But what few people know is that Dickens had a very specific model in mind for his famous skinflint.
Ebenezer Scrooge has the following exchange with the charity collectors who call at the premises of Scrooge & Marley on that fateful Christmas Eve:
The inspiration for this chilling philosophy was drawn from the writings of the English political economist, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who wrote one of the longest-titled books in the history of publishing, to wit: An Essay on the Principle of Population or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness with an enquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal of the Evils Which it Occasions.
"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."
"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 vigour, then?" said Scrooge.
"Both very busy, sir."
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it... I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population..."
Here's a sample of Malthus' gloomy speculation on the fate of humankind:
There are now those who believe that Dickens misunderstood and misrepresented Malthus' thinking and that the actions of Scrooge or any man - mean or generous - can no more affect the fate of humanity than they can alter the rising and falling of the tide.
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.
The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands.
But Dickens wanted to remind his readers that Christmas, more than anything else, was a time to consider the welfare of those less fortunate.
As his nephew, Fred, observes:
"...I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."