In stave 3 of Charles Dickens's classic English novella A Christmas Carol, at just fifteen minutes before the time that the Ghost of Christmas's year-long life was to end, Ebenezer Scrooge notices something protruding from under the Ghost's robe.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, "...Is it a foot or a claw?”
The Ghost replies that it might be a claw because there was so little flesh on it. Then he lifts his robe to reveal two children that Dickens describes as "wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable."
The children cower at the Ghost's feet and clutch at his robe. They are a boy and a girl, as best Scrooge could tell, but he is reluctant to call them children. He is much more inclined to regard them as "monsters," for lack of a better, kinder word, the most horrible and dreadful monsters that he believes ever existed "through all the mysteries of wonderful creation."
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.
Scrooge is appalled at what he sees, but he gathers his wits and addresses the Ghost.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man's,” said the Spirit...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.
Dickens considered the prevalence of ignorance and poverty as two of the greatest failings of Victorian society, if not mankind as a whole. Throughout his adult life, Dickens actively campaigned for "education for all" and for libraries to be built throughout England. He also wrote and lectured about the abject poverty that many English people endured, some for their entire lives, with little or no help from their fellow men and women.
Scrooge hardly knows what to say.
“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 rings out the hour of twelve, and the Ghost of Christmas Past and the unfortunate children that Scrooge saw at the Ghost's feet are gone. Dickens reminds us, however, that the Ignorance and Want that the two children represented remain with us.