Dickens’ Ghosts: Malevolent or Benevolent

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After studying the ‘Queer Chair’, ‘Goblins who stole a Sexton’, ‘The Signalman’ and ‘The Baron of Grogzwig’, all by Charles Dickens, I have found that he illustrates the ghosts very differently in each story. Throughout this, I am going to decide whether Dickens portrays the spectres in a malevolent or benevolent way to come to a conclusion of why and how he does this. In my opinion, the most benevolent ghost studied was the ‘Queer Chair’.

Towards the beginning of the story, when the ghost initially appears, Dickens illustrates him to be an elderly person, dressed in “an antique flapped waistcoat” which represents the damask cushion on the chair, and “red cloth slippers” which was infact the red cloth material tied around the knobs at the bottom of the legs. Slippers and waistcoats suggest an atmosphere of comfort and relaxation which are associated with grandfathers and luxury in old age, a clearly benevolent trait. In addition to this, the ‘Queer Chair’ was described as having “an old shrivelled human face” in which Tom Smart fears the apparition. I won’t look at it anymore” said Tom which suggests he would prefer not to witness the haunting spectre in the hope that it will disappear.

This may lead the reader to believe that the ghost has a malevolent characteristic, however as Tom’s understanding of the spirit is improved, he appears to craft a companionship with the phantom. Tom refers to the “Chair or the old gentleman, which ever you like to call him” as an “old nutcracker face”. This could be interpreted as an insult; however it seems to be more of a witticism in this situation which shows connotations of benevolence towards the spirit.

In reply to this, the ‘Queer Chair’ said “Come, come, Tom… that’s not the way to address solid Spanish mahogany… Dam’ me, you couldn’t treat me with less respect if I was veneered”. When the chair said this, he was looking very fierce which made tom frightened. Immediately after this sentence, Tom responded “I didn’t mean to treat you with any disrespect sir” and Tom said this in a “much humbler tone! ” “I know everything about you Tom, everything! ” said the ‘Queer Chair’. This is portrayed in a malevolent way as it’s intimidating, impolite and almost frightening.

The chair also knew that Tom Smart was poor and “too fond of punch”. Throughout the story, Tom is surprised by the behaviour of the old gentleman, when talking about the widow. “The widows a fine woman – remarkably fine woman – eh Tom? ” said the chair. This suggests that the ‘Queer Chair’ is impressed by the widow and is wanting to Tom to feel the same way. When the ghost says this to Tom, he ‘cocked up his little wasted legs’. This supports my original idea of the chair being an elderly gentleman.

Dickens then tells the reader the spectre’s experiences with ladies and his age began to show when “the old gentle man was proceeding to recount some other exploits of his youth, when he was seized with such a violent fit of creaking that he was unable to proceed”. Tom thought to himself “Just serves you right old boy” however did not say this to the ‘Queer Chair’. Further on into the story, Tom continues to treat the Chair with a malevolent attitude but does not demonstrate this behaviour directly to the “creaking… Queer Chair” as he is letting the phantom believe he is correct.

The Chair then tells Tom that he should marry the widow and Tom recounts to the phantom the actions of the tall dark man standing at the bar whilst he was looking through the glass, “she wouldn’t have me”. “There’s somebody else in the wind. A tall man – a confoundedly tall man – with black whiskers”. “She will never have him” replied the old gentleman to Tom. Later in the story, he then goes on to tell Tom Smart about his family and their experiences. Furthermore, “if the tall dark man married the widow, he would sell off everything and run away, she would be ruined and I would be out in the cold” declared the old gentleman.

This shows that the old chair is stating the negative points in order to secure his own future, to get Tom to marry the widow and to “settle… in the public-house”. “I am very much obliged to you for your good opinion sir” said Tom which suggests a sense of agreement in a benevolent way. “You shall have her she shall not” the old gentleman dictated. He then tells Tom “that in the right-hand pocket of a pair of trousers in that press” there is a letter from his disconsolate wife and six small children, entreating him to return to them.

Having told Tom this, and his job is done, “the old man seemed gradually blending into the chair, the damask waistcoat to resolve into a cushion, the red slippers to shrink into little red cloth bags”. The old gentleman’s “features grew less and less distinct and his figure more shadowy”. “The light faded gently away, and Tom Smart fell back on his pillow, and dropped asleep”. The next morning, Tom woke and recalled the illusive events of the previous nights and wondered if he had dreamt the whole episode due to the amount of alcohol he had consumed.

To clear his mind of his confusion, he tried to start a conversation with the chair by asking “How are you old boy”. “The chair remained motionless, and spoke not a word”. The chair would not be drawn into conversation. This could be possibly due to the fact that “he was bolder in daylight – most men are”. As the chair was unwilling to talk to Tom, he vividly remembered the letter that was pointed out to him the night before. “He walked over to one of the presses… and put his hand into the pocket of trousers”. Much to his amazement pulled out the “identical letter the old gentleman had described”.

Tom decided to dress himself and go downstairs surveying the rooms he passed with a view to being the future landlord. “The tall man was standing in the snug little bar… quite at home” and “grinned vacantly at Tom” in the confidence of knowing that soon he is soon to be the husband and landlord of the pub in which he is standing. Unbeknown to him, “Tom laughed in his face; and summoned the landlady”. This shows a slight aspect of malevolence in Tom’s personality that’s portrayed to the reader. Tom then “slowly drew forth the letter, and unfolded it” and placed the letter in the widows hand.

Oh the deception and villainy of man! ” said the widow. “At all events, Tom kicked the very tall man out of the front door””. He then moved out of the country to France with his wife. I believe that the ‘Queer Chair’ is most benevolent due to the old gentleman’s wise words given to Tom, leading to the truth coming out that the tall dark man is not who he seemed which prevents the widow from marrying him. This led to a benevolent conclusion were the ‘Queer Chair’ told Tom Smart to marry the widow which he later did.

He woos the daughter of the Baron Von Swillenhausen and takes up the ‘joys’ of family life. But by the time he is forty-eight years of age, the Baron finds himself saddled with an unhappy wife, thirteen children, and no fortune, feasting, revelry, or hunting! Depressed, the Baron decides to end it all. As he sat and thought about his life, he sees the spectre of Genius of Despair and Suicide before him. The ghost in ‘The Baron of Grogzwig’ is portrayed yet again; in a benevolent way although it may seem malevolent, but results in good triumphing over evil as he finally saves the Baron from committing suicide.

He does this by appearing to assist the Baron to end his life, “Now” said the figure, glancing at the hunting knife, “are you ready for me? ” This displays a rather arrogant attitude towards his victim, who then says “Not quite… I must finish this pipe first”, trying to delay his suicidal tendencies. “Look sharp then” says the figure; this suggests the spectre is anxious to leave quickly and indeed he states “they’re doing a pretty brisk business in my way over in England and France just now, and my time is a good deal taken up”.


The title of the next story ‘The Goblins who stole a sexton’ is immediately portrayed to the reader in a malevolent way as ‘stealing’ is bad and a gravedigger is generally portrayed as negative. The way in which Dickens opens the story is very negative and within the first paragraph, the reader knows he delights in negativity, he is a pessimistic character therefore thinks the worst of people and he hates children. This immediately continues the judgement of the reader to believing that this “sexton and grave-digger in the churchyard” is malevolent.

The writer also adds to this negativity by describing Gabriel Grub as “ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow – a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself”. This suggests that Grub is in need of help and that he has a sad, miserable life. The character is also illustrated to the reader as unusual and strange as he is not fascinated by Christmas and would rather be digging graves. “A little before twilight, one Christmas Eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself towards the old churchyard…

He thought it might raise his spirits”. This again connotes Grub as a very “ill-humoured” individual. “Gabriel strode along… the dark lane which led him to the churchyard”. Along the way, he heard a voice of a small boy singing. “So Gabriel waited until the boy came up, and then dodged him into a corner, rapped him over head with his lantern five or six times, to teach him to modulate his voice”. Gabriel chuckled to himself very heartily once he had hurt the boy who hurried away! He then entered the churchyard and locked the gate behind him.

He set to work “But the earth was hardened with frost, and it was no very easy matter to break it up, and shovel it out; and although there was a moon, it was a very young one, and shed little light upon the grave, which was in the shadow of the church”, “At any other time these obstacles would have made Gabriel Grub very moody and miserable, but he was so well pleased with having stopped the small boy’s singing that he took little heed of the scanty progress he had made and looked down into the grave”. Dickens has chose to tell the reader this to show them how much Gabriel hates children and to give the story a frightful and fearful persona.

The ghost is then introduced into the story by alarming Grub as the Goblin imitated the words of the Sexton. “Ho! ho! ho! ” “Gabriel paused in the act of raising the wicker bottle to his lips: and looked around”. “The cold hoarfrost glistened on the tombstones, and sparkled like rows of gems, among the stone carvings of the old church. The snow lay hard and crisp upon the ground; and spread over the thickly-strewn mounds of earth, so white and smooth a cover, that it seemed as if corpses lay there, hidden only by their winding sheets”.

This almost makes the reader illustrate the scene in which Grub and the Goblins are viewing and again crafts an unpleasant and horrible illusion. Not the faintest rustle broke the profound tranquillity of the solemn scene. “It was the echoes” said Gabriel Grub, raising the bottle to his lips again. “It was not! ” said a deep voice. “Gabriel started up, and stood rooted to the spot, with astonishment and terror, for his eyes rested on a form that made his bloody run cold”.

This suggests that Grub may have another side to his nasty characteristic as we presume from the previous quotes that nothing can scare Grub and that he is a very strong person. This may change as the Goblins attend the “cold, quiet churchyard”. “Seated on an upright tombstone, close to him, was a strange unearthly figure”. This immediately connotes an apparition of some kind. “The goblin looked as if he had sat on the same tombstone very comfortably for two or three hundred years”. This questions the reader to intend that the Goblin has been watching Grub for a very long time and has seen the awful things he has done within his life.

The Goblins then question Grub “What do you do here on Christmas Eve… What man wanders among graves and churchyards on such a night like this… What have you got in that bottle… Who drinks Holland’s alone, and in a churchyard, on such a night like this” I think the writer has done this to answer those questions the reader may have to clarify the whole situation. “Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub” screamed a wild chorus of voices. “Well Gabriel, what do you say to this? ” “What do you think of this Gabriel? ” “Who makes graves at a time when all other men are merry, and takes a pleasure in it”

Although the Goblin Kings questions are very intimidating to Grub, they can be portrayed in a benevolent way as he is trying to make Gabriel answer to why he is digging graves on Christmas Eve and could be trying to change Grub. “I’m afraid my friends want you Gabriel” “I don’t think they can, sir; they don’t know me, sir; I don’t think the gentleman have ever seen me, sir. ” “Oh yes they have… we know the man with the sulky face and grim scowl that came down the street tonight, throwing his evil looks at the children, and grasping his burying spade even tighter.

We know the man who struck the boy in the envious malice of his heart, because the boy could be merry, and he could not. We know him, we know him”. This threatening conversation enables the reader to evoke sympathy with the child and to emote the appropriate feelings with Gabriel. It is ironic this story because the Sexton is called Gabriel and Gabriel is also the name associated with the guardian angel Gabriel. This causes Juxta Position because the gravedigger Gabriel is the complete opposite (at the beginning of the story) to that of the angel.

Later on in this story, the Goblins play tricks on Gabriel. One of the goblins held him while another poured the blazing liquid down his throat! ” “The whole assembly screeched with laughter as he coughed and chocked, and wiped away the tears which gushed plentifully from his eyes after swallowing the burning draught”. The ghosts do this to Grub to make him realise what a horrible “creature” he has been and how he has hurt other people so in revenge, they are hurting Gabriel. Throughout ‘The Goblins who stole a sexton’, the apparitions show Gabriel many haunting actions in which each shows a different consequence to Grub’s previous performances.

For example, “But a change came upon the view, almost imperceptibly. The scene was altered to a small bedroom, where the fairest and youngest child was dying… he died” This was to see how Gabriel Grub reacted in hopes that he would become a better person therefore the ghost would be portrayed as benevolent. The spirits continued to change the clouds and settle upon new pictures for Gabriel to view. “What do you think of that”. The Goblin King then questions Gabriel on what he has just witnessed. “You a miserable man! ” said the Goblin, in a tone of excessive contempt, “You! The goblin king then “administered a good sound kick to Gabriel Grub; immediately after which all the goblins in waiting crowded round the wretched sexton, and kicked him without mercy”.

The goblin King then insisted the many other apparitional helpers showed him some more! “At these words, the cloud was dispelled, and a rich and beautiful landscape was disclosed to view – there is just another, to this day, within half a mile of the old abbey town”. The Goblin King then notified Gabriel of the “shining sun from the clear blue sky, the water which sparkled beneath the rays, the greener looking trees and the gay flowers”.

This suggests that the ghost is trying to persuade Gabriel to perceive this and to change his ways. “Setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all”. After Gabriel thought this to himself, “one my one, the goblins faded from his sight; and as the last one disappeared, he sank to sleep”. The next morning when Gabriel Grub woke he was lying in the churchyard with his empty wicker bottle lying by his side.

At first, he began to doubt the reality of his adventures, but the acute pain when he attempted to rise assured him that the kicking of the goblins was certainly not ideal”. “But he was an altered man! ” He brushed the frost of his coat, put it on and turned to face his town. “He could not bear the thought of returning to a place where his repentance would be scoffed at, and his reformation disbelieved. “At length, all this was devoutly believed; and the new sexton used to exhibit to the curious, for a trifling emolument”. “Some ten years afterwards, a ragged contented, rheumatic old man”.

He even told his story to the clergyman and also to the mayor and in course of time, it began to be received as a matter of history, in which form it has continued down to this very day. “He had seen the world and grown wiser”. This concludes that this story is clearly benevolent that the Goblins and Goblin King have changed a “sick, miserable, pessimistic man” to a “reformed gentleman”. The final story we studied by Charles Dickens was ‘The Signalman’. I found this story to be the least benevolent of the four that we analysed. At the beginning of story, the signalman is stood at the door of his box at the bottom of the “very steep cutting”.

The reader’s first impressions of the story were somewhat negative, however contrary to this; ‘The Signalman’ followed the same pattern as the other three stories being malevolent to be benevolent. This means that the story is portrayed in a bad way initially, and that the ghost has evil intentions but nevertheless, at the end of each story, the spirit’s victim has benefited from the apparitions. Also in ‘The signalman’ the spectre appeared to show the signalman of what is going to happen and therefore helps him and saves him from being killed. As a result of this, Dickens portrays the ghosts as benevolent in the ‘Queer Chair’, ‘The Baron of Grogzwig’, ‘The Goblins who Stole a Sexton’ and ‘The Signalman’, although primarily the reader my interpret them as malevolent.

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