dickens, I think, saw it first. Ebenezer Scrooge was clearly a Malthusian. When he turns away an opportunity for alms giving, he uses the zero growth rationale. When he meets the Ghost of Christmas Present, he reiterates it:

“You have never seen the like of me before!” exclaimed the Spirit.

“Never,” Scrooge made answer to it.

“Have never walked forth with the younger members of my family; meaning (for I am very young) my elder brothers born in these later years?” pursued the Phantom.

“I don’t think I have,” said Scrooge. “I am afraid I have not. Have you had many brothers, Spirit?”

“More than eighteen hundred,” said the Ghost.

“A tremendous family to provide for!” muttered Scrooge.

At this, the Ghost rose in what I presume is indignation. Scrooge cowers and submits. Then the ghost raises his torch (in the shape of a cornucopia) and leads Scrooge to the public market, brimming with food from all around the world. Dickens especially emphasizes the fruits of trade: almonds, Spanish onions and oranges (in winter, no less). The message is clear: The dirge-ists of the day are wrong. England, even with its poor classes, is a prosperous society. The world is abundant. Rest is possible. So is generosity.

Scrooge’s philosophy is not one based on the evidence; he ignores the evidence. He keeps setting aside the evidence of his senses with reference to the secular philosophy of his time. When he sees a spirit, he says that it’s just a piece of undigested beef causing him to hallucinate. He denies the realm of the spirit until it becomes simply undeniable.

Scrooge is not following reason; he’s following trauma. His mother died when he was young. He was sent to a boarding home where he and the other children were poorly fed. By the time he was brought back from exile to his home (which his sister said is ‘like heaven’), the damage to his core personality was done.

Dickens’ message is clear enough: The Malthusians of his day did not need evidence (which they ignored every day in the marketplace) or reason. They needed conversion. They needed healing. They needed to be reminded on the day where the world celebrates the birth of a child whom Rome and Herod try to assign to the role of ‘surplus population,’ that the frightened men who rule the world in the name of scarcity should not be followed, but saved.

Jerry Bowyer is a CNBC contributor. ( columnist Nouriel Roubini is away this week.)


  1. Robert Trexler says

    Dickens may have had Malthus in mind when writing that line for Scrooge, but his larger target was the current trend of political philosophy called Ultilitarianism championed by the political philospher Bentham. Early in Dicken’s career he was a court reporter and saw the indifference of many politicians to the plight of the poor and working class. Social injustice was a key theme for Dickens – but he didn’t advocate changing the structure of society by revolution or legislation. He distrusted systems to bring about reform. He wanted (as Jerry points out) for people themselves to be reformed. Dicken’s novel HARD TIMES is written a few years before A Christmas Carol and is the clearest example of Dickens condemnation of ultilitarianism.

  2. Thank you, both to John and Jerry. The distinction you point out between satire and satirical writing is really helpful, John, and isn’t one I had thought through so clearly before. Reading your reflections, I realized almost immediately that I’m drawn to writers who are either satirical rather than satirists (a la Austen) or who have that ability to mingle the broad stroke satirical writing with the occasionally more specific satirical zinger (a la Rowling’s Aunt Marge). I confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Gulliver’s Travels, though perhaps Harry Potter’s Bookshelf will help me “get” Swift!

    And Jerry’s article on Scrooge and Malthus is very illuminating. I thought his conclusion (the need not for evidence but for conversion) truthful and compassionate. And lest we think Malthusian thinking is no longer with us… well, just yesterday I read this blog post from Get Religion: in which it seems fairly clear that we’ve got some Malthusian thinkers in Congress. I found it a sobering thought: the idea that one way we can reduce costs is to reduce people, though it wasn’t stated quite as baldly as that.

  3. I would simply distinguish between a satire, and satire-in-writing. I like the definition of satire in Northrop Frye’s Theory of Archteypes, which well-known satires like Animal Farm and Brave New World fit. A satire ridicules individuals or social institutions that are familiar to us, and show how these absurdities lead to a downward spiral from which there is no escape – in other words, a satire begins with a bad situation and ends with a bad situation. Satires are cynical with regard to the outcome of things. Harry Potter is, overall, a comedy, very simply because it begins badly and ends well, although there are strands of satire in it: Lockhart, for instance, is shown to be ridiculous and shown no mercy.

    I find saying some writers satirize for a “light laugh” undermines the author’s intentions. How specific does the target have to be? Jane Austen was deliberately mocking Ann Radcliffe’s popular gothic novels in Northanger Abbey. One might be able to laugh off Mrs. Bennet’s maternal fussiness, but William Collins is a seriously sad portrait of a man who is really inept despite his ridiculous arrogance, just like Gilderoy Lockhart. Rowling, Austen, Dickens, Mark Twain etc. use satire in similar ways, to criticize individuals (or types of individuals) we recognize in society, but they did not write a satire.

  4. Arabella Figg says

    I like this very helpful distinction, John. I agree that Montgomery was a satirical writer who plunged her sharp pen into human behavior, including the rigid religious in Mrs. Lynde and snobs like the Sloanes. (Yet, in The Blue Castle, she smartly jabbed snake-oil patent medicines throughout–a critical plot point–even if she fudged a bit at the end).

    Like Beth, I’m more a fan of satirical writing than flat out satire.

  5. Bob Haskell says

    I have never understood what Scrooge means when he says “Excuse me – I don’t know that” in the following:

    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.”

    What doesn’t he know? Why does he say “excuse me”?

    Does anyone have the key to this?


    Bob H.

  6. What doesn’t he know? Why does he say “excuse me”?

    The answer, I think, is in the next lines —

    “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!”

    What he doesn’t know is the truth of the man’s statements about the inability of the poor to get to a workhouse or their unwillingness to go there. He says “excuse me” because he is suggesting that the man is a liar!

    When that man graciously suggests that Scrooge might know it, i.e., that he might easily become acquainted with the plight of London’s poorest citizens, Scrooge begs off. His lessons that night, of course, bring the Cratchett’s plight forcefully to his attention, not to mention his own interior poverty, which ghostly schooling ends in his metanoia in Stave Five.

    Merry Christmas to you!



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