Goblin noun: a mischievous, ugly, dwarflike, creature of folklore.
I would like to say that The Chimes is a mistake, an apocryphal fiction, a practical joke, something—anything—rather than what it is: a mischievous and ugly story. Mischievous, because its “moral” is so bad, and ugly because the writing is pointlessly long-winded, unartistic, and often incomprehensible. Perhaps that’s the way goblins write.
The moral of The Chimes seems to be that sometimes a mother may murder her child out of love, and that the action is noble though misguided. At the beginning of the story, the main character, Toby, expresses disapprobation on hearing the news that a poor woman has killed her child.1 That evening, goblins visit him in a nightmare to show him that his judgment is monstrously wrong. The goblins spin a tale, in which Toby’s own daughter, Meg, ultimately drowns her infant daughter, for fear that she will grow-up to become a prostitute.2 “Learn it from the creature dearest to your heart!” the goblins tell him.
Toby replies, “I slandered Nature in the breasts of mothers rendered desperate! Pity my presumption, wickedness, and ignorance . . . There is no loving mother on the earth who might not come to this, if such a life had gone before.”
Killing your baby is murder. It may be more melodramatic when the mother similtaneously commits suicide, but it still isn’t right. I could go on about poverty, starvation, hope, despair, etc. but it just seems to trivialize the truth: murder is evil no matter how or why it is done.
No aesthetic value in the language or style of The Chimes redeems it in the least. Nearly half the story precedes the introduction of the topic of filicide, and it is painfully dull to read. Although in general Dickens’s moral judgments are weak, he writes a better story when he’s not posturing as a goblin.
1“. . . he came to an account [in the newspaper] . . . of a woman who had laid her desperate hands not only on her own life but on that of her young child. A crime so terrible, and so revolting to his soul, dilated with the love of Meg [Toby’s daughter], that he let the journal drop, and fell back in his chair, appalled!
“ ‘Unnatural and cruel!’ Toby cried. ‘Unnatural and cruel! None but people who were bad at heart, born bad, who had no business on the earth, could do such deeds.’ ”
2Why does Meg think her baby will become a prostitute? Because a friend fancied a resemblence between the baby and a woman, Lilian, who did grow up to be a prostitute.
“[He] looked upon the infant’s face. But covered it again, immediately.
“ ‘Margaret!’ he said; and gave her back the child. ‘It’s Lilian’s. . . . I held the same face in my arms when Lilian’s mother died and left her.’ . . .
“She suck down into a chair, and pressed the infant to her breast, and wept over it. Sometimes, she released it from her embrace, to look anxiously in its face: then strained it to her bosom again. At those times, when she gazed upon it, then it was that something fierce and terrible began to mingle with her love.”
How do I know that it was this fear which “drove” Meg to drown her baby, and not the fear of starvation? Because on the way to the river she repeatedly says, “Like Lilian! To be changed like Lilian!”