“What the Bells Saw and Said” – Louisa May Alcott’s State of the Union Address

If Louisa May Alcott were to deliver a State of the Union address (minus the politics), what would it be like?

You can find out by reading “What the Bells Saw and Said,” in Christmas Tales and Stories, edited by Laura Ciolkowski.

Portrayed through the reports of six spirits living in the bells of the local church steeple, Louisa’s State of the Union address is at times preachy, heavy-handed, starkly realistic and yet tinged with that hope that never seemed to die within her no matter the circumstances.

While I haven’t read a lot of Charles Dickens (just A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations), I certainly felt his influence in this story.

The bells report on the past year

The scene opens with 6 bells in a church steeple: “No one saw the spirits of the bells up there in the old steeple at midnight on Christmas Eve. Six quaint figures, each wrapped in a shadowy cloak and wearing a bell-shaped cap. All were gray-headed, for they were among the oldest bell-spirits of the city, and ‘the light of other days’ shone in their thoughtful eyes.”

Each bell was to give his report on how the now-ending year had played out.

The ways of commerce – nothing ever changes . . .

The first bell-spirit reported on the ways of commerce. In many ways the characterizations echoed what is being said today about the business world. Louisa paints with a broad brush but at least admits that this portrait doesn’t apply to all businesspeople:

“There’s a deal too much dishonesty in the world, and business seems to have become a game of hazard in which luck, not labor, wins the prize. When I was young, men were years making moderate fortunes, and were satisfied with them . . .  Now it’s anything for money; health, happiness, honor, life itself, are flung down on that great gaming-table, and they forget everything else in the excitement of success or the desperation of defeat. Nobody seems satisfied either, for those who win have little time or taste to enjoy their prosperity . . . now-a-days after all manner of dishonorable shifts there comes a grand crash; many suffer, but by some hocus-pocus the merchant saves enough to retire upon and live comfortably here or abroad. It’s very evident that honor and honesty don’t mean now what they used to mean  . . .”

Extravagance and poverty

There is lamentation about the “show” of religion and how little of the message of Christianity actually sinks into the average mindset. Through the second bell-spirit Louisa turns to a familiar theme, that of extravagant living and the lack of care of the poor (think An Old-Fashioned Girl). Still, the second bell-spirit ends his report on an upbeat note, lavishing praise on the minority who do take their faith to heart and live it well.

Putting a face to that poverty

Hammershøi Portrait of a Young Girl 1885

The third bell-spirit echoes the lamentations of the second, augmenting them with a poignant story that does not end happily.

He tells the account of a poor young girl struggling to get by:

“Down yonder in the garret of one of the squalid houses at the foot of my tower, a little girl has lived for a year, fighting silently and single-handed a good fight against poverty and sin. I saw her when she first came, a hopeful, cheerful, brave-hearted little soul, alone, yet not afraid. She used to sit all day sewing at her window, and her lamp burnt far into the night, for she was very poor, and all she earned would barely give her food and shelter. I watched her feed the doves, who seemed to be her only friends; she never forgot them, and daily gave them the few crumbs that fell from her meagre table. But there was no kind hand to feed and foster the little human dove, and so she starved . . .”

I kept thinking that someone would step in and save this girl from her fate, but it was not to be. I had grown accustomed to Louisa’s sugar-coating in the other Christmas stories in this series; I was finding this one to be jarring.

Yet Louisa never gives in to despair. The bell-spirit ends his sobering tale with hope, believing that the girl was welcomed into paradise by her Father-God.

Other reports

Things began to lighten up after that. The fourth bell-spirit went on to report about the seaport in town and how the sailors were making out, guided by the earnest, hardworking captain who kept them in line.

Louisa gave a sense that the constant hard work mixed with the danger in seafaring kept the lives of these sailors authentic and true. There was certainly no opportunity for the wasting away of body, mind and heart that came from the extravagance and sloth she so disdained.

Back to religion

The report goes back to religion with an amusing summary of the various faiths through their various bells:

“The Baptist bell cried, briskly, ‘Come up and be dipped! come up and be dipped!’ The Episcopal bell slowly said, ‘Apos-tol-ic suc-cess-ion! apos-tol-ic suc-cess-ion!’ The Orthodox bell solemnly pronounced, ‘Eternal damnation! eternal damnation!’ and the Methodist shouted, invitingly, ‘Room for all! room for all!'”

The fifth bell-spirit devoted his time to a lengthy description of the growth of the congregation in the Catholic cathedral (and the decline in the neighboring Protestant churches). Louisa was at best ambivalent about Catholicism yet she gave a fair and favorable account.

Louisa’s powers of observation continue to amaze me; she described so well things she didn’t necessarily experienced first-hand.

The state of the young

The sixth bell-spirit turned his attention to the young regarding their education and specifically, the state of literature.. Though not as vigorous as he would like, the bell-spirit was generally pleased regarding the reform in literature noting that  “a sharp attack of mental and moral dyspepsia will soon teach our people that French confectionery and the bad pastry of Wood, Bracdon, Yates & Co. is not the best diet for the rising generation.” (Note: editor Laura Ciolkowski cited this comment as “disingenuous” considering the fact that such potboilers had been Louisa’s bread and butter!)

The dawning of Christmas Day

Dawn’s first light brings the report to a close with a hopeful note about the state of religion, its relevance and its revival. Through the sixth bell-spirit Louisa writes, “truth always triumphs in the end, and whoever sincerely believes, works and waits for it, by whatever name he calls it, will surely find his own faith blessed to him in proportion to his charity for the faith of others.”

I will think of this lyric and the image of these spirits the next time I hear the bells ringing:

” ‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,
  Ring out the false, ring in the true;
  Ring in the valiant man and free,
  Ring in the Christ that is to be.’

Then hand in hand the spirits of the bells floated away, singing in the hush of dawn the sweet song the stars sung over Bethlehem,–“Peace on earth, good will to men.”

The real intent?

“What the Bells Saw and Said” was commentary mixed with sometimes brutally honest observation – a window into the heart and mind of a reformer. It was sobering, making me think and pricking my conscience: what was I doing to make the world around me a better place?

I suspect that’s the reaction Louisa was looking for.

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to subscribe, and never miss a post!
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One Reply to ““What the Bells Saw and Said” – Louisa May Alcott’s State of the Union Address”

  1. If I thought Louisa’s story was heavy-handed, it was nothing in comparison to Charles Dickens’ “The Chimes.” As “A Christmas Carol” described the conversion of one man (Scrooge), “The Chimes” urged the conversion of society (from Wikipedia, “The Chimes”). Louisa’s story simply reported what happened over the course of the year from the chimes in the belfry while Dickens’ much longer story goes into greater depth.

    I have to hope that the storytelling of Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott and the like awoke the goodness of humanity in their readers. How I wish more people would read their works now!

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