A Little Happier: From “A Christmas Carol”—What Should We Fear More, Want or Ignorance?

A couple of months ago, around Christmas time, I got the urge to re-read “A Christmas Carol,” the famous 1843 story by Charles Dickens.
You probably know this story. It has never been out of print, and the story has been adapted many times for film, stage, opera, and other media.
It’s the story of the elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge, and it takes place on a cold Christmas Eve in London.
If you’ve forgotten the story, Scrooge is a hateful, selfish person; he’s cruel to his overworked, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit, he refuses to give money to men seeking a charitable contribution, and he refuses his nephew’s invitation to come for Christmas dinner.
But the night of Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, and because of Marley’s intervention to try to save Scrooge’s soul, Scrooge is visited in turn by the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. These spirits show him scenes from his life and others’ lives, and the experience utterly transforms Scrooge into a kind, generous man.

This is a wonderful story—if you’ve never actually read it, I highly recommend it.

I’ve read it many times, but this time, I was struck by a fleeting passage that had never caught my notice before.

It happens during the second visit. When the Ghost of Christmas Present appears, it’s described as a glorious, gorgeous figure of abundance, cheery and bright.

During the time that Scrooge spends with the Ghost of Christmas Present, they visit Bob Cratchit’s family, and Scrooge sees Tiny Tim (one of the most famous characters in the story). I remembered that part.

But I’d forgotten another episode during that spirit’s visit, just before it leaves Scrooge.

Scrooge is looking at the Spirit’s beautiful robes, and he sees a foot or a claw protruding from its clothing, and he asks about it.

And here’s the conversation that follows. (I’m going to read a slightly abridged version):

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 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 shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into threads. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing….

Scrooge started back, appalled….

‘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.”

When I read this passage, I paused to think about the argument that Dickens is making. He’s saying that of Ignorance and Want, we should fear Ignorance more.

I think that even a few years ago, I would’ve disagreed. I would’ve thought that we should worry most about Want. But now I agree, I think we should fear Ignorance more.

What do you think? If you haven’t read the story, you really should. It’s an exciting, thought-provoking, and hopeful story.

Fun fact: the song you hear is “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”—this English traditional carol is mentioned in the opening of the story, when Scrooge is showing his disdain for the season’s festivities:

…but at the first sound of “God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!” Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”




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