Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

The Cricket On The Hearth

In Books on February 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm

The Cricket on the Hearth is meant to be a fairy story about the value of domestic harmony.  Just like A Christmas Carol, which is by far the most famous of Dickens’s five Christmas novellas (seriously, if you’ve never heard of Ebenezer Scrooge, I’m not sure we can be friends…), a supernatural element plays a significant part in the plot, revealing the truth to the various characters and offering them a chance to change their behavior before irreparable damage is done.  Although included in the canon of Dickens’s Christmas stories, The Cricket on the Hearth has nothing to do with celebrating the event of our Savior’s birth.  However, it does have everything to do with truth, love and forgiveness, which are integral components of Christian ideology.

The eponymous insect of The Cricket on the Hearth is first introduced as a harbinger of good fortune, and is gradually revealed to be a benevolent spirit; one of a tribe of modern-day Lares presiding over the hearth and home.   Mary ‘Dot’ Peerybingle, a beautiful and very young housewife, shyly reveals to her much older husband John that she has often heard the cricket chirping when worried or doubtful of her abilities as a homemaker, and says that its sound has always cheered and comforted her.   When slimy toy merchant Mr. Tackleton first insinuates that Dot does not care as much for John as she pretends (although what business it is of his, I am sure I don’t know), the chirping of the cricket soothes away John’s doubts, presenting him images of a joyful future instead.  And at the crisis of the story, when a distraught John contemplates murdering the man he thinks his wife is having an affair with, he is stopped by the cricket’s chirp with the gun actually in his hand.  The cricket manifests as a fairy spirit who contests John’s anger and hatred by showing him a series of visions: things Dot has done to make his home life cheerful and bright, all the little sacrifices she’s made for his sake, the tremendous influence she has had in making theirs a happy home.  This spirit does not actively prevent John from killing his supposed rival, but it reminds him of who he and his wife are, thus enabling him to step back and reconsider the justice of the conclusions he’s drawn.

In addition to benevolent supernatural forces, deception and blindness are major themes.  Edward Plummer, missing and presumed dead, returns home after a long absence to claim his betrothed bride May Fielding, only to find she is currently engaged to Tackleton…why he decides he has to disguise himself as an old man before he actually arrives in town is beyond me, except that it’s necessary to the rest of the plot.[1] So disguise himself he does, and then turns up to reveal his identity only to Dot (who is an old schoolmate of his as well as a devoted friend of May’s).   Dot decides to conceal this knowledge from her husband, but her secretive behavior makes John suspicious and very nearly destroys her marriage.  John has a streak of insecurity running deep just beneath his complacent surface, as shown by how easily he is disturbed by Tackleton’s insinuating hints about Dot.  And of course, Dot’s impassioned speech to May about why she shouldn’t marry an older man (thinking of Edward, who is patiently waiting in the wings in his scruffy old dude disguise and just generally being useless) doesn’t help matters—John thinks Dot is really talking about her own regrets, lamenting the loss of some ardent young suitor she once preferred but spurned in favor of her solid and steady old John.

Once he has convinced himself to put the gun away, a heartbroken John decides he was cruel to yoke himself to a beautiful and spirited woman so much younger than himself.   Although this particular story is devoid of Dickens’s usual social criticism, this passage has some interesting proto-feminist connotations—John recognizes that Victorian society does not give women much control, and also that this is unfair.  If a woman’s husband abandoned her, she was cast on the mercy of her relatives to protect and provide for her.  Although John forgives Dot for what he thinks is a poor choice in old boyfriends (having decided that she wasn’t actively cheating on him but is merely in love with an old flame), he still plans to ship her and their new baby off to live with her parents.   Divorce was not a feasible option, so she would have been free to remarry only once John had died (which, given the disparity in their ages, John hopes won’t be too late for her).

Over in the subplot we have another liar as well as literal blindness to contend with. Toymaker Caleb Plummer [2] constructs an elaborate web of lies with “innocent deceit” for his blind daughter Bertha.  He alters everything he fears would worry or pain her:  his own slowly declining health, the decrepit state of their home, their poverty, and even the character of their hard-hearted employer Mr. Tackleton.  Bertha trusts so implicitly in her father, that she falls in love with a man who does not actually exist: she believes that Tackleton is a wonderful man and a generous benefactor who cares deeply for their well-being.  She praises him for his supposed goodness even as he sneers at her, having decided within himself that she must be mentally disabled as well as blind to be so fond of him.[3] Caleb eventually has an epiphany and realizes that his lies have done Bertha more harm than good, and that he is obliged to come clean.  Bertha, though naturally reeling from the sudden comprehension that the world she thought she knew is completely imaginary, does not condemn him.  She, too, hears the chirping cricket on her hearth.  She knows that her father has acted out of love, and devoted his life to making hers as comfortable as possible.  Though she is initially hurt and upset that Caleb has altered her surroundings in her mind’s eye, Bertha loves him enough to forgive him.

I believe that Dickens chose to write a fairy tale emphasizing the value of domestic happiness because he was not very happy in his own marriage.  He’s also a big fan of marriages with a great disparity in age, probably because they tend to be founded more on mutual respect than lust, and also because both parties go into it knowing that they will have to work a little bit harder at their marriage rather than rely on that first blush of youthful love to carry them through the ‘honeymoon’ phase.  This idea comes up again in David Copperfield, in several moving scenes between Doctor Strong and his very young wife Annie (who are something like 60 and 25 years old, respectively).  In both cases, Dickens shows how the couple can overcome their difficulties and wind up by being even happier than ever before because they have aired their insecurities and doubts and dealt with them openly.

Brooke tried hard to make a case for the similarities between The Cricket on The Hearth and Othello—(I strongly suspect this is because she hasn’t actually read Cricket in its entirety) but I can’t in good conscience allow for the comparison.  I honestly don’t think they are enough alike to warrant it.  While Othello goes straight for the “my wife is impure therefore I must smite the false jade from the face of the earth” tack, John Peerybingle would rather avenge himself on his rival and then send his beloved wife away to a place where she would still be under his protection but he wouldn’t have to face the pain of his unrequited love for her.  He isn’t so much consumed by a jealous rage as brought low by the weight of his sorrow and regret—and he quickly blames himself for the whole situation, for being so foolish as to assume he was worthy of a superior woman like Dot.  And while Mr. Tackleton is a bitter old man with issues, and does happen to be the person who brings the supposed affair to John’s attention, he is definitely no Iago.  He doesn’t seek to purposefully hurt either Peerybingle—he just feels a sort of kinship to John because he too, is about to marry a much younger woman, and he seems to think this makes them members of the same Old Guys Rule Club.

In true Dickensian fashion, all of the various characters and loose plot points come together in a pretty little bow by the end:  the missing-and-presumed dead son returns to save his beloved from a loveless marriage to a horrible person (just in time to explain his actions to all the other characters and prevent further misunderstandings), the blind woman learns the truth from her well-meaning but deceptive father and wholeheartedly forgives her misguided parent, the heartbroken husband is overjoyed to find that his cherished wife was never unfaithful to him at all but merely a victim of appearances and her naive attempt to help an old friend keep a rather silly secret, the innocent wife proves that her character is without the slightest stain and she is gathered into her relieved husband’s waiting arms, and the cold, callous old man discovers his heart is not in fact made of stone and that he’d better shape up unless he wants to die alone.

And then everyone dances and eats cake—really, what else could you ask for in a heartwarming Christmas tale?

[1] Well, Edward later claims that he does not want to unduly influence May if she really is in love with another man, since he has been presumed dead for a while and their betrothal had been many years before—but why would you not want to influence your beloved and try to win her back if that were the case?  I say he’s a silly putz and should have just been honest and upfront with everyone from the jump…but then again I have a grand total of 0 bestsellers to my name and Dickens can go ahead and do just as he likes as far as I’m concerned.

[2] The father of aforementioned Edward Plummer, coincidentally, so apparently deception runs in the family

[3] So just because a woman seems to like you, she must be absolutely nuts, right?  What does this tell you about your own character, Mr. Tackleton?