Background.

A Christmas Carol.
  • A Christmas Carol is a novella, or short story, written by Charles Dickens and first published in the Christmas of 1843. The allegorical tale tells the story of the transformation of the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge through the visits of the spirit of his former business partner and three ghosts over the course of a Christmas Eve night. It remains a much-loved traditional Christmas tale.

Context.

Quote said by The Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebenezer Scrooge. The Ghost of Christmas Present is the second of the three spirits that haunt the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, in order to prompt him to repent his selfish ways. The spirit transports Scrooge around the city, showing him scenes of festivity and also deprivation that is happening as they watch.

The spirit finally reveals to Scrooge two emaciated children, subhuman in appearance and loathsome to behold, clinging to his robes, and naming the boy as ‘Ignorance‘ and the girl as ‘Want‘. By naming them ‘Ignorance‘ and ‘Want‘, Dickens is drawing attention to two of the societal ills of the time which contributed to many people being in extreme poverty at the time.

The spirit warns Scrooge, ‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.’”’ The spirit once again quotes Scrooge, who asks if the grotesque children have ‘no refuge, no resource,’ and the spirit retorts with more of Scrooge’s unkind words: ‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Illustration from the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing Ebenezer Scrooge being taken to see two emaciated children - named as Ignorance and Want - by the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Illustration from the original publication of A Christmas Carol showing Ebenezer Scrooge being taken to see two emaciated children – named as Ignorance and Want – by the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Themes in A Christmas Carol: Social Injustice.

Charles Dickens used A Christmas Carol to attack social injustices of the time, particularly the indifference of wealthy people towards the poor. In an age before the welfare state, poor people relied on local parishes to provide help or on the benevolence of individuals and charities. However, the introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act took away local parish help for the poor and institutionalised the process of help for paupers with more centralised Union workhouses. In return for food and shelter, the poor had to live semi-incarcerated lives in institutions where families were often split apart and made to do menial tasks to earn their keep.

The businessman Ebenezer Scrooge has more than enough to share some of his money, particularly at a traditionally charitable time such as Christmas as reflected by two visiting charity collectors who explain it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. Not wanting to part with his money, the miserly Scrooge hides behind a Malthusian excuse that if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Scrooge views the poor and economically inactive (which he terms idle) as a burden to society, better off in a workhouse or even dead. He wants the Poor Law, workhouses, or prisons to deal with the destitute, questioning the collectors whether The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then? before commenting that I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. Later on, in a vision presented by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge will see the impact of poverty in the household of Bob Crachit, his underpaid clerk, and their disabled son Tim. The Ghost warns Scrooge that Tim will die unless his life alters, repeating Scrooge’s callous remarks back to him If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

Dickens’s attack on social injustice is most graphically shown by the two figures of an emaciated boy and girl. The Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Their names represent contemporary problems in society, in part caused by the attitude of the wealthy toward the poor. When Scrooge is touched by their plight, the Ghost again uses his words against him, saying to Scrooge Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Dickens’s use of children to represent societal ills of Ignorance and Want suggests that there is time to change.

Later in the story, in a vision shown by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, we witness some of the very poorest people in society living in a squalid slum area, resorting to dividing up Scrooge’s stolen belongings to make a living, one of them commenting every person has a right to take care of themselves. He always did.

A hundred years on: The Beveridge Report.

A century after the publication of A Christmas Carol, ‘Ignorance‘ and ‘Want‘ remained two of the main issues of social inequality in British society as identified by the social economist William Beveridge. Commissioned to lead an inquiry into social services, Beveridge saw five ‘giant evils’ of the time that would need government action to ultimately tackle. These were ‘Disease‘, ‘Idleness‘, ‘Ignorance‘, ‘Squalor‘, and ‘Want‘. His report, titled Social Insurance and Allied Services and published in November 1942, garnered popular public opinion. After the Second World War, the findings of the Beveridge Report formed the basis for social reforms in Great Britain known as the welfare state, which included the expansion of National Insurance and the creation of the National Health Service.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Stave 3 (The Second Of The Three Spirits) of A Christmas Carol:

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

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 enthroned, 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.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

Characters.

Ghost of Christmas Present.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is the second of the three spirits that haunt the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, in order to prompt him to repent. He appears to Scrooge as a jolly giant with dark brown curls, wearing a fur-lined green robe and on his head a holly wreath set with shining icicles. He carries a large torch, made to resemble a cornucopia, and appears accompanied by a great feast, and a scabbard with no sword in it, a representation of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. The spirit transports Scrooge around the city, showing him scenes of festivity and also deprivation that is happening as they watch, sprinkling a little warmth from his torch as he travels. Amongst the visits are Scrooge’s nephew, and the family of his impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit and his disabled son Tiny Tim. The spirit finally reveals to Scrooge two emaciated children, subhuman in appearance and loathsome to behold, clinging to his robes, and naming the boy as Ignorance and the girl as Want. The spirit warns Scrooge, ‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.‘ The spirit once again quotes Scrooge, who asks if the grotesque children have ‘no refuge, no resource,‘ and the spirit retorts with more of Scrooge’s unkind words: ‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?‘.

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This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.

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