This is a play about personal and social responsibility. Set in Victorian London, it offers a hint of the supernatural. We open with the chiming of church bells and the voice of the Head Goblin of the Chimes. Describing the wind, the church, the winter street; he introduces the protagonist, Toby Veck. Toby is a messenger who waits for jobs at the foot of St. Malackey's bell tower. His daughter, Meg, enters with two surprises: a hot dinner for him and news that she plans to marry the following morning. ("On New Year's Day, the best and brightest day in the year!") Her fiance, Richard, enters to receive Toby's blessing.
This poignant tableau is shattered by Alderman Cute. The magisterial Cute, stimulated by his bumbling compatriots, Messrs. Filer and Worthy, "put down" the engaged couples' plan to wed. Filer, "They have no earthly right or business to be married, . . . they have no earthly right or business to be born!" Having "come to this understanding" Cute dismisses them both, and hires Toby to deliver a letter, instructing him to "wait for the reply."
Toby's mission takes him through an open market, complete with flower sellers and fishmongers. He sees a cutpurse at work and alerts the attending policeman, a chase ensues. A desperate prostitute approaches Toby with a solicitation of trade. Her pimp, disgusted by Toby's apparent virtue and obvious poverty, violently forces her off-stage, assaulting him in the process. These events further Toby's growing belief that he and his ilk are "born bad" and would be better off dead.
Toby is ushered into the study of Lord and Lady Bowley. Lord Bowley pontificates on the one great moral lesson the poor require, "entire dependence on myself!" He reads the Alderman's letter and agrees to his request; permission to incarcerate an itinerant laborer from his district, Will Fern, for vagrancy.
After delivering Lord Bowley's response, Toby, muffled against the cold, accidentally knocks into a man carrying a little girl. An apologetic exchange follows, during which Toby discovers this to be the very man Cute and Bowley plan to imprison. Affected by Fern's desperate predicament Toby invites the two vagabonds home for the night.
They find Meg seated by the fire drying her eyes. Toby, bolstered by the presence of his guests, avoids discussion of the (apparently) aborted marriage plan. While Toby fixes supper, Meg tends to the child. Fern, embarrassed by their generosity is ashamed to stay the night, but is finally convinced when he sees Lilian fall asleep in Meg's arms.
All exit for bed leaving Toby to the fire and his paper. He comes across the account of a woman, driven from her home by poverty and misfortune, who has killed her child and herself. This appalling tale seems final proof of the inherent vileness of his class, and he curses the woman as "unnatural and cruel." As he nods off the Goblins of the Chimes appear and spirit the sleeping man to a rendezvous in the belfry of St. Malackey.
Toby is confronted by the Head Goblin and his minions. They accuse him of a heinous crime: that he has begun to echo the Cutes and Filers of the world, that he has come to believe there is no rhyme or purpose for his life, or the lives of his brethren. The Chimes open a window to this future: his immediate death. Guided by the spirit of a tattered woman he is taken on a journey into the future.
Nine years have passed, Toby and the Guide enter a poor apartment where they find an agitated Meg reading a letter. Enter Lilian, now grown, carrying groceries and presents. Richard has written that Lilian is working as a prostitute. When Meg confronts her, Lilian admits her profession, saying she can no longer, ". . . bear to live in such helpless, hopeless poverty." Meg won't accept her continued whoring, in a fit of anger Lilian runs away.
Toby is then whisked to Bowley Hall where the annual New Year's Day Banquet is in progress. Lord and Lady Bowley host it each year, to entertain the common people of their district. Cute introduces Bowley, primed to speak on his position as "the Poor Man's Friend." He in interrupted by Will Fern, "just come from jail," who gives a moving oratory against the treatment of the laboring classes, " . . . and don't set Jail, Jail, Jail 'afor us everywhere we turn." Protests start as the Guide transports Toby back to Meg.
Several years have passed, she is seated at her embroidery loop, a drunken Richard enters with money from Lilian. When Meg will not accept it he reveals that Lilian is just outside the door, very ill. He carries her into the room, she is delirious; racked by tuberculosis, she dies in Meg's arms.
Just a year has passed as we move to the Tugsbys, a general grocer. The proprietress was once Mrs. Chickenstaker, a great friend to Toby, who has married Lord Bowley's former porter. Enter a sinister man who informs them, "the backattic is coming downstairs fast and will be below the basement very soon." Mrs. Tugsby reveals the story of the backattic: a dying man (Richard) and his new wife (Meg). Richard's death ends the scene.
Will Fern catches Meg on her way home several months later. He has come to make a final farewell; eaten by hatred and a desire for revenge, he promises, "there will be fires tonight." Holding Meg's infant daughter in his arms, he tells her the face is Lilian's, "Before her mother died and left her." They part. Meg tries to enter the shop. Her way is blocked by Mr. Tugsby. He has locked her out, refusing to continue to let her live on his wife's charity. Despairing, she runs wildly through the streets and to a bridge where she prepares to jump, crying all the while, "To be changed like Lilian." Understanding how wrong he was to malign the woman in the paper, Toby implores the Goblins for mercy. "I know that we must trust and hope and neither doubt ourselves nor doubt the good in one another. I have learnt it from the creature dearest to my heart."
Meg wakes Toby from the dream. It's New Year's Day and Richard enters to "kiss his almost wife." Neighbors enter with greetings and congratulations, including Mrs. Chickenstalker, who has brought the wedding punch. It is discovered that she is the friend Will Fern traveled to London to find. A joyous party ensues, with Toby at the lead.