December 19, 2008

Chime in on "The Chimes"


To be honest, "The Chimes" has left me a bit at a loss, and so I'm looking forward to hearing reactions from others. My biggest confusion was over Trotty himself: what did he do to deserve these terrible visions of deprivation and depravity, and what is he supposed to do about them? His sin appears to be his loss of faith in humanity:
'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!'

He has to learn to blame nurture, rather than nature:
'I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another.'

But because he's really such a kindly fellow himself, and so powerless that his error can hardly do any damage, while his redemption can hardly do any good, he seems a far more artificial device for this re-education project than Scrooge does. The story's didacticism, in other words, seemed to overpower its aesthetic conception and thus blunted its emotional effects: it was always already about me (and you), not about Trotty, and unpleasantly so, as the underlying assumption about me (and you) is that we will blame and despise desperate mothers who make their terrible way towards the river to take "the dreadful plunge."* In short, I didn't like it that much overall.

Still, it's Dickens, and he can't help being brilliant, at least fitfully. My favourite bit was definitely the opening of the third quarter--yes, the bit with the goblins:
He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells. He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause. He saw them, round him on the ground; above him, in the air; clambering from him, by the ropes below; looking down upon him, from the massive iron–girded beams; peeping in upon him, through the chinks and loopholes in the walls; spreading away and away from him in enlarging circles, as the water ripples give way to a huge stone that suddenly comes plashing in among them. He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl. He saw the air thick with them. He saw them come and go, incessantly. He saw them riding downward, soaring upward, sailing off afar, perching near at hand, all restless and all violently active. Stone, and brick, and slate, and tile, became transparent to him as to them. He saw them IN the houses, busy at the sleepers’ beds. He saw them soothing people in their dreams; he saw them beating them with knotted whips; he saw them yelling in their ears; he saw them playing softest music on their pillows; he saw them cheering some with the songs of birds and the perfume of flowers; he saw them flashing awful faces on the troubled rest of others, from enchanted mirrors which they carried in their hands.

He saw these creatures, not only among sleeping men but waking also, active in pursuits irreconcilable with one another, and possessing or assuming natures the most opposite. He saw one buckling on innumerable wings to increase his speed; another loading himself with chains and weights, to retard his. He saw some putting the hands of clocks forward, some putting the hands of clocks backward, some endeavouring to stop the clock entirely. He saw them representing, here a marriage ceremony, there a funeral; in this chamber an election, in that a ball he saw, everywhere, restless and untiring motion.

OK, help me out: is "The Chimes" better than I think? What struck you most about it?

*A much better example of a 'fallen woman' story, just btw, is Elizabeth Gaskell's "Lizzie Leigh."


Bookphilia said...

I can't help love for Dickens is blind and unconditional and I therefore can't think of his work critically.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the story, certain passages very much, but I share your disappointment with the Chimes.

Dickens’ purpose is deeply confused.

After his encounter with the brutal Alderman Cute and the hypocritical Sir Joseph Bowley, the kind-hearted Trotty has a crisis of faith. (Who hasn’t?)

In what precisely does his crime consist?

Well, the Chimes accuse him of voicing a hollow public lament, denying providence and final justice, and turning his back on other human beings.

This last crime is singled out by the Chimes as most egregious:

“Lastly, and most of all. Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile…; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!”

But when has Trotty abandoned anyone as vile?

This accusation is especially odd when we recall that Trotty invites Will Fern and his niece Lillian into the modest comfort of his home, right before (minutes? hours?) the Chimes “haunt and hunt” poor Trotty through ghastly visions.

By comparison to Alderman Cute or Sir Joseph Bowley or Mr. Filer, Trotty is hardly a soul worthy of such fantastic remediation.

Anyhow, Dickens is at his best in this lovely gem of a passage:

“To the rolling River, swift and dim, where Winter Night sat brooding like the last dark thoughts of many who had sought a refuge there before her. Where scattered lights upon the banks gleamed sullen, red, and dull, as torches that were burning there, to show the way to Death.”

Alliteration! Personification! And the beautiful-sounding rhythm of a river!


Rohan Maitzen said...

Dickens' purpose is deeply confused.

The commenters at The Valve gave me some ways to make better sense of why poor Toby gets taken to task--but in the end, I still agree that despite the great bits in "The Chimes," there's a reason "A Christmas Carol" is the really famous one.