Question: When is a Christmas story NOT a Christmas story? Answer: When it is THIS story, which is actually set at New Years! With the worldwide success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens devoted himself each year to come up with an annual holiday tale, trying to capture lightning in a bottle again with similar holiday fare. The fact that he was never able to replicate his success does not make his followup stories any less enjoyable.
Of the four immediate annuals, 'The Chimes' is the most 'Christmas Carol'-like and is considered the literal (and spiritual, no pun intended) successor to the original tale, covering a lot of the same ground and concerned with the same problems of the time.
The story concerns one Toby 'Trotty' Veck, an old man who has spent his life as a ticket porter or 'trotter', of mail, messages and small packages from one place to another. His home base is on the steps of a London church, always open to the elements, waiting for his next job. Dickens paints Trotty as a long-suffering, though patient, man, eager and still willing to do his job, even though the years haven't been kind to him and there are now younger (and quicker) lads to do it.
Trotty's main love in life is his daughter Margaret, known as Meg. She always comes in the evening to bring her father supper, after his long, cold day. This evening she brings him one of his favorite dishes, tripe, and some news. She is full of excitement and tells her father she wants to marry her long-time fiance' Richard the following day (New Year's Day). He is happy for his daughter but worries for the young couple's future (the main threesome here are all established as part of London's massive poor population at the time; they serve in the Cratchit's role for this story).
Not helping matters are Alderman Clute and another pompous businessman, who overhear Meg's news to her father and deride her (and all poor people) that they should be out working and not planning a poor marriage and all that entails; i.e., the inevitable children that would arrive, making more mouths to feed and a further tax burden on the rich. Their conversation makes Trotty feel guilty and he wants Meg to forestall her marriage.
After delivering one last message, he is heading home when he comes upon a destitute laborer named Will Fern and his fragile, orphaned niece Lillian. Recognizing the name from his last delivery of the day, he finds out Will is on his way to see Sir Joseph Bowley, MP, regarding a debt he owes. Trotty persuades him not to go and to come home with him, for he overheard the MP saying that he would throw Will in prison when he arrived. Trotty and Meg feed the travelers and put them up for the night in their meager lodgings, with the earlier rantings from the rich about the uselessness of the poor playing over and over in the messenger's head.
With the guests asleep, Trotty goes out for a midnight stroll, hearing the Bells of the church calling to him, more insistently than ever before. Here is where we get to the meat of the story, with the Goblins of the Bells serving the same purpose as the Ghosts in Dickens' earlier Christmas Carol.
Making his way up to the steeple, we are treated to this exchange:
‘I thought my name was called by the Chimes!’ said Trotty, raising his hands in an attitude of supplication. ‘I hardly know why I am here, or how I came. I have listened to the Chimes these many years. They have cheered me often.’
‘And you have thanked them?’ said the Bell.
‘A thousand times!’ cried Trotty.
‘I am a poor man,’ faltered Trotty, ‘and could only thank them in words.’
‘And always so?’ inquired the Goblin of the Bell. ‘Have you never done us wrong in words?’
‘No!’ cried Trotty eagerly.
‘Never done us foul, and false, and wicked wrong, in words?’ pursued the Goblin of the Bell.
Trotty was about to answer, ‘Never!’ But he stopped, and was confused.
‘The voice of Time,’ said the Phantom, ‘cries to man, Advance! Time is for his advancement and improvement; for his greater worth, his greater happiness, his better life; his progress onward to that goal within its knowledge and its view, and set there, in the period when Time and He began. Ages of darkness, wickedness, and violence, have come and gone—millions uncountable, have suffered, lived, and died—to point the way before him. Who seeks to turn him back, or stay him on his course, arrests a mighty engine which will strike the meddler dead; and be the fiercer and the wilder, ever, for its momentary check!’
‘I never did so to my knowledge, sir,’ said Trotty. ‘It was quite by accident if I did. I wouldn’t go to do it, I’m sure.’
‘Who puts into the mouth of Time, or of its servants,’ said the Goblin of the Bell, ‘a cry of lamentation for days which have had their trial and their failure, and have left deep traces of it which the blind may see—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—who does this, does a wrong. And you have done that wrong, to us, the Chimes.’
Trotty’s first excess of fear was gone. But he had felt tenderly and gratefully towards the Bells, as you have seen; and when he heard himself arraigned as one who had offended them so weightily, his heart was touched with penitence and grief.
‘If you knew,’ said Trotty, clasping his hands earnestly—‘or perhaps you do know—if you know how often you have kept me company; how often you have cheered me up when I’ve been low; how you were quite the plaything of my little daughter Meg (almost the only one she ever had) when first her mother died, and she and me were left alone; you won’t bear malice for a hasty word!’
‘Who hears in us, the Chimes, one note bespeaking disregard, or stern regard, of any hope, or joy, or pain, or sorrow, of the many-sorrowed throng; who hears us make response to any creed that gauges human passions and affections, as it gauges the amount of miserable food on which humanity may pine and wither; does us wrong. That wrong you have done us!’ said the Bell.
‘I have!’ said Trotty. ‘Oh forgive me!’
‘Who hears us echo 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,’ pursued the Goblin of the Bell; ‘who does so, does us wrong. And you have done us wrong!’
‘Not meaning it,’ said Trotty. ‘In my ignorance. Not meaning it!’
‘Lastly, and most of all,’ pursued the Bell. ‘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!’
‘Spare me!’ cried Trotty, falling on his knees; ‘for Mercy’s sake!’
Because Trotty took the rich alderman's words to heart and took their stance regarding the poor, believing their hurtful words and giving up hope of he and his fellow man's chance of improving their lot in life and succumbing to despair (and in that way ignoring the hopeful message of the peals of the Bells), he is not spared. Instead, the Goblins take him on a wild journey. First they show him his dead body at the bottom of the steps, telling him he misgauged his trip up to them and all is now over. Not being content with that shock, however, they relate that he has been dead for nine years and proceed to show him the future of all those he loved and cared for and the horrible end they all came to.
Richard and Meg marry, but their situation worsens and worsens as Richard becomes a hopeless alcoholic, dying and leaving Meg a single mother with no way to care for her baby. Will Fern is finally caught and sent to debtor's prison; his daughter Lillian slowly turns to prostitution just to stay alive, much to Meg's horror. They don't speak for many years, but finally do reconcile, only to have Lillian succumb to illness and die. Meg is so distraught by this final ray of hope and happiness dying out that she takes her baby to the riverbank to drown it and herself. Trotty sees all this and begs the Goblins to save his daughter and her child. As Wikipedia relates:
"The chimes' intention is to teach Trotty that, far from being naturally wicked, mankind is formed to strive for nobler 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 his lesson and begs the Chimes to save her, whereupon he finds himself able to touch her and prevent her from jumping."
Trotty awakens to the chimes of the Bells on New Year's Day (shades of Scrooge's awakening and redemption on Christmas Day) - in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge at one time tells Marley's ghost he does not believe he is really in the room with him and is just a bit of bad roast beef ... in this tale, the reader is given an out when it is suggested that Trotty's horrible night may be due to the tripe being off that Meg had brought for his supper the night before. Be that as it may, the old man is delighted to find all of Meg and Richard's friends have worked together to provide them a jolly wedding feast and an equally jolly party. Trotty has learned his lesson and life, with all its struggles, goes on. Dickens ends the tale with an admonition that we ALL learn the lesson that Trotty has learned on this fateful night, by saying: “So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you!”
Coming Tomorrow: Our third Christmas tale, and my personal favorite of the five, The Cricket On the Hearth! See you then.