A Christmas Carol he started a tradition of releasing a new story each year at Christmas time. His second Christmas story was The Chimes. The book follows an old porter/messenger in London named Trotty Veck. As with Christmas Carol and many of his other works, Dickens has plenty of focus on the social structure of the country. Trotty is a very poor old widower with a single daughter, Meg. At the onset of the book, Meg brings Trotty lunch and announces that she plans to get married within the week on New Year's Day. At first Trotty is a little nervous but generally happy for his daughter. As the day goes on, Trotty becomes less sure of whether or not they should marry or even if any of them deserve to be happy.
In Christmas Carol and other books, Dickens takes opportunities to have his characters give social commentary. In The Chimes this comes initially from some of the rich society members of the town as they give messages for Trotty to carry. The first commentary is in direct reaction to the announcement of Meg's wedding plans. Alderman Cute speaks with biting reproach against the lower class in general and Trotty, Meg and her fiance in particular. He talks of the "good old days" and eventually concludes that the poor have no real rights or privileges. In essence, they should be done away with entirely and certainly have no right to marry and carry on their wretched existence by propagating more poor creature.
Trotty carries a message from the Alderman to a member of Parliament. In that house Trotty is berated by a commentary on economic stability and responsibility. He is chastised for being poor and owing a few shillings to a local shop where he buys food. Trotty leaves feeling even more disgraced. On his way home he meets another vagrant, William Fern, and his niece Lillian. Trotty knows William is slated to be arrested by the Alderman. Rather than let him be arrested, Trotty warns Fern and takes him to his own poor home with Meg.
The title of the story is based on the Chimes that ring over the city from the church tower near where Trotty stands to await messages to deliver. After taking the Ferns to his home, Trotty gets pensive again and worries about the burden he's putting on society and wonders about the truth of whether it is better that he and his kind were removed from existence. During the night, the Chimes ring and Trotty can hear them speaking to him, calling to him. He follows them up into the church bell tower and encounters a company of goblins and spirits.
One of the spirits takes the form of Lillian, the niece of William Fern. The spirit takes Trotty on a journey similar to that of Ebenezer Scrooge though rather than showing his past, Trotty is taken throughout the future of London. He sees the hole he leaves with his death. He sees the misery and pain of the poor around him. He sees the hypocritical behavior of the higher classes of society. He sees the pain and suffering of his own daughter and her eventual loss of all hope as she plummets into complete despair. In a scene reminiscent of Christmas Carol, we find Trotty begging the spirit to let him help Meg. He begs to be given another chance. He promises that he has learned the truth of life and knows now that the poor and feeble classes do have a right to existence. Better yet, they have a right to be happy and have hope and joy of better days to come.
I found The Chimes to be less compelling than A Christmas Carol. I think part of that comes due to the lengthy sermons from Alderman Cute, Joseph Bowley (the member of Parliament) and others. While these narrations were interesting at a level they were also very steeped in political and social language of the times. Because I am not super familiar with the details of Victorian social woes there were plenty of allusions and references that just blew by me without the impact that they surely had on readers in Dickens's day. Even though I was bogged down by some of the very specific details, I was touched, shocked and appawled by the nature of the discussions. Especially knowing that these conversations and speeches were based in reality I found myself disgusted at the behavior of these individuals.
I really liked the "spirit voyage" that Trotty goes on and found it very compelling. It had scenes similar to A Christmas Carol where Trotty sees the poverty and vagrancy in which people live but he also gets to see that they are capable of joy and happiness in spite of their enormous lack of sustenance. More than these expected scenes, I really liked the counterpoint scenes of the upper class members of society. I found it interesting to see their hypocrisy and the paradox that in some cases they weren't nearly as happy as those who had nothing.
Doing a little bit of research, it sounds like The Chimes enjoyed great success upon release and had a wonderful reception. In reading the book I had thought that some of Dickens's satirical social commentary might have come a little too close to the mark and earned him reproof from those in government or business but it doesn't sound like there was too much of that. Instead it seems like this well received novel may have fufilled some of Dickens's hope that he could help bring more people to the knowledge of the plight and horrible situation of the poor.
Personally I didn't enjoy the story as much as A christmas Carol so Chimes certainly won't a replacement for me as a new classic Christmas story. Still, I felt like the writing, characters and themes were very well presented and I think this is an excellent story well worth reading if only to provide additional subject matter to think on when considering the themes presented in A Christmas Carol. All in all, a solid piece of work.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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