Ignorance and Want

Ignorance and Want by John Leech

“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?”

That is an excerpt from Charles Dickens classic novella A Christmas Carol. As a kid, it was the number two scariest part of the movie adaption, no matter which version I was watching (number one scariest was of course when Marley’s face appeared on Scrooge’s door knocker).

I never really understood what the Ghost of Christmas Present was going on about when I was a kid, although I had a general sense. Then I read the actual book in high school for an English class, and given I was raised in a working-class FDR/JFK/MLK household, that passage hit me like a ton of bricks. And it still does every time I read it, or see it.

Ignorance symbolizes the willful ignorance of the plight of others. Want symbolizes greed. The two are connected, but Ignorance is worse than Want.

“Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

Here, Dickens could very well be talking about our own society. People who speak up about society’s inequalities still face attacks from those who would rather they shut up about it. Including those who point out how bad being willfully ignorant is for society. This is pretty much the main obsession of the Very Serious and Sensible Moderate Centrists of the Discourse. Really, it is not hard to imagine if Dickens wrote a Christmas Carol in 2022, the amount of Substack words written about how it is very unfair to business owners would be epic. I guess that would make the above passage kind of meta?

And those Substack centrists would wail that Mr. Dickens was being VERY divisive and polarizing when he had the spirit use Scrooge’s own words against him with that “are there no prisons?” mocking. This stuff is why Democrats don’t win elections, or something.

On the right, Scrooge would be defended. We know this because he’s being defended in our current reality. That august publication of Republican thought, The Wall Street Journal, published a deep defense of Scrooge. If that surprises you, Republicans have also defended Darth Vader.

I guess they also root for Skut Farkus in A Christmas Story.

Through his book, Dickens speaks to us over the 179 years about societal injustices, the greed of the wealthy, the failure evident in ignoring it, and how this is no way to run a society. A much better debate than whether a mean-spirited miser is good is what Dickens was saying exactly in A Christmas Carol. Some say Dickens is suggesting that charity is the sole answer to the suffering of poor people, others point out that he is also very critical of the structure of society itself.

But clearly, Dickens believed that at the very least, society should not ignore the suffering caused by poverty. While he is credited with popularizing charity during the Christmas season, he also stressed that caring about poverty should happen during the entire year.

I could not agree more. It’s why I am a Democrat.

The last word comes from my favorite film adaption of the story, the 1999 version starring Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Some criticize this version as being too dark/grim, but it IS a fairly dark story, and it is not all grim. There are some cheerful scenes In the Ghost of Christmas Present scene at nephew Fred’s home, there is this joyous little tune performed by Fred’s buddy Topper. Warning: It can become a semi-maddening earworm.