The Ghost Map

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Class and Prejudice Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Illness, Death, and the Unknown Theme Icon
The Scientific Process Theme Icon
Urban Growth and Planning Theme Icon
Class and Prejudice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Ghost Map, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Class and Prejudice Theme Icon

The cholera epidemics of 19th century London inflamed prejudice in the city. Cholera kills indiscriminately—all things held equal, people of all races, genders, or social classes are equally likely to die of the disease. However, due to the squalid conditions of Victorian London, the working classes were far more likely to contract cholera and die than were upper-class Londoners, who lived in more spacious neighborhoods where diseases spread more slowly, had access to cleaner water, and received better medical care. As a result, there were many who were willing to believe that London’s working-classes had somehow earned their deaths, either because the poor were inherently weaker than the rich, or because poor people’s wicked, immoral behavior had led them to contract cholera.

Johnson shows how class prejudices served an important psychological purpose for 19th century London’s elite. To begin with, these prejudices reflected all Londoners’ fear of cholera—at the time a hideous, effectively incurable disease. Prejudice was a kind of coping mechanism for the elite: by accusing the working classes of weakness (or poor “internal constitution,” as it was euphemistically put), the upper classes assured themselves that they would survive the next outbreak. But class prejudice didn’t just help London’s elites cope with fear; it also helped them rationalize their own indifference to other people’s suffering. By blaming the victims—in other words, attributing cholera victims’ deaths to some vague, sinful behavior—the rich and powerful convinced themselves that they were morally justified in doing nothing to help their social inferiors. There were almost no welfare programs in London at the time, and many people took seriously the offensive myth that poor people “deserved” their suffering (still apparent in contemporary debates about welfare in America). There were certainly some powerful people who used their influence to help the poor (even if their attempts, like those of Edwin Chadwick, sometimes harmed the poor even further), but many elites were content to fall back on class prejudices as a means of reassuring themselves and justifying their own indifference.

Perhaps Johnson’s most important point about class prejudices in the 19th century is that these forms of prejudice infiltrated almost all sectors of Victorian London, even the scientific community. Some of the most popular scientific theories about cholera reflected class prejudice: the miasma theory, for instance, hinged upon the point that some people’s “internal constitutions” were weaker than others. Johnson argues that many proponents of miasma theory—including some of the supposedly neutral scientists who developed it—believed that miasma justified class prejudice: i.e., the poor contracted cholera more often than the wealthy because the poor were weaker than the wealthy. It’s important to recognize that most of the class prejudice in 19th century science—and, perhaps, most prejudice in general—was unconscious. Few if any Victorian doctors would have admitted to favoring miasma theory because it upheld their beliefs about the inferiority of the poor; however, taken holistically, the influence of class prejudice on science is impossible to ignore. By the same token, John Snow’s heroic efforts to understand cholera epidemics may have had a socioeconomic motive, too: on some level, Johnson suggests, Snow (the son of working-class parents) may have been trying to refute, once and for all, the myth of working-class inferiority.

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Class and Prejudice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Class and Prejudice appears in each Chapter of The Ghost Map. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Class and Prejudice Quotes in The Ghost Map

Below you will find the important quotes in The Ghost Map related to the theme of Class and Prejudice.
Chapter 1 Quotes

This social topography would play a pivotal role in the events that unfolded in the late summer of 1854, when a terrible scourge struck Soho but left the surrounding neighborhoods utterly unharmed. That selective attack appeared to confirm every elitist cliché in the book: the plague attacking the debauched and the destitute, while passing over the better sort that lived only blocks away. Of course the plague had devastated the "meaner houses" and "bad streets"; anyone who had visited those squalid blocks would have seen it coming.

Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

During the cholera epidemic of 1854, many wealthy, powerful Victorians concluded that the poor and weak deserved their sickness as a punishment for debauchery, immorality, or other vaguely defined sins. Since ancient times, people have interpreted outbreaks of disease as divine punishment for evil, and Victorian England was no exception. In another sense, it was easier for wealthy Victorians to believe that the poor deserved to die than it was for them to accept that cholera killed indiscriminately (and that they perhaps owed their fellow humans their attention and resources).

Psychologically speaking, the Victorians’ belief in the connection between immorality and disease served an important purpose. Wealthy Victorians may have unconsciously gravitated toward such a belief because it justified their own indifference to other people’s suffering. Furthermore, Johnson suggests, the belief in a connection between immorality and disease made the cholera epidemic seem more rational, controllable, and generally less frightening. Confronted with a terrifying, inexplicable epidemic, Londoners tried to make sense of the chaos—and, in the process, fell back on old-fashioned bigotry and prejudice.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

Fear might not have been a contributing factor in the spread of disease, but it had long been a defining emotion of urban life. Cities often began as an attempt to ward off outside threats—fortified by walls, protected by guards—but as they grew in size, they developed their own, internal dangers: disease, crime, fire, along with the "soft" dangers of moral decline, as many believed. Death was omnipresent, particularly for the working class.

Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In the 19th century, Londoners lived in fear of an epidemic. At the time, disease was utterly mysterious to the public: it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the germ theory of disease became generally accepted. As a result, cholera epidemics were frightening—not only because they were lethal, but because nobody could understand what caused them, let alone how to prevent them.

In part, Johnson’s book studies what it’s like to live in fear of the unknown. In the face of a crisis, Victorians compensated for their fear in a variety of ways. Some turned to religion, using the Bible to justify and rationalize mass death. Others tried to justify the cholera epidemic by claiming that it targeted the immoral, “debauched” poor population of London (a bigoted theory that nonetheless influenced some of Victorian England’s most prominent medical researchers). In all, the passage paints a disturbing portrait of 19th-century English life. Londoners wanted to understand the dangers surrounding them—and when science and reason failed them, they turned to faith, superstition, and sheer prejudice.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Some of those forces were ideological in nature, matters of social prejudice and convention. Some revolved around conceptual limitations, failures of imagination and analysis. Some involve the basic wiring of the human brain itself. Each on its own might not have been strong enough to persuade an entire public-health system to empty raw sewage into the Thames. But together they created a kind of perfect storm of error.

Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Johnson attempts to answer a difficult question: why did so many elite members of the medical community believe whole-heartedly that diseases were caused and spread by bad odors, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary? There may be no simple answer to this question: perhaps people believe things because of a host of small, vague factors, rather than one big, overarching factor. In the case of Victorian disease research, for example, the medical community embraced miasma theory because it appealed to class prejudices, intuitions about the relationship between smell and sickness, and sheer intellectual laziness. It’s a little disturbing to think that a group of scientists could allow its own biases to determine what it did and didn’t believe—but then, one of Johnson’s most insightful points in The Ghost Map is that scientists aren’t always as unbiased as they’d like to believe.

Epilogue Quotes

The global challenges that we face are not necessarily an apocalyptic crisis of capitalism or mankind’s hubris finally clashing with the balanced spirit of Gaia. We have confronted equally appalling crises before. The only question is whether we can steer around these crises without killing ten million people, or more. So let’s get on with it.

Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

After bringing up a series of chilling possibilities—a global viral epidemic, a nuclear holocaust, etc.—Johnson brings his book to a disturbing, yet cautiously optimistic finish. While it is true that the human race faces some major challenges, Johnson doesn’t want his readers to throw up their hands and admit defeat. As daunting as nuclear attack may seem to 21st-century people, it’s no more daunting than cholera must have seemed to the average Londoner of the 1850s. Indeed, nuclear attack is probably less daunting than cholera was to the Victorians, since, at the very least, 21st-century people know how nuclear bombs work (whereas Victorians didn’t have the first clue what caused cholera). Thus, instead of throwing in the towel, people should apply their intelligence and ingenuity to the great problems of the contemporary world, taking as their role models such dedicated, hard-working figures as John Snow and Henry Whitehead.