The children produced from under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present are strange additions to Dickens’ tale, and not just because of their disturbing appearances. Up to that point in the narrative, all characters have been characters proper, and not symbolic stand-ins for abstract ideals. Even the ghosts enjoy a level of development and distinction from one another that is typical of complex human characters, and not mere representatives of the immaterial.
Dickens, with his usual adjectival-liberality, describes the children as “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” creatures (99). We learn that they are “a boy and a girl”, and that each has a name; “The boy is Ignorance,” explains the Ghost of Christmas Present, and “The girl is Want” (Dickens 99-101). They have only names—no backstory, no hopes and dreams, not even the courtesy of an exuent on the part of Dickens.
Why does Dickens interrupt the semi-realism (magical realism? Spiritual realism?) of A Christmas Carol with such a brief allegorical episode? And, to compound the oddity of the allegory’s inclusion, the details of the encounter are bizarre: why represent such evils as Ignorance and Want as the very things that ought to be taken in and cherished most—namely, children? I will consider the second question first, as understanding the meaning of the allegory will help us to understand Dickens’ motivation for the inclusion of the device in the first place.
Certainly, if I were writing A Christmas Carol, and allegory suggested itself to me at the end of Stave Three, I would represent Ignorance and Want as something inherently repulsive, and something that people would be right to repel—rats, maybe, or cockroaches. But Dickens chooses children. He describes them as very ugly children, to be fair—they are “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, [and] wolfish” (Dickens 99). He writes that, “where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacingly” (Dickens 101). Dickens has to work hard to make them repulsive, because they are members of the most vulnerable and lovable subsection of humanity.
The Ghost of Christmas Present verbalizes and encourages the revulsion Scrooge feels toward them. He says of Ignorance and 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” (Dickens 101). He goes on to warn Scrooge, “Deny it!” (Dickens 101). It isn’t entirely clear what the referent of that “it” is—Doom? Ignorance alone? Both of the children? In any case, there are clear, inhospitable overtones to the Ghost’s instructions. Scrooge is to turn away the evils that the two children represent.
But the command that Scrooge turn away destitute children, even symbolically, is of course antithetical to the message of the story as a whole. Scrooge has already made a practice of neglecting poor children, and the ghostly intervention is certainly not meant to affirm him in his inhospitality. Similarly, it would be absurd to suggest that Dickens intends the reader to take away such an inhumane message.
How, then, do we reconcile the book’s obvious call for charity towards children, and its allegorical association of children with that which ought to be driven away?
This episode draws directly on Scrooge’s past treatment of children, rather than the proper treatment of children—even ones as repulsive and terrifying as these two. In response to Scrooge’s plea, “Have they no refuge or resource?” the Ghost of Christmas Present responds with Scrooge’s earlier dismissal, “Are there no prisons?…Are there no workhouses?” (Dickens 101). I would submit, then, that the Ghost’s purpose in presenting the evils of Ignorance and Want as children, amounts to a dark and convicting taunt to Scrooge: Drive away Ignorance with the ferocity with which you drove away the caroler yesterday. Let Want suffer in the same way you have let the Cratchit children suffer. Surely you are capable of denying Doom entrance to your society—you have been denying the poorest among you for years.
If the Ghost’s rhetorical purpose for the introduction of the children to Scrooge is primarily one of conviction, let us return to our original question of Dickens’ rhetorical purpose for the use of allegory. Beyond the fact that this episode is among the most disturbing and memorable in the novel, the device of allegory, used sparingly and tastefully, offers a utility to the author that his ordinary narrative mode does not. It allows him to directly and unmistakably admonish the reader to beware ignorance and want, while simultaneously forwarding Scrooge’s drastic character arc in a compelling and believable way. I say “believable”, not because of the likelihood of encountering such grotesque children in real life, but because of the likelihood that Scrooge, having so mistreated the poor in the past, will be hastened by their appearance in the direction of his ultimate redemption.