Ebenezer Scrooge: Revealing Quotes—“Decrease the Surplus Population”
“If they would rather die… they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
This statement by Scrooge is in response to the gentlemen who, in Stave 1, enter the “Scrooge & Marley” office and ask for holiday donations. One of the gentlemen says that many of the poor “would rather die” than go to the “prisons” and “workhouses” that Scrooge has previously suggested as a suitable place to house and care for the poor.
The statement is very effective at introducing us to the landscape of Scrooge’s mind. He has already countered the gentlemen’s request for money by pointing to the fact that he pays taxes to fund certain institutions. He then counters their attempt to, indirectly, call upon his pity. Rather than say something like, “Oh, I didn’t know the prisons and workhouses were that bad,” thereby getting sucked into their pity trap, Scrooge counters again by upping raising the stakes per the above quotation, which indicates clearly that his pity is not available as a point of leverage for would-be fundraisers.
The entire exchange that culminates in this statement shows that Scrooge is very perceptive; he’s not oblivious to human need, cries for pity, and the plight of the poor. Nor is he oblivious to the verbal tactics with which others attempt to manipulate him. Nor is he too slow-witted to recognize and counter these attempted manipulations in the very moment in which they are happening. He is, in short, very perceptive on multiple levels.
Meanwhile, the mathematical and financial relationships realities of the situation are very present and apparent to him. He views society in terms of the money, math, and numbers. For instance, he’s readily aware of the fact that he is already paying to support certain public institutions. He recognizes, in a Mathusian way, that the resources that he and others pay into the system are not sufficient relative to the existing population. He, at least ostensibly, views those who are outside of the reach of existing resources as “surplus.” The fact that he chooses such a dehumanizing word shows that the numbers-based approach is both readily available to his standard way of thinking and also readily available to establish his negotiating position: pity-based arguments will carry no wait with him.
This interchange, comprising just a few lines that pay off in the multi-layered response quoted above, thus reveals a great deal about Ebenezer Scrooge in a very short span. It is but one of many examples of Charles Dickens‘ mastery.