Ignorance and want: the prophecy of Charles Dickens

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 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 that scene, I applaud your insight.

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.

But , life will go on, I do believe.


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