I have no idea whether Charles Dickens, if he were alive today, would have joined the Occupy Wall Street movement. Given the revulsion he expressed when America’s riff-raff had the temerity to become overly familiar on his two visits to this country, one may doubt his commitment to overthrowing society’s class structure. Despite this, he may still be considered among the movement’s intellectual forerunners. For it was he, in the person of his literary creation Ebenezer Scrooge, who gave the world a character who embodied all of the evil traits the Occupiers attribute to today’s 1 percent. In fact, Scrooge might, in many ways, be considered the literary patron saint of the Occupy movement. Who among them does not dream of a time when today’s 1 percent will find the same inspiration Scrooge did, and give away their riches to “more deserving” folk? Oh wait. The occupiers don’t want the rich to give their money away to the charities of their choice. They want the government to take the wealth of the rich and give it away according to the Occupiers’ desirers.
Either way, such actions are not really going to do much to improve the human condition. I contend that Scrooge, before he became “enlightened,” was already doing more to help his fellow man than any of the other main characters we meet in A Christmas Carol. Moreover, by giving away a substantial portion of his accumulated fortune, he drastically reduced his ability to do even more good in the world.
Scrooge was a “man of business” and evidently a shrewd and successful one. Although Dickens fails to tell us exactly what line of business Scrooge is in, a typical 19th-century “man of business” could be expected to involve himself in many endeavors — what investment advisers today refer to as diversifying one’s risk. One can infer from A Christmas Carol that Scrooge was a financier, who lent money to both businesses and individuals. He also spent long hours at the Exchange, probably speculating on commodities, buying and selling government debt, and purchasing and selling shares in various joint stock companies.
We can also infer some things about Scrooge that Dickens does not tell us directly. He left boarding school early, supposedly because his father had a change of heart toward him and wanted him home. A lack of finances may also have had something to do with it, as Scrooge’s formal education ended early and he was apprenticed as a low-level clerk to a tradesman — Mr. Fezziwig. From this low start, Scrooge exhibited a relentless drive that eventually made him rich. Along the way, his business had to survive the Napoleonic Wars, adapt to the Industrial Revolution, and fight its way through several severe economic depressions. In fact, in the year A Christmas Carol was written (1843), Britain was just coming out of a five-year economic slowdown in which only the most nimble and carefully managed enterprises survived. During Scrooge’s business life, upwards of 100 businesses failed for every one that succeeded. Scrooge must have been a very good businessman indeed.
There is no hint that, as Scrooge went about making his fortune, he was ever tainted with any scandal. He appears to be a well-respected, if not overly liked, member of the Exchange. This speaks well for his probity and recommends him as man with a reputation for fair and honest dealing with other businessmen. He probably drove a hard bargain, but that is the nature of business, and his firm’s survival as a going concern depended on it. As Scrooge is trying to keep his doors open in the midst of a great economic downturn, one should not be surprised that he is cutting firm expenses by reducing coal usage. Still, he is not being overly stingy by paying his clerk, Bob Cratchit, 15 shillings a week. According to British Historical Statistics, 15 shillings a week was about the average for a clerk at the time, and nearly double what a general laborer earned. While Cratchit may have to skimp to make ends meet, he is paid enough to own a house and provide for a rather large family. Cratchit is not rich, but by the standards of the time he is doing well. Besides, given the hard economic times, he is lucky to have any job at all. If Scrooge had not been careful with his money, his firm would have folded, and then where would Cratchit be? We may of course also infer something about Cratchit that goes unstated in Dickens’s work. His inability over perhaps two decades to advance himself or secure a better position with a more benevolent boss betrays a singular lack of ambition on his part.