The Chimes. A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In.
The Chimes is one of Dickens’s “Christmas Books”. It is deservedly much less well-known that his first, A Christmas Carol. It is BORING! Long descriptions of bells (the chimes of the story) and bouncing goblins take up a sizable portion of the book. In fact, dull, protracted descriptions and conversations (or, rather, tirades) make up most of the — not the story, for there isn’t one to speak of — but, of the book. It is not a Christmas tale, but rather a New Year’s tale, and the entire point seems to be that a woman can kill her child without being a wicked woman.
The main character is Toby (called “Trotty”) Veck, a very poor ticket-porter. Early on, he is bewildered by Alderman Cute and his cohorts, who don’t seem to believe that the poor have any right to be alive. Toby is an unintelligent man, easily confused.
“I can’t make out whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have – a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad. We seem to be dreadful things; we seem to give a deal of trouble; we are always being complained of and guarded against. One way or other, we fill the papers.” (First Quarter)
When he comes home, he reads the newspaper, and is totally convinced that he has no business being alive.
In this mood, he came to an account (and it was not the first he had ever read) of a woman who had laid her desperate hands not only on her own life but on that of her young child. A crime so terrible, and so revolting to his soul, dilated with the love of [his daughter] Meg, that he let the journal drop, and fell back in his chair, appalled!
‘Unnatural and cruel!’ Toby cried. ‘Unnatural and cruel! None but people who were bad at heart, born bad, who had no business on the earth, could do such deeds. It’s too true, all I’ve heard to-day; too just, too full of proof. We’re Bad!’ (Second Quarter)
The bells of the old church near which Trotty works, take offense at his attitude. The goblins of the bells draw Trotty up to them and indict him of doing them great wrong by these profane sentiments. Trotty has always felt kindly towards these bells, “and when he heard himself arraigned as one who had offended them so weightily, his heart was touched with penitence and grief” (Third Quarter). The goblins decide to teach Trotty a lesson. They show him his beloved daughter Meg and tell him,
‘[S]he is living. Learn from her life, a living truth. Learn from the creature dearest to your heart, how bad the bad are born. See every bud and leaf plucked one by one from off the fairest stem, and know how bare and wretched it may be. Follow her! To desperation!’ (Third Quarter)
And then Trotty (or, rather, his temporary wraith) gets to follow the life of his daughter as she sinks lower and lower into poverty and distress. She has to work day and night to earn the barest necessities. Her dearest friend dies. She marries a miserable drunkard who soon dies also. She struggles to get work now that she has a child. She is frightened when a man discerns a likeness between her little girl and one Lillian, her friend who died in misery after becoming a prostitute out of desperation. Finally, Meg is kicked out of her home. Then, she rushes with her child to the river — “To that portal of Eternity, her desperate footsteps tended with the swiftness of its rapid waters running to the sea” — with her father’s wraith following her closely.
He followed her. She paused a moment on the brink, before the dreadful plunge. He fell down on his knees, and in a shriek addressed the figures in the Bells now hovering above them.
‘I have learnt it!’ cried the old man. ‘From the creature dearest to my heart! O, save her, save her!’ (Fourth Quarter)
And then he wakes up, and they all live happily ever after.
The bad guys in this tale are ridiculous, with their everlasting determination to Put Down “distressed wives …. boys without shoes and stockings …. all wandering mothers …. all sick persons and young children …. all suicide” (First Quarter) &c. I understand Dickens’s disgust with the laws that made it so difficult for poor people to live, however, though I think his manner of rating against it in this book absurd. We don’t need to oppress the oppressed, to “bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Mt. 23:4). The generosity and compassion of such people as the charitable Mrs. Chickenstalker (Meg Veck’s landlady) is to be admired. I would almost like the character Mrs. Chickenstalker if it weren’t for the fact that she married a nasty man and frequently quarreled with him.
Oddly, while Meg stays virtuous and upright, those around her “go bad”. Her youthful lover becomes a good-for-nothing drunkard. Her dearest friend becomes a “woman of ill repute”. Lillian’s uncle becomes a vagabond, constantly in and out of jail. Still, Meg continues to be hardworking and pure. But then, she has to, or it wouldn’t “prove” that good women can kill their children. If she had turned to drink like her husband, we might not feel as much sympathy for her.
To conclude, The Chimes is ridiculously sentimental and pointless, with cardboard villains and plaster saints, bogged down with excessive descriptions of bells and goblins, and I will never read it again. The only part I enjoyed about it were the illustrations by Arthur Rackham in the copy I was reading. His drawings capture the grotesque goblins of the bells delightfully.
This post is part of the Dickens Project that “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. You can read Sophie’s post here: ‘A Goblin Story’.
I read The Chimes from February 3 – 5, 2013.
Illustrations by Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939) from A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books, by Charles Dickens (New York: Vintage Books, January 2012), ISBN: 978-0-307-94721-5.