Last year, upon buying a collection of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories, I began a yearly tradition of reading one of his five Christmas novellas and one short story each year when the holiday season rolls around. This year I introduced myself to The Chimes, an emotionally gripping tale that follows Toby “Trotty” Veck, a poor man eking out a sparse living, learning from some church bells that being poor doesn’t mean being unhappy.
In many ways, The Chimes works in an opposite way from the more popular A Christmas Carol, in that a poor man (instead of a rich man) is learning an important lesson during the holidays. This story takes place around New Year’s Eve as Trotty finds out his daughter is engaged and they’re planning to ring in the New Year with a wedding. Their celebrations are cut short when a trio of rich elites spoil their revelry by discouraging the idea of poor people marrying and raising families since they are “born bad” and should be “put down” to stamp out the problem and save society. After another similar encounter with an even more important nobleman, Trotty returns home depressed, not even taking cheer from the bells he considers his friends.
His journey home is interrupted when he befriends and helps out a fellow poor man. This perks him up for a little while, but once the quiet sets in, he returns to his funk. That’s when the bells chime once more and seem to call him. When he climbs up into the bell tower, he’s greeted by goblins who want to show him a potential future in which the logical end of his dour view is played out to the full. Like the future Scrooge sees in A Christmas Carol, what Trotty beholds is downright depressing and nightmarish. In the end, Trotty brokenly acknowledges that happiness is never outside of anyone’s reach and even his poor situation shouldn’t keep him from encouraging others like him to pursue their hopes and dreams.
As you can likely tell from that somewhat lengthy synopsis, this short tale has a wide and stirring emotional sweep to it. Several lessons could be gleaned from it, including taking a sullen attitude into the New Year given current life circumstance, but I’ll focus on something more general…
Dickens pulls no punches when portraying the rich and wealthy. They’re seen as selfish and ignorant, with their well-meaning plans for the poor sounding hollow like a drum. I was surprised that their attitude in regarding those “less fortunate” wasn’t too far off from talk that floats around these days. People today tend to see the poor as a blight on the community, a cesspool of drugs, prostitutes, and murder, and solutions are usually wild and unhelpful.
Dickens, by the end, is calling upon his more “well off” readers to do something for the poor. “Blest and blessing [are] all within your reach,” Dickens writes at one point, and seems to be saying that even the poor man can receive blessing given the proper opportunity. And after spending some time with Trotty I felt convicted as well, more so than when reading A Christmas Carol (perhaps because of its familiarity).
The Bible speaks frequently about aiding the poor. At one point, genuine Christianity is defined as helping the orphan and widow. Realizing the “poor people” are made in the image of God just as much as I am is illuminating. If I have the means to bless the poor, why shouldn’t I?
Since the New Year often brings on new resolutions, I’ve been thinking about what I can do for the poor. How can I better help the needy? Should I support a shelter or volunteer at one? No matter what, I want to help those who may not be able to help themselves. I think the wish that Dickens ends off his story with is my wish for myself and you this New Year:
So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you! So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.