Envy and pride, two of the seven cardinal sins, complement each other well in "Chu-Bu and Sheemish." The titular idols of the story, one older and the other new, engage in a constant battle of domination. Each one views the other as his rival and therefore attempts to create a small earthquake in order to assert himself; when neither can achieve this goal, shame overtakes them both:
To be a god and to fail to achieve a miracle is a despairing sensation; it is as though among men one should determine upon a hearty sneeze and as though no sneeze should come; it is as though one should try to swim in heavy boots or remember a name that is utterly forgotten: all these pains were Sheemish's.
And upon Tuesday the priests came in, and the people, and they did worship Chu-bu and offered fat to him, saying, "O Chu-bu who made everything," and then the priests sang, "There is also Sheemish"; and Chu-bu was put to shame and spake not for three days.
The animosity between the two idols intensifies. Chu-bu mocks Sheemish for accumulating bird feces on his head, continuing the taunts even after a temple priest washes the dirt off. The same incident happens to Chu-bu as well, further heightening the tension:
It is not with the gods as it is with men. We are angry one with another and turn from our anger again, but the wrath of the gods is enduring. Chu-bu remembered and Sheemish did not forget. They spake as we do not speak, in silence yet heard of each other, nor were their thoughts as our thoughts. We should not judge them merely by human standards. All night long they spake and all night said these words only: "Dirty Chu-bu," "Dirty Sheemish." "Dirty Chu-bu," "Dirty Sheemish," all night long. Their wrath had not tired at dawn, and neither had wearied of his accusation. And gradually Chu-bu came to realize that he was nothing more than the equal of Sheemish. All gods are jealous, but this equality with the upstart Sheemish, a thing of painted wood a hundred years newer than Chu-bu, and this worship given to Sheemish in Chu-bu's own temple, were particularly bitter. Chu-bu was jealous even for a god; and when Tuesday came again, the third day of Sheemish's worship, Chu-bu could bear it no longer. He felt that his anger must be revealed at all costs, and he returned with all the vehemence of his will to achieving a little earthquake.
Both gods resume their seismic endeavors, neither one able to contain his fury over the challenge of power. When the earthquake finally occurs, the petty idols cannot control the earthquake's strength. Their unchecked rage results in the collapse of the temple on their own heads, directly causing their own ruin.
This destruction of the idols' integrity manifests itself in two different ways, however. Although the temple's collapse smashed Sheemish's figurine, the narrator reports that he successfully salvaged Chu-bu's. The older idol's fate rests in the demolition not of the body but of his dignity:
I found him in the fallen temple of Chu-bu with his hands and toes sticking up out of the rubbish, lying upon his back, and in that attitude just as I found him I keep him to this day on my mantlepiece, as he is less liable to be upset that way. Sheemish was broken, so I left him where he was.
And there is something so helpless about Chu-bu with his fat hands stuck up in the air that sometimes I am moved out of compassion to bow down to him and pray, saying, "O Chu-bu, thou that made everything, help thy servant."
Chu-bu cannot do much, though once I am sure that at a game of bridge he sent me the ace of trumps after I had not held a card worth having for the whole of the evening. And chance alone could have done as much as that for me. But I do not tell this to Chu-bu.
The consequence of Chu-bu's excessive pride relegates him to the role of useless household ornament, a decoration that the narrator does not take seriously. He moves from a temple of reverence to a home where he might provide his owner nothing more than light entertainment. Even though Chu-bu succeeds in destroying his rival's integrity, he also ruins his own dignity and subjects himself to a diminished state.
1. The contrast between the body and an inner-self also appears in Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra:"
Ay, note that Potter's wheel,
That metaphor! and feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay, —
Thou, to whom fools propound,
When the wine makes its round,
"Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!"
Fool! All that is, at all,
Lasts ever, past recall;
Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
What entered into thee,
That was, is, and shall be:
Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.
Both Browning and Dunsany acknowledge the worth of a human consciousness and identity. How does Dunsany handle the destruction of Sheemish's figurine as a destruction of the body? Does this wreckage equal that of Chu-bu's dignity, or does he instead place less influence on Sheemish's state? Which idol experiences the worse fate, or do they suffer equally in Dunsany's eyes?
2. Dunsany uses humor to narrate the story, equating a god's failure with a sneeze and making a joke of Chu-bu's status as a luck-bringing statue. What purpose does humor serve in this story and the message? Why does Dunsany adopt a comical tone to narrate the conflict?
3. Why does Dunsany portray the conflict as occurring between an old idol and a new one? Does he intend for this to be symbolic, and if so, why does it carry such significance?
4. Like the two idols of the story, the Christian God often feels jealous when other idols conflict with how his people worship him. Did any religious thought on this similarity influence Dunsany directly? Would many Victorians find fault in the jealousy of either the idols or the Christian God? Would they likely have made such a connection, or is the connection simply coincidental?
Last modified 2 March 2009