“The Chimes”; in which I experience a cultural gap that is not there

“The Chimes” is one of Charles Dickens’s “other” Christmas stories—except that it is actually a New Year’s story. Wuthering Expectations has an excellent post about it, and there’s a bit of a discussion at The Valve as well.

First, let me say that while somewhat baffling it was a really fun story, and anyone familiar with “A Christmas Carol” should really read this too. The beginning of the third quarter, with the goblins, and especially the illustrations of the goblins, was my favorite. Look at these guys.

As Amateur Reader sums it up:

As a result of either supernatural forces or a combination of stress and indigestion, [Trotty Veck] is shown a horrible vision of the future which leads him to reform his selfish ways.

This sounds a bit, just a bit, like A Christmas Carol, published the Christmas before, with two minor changes. First, Trotty, unlike Scrooge, is poor, and second, he’s a fine fellow with no selfish ways whatsoever.

Now, before this happens, Trotty, a ticket porter, is hanging out with some of his well-to-do clients, getting lectured by his betters on how wasteful the poor are, how incorrigible, &tc., and Trotty tends to agree that they are “born Bad.” He’s clearly so overwhelmed by how Good his betters are that he can’t help but agree with them. And later, soon before bed, he reads the paper, putting him in mind of “the crimes and violences of the people”:

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 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!”

Now, how did I miss, in my first reading, the fact that this, this is the very moment when the Chimes begin to “haunt him and hunt him”? But I must have done, because there I was, thinking like I do so many times (at least I am not alone), that there is an unbridgeable gap between my sense of morality and that of the author, and that while I may enjoy the story perfectly well I won’t be able to get the full force of it because who on earth thinks a poor woman must be born Bad to do away with herself and her child in a moment of desperation?

In my annoyance I practically swept the incident aside, because otherwise I was so enjoying “The Chimes” and deeply sympathizing with Trotty. (Plus, since when do I have a problem understanding Dickens, über-humanist that he was?) Of course, this left me with the problem of understanding what on earth he was being punished for. And then, finally, there it was: poor haunted Trotty is made to understand that there are circumstances in which someone he knows to have been not only born Good but who has lived a terrible virtuous life would do just what the mother in the paper did.

The idea of false consciousness has been raised at The Valve. Certainly there is some of that going on in Trotty’s interactions with Alderman Cute & Co., but his reaction to the infanticide story is visceral and certainly his own. And it is that reaction that the Chimes pick out most clearly. Is the false consciousness not that big a deal? Does the lesson of Will Fern in the future speak more to that? Is it just by chance that the vision stops dead when Meg goes to jump in the river?

Also interesting to me was the level of sexuality in the story, really orders of magnitude greater than I remember seeing with Dickens. I was almost scandalized.

[Illustration scanned by Philip A. Allingham, courtesy The Victorian Web (here’s hoping they consider me educational and/or scholarly).]

3 comments to “The Chimes”; in which I experience a cultural gap that is not there

  • Ah ha, I see, yes, the reader – the modern reader – needs to fight off the sympathetic response a little. We have to allow Trotty to sin or despair or whatever for the story to make sense. Sort of paradoxical – we have to be a bit less humanistic with the character, a little less willing to forgive, at least at first.

    A slippery, strange thing for a (once-)popular Christmas story, isn’t it?

  • Very strange. And I think it’s almost impossible for the modern reader to do, because it’s almost impossible not to read this in light of “A Christmas Carol.” I defy anyone to read “The Chimes” and not start out reading Trotty as Bob Cratchit.

  • I just checked and Gutenberg has this so I’m heading over right away to read or listen. I reread A Christmas Carol last year at this time so will take your challenge and read The Chimes now – very interesting.