Ignorance and Want are symbolic of the poor in Victorian society. Their inclusion in the story is meant to demonstrate how they have been forgotten and neglected by the middle classes.
Ignorance and Want represent society’s abandonment of the poor and the consequences of that abandonment.
Above all else, A Christmas Carolis allegorical. Dickens was a strong proponent of taking care of society’s poor and downtrodden, and this is why he chose to represent them in children. Most people will have more sympathy for children than adults. Dickens wanted to make the case that the adults we see as criminals started out as poor.
When I was eight or so and living in Gibraltar (my father was in the army and we were station there), my teacher read us A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens as a pre-Christmas treat. The setting of a cold and frosty Victorian London was far removed from 1960s Gibraltar – and maybe that’s one of the reasons it made such a lasting impression.
But A Christmas Carol is more than just a story. It is a tirade against greed, selfishness and neglect. It uses the story of a rich man – the startlingly nasty Scrooge – to highlight the plight of those affected by the greed and meanness he exemplifies.
The famous child in A Christmas Carol is poor “Tiny” Tim Cratchit but there are two others. When Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present, he is shocked when two wild and ragged children tumble out from the giant’s robes.
He thinks they must belong to the giant, but he tells Scrooge that they are Man’s. He tells him the boy is called Ignorance and the girl Want.
“Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy…”
Every Christmas through the 70s (I was now on a council estate in Newcastle where snow was more familiar), the BBC showed an Oscar-winning animated version of the story by Richard Williams, with Alistair Sim voicing Scrooge. It is beautifully animated in a style that evokes the John Leech illustrations from the original publication, but whereas the children are fairly bland creations in those engravings, here they are snarling beasts. I was – and remain – fascinated by them.
It is a brief moment in the story but surely a key moment – and a big part of why the story is still so relevant. Ignorance and Want remain the prime movers behind so many of the worlds ills.
Dickens was passionate about education – education for all. He was a steadfast campaigner for public libraries and would be – rightly – disgusted to see how little we seem to value them now.
But Dickens was having a go at his complacent readers – he was chastising them about their own ignorance – an ignorance that was in many cases a wilful ignoring of the plight of their fellow Londoners.
The Last of the Spirits attempts to use the structure of Dickens’ fable to tell the story of two homeless street children – a brother and sister – who will become those same two children the Ghost of Christmas Present calls Ignorance and Want.
I give them names – Sam and Lizzy – and a back story that weaves in and out of Scrooge’s own story of his relationship to his deceased partner Jacob Marley. It also hints at some of the hardship Dickens himself knew as a boy and which gifted him the ability to empathise with others who had not had not been lucky enough to escape a fate he might so easily have shared.