Explain Ignorance and Want, who appear in stave 3 of A Christmas Carol.    

Ignorance and Want, who appear in stave 3 of A Christmas Carol, represent the failings of a society that seeks to be progressive but fails to meet the most basic needs of its children. The ignorance of such a society is monstrous because it demonstrates a willingness to overlook the constant state of deprivation, or want, of children who rely on their society for protection.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ignorance and Want are perhaps the most blatantly allegorical figures in A Christmas Carol. Collectively, they represent the conditions of the poor: wretched, hungry, and unable to pull themselves from their misery. Scrooge, who has often given the poor little thought beyond general contempt, is forced to look upon society's most vulnerable when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows the two children hiding beneath his robe.

As the Ghost of Christmas Present points out to Scrooge, these two children are the result of a society that disregards the less fortunate:

“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?”

Of the two children, Ignorance is designated as the more dangerous because ignorance of the misery of the poor—willful or not—only prolongs the social problem of poverty. Want can be relieved, even if only temporarily, but ignorance requires more vigilance to overcome because it requires a lasting change of heart on the part of those who are more privileged. By forcing the needy into workhouses and prisons, the problem itself is not solved, and the cycle of poverty only perpetuates itself.

That Ignorance and Want cling to the Ghost of Christmas Present is especially significant. By tethering these figures to the present moment rather than to the past or future (both of which cannot be accessed), Dickens is emphasizing to his audience that there are children living in poverty right now as the reader is perusing Scrooge's story. There is no room for regret or waiting. No excuses can be made for not helping them, as Scrooge comes to find out. Now that he has a face attached to the general mass of poor people he has so often ignored, Scrooge realizes the callousness of his earlier opinions on how those at society's margins should be treated.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At the conclusion of stave 3, Scrooge is horrified to discover that something strange is sticking out from under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. It looks like a claw, and Scrooge questions the spirit about what hides beneath his robe.

The Ghost of Christmas Present unfolds his robe to reveal two children, yet they are unlike any children Scrooge has ever seen. They are wolf-like, shriveled, pinched, and twisted. The Ghost of Christmas Present identifies them as Ignorance and Want.

These children represent the failings of a society which disregards its children. Unable to shape their lives through their own choices, children rely on others to meet their most basic needs. Most often, parents are able to successfully accomplish this responsibility. However, if they fail, it falls to society at large to protect its most vulnerable children.

Poverty presses down upon these children, "pull[ng] them into shreds." Where their features should be angelic, these children look more like "monsters." These children therefore reflect the monstrous truth of any society which seeks to be progressive but leaves its own children in a state of want. Societies must not remain ignorant of the way their own policies, represented here by Scrooge's suggestions of "prisons" and "workhouses," which are echoed back to him by the Ghost of Christmas Present, imprison and oppress those members of society who are voiceless.

Soon after looking upon Ignorance and Want, the clock strikes twelve. This is a metaphorical representation that indicates that time is running out for society's most vulnerable children.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ignorance and Want are children who appear from inside the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Dickens says of them:

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.. . .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.

“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."

With the revelation of these ragged, pitiful children, the Spirit is cautioning not only Scrooge, but all of mankind.  He proclaims that they represent Man's worst enemies  -- the state of Want (for food, shelter, etc.) that many suffer and live through every day, but most especially, the self-imposed Ignorance of this state of affairs, the Ignorance in which Man chooses to live his life.  Man, according the the Spirit (and Dickens ), must wake up and see what is needed by others and the part each individual can play to ease the pain and suffering of his fellows.  The Spirit cautions that, unless Man wakes from his self-imposed Ignorance, he will create his own downfall, his own "Doom."

The Ghost then relates these general predictions about all of mankind more specifically to Scrooge when he taunts him with his own words from early in the story, a demonstration of Scrooge's choice to live in Ignorance:

“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?”

For more on Ignorance and Want and the social responsibility of mankind as advocated by Dickens, please follow the links below.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial