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.