Ignorance and want: the prophecy of Charles Dickens

“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.” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

I was talking a few evenings ago to my young friends, a well-read, pleasant couple with hope in their hearts, about the state of the world. We settled for a while into a discussion about the troubling, political situation in the U.S. where exploitation of a significant portion of the population by a populist demagogue with dangerous dictatorial tendencies is leading that great country, and the world, down a dangerous path.

Suddenly, as often happens, a recollection of a memory that seemed relevant to the discussion came to my mind. In this case, it was a scene from the 1951, British-made movie A Christmas Carol, based on the short story of that title by the great 19th Century English writer, Charles Dickens.

I don’t know if I can count the number of times I watched it on television Christmas after Christmas as I was growing up, and later as an adult. It never ceases to amaze me. Several scenes especially are engraved in my memory, for example the one where the ghost of Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley, appears in his hellish chains made of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”  


Marley has come to warn Scrooge that he must change his ways or end up like him; and that he will be visited this night by three other spirits. Scrooge’s  refusal to believe what he sees with his own eyes, moves the ghost to howling, mournful rage and a loud clattering of his chains. It’s a great performance by the actor, Michael Hordern, who played Marley for those few memorable minutes.

But the scene that most often comes to my mind’s eye is of the Ghost of Christmas Present parting his robes to reveal two ragged, desperate children crouched down in misery at his feet. The movie closely follows the dialogue as written by Dickens. Here is the original script, you might say, of that scene, from Stave 4: The Last of the Spirits, from A Christmas Carol:

“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

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


They were a boy and a 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 abide 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?”

The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

Admittedly, the language is quaintly Victorian and melodramatic, though with a certain elegance of style characteristic of the great author. Nowadays, the two desperate children might be portrayed differently, perhaps less obviously desperate, in another story. The boy might even be grown-up, and currently running for high public office, or already elected. His ignorance may strike many, lacking a certain sense of discernment, as sounding plausible, with a deceptive ring of truth even.

If you find some relevance to current events in my words, and in that memorable scene from A Christmas Carol, I applaud your insight; in you abides hope.

If you don’t, well . . . there’s nothing much more to say, is there?

The snow is falling steadily outside here in Hope Ness; It’s forecast to continue through the night, as the temperature drops. The long Canadian winter has settled in.

I will plug in Mr. Massey Too’s block heater early in the morning, start him up a couple of hours later, and snow-blow the long driveway down to the road yet again. We’ll no doubt get through this winter, and spring will come. Much depends on the Jet Stream which has become unstable on account of global warming/climate change. There’s another matter worth pondering, if you have a mind to; and I hope you do.

I tip my toque to Charles Dickens, a true prophet.

(Author’s note, May 12, 2020: More than two years have gone since this post was published. I trust Charles would agree events since then have proved his words are more remarkably and tragically prophetic than ever. I also trust he would tell us not to despair, but to shine a light of hope in the world, wherever we are, and however we can.)

(Author’s note, December 8, 2020: Whatever happens between now and Inauguration Day, or even after, regarding the results of the U.S. presidential election — and I shudder to think what could still happen — the last four years have exposed deep-seated, long-simmering problems at the heart of American democracy, and therefore by extension democracy as a world-wide movement. The needs of ‘the people,’ many millions of whom live in a state of ‘quiet desperation,’ or loud and angry, can no longer be ignored or denied.)

(Author’s note, October 10, 2021: “I shudder to think what could still happen,” I wrote above. Well, what happened in the U.S. after Dec. 8, 2020 was, and is still, surely bad enough. But I could say the same thing now, with people in ‘Trump country’ openly calling for civil war if he doesn’t get his way. Are we watching the destruction of the world’s first and once-greatest modern democracy; with consequences for democracy world-wide? So it appears. And if so, who does it benefit? The answer to those questions holds the key to understanding why and how this historic tragedy is happening, and who is the mastermind.)

(Author’s note, December 18, 2021: Slowly, but surely, the truth comes out, with some indication it will be heard and taken to heart where it’s needed most: in the hearts and minds of ordinary people whose needs have been neglected and betrayed far too long, including by themselves. Is there time enough? Of course. The next moment is time enough if you want it to be.)

(Author’s Note, December 17, 2022: Tomorrow, Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives’ select committee investigating the Januarry 6, 2021 attack on the Capital building for more than a year is expected to refer former President Donald Trump to the Department of Justice for criminal charges. The DOJ has been conducting its own investigation into the January 6 attack, and recently appointed a special counsel, Jack Smith, to lead it. It remains to be seen what if any charges will be laid against Trump and others of his high-level supporters who allegedly conspired to overthrow the results of the 2020 election, won by current President Joe Biden. Meawhile, there are indications Trump’s popularity is waning, but not the populist, ultra-conservative movement he unleashed. He exposed the ease with which a large portion of American voters can be manipulated and exploited by the lowest, unprincipled form of politics. It remains to be seen if the world’s once-greatest democracy will survive.)

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