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The invention of the steam engine and the development of the railways brought England a profound change by proliferating the Industrial Revolution, which created deep economic and social changes by the beginning of the Victorian age.
“Hundreds of thousands of workers had migrated to industrial towns, where they lived in horribly crowded, unsanitary housing and worked very long hours -fourteen a day or even more- at very low wages. Employers often preferred to hire women and children, who worked for even less than men.
Victorians debated the good and mostly bad sides of industrialism due to its great effect on the society and economy. Many philosophers and thinkers suggested a number of solutions for the problems of harsh working conditions, the unemployed poors and child labour. One of the most debated theories on the poor was “Utilitarianism” based on Jeremy Bentham’s idea that
pleasures, in so far as they are pleasures, are capable of being compared with each other as regards their quantity: a calculus of pleasures and pains is possible.
The end pursued by morals and legislation is the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or . . . the identification of the interest of all with the interest of each. . . .
He argued that pain and pleasure was universal and they could be calculated as concrete objects. As he preferred the majority’s pleasure to the minority’s, he named the unemployed poor people as “the surplus population” and claimed that they should be sacrificed for the pleasure of the majority, which inspired the idea of building work houses for the able-bodied poor.
As the poor people were considered as the surplus population, they were seperated from their families in order to prevent them from multiplying and being burden on the rich people.
Although Utilitarianism was liked and adopted by the government which collected the poor people in workhouses with so little care, its lack of humanity and spiritual values aroused disapproval and discontent among some thinkers and writers in the Victorian era. Thomas Carlyle, one of the most influential figures of his age, was among these discontent thinkers. He criticizes the general understanding of industrialism and mechanical thinking by attacking the inhuman side of Utilitarianism and industrialization. As a reprisal against the Poor Laws that demanded the building of workhouses, he defends the Laws of Nature, meaning that the behaviours of the utilitarians are unnatural.
Love of men cannot be bought by cash-payment; and without love, men cannot endure to be together…The Laws of Nature will have themselves fulfilled. That is a certain thing to me.”
His emphasis on the inhuman values of industrialism and machinery is seen in his article “The Mechanical Age” from Signs of the Times, where he expresses his discontent with the rise of machines in all aspects of the human life. He states that the old modes of production have changed completely with the invention of machines and human work has been replaced by the “speedier, inanimate one”.
While appreciating the development in the physical power of mankind and the comfort they achieved through the wealth gained by industrialization, Carlyle warns that this wealth is being gathered in the hands of rich classes, making the gap between the rich and the poor more and more wide. As the middle class gets more and more wealth through the industry, the working class becomes poorer gradually. This poor class, which is called as the “surplus population” by Bentham, turns into a burden on the government and the rich people, as they are driven to choose illegal ways like robbery, begging and pick-pocketing in order to earn their living. Carlyle thinks that the government tries to solve this problem mechanically, by accepting these poor people as the surplus production of “the Machine of Society”and trying to get rid of them by collecting them in workhouses where they live in inhuman conditions seperated from their spouses, for the fear that they can multiply.
Carlyle points at the utilitarian philosophers as the source of this mechanical thinking which makes the government to be only concerned about the physical conditions of the people which it regulates by public laws, rather than their spiritual conditions. He says that the philosophers of their age like Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith, who are the founding fathers of Utilitarianism, do not encourage moral goodness and they, “inculcate the reverse of this -that our happiness depends entirely on external circumstances; nay, that the strength and dignity of the mind within us is itself the creature and consequence of these.”
Then he criticizes the idea that “were the laws, the governmnet in good order, all were well with us; the rest would care for itself”. Read about lifestyle of the poor and rich
While Thomas Carlyle complains about the rare number of the people in his time, who are opposed to this principle, we see Charles Dickens the “most beloved and distinctive novelist” in the Victorian England, feeling deep symphathy for the so-called “the rest” or “the surplus population” in most of his works, due to his own experiences a child labourer and a lower-middle class person. When he was 12 years old, his father was put into prison for his debts and Dickens had to work in a Blacking Factory, which he depicts in his novel, Oliver Twist.
He was really worried about the situation of the child labourers and their lack of education. With his effective criticisms over the institutions of the industrial society, he is sometimes considered as the master of socialism, although he was not aware of the revolutionary job he was doing. He was very much influenced by Thomas Carlyle and indeed he dedicated his novel Hard Times, which is famous for its social criticism, to Carlyle, “indicating his ambition to write a work in the tradition of Carlyle’s social indictment, Signs of the Times.”
Apart from Hard Times, Charles Dickens deals with the surplus population mainly in his novella called “A Christmas Carol”, in which he embodies the economic and social theories of the Utilitarians in the character of Ebezener Scrooge, who is only concerned with material and the pleasure of earning money.
Scrooge is indifferent to the Christmas and its values of charity and helping the poor. The dialogue between Scrooge and the portly man collecting donation for the Poor reveals his embodiment of the industrialist thinking:
“-At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision fro 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.
-Are there no prisons?
-Plenty of prisons.
-And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?
-They are. Still. I wish I could say they were not.
-The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?
-Both very busy, sir.
-Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occured to stop them in their useful course. I’m very glad to hear it.”10
We understand how he represents the Utilitarian principles when he refuses to donate money for the Christmas charity and says that the prisons and the workhouses are enough for the Poor and desolutes; moreover, the government does its job by applying the Treadmill and the Poor Law, which actually do not meet the needs of the Poor. However, Scrooge, and the utilitarians represented by him, are content with the idea that they are doing enough for the Poor, by paying their taxes to the government which deals with the Poor. Scrooge also thinks that these people are the surplus population and they had better die in order to decrease this surplus population.
Instead of changing the system, Dickens chooses to change the individual in “A Christmas Carol” and turns him into a humane and lovely character in the end of the play by sending him three metaphorical ghosts representing his past, present and future through Scrooge’s dead partner Jacob Marley.
The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his childhood in the slums of the city and the warehouse he was apprenticed to. He remembers his boss doing a favour for his apprentices and letting them free for the Christmas night. And lastly he sees his quarrel with his love, who left him for his excessive desire for money and neglecting all other values. Scrooge feels for the first time a regret for his extreme economic and material concern and treating life as a business only.
The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to the house of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, who represents the father of a lower-middle class family, the lifestyle of which is modeled by Dickens’ own childhood experience. The Ghost shows Scrooge that even in poverty, the Christmas can inspire good will and generosity toward one’s neighbors. We understand that the poor people are not simply the surplus population as Benthamites argue. After the Crachit’s family, Scrooge is shown two children, but looking like monsters.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat entroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.11
The Ghost says that they are Ignorance and Want, the offsprings of the industrial society; and he warns that if the society reamins indifferent to these uneducated and poor children, they will cause the Doom of the society.
Thus, Dickens suggests the idea that if these poor children, who are forced to work are not educated, the industrialist society will confront Ignorance and Want that will cause great problems for the society. Terrified with the appearance of the children, Scrooge asks whether these children have any place to shelter; and the answer he gets is simply the same question he asked to the charity official: “Are there no prisons?”12 Like Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens criticizes the mechanical thinking of the Victorian age, which sees everything all right, as long as the institutions work well. (Look at the footnote 7)
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge that all his workers will steal his properties when he dies and the few people who will attend his funeral will be happy with the death of Scrooge. This is also a situation which justifies the idea of Carlyle that love and friendship cannot be bought by cash.
In “A Christmas Carol”, Dickens do not change the system, but he changes the man of the system through moral values like charity, good will and compassion, which are ignored by the Utilitarians, as Carlyle argues.
“A Christmas Carol” can be considered as the justification or the visual proof of Thomas Carlyle’s arguments in The Signs of the Times, such as the rejection of the idea that “it is by mere condition of the machine, by preserving it untouched, or else by reconstructing it, and oiling it anew, that man’s salvation as a social being is to be ensured and indefinitely promoted.”13 As we see in Scrooge’s story, although his business works well and his social class is secured by his wealth, he can’t be a social person unless he learns to emphatize with other people and develop moral values.
The fact that Bob Cratchit’s family is happy even though they are poor, justifies the idea that happiness is something about the mind and inner world; whereas Ebezener Scrooge is unhappy despite his great wealth shows us that external and physical circumstances are not enough to make people happy and pleasant.
Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens become the advocator of the old, humanly values that have been challenged by the Utilitarian thinkers of the Industrial Britain, who deal with everything, including mankind, as a machine.
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