Novelist Margaret Atwood blames Charles Dickens for contributing to our current economic crisis, said Tom Gatti in the London Times. In her well-timed new nonfiction book, Atwood takes the long view on debtor culture and concludes that it was Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge who buried the belief that debt is sinful. Scrooge, she says, is “an extreme version of ‘living within your means.’” His thriftiness is presented as downright shameful; profligate spending redeems him. From that concept, she says, it was only a short road to today’s mammoth credit card debts and overleveraged investment banks.
Payback is a “fascinating, freewheeling examination” of how ideas about debt have figured in history and culture. As for the future, Atwood is hopeful that attitudes about thrift and debt are about to reverse. But she’s worried that the shifts may come too late. Not all debts, she says, concern money. “The whole theology of Christianity rests on the notion of spiritual debts and what must be done to repay them.” People used to comment upon a man’s death that “he has repaid his debt to nature,” she says. “It means you’ve borrowed something—the physical part of yourself made up of natural elements—and you’re paying it back by dissolving into nature.” Surely, she says, we’ve extended that line of credit about as far as it can go: “You can’t keep taking and taking and taking.”