Historical Context in A Christmas Carol

Historical Context Examples in A Christmas Carol:

Preface 1

"I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book..."   (Preface)

Charles Dickens loved Christmas and had very fond memories of the holiday with his family. In 1843, a father of several children himself, Dickens read a report on child labor abuses in England. The report prompted Dickens to visit the Field Lane Ragged School (ragged schools were schools that provided free education, and in some cases food, shelter, and clothing to poor children) but was horrified by the conditions. This ultimately encouraged Dickens to write a politically productive novel that would “raise” awareness.

"decrease the surplus population..."   (Stave One)

As Victorian England was in an economic crisis, there was a movement that advocated for population reduction. Thomas Malthus, a British economist, was widely credited as one of the founders of this ideology. His publications theorized that a population “surplus” would mean a food supply deficit and that solving this problem meant strictly limiting reproduction. Malthus later supported the institution of workhouses since separating families was thought to decrease reproduction and increase industrial productivity. It is unclear if Scrooge has read Malthus or not, but he seems to have been influenced by this popular belief that population control should start with the poor.

"Treadmill..."   (Stave One)

The “treadmill” or “treadwheel” was a device introduced to British prison systems in 1818 by Sir William Cubitt, an engineer. As punishment, prisoners would be forced to climb wooden steps on rotation in order to generate power. The treadmill was commonly used for power to grind grains, but sometimes was simply used for punishment. Treadwheels could also be found in union workhouses, wherein the poor resident workers were “employed” to generate power for ten hours a day with a short break. The use of treadwheels for punishment and forced labor was eventually banned in Britain by 1898

" Union workhouses..."   (Stave One)

One of the main political issues that Dickens was concerned with was the astounding level of poverty in 19th-century England, especially in London. Often the poor, sick, mentally ill, or orphaned would end up in a “union workhouse.” These workhouses were established by the British Government’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 in order to offer food and shelter to the poor in exchange for work. The workhouses were notoriously overcrowded, unclean, and many people nearly starved. The work itself was grueling and designed to keep workers busy at all times. Children were not exempt from working and were often denied visiting rights to their parents who were forced to stay in separate barracks.

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course..."   (Stave One)

Dickens does two things in this passage. First, he further characterizes Scrooge as an unsympathetic miser. Second, he has Scrooge represent the ignorant and uncharitable attitude of the wealthy and aristocratic classes of the time, whom Dickens himself despised. Since value was often equated with financial status, Scrooge, and others like him, failed to see value in those who needed financial assistance.

"charwoman..."   (Stave Four)

“Charwoman” refers to a woman hired by a household typically to clean, do chores, etc. During the Victorian era, it was very popular to hire domestic servants, and the number of domestic servants a household had was a marker of socio-economic status. However, since cleaning was a much more time-consuming and grueling task than it is today, most households, even those that were middle-class, at least hired a charwoman.

"half a crown..."   (Stave Five)

"Half a crown," or a "half crown," was equivalent to two shillings and sixpence (six pennies in the United States.) This would be considered quite a generous sum for a quick errand during Dickens's time, and considering that Scrooge could easily fetch the turkey himself, it highlights his change in character. Scrooge is essentially giving this child a Christmas gift.

"Walk-ER..."   (Stave Five)

“Walk-er,” also known as “hookey walker,” was a term that was commonly used to express incredulity. The speaker would often use the word in much the same way that “nonsense” or “humbug” might have been used.