The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In
, a short novel by Charles Dickens
, was written and published in 1844
, one year after A Christmas Carol
. It is the second in his series of "Christmas books": five short books with strong social and moral messages that he published during the 1840's.
Toby "Trotty" Veck, a poor working man, loses his faith in human nature and comes to believe that he and his fellow poor are naturally "vicious". Then he is afforded a nightmare vision of his loved ones' future after his death. The spirits or goblins in his local church bells show him how anyone, however good, may descend into degradation and ruin if sufficiently driven by circumstances. The chimes teach Trotty that nobody is born wicked, that crime and vice are man-made conditions, and that poor people have the same right to seek improvement and happiness as the rich.
Explanation of the novel's title
The chimes are old bells in the church
on whose steps Trotty Veck plies his trade. The book is divided into four parts named "quarters", after the quarter-chimes of a chiming clock.
One New Year's Eve Trotty, a "ticket-porter" or casual messenger, is filled with gloom at the reports of crime and immorality in the newspapers, and wonders whether the working classes are simply wicked by nature. His daughter Meg and her long-time fiancé Richard arrive and announce their decision to marry next day. Trotty hides his misgivings, but their happiness is dispelled by an encounter with a pompous alderman
, Cute, plus a political economist and a young gentleman with a nostalgia for the past, all of whom make Trotty, Meg and Richard feel they hardly have a right to exist, let alone marry.
Trotty carries a note for Cute to Sir Joseph Bowley MP, who dispenses charity to the poor in the manner of a paternal dictator. Bowley is ostentatiously settling his debts to ensure a clean start to the new year, and berates Trotty because he owes a few shillings to his local shop which he cannot pay off in the same way. Returning home, convinced that he and his fellow poor are naturally ungrateful and have no place in society, Trotty encounters Will Fern, a poor countryman, and his orphaned niece. Fern has been unfairly accused of vagrancy and wants to visit Cute to set matters straight, but Trotty overheard a conversation there and knows that if Fern does so he will be arrested and imprisoned. He takes the pair home with him and he and Meg share their meagre food and poor lodging with the visitors. Meg tries to hide her distress, but it seems she has been dissuaded from marrying Richard by the conversation with Cute and the others.
In the night the bells seem to call Trotty. Going to the church he finds the tower door unlocked and climbs to the bellchamber, where he discovers the spirits of the bells and their goblin attendants. They reprimand him for losing faith in man's destiny to improve and progress, then tell him shocking news - he fell from the tower that New Year's Eve and is dead, and Meg's subsequent life will be an object lesson for him. There follows a series of visions which he must watch as an intangible ghost, helpless to interfere with the troubled lives of Meg, Richard, Will and Lilian over the subsequent years. Meg finally does marry Richard in an effort to save him from alcoholism, but he is beyond help and dies ruined, leaving her with a baby. Will is driven in and out of prison by petty laws and restrictions; Lilian turns to prostitution. In the end, destitute, Meg is driven to contemplate drowning herself and her child, thus committing the mortal sins of murder and suicide. The intention is to teach Trotty that, far from being naturally wicked, mankind is formed to strive for nobler and higher things, and will fall only when crushed and repressed beyond bearing. Trotty breaks down when he sees Meg poised to jump into the river, cries that he has learned the lesson of the chimes, and begs them to save her, whereupon he finds himself able to touch her and prevent her from jumping.
With this the vision ends and Trotty finds himself awakening at home as if from a dream as the bells ring in the New Year, and the book ends with celebrations for Meg and Richard's wedding day.
- Toby "Trotty" Veck, a messenger or "ticket-porter", and the main protagonist
- Margaret "Meg" Veck, Toby's 20-year old daughter
- Mrs. Anne Chickenstalker, the local shopkeeper
- Alderman Cute, a Justice of the Peace
- Mr. Filer, a political economist in the Utilitarian mould
- Sir Joseph Bowley, a rich paternalist MP
- Will Fern, a countryman
- Lilian Fern, Will's orphaned niece
This is a campaigning story like its predecessor A Christmas Carol
, written with the intention of swaying readers towards Dickens' moral message. The chimes represent time, and the main themes of the story are summarized in the three wrongs they accuse Trotty of committing towards them:
• Harking back to a golden age that never was, instead of striving to improve conditions here and now.
• Believing that individual human joys and sorrows do not matter to a higher power.
• Condemning those who are fallen and unfortunate, and offering them neither help nor pity.
'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!'
Literary significance and reception
A Christmas Carol
had been extremely well received the previous year, and The Chimes
aroused public interest and anticipation. Five different stage productions of the book were running within weeks of publication and nearly 20,000 copies were sold in the first three months. It had a high media profile, and was widely reviewed and discussed. Critical opinion was divided; those sympathetic to its social and political message liked the book, but others thought it dangerously radical. The Northern Star
's reviewer called Dickens "the champion of the poor"; John Bull
rejected his unflattering caricatures of philanthropy (Slater pp 139-140). It was certainly a financial success for Dickens, and remained popular for many years, although in the long term its fame was eclipsed by that of A Christmas Carol
Allusions and references
Allusions to other works
Asking the upper classes to stop interfering with his life and leave him to die, Will Fern makes a bitter reference to the biblical Book of Ruth
, misquoting Ruth's "Whither thou goest, I will go" speech.
Allusions to actual history, geography and current science
The novel's setting is contemporary and the 1840's, the "Hungry Forties", were a time of social and political unrest.
Alderman Cute is a parody of Sir Peter Laurie, a Middlesex magistrate known for his determination to "put down" the lower classes and their antisocial behaviour.
The unnamed young man who harks back to the "good old times" is a reference to the Young England movement. Dickens removed many of these references prior to publication.
An article in the newspaper about a young woman who tried to kill herself and her child finally confirms Trotty in his conviction that poor people are naturally wicked. This is a reference to Mary Furley, a destitute young woman sentenced to death in 1844 for infanticide after a failed suicide attempt in which her child drowned. After an outcry in which Dickens played a part, Mary Furley was reprieved and transported instead. (Slater, p. 264). The Furley case strongly echoes Meg's suicide plans at the climax of the book.
A musical adaptation of The Chimes
was created in 1992 by Lisa Kofod and Gay Donat Reed, with music by Paul Johnson. A staged reading of this work was produced at The Workhouse Theatre in New York City.
The Chimes was adapted into a 24-minute clay-animated film in 2000 by Xyzoo Animation. It won a Cine Special Jury award in 2002.
In 2004 a stage adaptation by Les Smith premiered at the Southwark Playhouse.
- Slater, Michael Introduction to The Chimes in Charles Dickens: The Christmas Books, Volume 1.. London: Penguin Classics.