Friday, December 19, 2008

Dickens' The Chimes

I hadn't known, before people at The Valve started reading The Chimes, that A Christmas Carol had been one of a series. Just like a genre fantasy writer today, Dickens had a success and followed it with another similar book and another until it was played out. The Chimes was the second in this series, out of five. A previous post addressed one of the key aesthetic elements of the work.

It's a political novella. The protagonist, Toby nicknamed Trotty, is a pathetically inoffensive old man, scraping out a living by delivering letters and parcels. The other poor people in his set are Meg, his grown daughter, Richard, her fiance, William Fern, a laborer who he takes in out of sympathy, and Lillian, William's young ward, his sister's daughter. Toby's ghostly vision, given to him in a dream by goblins of the church chimes that he listens to where he waits for work, shows what happens to them nine years later if Toby dies that night; all four are ground down by poverty in four different ways. Richard becomes a drunkard, Lillian a prostitute, William Fern a terrorist, and Meg decides to commit suicide with her baby daughter. These four are schematically opposed to four flat characters who represent the people grinding them down, who in contemporary terms might be described as a nostalgic conservative, a technocratic utilitarian, a social conservative actively oppressing the poor, and an aristocrat.

Many of the people commenting at The Valve don't seem to get the book, dismissing it as overly political, too didactic, not very engaging. (Adam Roberts writes some interesting comments about metallic imagery and hardness/softness, though.) All of that might be true, but it doesn't seem like a very useful way of looking at the book. Why doesn't it work, if it doesn't? I'd say that Dickens is bravely running head-on into the same political problem addressed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 -- The Chimes was written and published in 1844 -- the problem of the "hungry forties". Or, as Cherneshevsky would title a novel that inspired a more famous work later, What Is To Be Done?

The first thing that surprised me about the book is how Marxian Dickens sounds, without Marx. Toby is called up before the goblin Chimes for false consciousness. He keeps pathetically apologizing although he doesn't know what he's done, but what he's done is believe that poor people are innately bad, taken in by the newspapers that he reads that transmit upper and middle class ideology. DIckens hammers away at the idea that the people are innately good, and only social conditions are to blame when and if they go bad. The Chimes also inform Toby that they represent historical necessity, and that anyone who goes against them is going to inevitably fall. Of course Dickens, a liberal, is not a Marxist, but there's a lot of rhetoric that I associate with Marxism that seems instead to have been common to various political tendencies of the day.

Where people seem to think that the novella fails as a narrative is that Toby doesn't really do anything. A Christmas Carol has a traditional redemption narrative that middle class people can identify with -- a greedy person changes, and then his own life and the lives of those around him become better, not only emotionally, but in terms of the actual resources that he shares. But Toby has no resources. He was cheerful enough at the beginning of the book, degradingly so to a contemporary sensibility. (I'll return to this later.) He has nothing that we recognize as a personal sin, and no way to change his ways. After his dream, everything is magically all right -- he hasn't fallen down the church tower and died, Meg and Richard haven't been discouraged from their marriage by hateful people telling them they are too poor and / or can do better -- but he didn't bring any of that about, even by word. What did he do?

Here's what he did. His action comes during the dream, not after he wakes up. He sees his daughter Meg about to kill herself, and says:

‘I see the Spirit of the Chimes among you!’ cried the old man, singling out the child, and speaking in some inspiration, which their looks conveyed to him. ‘I know that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. I see it, on the flow! I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another. I have learnt it from the creature dearest to my heart. I clasp her in my arms again. O Spirits, merciful and good, I take your lesson to my breast along with her! O Spirits, merciful and good, I am grateful!’

He has changed from a acceptance, an even cheerful toleration of his fate, to an active hope and faith. He knows, as a fact, he sees, that all who oppress and wrong "us", the poor, will be swept away.

Is this a revolutionary conviction? It can't be, given Dickens' politics. For there is another sort of ghost haunting the novella, going by the name of William Fern. William Fern goes to London to look for work, falls asleep in a shed, and is arrested for vagrancy. He is called "a turbulent and rebellious spirit" by the authorities; they decide to make an example of him. In Toby's dream vision, here is how he ends up:

‘What have you done?’ she [Meg] asked again.

‘There’ll be a Fire to–night,’ he said, removing from her. ‘There’ll be Fires this winter–time, to light the dark nights, East, West, North, and South. When you see the distant sky red, they’ll be blazing. When you see the distant sky red, think of me no more; or, if you do, remember what a Hell was lighted up inside of me, and think you see its flames reflected in the clouds. Good night. Good bye!’

This seems to have been a reference to rick-burning. But Fern has no political program as such. He's simply been tormented into striking out.

Fern is the locus of Toby's earlier action, the real action that he takes in the book. At the start, Toby is such a servile character that I would think it's easy for a contemporary reader to despise him. Doesn't he have any revolutionary or class consciousness? Any simple fatherly pride? The oppressors insult his daughter, and say she's worthless and shouldn't get married, right in front of him, and he doesn't even have the dignity to get angry. Instead he just takes their money to deliver a letter. He doesn't even do it grudgingly, secretly resentful; he just believes them. You can't help but hate him.

But the letter is from one oppressor to another, and they discuss it right in front of him -- he's harmless -- how they plan to make an example of William Fern. Toby then happens to meet Fern. And he doesn't hesitate for an instant to warn Fern about the letter, and tell him not to visit the person he was going to visit to ask for mercy, who is going to throw him in jail. Indeed, Toby takes Fern and his daughter in, gives them shelter, and feeds them out of his meager funds. He isn't harmless after all. Although his thoughts are pretty despicable, his actions are not. If Fern was a member of a revolutionary movement and Toby was a sympathizer, he wouldn't have done anything different.

So, for Dickens, this is the revolution -- the revolution of kindness. Embittered violence, for Dickens, is self-destructive, and in any case will not succeed. Instead, people have to help each other. But it can't be merely on impulse, unthought, as Toby does. It has to be accompanied by the active faith that what is happening is wrong, that they are correcting a wrong, and that someday all that wrong will be swept away. That faith itself is what is going to sweep it away -- otherwise, individual acts of kindness are possible, but they do not add up to an overall refusal of the system.

Is that politically incoherent? Yes, more or less. As a political program, it looks like quietism. As a work of art, it doesn't quite hang together. Dickens' lower-class people can be cheery, but his Victorian sentimentality means that he can't really depict them as proud, and really what Toby needs is some pride, of a certain happy sort. But despite its incoherence, its lack of any analysis or any active plan, has it really done so badly, historically, compared to the alternatives? Certainly I wouldn't want Toby as my labor organizer. On the whole, though, Dickens' mushy liberalism at least avoids some world-class failures. Unfortunately, no one really did any better.


  1. "William Fern, a laborer who he takes in out of sympathy, and Lillian, William's young daughter ..."

    His sister's kid, surely?

    "Of course Dickens, a liberal, is not a Marxist, but there's a lot of rhetoric that I associate with Marxism that seems instead to have been common to various political tendencies of the day."

    This is right, I think; although one of the standard lines on mid-Victorian literature is that the Revolutions of 1848 scared a number of middle class writers, Dickens included, out of more radical sympthies. This is the difference between a book as radical and ur-Marxist as Gaskell's Mary Barton (written 1847, published '48) and a book like North and South (1854-5), much more sympathetic to the bosses and factory owners and more tacitly suspicious of the chaotic potential of working class unrest. It's that divide that differentiates 1844's The Chimes from a post-48 novel about proletarian immiseration Hard Times (1854), which goes out of its way to demonise the union organiser Slackbridge.

  2. Yes, that's right, it's his sister's daughter. I couldn't really sustain enough interest in them as characters to remember.

    Thanks for the bit about the post-1848 change -- it seems to be implicitly foreshadowed in how Dickens treats Fern here. As far as I remember, Fern is apolitical, but of course the actual working class of the day wasn't. Perhaps Fern would have been too lower class to be a Chartist, but there must have been some organization around Captain Swing. Dickens deprives Fern of any kind of constructive or even organized response, other than striking back as he has been struck.

  3. I don't think Fern would have been too low down for Chartism. But the point (to agree with you, actually) is that Chartism by the '40s came in two flavours; and whilst Dickens's was almost-supportive of at least some of the nonviolent 'moral force' Chartists' aims, he was strongly opposed to the 'physical force' Chartists. Fern reads like one of the latter.