Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Charles Dickens’ novella “The Cricket on the Hearth” is, like “A Christmas Carol,” a somewhat moralistic little tale—but unlike “A Christmas Carol,” it is a love story. Its moral is that true love requires no reasons or justifications, and indeed, nothing can either explain or justify it; its strength lies in its very inscrutability.
The story concerns a middle-aged courier, or “carrier” as Dickens calls him, by the name of John Peerybingle. Approximately a year before the story opens, John has taken a very young bride, whom he calls Dot. The Peerybingles’ love has borne fruit, and they are the parents of a healthy baby boy.
Dot is one of those Dickens characters who seems almost too good to be true. But in fact, the issue of Dot’s “authenticity” is central to the story. Dickens, and John himself, never fail to describe her in anything but the most glowing terms. She seems devoted to her husband and child; she takes upon herself all sorts of little chores, like packing the tobacco in her husband’s pipe, to emphasize her love for him. Yet Dot’s fidelity is first called into question by the story’s villain, Mr. Tackleton, who is himself about to marry a young bride. Mr. Tackleton’s bride, Dot’s friend May Fielding, does not love him. She is marrying him because the man she really loves, the son of Mr. Tackleton’s employee Caleb Plummer, has been lost in South America and is presumed dead. Mr. Tackleton keeps trying to convince John Peerybingle that just like his own future bride, John’s young wife really feels no true passion or depth of feeling for her older husband—marriage between people of such disparate ages is essentially a business contract. Later, when Dot is observed in animated conversation with a man her own age—a man she seems to know well—John is convinced that Tackleton’s suggestions must be true.
But of course they are not. Truth versus fiction, illusion versus reality, is a prominent theme in “The Cricket on the Hearth,” and it is illustrated in the very sincere love Dot feels for John. The theme is also echoed in the story’s subplot, which tells of poor Caleb Plummer, toymaker for Gruff and Tackleton’s Toyshop, and Caleb’s blind daughter Bertha. Caleb cannot bear for Bertha to know that Tackleton is a mean, uncaring taskmaster who forces them to live in poverty when he could give them much more, so he creates for her a myth about a wonderful, jovial employer who has given them the means to live in a charming home with bright-colored walls. Because Bertha believes this story, we are inclined to think that she doesn’t really have much knowledge of the world around her; so when she states her complete faith in Dot, her testimony doesn’t seem that credible. But we later learn that although Bertha lacks sight, she has insight in abundance. Her house, regardless of how it looks, is lovely because it is filled with love; and she even perceives the generosity that lies dormant in Mr. Tackleton.
And of course, she’s right about Dot. Dot loves John with every fiber of her being, and she is completely content in their life together. The young man John suspects of being his rival turns out to be none other than Bertha’s brother, the missing young man from South America, and it isn’t Dot he loves—it’s the potential Mrs. Tackleton, May Fielding, who, with Dot’s assistance, is reunited with her own true love. Dot wants May to have what she has: the lifetime companionship of someone who really matters. For the first time, John realizes that even though he’s middle-aged, middle-class, and probably somewhat boring, his wife truly loves him, for no reason that needs to be logically explained.
And the cricket? A cricket on the hearth is a symbol of good luck and happiness -- qualities this story has in abundance.
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