Friday, December 24, 2021
Charles Dickens, "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt" (1865)
Dickens, Charles. "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt." All the Year Round, Christmas Number 1865.
For publication history, please visit the story's ISFdb page.
"To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt" at Goodreads.
Published one year after Amelia B. Edwards's "The Phantom Coach," in the next Christmas volume of Dickens's own All the Year Round, this story seems to take as its starting point an idea from its predecessor. Specifically, in this age of reason, a person should not admit to others of having seen an apparition, otherwise they risk a comfortable livelihood. Yet while this idea comes up again half-way through the text, this is not the main focus of the story. Instead, Dickens seems to be more concerned with criticizing England's judicial system.
The nameless narrator, a successful banker, becomes obsessed with a recent murder in England, which leads to a hallucination of one man angrily chasing another outside his apartment in Piccadilly, and a brief visit from the chaser at the narrator's home. The banker is then appointed as a member of the jury trying the case of that same murder, and there continues to witness the apparition of the victim while the murderer is standing trial. An interesting concept, well delivered (it is Dickens, after all), and while we are confident of how the story will resolve, there is nonetheless an excellent final paragraph with a slight twist.
While the existence of a ghost in the story appears straightforward, there are some clues to indicate that the narrator is less than trustworthy (an uncommon trait for a Victorian ghost story protagonist), and that there is no actual ghost. The first clue is in the title: "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt." While the story was later published under other titles, most famously "The Trial for Murder," but also "The Thirteenth Man" (which, in context of the story, is the creepiest title), Dickens specifically chose a title which has little to do with the story. "Don't believe this banker!" the title seems to be stating. The narrator relates incidents of other characters catching glimpses of a ghostly figure, or sensing something amiss when the apparition is in the room. However, not one of those characters corroborates the narrator, as he is the only teller of this tale. The banker's other insistence that the tale is true is to declare, and tell us to remember this detail as we read, that the identity, name or likeness, of the murderer was never mentioned in the papers during the investigation, so he could not have known the identity in advance. However, the narrator sets down his tale after the verdict was given, thereby writing this confession after the papers no doubt published name and likeness, since the narrator himself describes early on that this was a major murder case that preoccupied the public interest.
In addition, the title "The Trial for Murder" does not work with the narrative as it focuses on one element of the story, essentially negating the early events, which are both important to the plot as they set down the foundation of a haunting at the trial. "The Thirteenth Man," though a strong and creepy title, I think, places emphasis on the victim of the crime, whereas the story is not about the victim, nor really even about the crime, but about our narrator's experience of the court.
Dickens's main interest in this narrative is the judicial system. He seems to be claiming that the British criminal system is a joke, since the judge, jury and nearly everyone involved in the trial must have the ghost of the victim influencing the court so that the correct verdict is reached. Essentially, there is no confidence in the court to uncover the truth. The narrator, selected as foreman of the jury, gives no opinion of his own as to why he believes the man on trial is guilty, but focuses and responds solely to the dead man, whose gestures pantomime his innocence. The other jury members are in turn influenced by the apparition, as is the judge when he reads through his notes on the final day of trial. In a partly comical yet gruesome sequence, the apparition exaggeratedly mimics the cutting of his throat to indicate he could not have committed suicide, that he could not have cut his own throat in the way it had been slashed. This is a straightforward scientific fact not brought up by the prosecution, and yet one that could present the defense's claim of suicide as ludicrous. In addition, the member of the jury who questions only the hard facts and slows the deliberation is one the narrator refers to as an "idiot," and who at one point has at least two other jury members in tow. Dickens is satirizing the jury system, indicating how a randomly selected jury can be influenced by its least intelligent member. In fact, the fate of the man on trial is being debated, albeit indirectly, between an idiot and a ghost.
I won't give away that last line which I like so much, but I need to allude to that ending in order to argue my case (since I can't be pantomiming in your bedroom, office, library or coffee shop). That final quote negates the idea of a ghost, since a ghost is an apparition of a dead person, often in limbo, seen here purportedly by someone sensitive to the dead man's plight. The ending instead points to an act of mesmerism, where the living can have influence on others. Our narrator may be describing a universe where sprits of the dead and mesmerism co-exist, and the ending is certainly effective, but this is highly unlikely. Mesmerism was a fad during the nineteenth century, and like with many pseudo-sciences of the time, Dickens was a serious participant. As a professed rational man during the rise of industrialism and an age of reason, Dickens did not believe in ghosts, yet he subscribed to every other upper-class pseudo-scientific fad, including phrenology, of all things. Dickens uses elements of mesmerism in other stories, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and most famously in his brilliant 1866 Christmas tale "The Signal-Man." He uses mesmerism to specific effect, and his ghost stories normally for social commentary, so it is therefore unlikely that he would combine the two without a specific purpose. The purpose of this story is fairly obvious.
Therefore, by book-ending his story with two points, the story title and that last line, which contradict the events contained in between, Dickens is subtly alluding to the fact that this narrator is not to be believed. Scattered throughout the story are other clues to indicate as much, and his commentary on the judicial system is clear.
As a ghost story it is not the most accomplished, and Edwards's "The Phantom Coach" works better. Yet as a subtle and darkly comic piece of social criticism, it is really quite good.