Archive for December 16th, 2012

“The Chimes” by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol was a hard act to follow. Festive season, human suffering and redemption, spirits guiding humans, supernatural visions, all leading to warmth and cheer at the end …yes, these are all present and correct; but somehow, that imaginative spark that had lit A Christmas Carol isn’t really there. Of course, one can’t merely repeat oneself: so, instead of Christmas, Dickens focussed on the New Year; and instead of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, Dickens gave us the spirits of the Chimes, the church bells that mark the passing of time.

And this time, the central character taught a lesson by the spirit world is not a rich miserly businessman, but a poor and somewhat feeble-minded old man. This is, perhaps, part of the problem: for Trotty Veck is decidedly not amongst those most in need of lessons. True, he does begin to subscribe to what he hears from the mouths of the rich for whom he runs errands: the poor are poor, he comes to believe, because they deserve to be so; they are naturally vicious, born to be bad; there is really no justification even for their existence. However, though he has come to believe this things true, he doesn’t act upon them: he loves his daughter dearly, delights in whatever happiness she may have, and, poor though he is, displays charity and kindness to those even more unfortunate than himself. Why should the spirits pick on someone like him? one wonders. Go pick on those more deserving of being taught a good lesson. Alderman Cute, for instance. A man of the people, is Alderman Cute:

“You are going to be married, you say,” pursued the Alderman. “Very unbecoming and indelicate in one of your sex! But never mind that. After you are married, you’ll quarrel with your husband and come to be a distressed wife. You may think not– but you will, because I tell you so. Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put distressed wives Down. So, don’t be brought before me. You’ll have children — boys. Those boys will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, without shoes and stockings. Mind my young friend! I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put boys without shoes and stockings, Down. Perhaps your husband will die young (most likely) and leave you with a baby. Then you’ll be turned out of doors, and wander up and down the streets. Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved to Put all wandering mothers Down. All young mothers, of all sorts and kinds, it’s my determination to Put Down. Don’t think to plead illness as an excuse with me; or babies as an excuse with me; for all sick persons and young children (I hope you know the church-service, but I’m afraid not) I am determined to Put Down. And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefullv. and impiously, and fraudulently attempt, to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I’ll have no pity for you, for I have made up my mind to Put all suicide Down! If there is one thing,” said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, “on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put suicide Down. So don’t try it on. That’s the phrase, isn’t it? Ha, ha! now we understand each other.”

Or there’s Alderman Cute’s friend, Mr Filer, who has the entire world reduced to statistics, and can prove to Trotty Veck that in eating the small piece of tripe his loving daughter has brought him for lunch, he is, in effect, taking food out of the mouths of hundreds of others. Or Sir Joseph Bowley, the Poor Man’s Friend: he, good man, clears his accounts and settles his debts before the end of the year, and can only disapprove of the likes of Trotty Veck who is sufficiently improvident to be behind in his rent. What can be done with such people? Born bad, they are, born bad.

These caricatures are crude, admittedly, but they have about them a certain vigour: the very real anger in Dickens’ voice is unmistakable. This is not mere social commentary: this is Dickens’ passionate anger at the inability of humans to feel each others’ woes, his anger at the human readiness to condemn without understanding, without compassion.

This anger, powerful as it is, seems to drown out everything else. Dickens’ characteristic sense of whimsy seems to go missing somewhere along the way: he seems too angry to care much about such matters. The moral purpose overrides all: the story is too close for comfort to a sermon. To our modern sensibilities, of course, a sermoniser is about the worst thing a writer could be. But perhaps some sermons are worth hearing: much depends, of course, on the extent to which the reader likes Dickens’ voice, but for me, he carries it off. Even if only just.

The theme is soon introduced of suicide. Trotty Veck reads of an impoverished woman who has murdered her own child and thrown herself into the river; and he reflects, once again, that he and his class are simply born bad: there can be no other explanation for so hideous a crime. But that night, New Year’s Eve, he is drawn by the chimes up into the church tower. And the spirits of the chimes show him visions of the future. In this future, he, Trotty, is dead; he had fallen off the church tower one New Year’s Eve when he had been sleep-walking. And this future he is shown is grim indeed. Promising young men turn to alcohol, and become hopeless drunks; beautiful young women turn to prostitution. And , in the final terrible vision, Trotty sees his own beloved daughter driven by desperation to commit that most hideous of crimes – infanticide, and then suicide. Our modern taste may not take too well to sermonising, but it could be that, at times, it’s our modern taste that is at fault: this is powerful, passionate stuff.

The story ends happily, of course – or, rather, as happily as possible given that the people in the story remain poor, and, indeed, still on the edge of starvation. Dickens was maturing as a writer: there is no benevolent Mr Pickwick or the Cheeryble Brothers or even the reformed Scrooge who can put everything right by throwing money around. Life is dark, and will continue to be so. Under the circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that the good cheer at the end is somewhat muted.

A Christmas Carol it ain’t: that extra turn of genius that has made that earlier work into perhaps the most potent of modern fairy tales is not really to be seen here. What has replaced it is a tremendous sense of anger, of passion; and also a deep sorrow in the contemplation of the depths to which humans sink.