From the very beginning, Briony speaks with hatred toward nearly everything in her path. Whether she is sarcastically questioning her father with lines like, "How do you know it won't hurt? Or did you hear it from God? You don't talk to anyone else" (2.21), or a description of the setting that involves a wind that "smacked the villagers into streamers of hair and shawls and shirttails" (2.22), her tone is one that conveys a dark unhappiness with—and dislike for—most things.
How else could we describe a narrator that interrupts meeting a handsome young man to tell us that "Skipping meals is terrifically convenient: It gives one lots of time to brood and hate oneself" (2.66)? Though Briony spends the majority of the book repeatedly describing her hatred for herself, she most certainly doesn't exclude anything else in her environment—except Eldric of course… eventually.
When it comes to genres, this book seeps like a swamp, reaching into a number of different categories. Written from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old witch with more than one secret to reveal, Chime appeals to young adults. When we look at the other elements of the book though—we're talking about wicked witches, Horrors and evil spirits of the swamp, and other fantastical elements—we see that this is a fantasy world, full of things that force us to suspend our sense of reality.
Mysterious deaths, illnesses, and secrets that Briony doesn't want to admit even to herself also make this book a bit of a mystery, with the reader expected to collect clues to piece the truth together. And since at the heart of this tale is Briony's struggle to face her true self and find her place in a scary world—mainly on her own and definitely without help from adults—it's also a coming of age book.
Chime is, in the end, a reference to the true identity of our main character and narrator, Briony. Born between the midnight chimes, Briony is a Chime Child, a person with a foot in the world of humans and the world of the spirits, a powerful and important being without a birthday or simple identity to claim. Though she spends most of the book convinced she's a wicked witch, Briony is actually quite special, and the title of the book is a clue to her true identity that she struggles throughout the book to recognize and claim for herself.
In the last two paragraphs of the book, Eldric says he loves Briony and she believes him—and when she does, she finds she has renewed faith in herself. For the first time in forever, she believes that she is lovable and to hope in a brighter future. Yay. To say the least, this has been a long time coming.
When she questions how a word can build a whole world, Briony is wondering at how Eldric's admission of love can open up her heart and belief in the future so much and so quickly. Is it really the word that has changed things for her, or the feeling of having someone else care for and accept her as she is? Considering the years of damager her stepmother has done to her psychologically, will that word alone be enough to change Briony's negative thoughts? As the book ends, she's committed to trying.
Okay, so it's probably hard to imagine a time before lights and cars, but believe us when we say it wasn't really that long ago. Chime takes place during the exciting time period when many of the everyday conveniences we enjoy (lights in the house, a quick airplane ride to Disney World, a paperclip to hold your English essay together) are just starting to become possible.
Set in the early 1900s, Briony's little town has still not seen many modern inventions. Briony and her fellow citizens of Swampsea have definitely heard of them, though, but because they live in a time before many of our everyday technologies are commonplace, the residents of Swampsea live a harder and simpler life. They still party at the Alehouse and get in trouble for sneaking out at night like the rest of us, but they don't get to beg mommy and daddy for a car on their sixteenth birthday, and they go to the bathroom in the dark (which is a bit scary if you ask us).
Billingsley based her supernatural swampland on the British Fens, an area known for controversies around swamp life and drainage efforts. This means you, dear reader, get to witness a pretty cool (okay, and sometimes gross and scary) swamp where Horrors and spirits talk, attack, and ask politely to have stories written about them.
Not to be mistaken with a barren wasteland, Swampsea has a rich town life that centers around Hangman's Square (named conveniently after their practice of hanging witches) and the adult and teenage drinking spot (a.k.a. bar or club in our world), aptly called The Alehouse.
Briony's many swamp adventures include in depth descriptions of the oozing, swaying, pulling, crying, drifting, and killing that a swamp can do. Through her connection to the swamp and the spirits that inhabit it, we get to know the swamp as intimately as a Chime Child would.
From the forest—or the Slough—to the Flats, which are "all reeds and shallows" (4.25), to the Quicks that seem to be a dangerous "bit that likes to gobble you up" (4.28), Briony leads us through a swamp world full of Reed Spirits, Snickleways, Boggy Mun, Mucky Face, Dead Hand, and Bleeding Hearts. It's a good thing she takes the lead too, because we sure wouldn't understand what all these things are without her.
When it comes to this book, some readers struggle to make sense of the unconventional narration and fantasy setting with all of its made up creatures, rules, and places—plus characters speak in an English dialect that is a bit different from how we speak in the 21st century. In other words, the book requires you, kind reader, to suspend disbelief and persevere through some murky and confusing parts. Everything becomes crystal clear by the end, though, so worry not—stick with this one, Shmoopsters, and you'll be handsomely rewarded for your effort.
Why did I hesitate? I was afraid of awakening her, I suppose, which I'd call ironic if I were a poet, but I'm not, and anyway, I hate poetry. A poem doesn't come out and tell you what it has to say. It circles back on itself, eating its own tail and making you guess what it means. (2.17)
Okay, Shmoopsters—get ready for some confusion thanks to the narration of one Briony Larkin. The writing style in this book, as highlighted in the quote above, is wordy, confused, and disorganized in a stream of consciousness sort of way—instead of simply saying she didn't visit her stepmother on her deathbed, Briony explains herself for nearly two paragraphs. Talk about wordy, right? Right.
This excerpt above isn't the first or last time Briony asks herself questions and generally acts confused about her own thoughts, feelings, and memories either. And because we're stuck in Briony's head for this book, we spend a good deal of it following her brain around as it wanders—that is, until Briony mentally yells at herself to stop, which she also does plenty of.
If you were a little grossed out by all the swamp talk and creatures, don't worry—we were too. But the swamp and its many creatures are pretty important in this book. It's not just about slime and ooze and deadly creatures in the dark; no, these things represent something more.
The swamp and its inhabitants represent the world before modern technology took over. Though we might not be able to appreciate the mud and gunk of it all, the magic of it all is still pretty, well, magical. This magic—this mysterious and beautiful nature—is threatened by mankind's desire to improve things, which begs the question: Is it really improvement to kill off an entire way of life?
In the swamp there is mud and gunk and smelly things, to be sure, and there are also Horrors that scream and scare and even kill folks. In other words, there's some seriously Dark Magic in the mix. We wouldn't be doing the swamp justice, however, if we didn't also mention the swans who live there, Mucky Face who tries to save Briony, or the cute Bleeding Hearts that beg for a love story. Even sulky Briony can't deny the pleasantness of them when she says:
I'd forgotten how prettily their voices chimed together. (19.43)
If it wasn't for the swamp, none of these magical elements would exist—and in this way, the swamp represents the magic of our natural world or environment. But look at what's happening to the swamp:
[…] Mr. Clayborne's official business, which was to drain the water from the swamp. This was going to improve life in the Swampsea, at least according to Queen Anne. Less water meant more land. More land meant more crops, and more grazing for sheep and cattle. More land also meant no swamp. (3.46)
Always looking to improve things, the men of Swampsea are threatening natural magic in hopes of improving life for the citizens of Swampsea. While all of the benefits Briony notes may be true, it also means that the lives of many creatures and spirits who reside in the swamp will cease. When Briony reflects on Eldric's interest in the swamp, she notes that:
London seems an exciting place, far more exciting than the Swampsea. But it occurred to me that the Swampsea might seem equally exciting to Eldric. He wouldn't have seen any of the Old Ones: So many had died in the great cities. (6.76)
Here we see the downfall of modernization, as it is killing off Old Ones and the natural life that exists in the swamp. The question remains: Do the benefits justify the cost? You be the judge.
So everyone is pretty stoked about the motorcar Eldric brings to town. Though we might appreciate a nice car now and again, this one little car is a majorly big deal. This is because this car isn't just any old car—it's a symbol of the future. Remember: People are still living in a time without indoor plumbing or electricity in Swampsea, and they can't get to a city without hopping a train for what probably amounts to a very long journey.
So when everyone goes crazy over the presence of this one car, wiping their dirty little kid hands on the leather interior and begging for rides, they are actually showing just how excited people are for change. Symbolically, this is interesting to think about alongside the symbolism of the swamp (which appears elsewhere in this section, so be sure to check it out).
At one point Briony mentions motorcars in a string of things that she says she'd "never have"—"Everything about Eldric screamed of the things I'd never have, of London and theater and turn-on lamps and motorcars—" (2.38)—and when she does, this wicked witch seems to be turning green with envy as she thinks of all the modern conveniences Eldric has access to that she does not.
The car doesn't just represent this for Briony though, but also for the citizens of Swampsea in general. They are all fascinated with this new modern toy, which shows that they are excited with the newness and bustle of the modern world that is being ushered into their lives. Even Rose, who seems pretty disinterested in the things other people find interesting, catches the technology bug when she sees Eldric's motorcar.
Briony notices that on their first drive, Rose holds a "real conversation" (25.28), asking questions about how the car works and where its noises come from (25.38). The answers that Eldric gives confuse Briony, proving yet again that this new modern world is not Briony's place. Where Briony might be mistress and wolfgirl when it comes to spirits and swamp life, she is nothing to this new world. Eldric acts as a bridge in a way then, pulling her closer to this new world by introducing her to things like his shiny red car.
Why is Briony always singing little songs and making up stories? Why is Eldric so into making tiny toys and jewelry out of wire and other found objects? Why is Rose always making collages and talking about colors? Why is it such a big deal that Reverend Larkin gives up singing with his daughters? It's all about more than a few silly songs and crafts—in this book, art and music represent creativity, individuality, and life.
The Dark Muses are the best proof of just how powerful art and music can be. They literally feed off of artists (think parasites who like painters and rock stars) in order to stay alive. We're told:
She feeds only on the energy of truly artistic men, draining away their wits. (8.146)
Ugh, right? By forcing their subjects to create, the Dark Muses are literally sucking the life out of their hosts. Briony expresses just how important art and music are as a life force to these Old Ones when she says about her father and stepmother:
[…] it was reasonable to think he'd dealt her a death blow when he stopped singing and locked away his fiddle. She should have unwound and died. (32.79)
A man's artistic nature is even more important than the man himself, which Briony points out by saying, "She doesn't steal the man himself, as the Devil does. She steals his soul and his wits" (11.11). We think it's safe to say that soul and wits are pretty darn important to who a person is, and art and music represent this depth, personality, and vitality.
Adding to the symbolic power of art and music is that fact that artistic communication is used throughout the book to show the true nature of people and situations. We're talking about Rose's collage about Briony and Rose's birthday, the spirits asking Briony to tell a love story, and Briony's constant remembrance of a song about poisoning someone. These are all hints about truth that is hidden in plain sight, clues to the reality that Dark Muses try so hard to hide.
Briony tells her own story in Chime, and this first person narration helps makes the story both interesting and often confusing. As a narrator, Briony is sometimes the silent observer, sometimes a villain in her own mind, sometimes the central hero, and sometimes a damsel in distress. So when she asks Eldric, "'Do you want the version of the story in which I'm a hero, or do you want the true version?'" (12.92), Briony clues us into the difficulty of relying on her as a first person narrator. Girl's got a lot of versions of the same tale to pick from.
Her story is so heavily influenced by personal opinions and confused and faulty memories that we're not confident we know the whole story until the very end. And even then, Briony's admitted lack of self-awareness means that the reader has to take their understanding with a grain of salt. Though Briony has come a long way in terms of self-acceptance and understanding of who she is and the life she's leading, without access to insights from other characters, we're stuck following an unreliable narrator through, well, swampy terrain.
Briony Larkin's life is one full of gloom. Her mother died in childbirth, and her stepmother became ill and died as well; her twin sister, Rose, is not all there mentally, and their dad is pretty checked out. Rose—who's Briony's responsibility—has a potentially life threatening cough, and enjoys screaming and running away. As if this weren't enough, Briony also believes herself to be wicked and evil, and is so filled with self-loathing that—at some point in the future (which is where our story opens)—she asks to be hanged.
As the book begins, the situation seems hopeless, and the stage is set for Briony to admit her deepest, darkest secret.
According to memories of Briony's deceased stepmother, Briony is an evil witch whose inability to control her anger and jealousy results in disasters and tragedy for those she loves. Briony fears that if she doesn't get her own wicked ways under control, people will continue to get hurt and die. She also fears being caught and hanged.
Witches start trouble with Rose, which prompts a witch-hunt. Briony starts going back to the swamp, thus stirring up her wicked witch desires, and the swamp spirit gives Rose the deadly swamp cough. All of these troubles and more back Briony into a corner where she feels she must reveal her secret in order to save those she loves.
Briony conjures the spirits of the children who've died from the deadly swamp cough and brings them before the villagers to convince them to stop draining the swamp and save the lives of those who have contracted the swamp cough because of the draining, including Rose. Briony's dead stepmother appears to the village and tells them all that Briony poisoned and killed her, prompting Briony to reveals herself to everyone and face who she is and what she's done.
Eldric tells Briony to run away and tries to protect her, but gets attacked by the Dead Hand in the swamp. Briony must carry him back to the village to save his life, thus ensuring her capture and possible death by hanging. This forces Briony to choose facing her conflict over escaping it.
The truth is revealed during Briony's trial when Eldric, Rose, and Briony's father testify that Stepmother was actually a Dark Muse slowly killing the Larkin family. Despite Briony's protests that this couldn't be true, Stepmother is put on trial, and found guilty. Briony, on the other hand, is found to be a Chime Child, not a witch like she thought. Apparently Briony's worst thoughts and fears were, in fact, all wrong.
Briony gets better physically, but psychologically she has a lot of work to do to retrain her brain to think kind thoughts about herself. She slowly gets closer to Eldric, and they admit to loving each other, she feels that her heart begins to heal. Briony realizes that by facing her fears she has a better understanding of both herself and the people who love her.