How does Dickens portray poverty?
In his classic novella A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens portrays three kinds of poverty: poverty of means, poverty of will, and poverty of spirit.
Poverty of means is described early in the story by one of the "portly men" who comes into Ebenezer Scrooge's counting house soliciting funds for the poor.
“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.”
This kind of poverty is so endemic that the "portly men" and Scrooge are able to discuss society's attempts address the problem.
“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 vigor, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
Dickens portrays poverty of means as harmful to individuals and detrimental to society as a whole. In stave 3, "The Second of the Three Spirits," the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge how widespread poverty truly is.
Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery's every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.
Poverty of means is exemplified in A Christmas Carol by Bob Cratchit and his family. The Cratchit family isn't destitute—they represent a family of the "working poor"—but they're barely able to "make ends meet" on Bob Cratchit's meager salary.
“There's another fellow,” muttered Scrooge; who overheard him: “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas."
Dickens shows the particular effect that poverty has on children, such as Tiny Tim, who are particularly susceptible to their parents' lack of money to pay for proper medical care.
Poverty of will is demonstrated by the Ghost of Christmas Present in stave 3.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts..."
From the foldings of its robe it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. ...
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. ...
Scrooge started back, appalled. ...
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man's,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. ..."”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
Throughout his adult life, Dickens advocated for social reforms. He believed that one of the greatest failings of the upper classes in Victorian society was their woeful lack of will to address the prevalence of ignorance and poverty that they see around them on a daily basis. The "workhouses," "treadmills," and "Poor Laws" that the Victorians instituted only made the problems worse.
Poverty of spirit is personified by Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge lacks any compassion, sympathy, or empathy for what Fred describes as "fellow-passengers to the grave." Scrooge goes through life "warning all human sympathy to keep its distance."
Scrooge has little concern for those of lesser financial means, and he has no regard whatsoever for those in dire financial need.
Scrooge even demeans his own nephew, Fred, for being poor.
“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!" ...
“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge's nephew. “You don't mean that, I am sure.”
“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! what right have you to be merry? what reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
In stave 1, "Marley's Ghost," the ghost of Scrooge's former business partner, Jacob Marley, warns Scrooge about Scrooge's failure to care for others.
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge...
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens shows Scrooge's transformation as representative of the transformation that he believes can be achieved in society as a whole, particularly regarding the poverty of means, of will, and of spirit.