The Cricket on the Hearth is third of the three best-known Christmas books of Charles Dickens. Its publication in 1845 followed A Christmas Carol (1843) and The Chimes (1844). There were two additional Christmas books (novellas, actually), The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man, but they’re not as well known as the first three. Dickens also wrote a whole raft of Christmas short stories.
As opposed to his lengthier novels, which were serialized and later assembled as complete books, the Christmas books were published in their entirety. Another feature they share in common with each other and with the longer novels is how much emphasis Dickens places on mood and scene.
The Cricket and the Hearth is the story of two families. John and Mary Perrybingle have been married almost a year, and they have a new baby. They are friends with toymaker Caleb Plummer and his daughter Bertha. Bertha is blind; her father goes out of his way to make sure she doesn’t know what straitened circumstances they live in. Caleb works for Tackleton, a man whose first name we never learn but he is a generally obnoxious character. Tackleton is getting married to May Fielding, a friend of Mary’s and Bertha’s who had been in love with Bertha’s brother Edward, who has disappeared into the wilds of South America.
It sounds more complicated than it is; the story moves along at a fast pace, and involves mistaken appearances, a mysterious old stranger, and Tackleton being maliciously helpful. Disaster looms. But this is a Dickens Christmas story, and we know all will end well (Dickens killed off a number of well-loved characters in his longer novels but not in a Christmas story).
The first several pages of the story are devoted a rather lengthy discussion of whether the boiling kettle or the cricket chirping in the fireplace at the Perrybingles set the tale in motion. As the discussion moves forward, Dickens makes the reader an insider, with an occasional aside, an opinion, a joke, or an observation that the characters are oblivious of. It’s a way the author has of hooking the reader by essentially making him a fellow teller of the story. We’re not just listening to a story or reading a story; we’re sharing inside jokes and insights with the narrator as the story develops.
These Christmas books were popular with his readers. They usually involve the redemption of a scoundrel, engaging characters living close to poverty, a child or two, often with an affliction (Tiny Tim and Bertha both have disabilities), a powerful social message. and, of course, a satisfying ending. These Christmas books, along with the short stories and the Christmas scenes in his novels, have made Dickens the author we think of when we think of Christmas.
Illustration: A scene drawn by John Lynch from A Cricket on the Hearth - Caleb Plummer and his daughter Bertha and the mean Mr. Tackleton..