All Commentary
Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Tale of Two Stories

It is not enough to urge Scrooge to be good to others

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843.

Charles Dickens, The Chimes, 1844.

Everyone knows Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The Victorian nostalgia! The adorable Tiny Tim! The festive Fezziwig party! The miserly villain who can only be redeemed by complete financial irresponsibility!

It’s just about the time of year when economists line up to give Dickens his annual kicking. It’s not hard to understand why. A Christmas Carol does not treat the commercial world particularly fairly. And the story’s annual return inspires endless pieties from the anti-business crowd, who like sanctimoniously to remind businesspeople of the importance of “giving back” to the community, having a work-life balance, and putting people before profits. To the economically literate, the temptation to give Dickens — or at least this particular story — a good thumping is overwhelming.

But there’s a much better response available. It’s a story by one of the greatest writers in the English language, written at the height of his popularity, touching on many of the same topics.

It’s a novella called The Chimes.

Everyone knows A Christmas Carol, but everyone forgets Dickens wrote other Christmas stories, too. The Chimes, which appeared the year after A Christmas Carol, is another compelling tale about temptation and repentance, despair and hope. But what makes The Chimes required reading for anyone who’s a little tired of being called a Scrooge is the way it responds to and nuances the messages we have taken from A Christmas Carol. 

The Chimes tells the story of Trotty Veck, a street porter who scrapes together a poor-but-honest living delivering messages through the streets of London. Trotty is a small-business owner who “loved to earn his money. He delighted to believe … that he was worth his salt. With a … message or small parcel in hand, his courage, always high, rose higher.” On New Year’s Eve, Trotty is driven to despair by the evils of the world. That night, the ringing of the chimes in the church tower awakens him. Drawn to their sound, he finds himself called to account for his despair by the bells and their goblin attendants. They show him visions of a future that awaits if he gives in to his despair, and in the morning, he wakes to find himself at home, surrounded by family and good will.

The bells and the goblins accuse Trotty of falling into three specific errors in his moments of despair. First, he is guilty of dreaming of a romanticized past at the cost of neglecting the opportunity to improve the present. Second, he is guilty of assuming that the plans of the poor are of no importance to anyone. Third, he is guilty of a misanthropy that condemns humanity as evil and not worth saving.

I couldn’t help wondering, while reading The Chimes, whether Trotty’s errors were meant to replicate the errors often committed by readers of A Christmas Carol.

Ye olde tymes

For example, one of the curious results of the massive and continuing popularity of A Christmas Carol is the annual festival of nostalgia it inspires for a “Dickens Christmas.” Despite the book’s focus on the emotionally and financially impoverished inhabitants of Victorian London, we read A Christmas Carol and immediately start to sigh after carolers in the street, picturesque snow, and plum pudding. We run around saying “Happy Christmas” and trying to remember what Boxing Day is. These are all perfectly fine things, but these cozy pleasures are a very small part of Dickens’s vision of Christmas.

And The Chimes has no patience for this nostalgia. As the Goblin of the Bells tells Trotty:

Time is for [man’s] 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.… Who puts into the mouth of Time … 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.

A happier Christmas, a happier world, will not be achieved, say the chimes, by longing for past golden days that weren’t really all that golden. It will be achieved by striving and going forward, by working toward goals that will help humanity advance and improve. A real Dickens Christmas will keep the holly and the plum pudding, but not at the expense of focusing on the present and how to improve it.

We’re here to help

Charity, in A Christmas Carol, is primarily left to the paternal philanthropists who are out to fix the lives of the poor. We all remember the final scenes where Scrooge buys and sends an enormous turkey to the Cratchits for their dinner and tells Bob Cratchit, “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon.” There’s nothing wrong with Scrooge’s attempts to help the Cratchits. Bob has worked for him for a while, and he knows the family’s circumstances, after all. But The Chimes urges us to be careful about this kind of interference, reminding us to trust the ability of the poor to plan their own lives.

Our first caveat comes very early in the story, when Trotty’s daughter spends her wages to bring him a dish of tripe as a surprise for dinner. (Tripe, for those readers who are only familiar with it as hipster food, used to be eaten only by the poorest of the poor.) As he eats, Trotty is interrupted by a trio of men — the economist Mr. Filer, Alderman Cute, and an unnamed third man. Mr. Filer, a utilitarian, explains to Trotty that his choice of tripe is “without an exception the least economical and the most wasteful article of consumption.… Tripe is more expensive, properly understood, than the hothouse pineapple.” He then accuses Trotty of being wasteful and of stealing food from the mouths of the poor.

With Trotty’s pleasure in his dinner destroyed by the economist and his actual dinner eaten by the alderman, the three men go on to destroy the happiness of Trotty’s daughter. She has recently become engaged, and the men are shocked to hear it. Mr. Filer lectures them again.

Married! Married!! The ignorance of the first principles of political economy on the part of these people; improvidence; their wickedness.… A man … may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as these; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ‘em that they have no right or business to be married than he can hope to persuade ‘em that they have no earthly right or business to be born. And that we know they haven’t. We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!

Dickens is not mocking the desire to help others but the desire to help others by overriding their plans and their preferences and substituting one’s own. Tripe may lose a great deal of food value when it is cooked, but it is the best meat that Trotty and his daughter can afford, and Trotty was enjoying it thoroughly. His daughter and her fiancé might be “too poor to be married,” but surely they are better situated to make that judgment than someone who thinks they’re too poor to live at all.

Depriving the poor of their choices and invading their lives with paternalistic plans for improvement that destroy the fragile plans they have built themselves is no way to aid them. The Goblin of the Bells tells Trotty that he has been wrong to hear in them “one note bespeaking disregard, or stern regard of any hope, or joy, or pain, or sorrow, of the many-sorrowed throng.” Trotty’s meager dinner matters. His daughter’s matrimonial plans matter. Steamrolling over them makes us all worse off than we were before.

Bah, humbug!

But perhaps the most important correction that The Chimes offers is its lesson about misanthropy. The Goblin of the Bells tells Trotty, “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 … does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity.” And yet, though Dickens tells us that after Scrooge’s transformation “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge,” and although we read A Christmas Carol every year, or go to see it in the theater, or at least watch the Muppet version on television, we persist in remembering Scrooge at his worst.

When we talk about A Christmas Carol, we fail to give Scrooge credit for transforming. We “abandon him as vile” and “turn our back upon the fallen.” The Chimes won’t let us do that. It is not enough to urge Scrooge to be good to others. We have to remember to be good to Scrooge. Otherwise, we haven’t learned a thing.

As a work of art, The Chimes will never replace A Christmas Carol. It’s simply not as memorable. But as a moral lesson, it is a fine corrective to some of the ways in which our dreams of the past, our desires to help in the present, and our fears about the future of humanity can lead us astray. At the end of The Chimes, we do not see the scenes of wild largesse from a reformed miser that mark the end of A Christmas Carol. Instead, we see Trotty’s family and friends pour into his simple home to celebrate his daughter’s coming wedding. It is these intimate connections that call Trotty back from despair and that give him hope. And it is these connections that Dickens urges us to nurture at the end of his tale.

Try to bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come; and in your sphere — none is too wide, and none too limited for such an end — endeavour to correct, improve, and soften them. So may the new Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you!