Dickens on Hope and Despair: “The Chimes”

Charles Dickens’ deep Christian faith rings in all of his works, and especially so in his Christmas books. After the success of “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens published similar titles in the same format: novellas with supernatural elements and a clear Christian message. All of them were successes in their day, but none had the afterlife of “A Christmas Carol,” and few remember “The Chimes,” “Cricket on the Hearth,” “The Battle of Life” (the worst of the lot and, not incidentally, the only one without a supernatural element), and “The Haunted Man.” There are also a few oddball Christmas items to be found in the margins of his career, such as the fable “The Seven Poor Travellers,” which is bracketed by a nonfiction account of a Christmas celebration among the poor.

I try to make a habit of reading (or listening to audiobook versions of ) some or all of the Dickens Christmas’ tales each year during the season. You need to take them as they are: occasionally mawkish (and what Dickens isn’t?), melodramatic, and filled with certain stylistic tics. You also need to remember that these are sermons in story form.

Scrooge is given a lesson in caritas. Certainly, his sin is greed, but it steams from a more fundamental cause: he has lost a sense of loving charity, which is the root of all Christian virtues. Scrooge’s conversion is not from a greedy man to a generous man. It is the story of a man who killed the love in his heart in pursuit of the world, and who gets that love back.

“The Chimes” follows the exact same format. Instead of 4 “staves,” we get 4 “chimes,” each marking the quarter hour. Instead of a rich greedy man who is shown where his life as gone wrong, we get a poor man shown where the world will go wrong because of his despair. In place of a ghost and 3 spirits, we have the goblins of the church bells, their fairy attendants, and a haunting little girl.

But “The Chimes” has a much harder edge to it. Trotty Veck, the central character, is a message-runner living in grinding poverty with his perfect daughter (Dickens always idealized women), who is eager to marry a young man despite their poor circumstances. Trotty’s sin is despair, which is indeed a mortal sin. The chimes–the church bells–stand for time, and symbolize the voice of God urging people to make the best of their days and have hope for the future. Striking every quarter hour, they remind the faithful of God, and the way that time passes according to His will. When Trotty hears the chimes, he hears hope and love.

But then Trotty and his daughter encounter three rich men who make them feel as if they have no right to even exist. They sink into despair, and believe in their heart that these men are right: the poor are “born bad.” Trotty starts to hear this accusation in the sound of the chimes, it seems as though Dickens is saying this is the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). Trotty is attributing evil things to the work of the Holy Spirit. Only in this context does the bill of indictment leveled against Trotty by the bell gobin make sense:

‘Who puts into the mouth of Time, or of its servants,’ said the Goblin of the Bell, ‘a cry of lamentation for days which have had their trial and their failure, and have left deep traces of it which the blind may see—a cry that only serves the present time, by showing men how much it needs their help when any ears can listen to regrets for such a past—who does this, does a wrong. And you have done that wrong, to us, the Chimes.’

‘Who hears in us, the Chimes, one note bespeaking disregard, or stern regard, of any hope, or joy, or pain, or sorrow, of the many-sorrowed throng; who hears us make response to any creed that gauges human passions and affections, as it gauges the amount of miserable food on which humanity may pine and wither; does us wrong. That wrong you have done us!’ said the Bell.

It is, however, the rich and powerful who are left for the last and worst condemnation:

‘Lastly, and most of all,’ pursued the Bell. ‘Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good—grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!’

That “lost soil” is the soil of Eden, and the earth made to fashion man in image and likeness of God, which we cling to in our fall. It is the image of God in man. Trotty has believed the evil accusations leveled against him by the rich and powerful, and in doing so has joined them in their sin. It is the task of the goblins to show him the true path of despair, in order to set him back on the path of hope.

The paternalistic do-gooder is also savaged, in the person of Sir Joseph:

‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me.  You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything.  I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent.  Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence!  Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour.  Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there.  Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’

After Trotty gives in to misery and self-loathing, Dickens delivers a powerful series of vignettes showing the horrible fall from grace of Meg and all those Trotty knows and love. Remember the moment  in “A Christmas Carol,” when the Ghost of Christmas Present draws back his robes to reveal two feral children: Ignorance and Want? That moment has disturbed me since I first saw it in the Alaister Sim version as a kid.

Well, Trotty’s lesson takes that moment and stretches it to chapter length, grinding Trotty’s face in scene and after scene of wretched squalor and misery. If you give yourself over to it and put aside the modernist tendency to sneer at Victorian melodrama, it’s potent stuff, almost intolerable in the way it careens towards a grim but inevitable conclusion. Since everyone knows “A Christmas Carol,” you know what’s coming in the denouement, but it doesn’t make these visions any less powerful.

The Scrooges of this story don’t get their turnabout. It’s not about them. It’s about the grinding lot of the poor (particularly grinding in the time when Dickens was writing), our need to ease their lot, and the need of the poor to maintain hope in God in the face of the most wretched disappointments.

The “decent” men of “The Chimes” mouth various pieties, but their hearts are far from God. They don’t pause a moment to hear his voice in simple tolling of a church bell, or look for his image in the face of the poor. Because, much as we may not like it sometimes, that’s where Jesus told us to look for it. Unless we give ourselves over the gospel message and allow us to see Christ in the most wretched, or even unlikable, people of all, then we’re doing it wrong. It should be no surprise that the poor and suffering tend to have a stronger faith than the comfortable. God–hated by his own, torn on the cross–has always been near to the broken. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?”

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You can read the story here, find a nice annotated collection of all the Christmas stories here, get the complete Dickens for Kindle here, or listen to Ruth Golden’s brilliant audio version here. I recommend the audio version. She does an incredible job, it’s free, and Dickens wrote these stories to be read aloud.