The term “Dickensian” has come to refer to individuals or cabals that call to mind the more nefarious of the characters Charles Dickens conjured in his 19th century novels. At this time of year, we are often inclined to imagine that the most Dickensian of characters was Ebenezer Scrooge.
We can be quite certain that Dickens, keeping with tradition, would have called out the Scrooges of the Trump administration, who have been especially busy amidst this Christmastide. Maintaining the austerity regime of this cruel presidency, they have promulgated a new rule that is expected to cut off roughly 700,000 unemployed people from the “food stamp” benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Trump aides claim that the cuts, which are to be implemented early next year, will force more people to work.
There is no evidence that they are right and much to point out, as does The Atlantic, that “many of these people share their benefits with their family and social networks, including children and elderly family members. The ripple effects of the planned cuts will hurt this larger group of people too.”
This is a fully Dickensian proposal, of the sort the author anticipated in A Christmas Carol. Remember when Scrooge was approached by the gentlemen who appealed to his “liberality” in order “to make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.”
“A few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth,” Scrooge was told. “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!” replied Scrooge. He ranted, “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” Informed that his charity might not merely ease the burden of the poor but spare their very lives, he retorted, “It’s not my business.”
So Dickens began A Christmas Carol, a book that echoed the radical tenor of a time when the world was coming to recognize the truth that poverty and desolation need not be accepted by civil society—or civilized people. Dickens let Scrooge speak the language of the conservative men of commerce and politics, who opposed the revolutionary movements that were sweeping Europe as the author composed his ghost tale.
What made A Christmas Carol an ageless tale was Dickens’s imagining that spirited prodding from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future could change Scrooge. After an unsettling Christmas Eve, the businessman hastened into the streets of London and came upon one of the gentlemen who had appealed to his liberality. Scrooge announced his desire to give generously to the current collection and to assured his comrade that “a great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you.”
The poor were suddenly the miser’s business. So, too, was Scrooge’s formerly impoverished employee, Bob Cratchit, “and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.” So it was that Scrooge became “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”
Scrooge changed, but Dickensian characters the world over live on, and the debate continues, in much the same language the author heard in the winter of 1843. We live again in an age of unrelenting austerity. We see poverty amid plenty. The poor walk our streets, as do the Scrooges.
We’d best offer blessings liberally this season, with hopes that one day we will, all of us, keep Christmas well.