The Chimes was the second Christmas book written by Charles Dickens, published in 1844 and followed the enormous success of A Christmas Carol the year before. In theme and story line, it is similar to A Christmas Carol, but not as tightly woven as its predecessor.
Its official title is The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. It is the story of Trotty Veck, an old man who earns his living by running errands, delivering letter, and whatever else people may need to have done. He has a daughter, Meg, who’s in love with a young local man, Richard. Trotty stands near a church to show his availability for errands and deliveries, and he often hears the church’s bells as they peal the quarter hour (the story is divided into “quarters,” in fact).
Trotty has a good heart, but he listens a little too closely to those more well off, and comes to see poverty as the result of wickedness. So one night, he’s pulled to the bells, and discovers a whole array of goblins and other spirits, who will show him the realities he’s missing. Trotty is not a Scrooge-like character, but he has a Scrooge-like experience.
Like in A Christmas Carol, Dickens was aiming for his Victorian audience’s hearts. The poor could often get caught up in legal machinery of which they had no understanding and inevitably dealt them a bad hand. Unscrupulous and judgmental officials could and often did play a role; in fact, officialdom in the form of an alderman and a member of Parliament don’t come off very well in The Chimes.
The Chimes has many of the trademarks we associate with Dickens – vivid characters, sympathy for the poor, an interesting story – but it’s not as satisfying as some of his other Christmas books and is somewhat confusing as to why Trotty has to undergo his “dream experience” like Scrooge did. We prefer A Christmas Carol and rightly so, but we read The Chimes because it was written by a great author, not because it’s a great story.
Illustration: Trotty Veck by Kyd Clarke, from the first edition of The Chimes (1844).