The Chimes by Charles Dickens

A hard year.

But listen! Pick yourselves up. The voice of Time cries to man, Advance! A hard year still! A year to fill the mouth of Time with lamentation.

Dare we turn back?

The Boston bombers. The Cleveland kidnapper. The Jodi Arias Murder Trial. The demise of DOMA. The NSA scandal. Syrian civil war. The Washington Navy yard shooting. The Nairobi mall siege….

What is the common man to think? What did one Toby Veck think when considering the degradations and depravations of his fellows as he stood shivering under the chiming church bells of a New Year’s Eve?

Wrong every way. Wrong every way! Born bad. No business here! I have no business with the New Year nor with the old one neither. Let me die!

Listen!

Hear the Chimes!

Mr. Dickens hauls and hangs on the bell-ropes and pulleys of the human heart: “Cheer up! Don’t give way. A new heart for a New Year, always!” he cries in the song of the Chimes—a song that hunts and haunts.

There is perhaps no better tale to ring an old year out and a new year in than Charles Dickens’ goblin story, The Chimes. This little drama by the great storyteller deals with the temptation to look back on the tragedies of a year gone by with dejection, believing—and truly believing—that Man is “born bad.”

English novelist Charles DickensThis is the temptation of Toby Veck. Though a simple porter of simple ways, his mind is yet a discerning one; and he discerns very little to be hopeful for in mankind as he trots up and down the snowy streets bearing mankind’s bundles and hearing mankind’s news. Poor Toby is harried and hoodwinked by misanthropic philanthropists and well-mannered villains (rendered irresistibly, as only Dickens can) who condescendingly preach, protest, and perpetuate the ingratitude and ineptitude of the luckless. They fill Toby with grave misgivings about how the world is turning out. Though he is drawn to think that much of the human race is a bad lot and bad at heart, condemned to live out bad lives, Toby hears a clamorous and continuous optimism that tolls and tumbles from the steeple under which he awaits employment. The chimes of the great church bells ring in Toby’s ears and invite him to be merry. And they do make him merry, unless he happens to mar their merriment and his own by injecting the negativities and dishonesties of his times into their voices—and then the Chimes make him anxious.

Dickens whisks his readers on a wild, howling wind through the joys and sorrows of Toby Veck, until that same Toby Veck is faced with an awful moment of truth. He experiences all that any simple old man would need to be joyful: from unexpected hot tripe on a cold day, to the news of his daughter’s wedding on New Year’s Day to a worthy blacksmith, all bundled together with the joys of harboring a desperate man of desperate goodness and an angelic orphan girl. Then, in the midst of all this happiness, a newspaper shatters Toby’s peace. He reads “of a woman who had laid her desperate hands not only on her own life but on that of her young child.”  “Unnatural and cruel,” he cries as the scales are tipped; and Toby, in his simple way, judges the greater part of humanity as having no business on the earth, being born bad.

And then, quite suddenly, Toby Veck finds that he has died… and that he is high, high up among the very bells that he has listened to all his life; and the bells are issuing forth not just chimes, but swarms of Goblins! Goblins that scatter through the world, lulling people to sleep, flogging others with whips, loading others with chains. Goblins that soar and sail wildly through the habitations and businesses of man. Goblins that impose their impish devices mercifully and mercilessly as long as the Chimes ring. Upon the final stroke, the elfin creatures of the Bells melt away into nothingness, leaving the ghost of Toby Veck in the dark steeple with the Goblin of the Great Bell.

Then begins the haranguing and haunting of Toby Veck by the Phantom, who reprimands Toby for his loss of faith in the human condition. The three admonitions boomed in that belfry are ones that all should hear and take to heart, especially at the turning of the year.

Listen!

One! The voice of Time cries, Advance! He does a wrong who turns back or tries to impede the course of Time by mourning over Times which have had their trial and failure—“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.” Hearken not to golden ages lost and gone forever. Advance! And advance with an open heart and an open hand. Man must only remember that millions uncountable have suffered lived and died to point the way before him toward improvement; “for his greater worth, his greater happiness, his better life.” Advance!

Two! The voice of Man cries, and he is heard. He does a wrong who holds the powers on high are deaf; or that there is aught in their response “bespeaking disregard, or stern regard, of any hope, or joy, or pain, or sorrow, of the many-sorrowed throng.” The powers on high do not measure human passions and affectations by earthly scales, but measure them they do—and not lightly, either. The powers on high do not speak in the tongue of “the dull vermin of the earth; the Putters Down of crushed and broken natures, formed to be raised up higher than such maggots of the time can crawl or can conceive.” But a voice they have. Advance, and Hope!

Three! The voices of Men cry, and must be heard by Men as arising from Men. He does a wrong who turns away from “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.” Those who have fallen are condemned already—condemn them no further. Rather reach to them, and raise them to the limit of your strength. Advance, and Hope, and Love!

Thus tolled the Goblin of the Great Bell, shaking Toby Veck with the truths he needed to hear before being delivered to the Spirit of the Chimes to learn from the life of his daughter—to follow her throughout her life to her desperation. To follow her to desperation and learn from her life that Man is not born bad, for even in the most unnatural and cruel circumstances, there is still Love. Toby’s invisible witness of the events of his daughter’s life is both brutal and beautiful: a lesson that transforms Toby and every reader who has a heart.

This book rings out a tremendous moral for all who live surrounded by suffering. In the words of Toby Veck, once he has learned: “I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves nor doubt the good in one another.” The Chimes is a reminder that, though the world is plagued with misfortune, ugliness, and tragedy, it remains the duty of every man and woman to improve and advance with spirits unconquered by the terrors that besiege and batter.

The Chimes are ringing in the New Year. Hear them!

Edward Mordrake

By

Edward Mordrake is a free-lance writer from Hyde Park, Pennsylvania, where he works as a woodworker and cartoonist.

  • Susan Quinn

    A wonderful article, and I will read “The Chimes,” which I had not read before. However, once I discovered the horrendous anti-Catholicism in Dickens’ “A Child’s History of England,” I cannot look at him the same any more. All that nasty anti-papal stuff was read by undoubtedly more than one generation of British children, and thereby had a huge effect. It seemed he never missed an opportunity to make a dig, or to blame something on Catholics. It was very depressing reading, and far beyond anything I could forgive as simply “the culture of the times.”

    • Stephen Fitzpatrick

      While there is certainly some anti-Catholic sentiment in Dickens, I would’t be too hard on him. In his defense, he is also very critical of certain protestant strains (see The Old Curiosity Shop) and in his most excellent and somewhat forgotten novel Barnaby Rudge, Catholics are the good fellows while the antagonists are all Protestants. In the Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior writes that before writing Barnaby Rudge, Dickens had a dream or a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary who instructed him to write more favorably about Catholics. Senior also reports that Dickens took that dream quite seriously. I highly recommend Barnaby Rudge. Perhaps Dickens will regain some of his old sheen after you read it.

      • Susan

        Thank you, I will! However, I assume that about a gazillion more children read “Child’s History” (it was not only serialized but printed as a book, in many editions) and thus it would have had a far, far greater effect than the novel, which was not one of his more popular ones.

        Worse, “Barnaby Rudge” was written in the early 1840’s. while “A Child’s History of England” was serialized in 1851-1853. It seems that whatever kindness he may have felt for Catholics vanished by then, and the vitriol came out…..

        Susan

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