Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

22 Feb 2013

(Novel) A Tale of Two Cities by: Charles Dickens

(Reaction) Lost in the Crowd by: Antonio Conejos

Tale of Two Cities is a prosaic enough title for this novel which actually has quite a lot of tension, savagery and violence in it. Perhaps such a treatment is inevitable given the novel takes place prior to and during the French revolution.

However the novel never gets swept up in the romance of the revolution, of the allure of the movement. It makes no excuse either for the excesses of the revolution, for the carnage and the bloodshed of both loyalist and innocent alike. Rather, I think Dickens's work ultimately asks the reader to reflect on the value of the individual rather than on the grandiose, abstract concepts such as revolution, liberty, equality, fraternity.

Revolution

To be sure the French masses have reason to hate the aristocracy. The rich are accustomed to seeing their abuse of the peasants as a god-given right. As Charles Darnay's uncle ruefully puts it, We have lost many privileges; a new philosophy has become the mode; and the assertion of our station... cause us real inconvenience.

Moreover the aristocracy, as embodied again by the Marquis, seemingly revels in the animosity of the lower classes. The rich seem to take pleasure in the hate of the poor, Detestation of the high is the involuntary homage of the low.

The particular harshness of punishment mete out to rabble rousers, or those who don't bow to the rich, is seen in Dr. Manette's manner of imprisonment. So beaten, physically and mentally, is the Doctor by his incarceration that he becomes adept at his shoe-craft even in the most dark of conditions, ...long habit alone could have slowly formed in any one, the ability to do any work requiring nicety in such obscurity.

Inexorably the hate of the masses simmers over the centuries until it is about ready to boil over. For, the time was to come, when the gaunt scarecrows of that region should have watched the lamplighter, in their idleness and hunger, so long, as to conceive the idea of improving on his method, and hauling up men by those ropes and pulleys, to fare upon the darkness of their condition.

Eventually when this hate does boil over the result is a bloody mess of carnage and violence. This atavism is best personified by the Vengeance herself, Mrs. Defarge.

The wine-shop owner's wife is a stoic woman, and she does her killing with efficiency and quiet satisfaction. She stood immovable close to the grim old office... [he] began to be struck at from behind; remained immovable close to him when the long-gathering rain of stabs and blows fell heavy... that, suddenly animated, she put her foot upon his neck, and with her cruel knife - long ready - hewed off his head.

The worth of a man

Amidst this general carnage and mayhem Darnay decides he is duty bound to return to France in order to save a faithful family retainer, The latent uneasiness in Darnay's mind was roused to vigorous life by this letter. The peril of an old servant and a good one, whose only crime was fidelity to himself and to his family....

Darnay is clearly an idealist, a naive sort who thinks that good intentions and personal character count for much in this world. He even thinks that by his return he might exert a calming influence on the excesses of the revolution, Then, that glorious vision of doing good, which is so often the sanguine mirage of so many good minds, arose before him, and he even saw himself in the illusion with some influence to guide this raging Revolution that was running so fearfully wild.

The resulting irony is that while Darnary returns to save a common man (in the singular sense) but it is the common man (in the collective sense) that will be the death of him.

Predictably the mob cares nothing for his noble ideals, the honorable nature of his trip or the fact that he has renounced his name and chosen to make his own way in England. The crowd must have all aristocratic blood and Darnay is swiftly imprisoned upon his return.

Darnay's personal conduct and outstanding character mean nothing to the citizenry. In their minds, a rich man is an evil man is a dead man.

This conflict is the essence of the Tale of Two Cities. On one hand you have grand, ambitions movements, full of generalizations, abstract sentiment and vague rhetoric. On the other you have individuals who can see past the sentiment of the moment, who are noble people not because they follow the crowd but because they are sound enough to exercise their own proper judgment.

The clash of generalization versus the particular is keenly felt upon Darnay's initial imprisonment by Mr. Defarge. Defarge is unimpressed with Darnay's protestations of innocence and points out that he is getting no worse than what was imposed on countless citizenry over the years, Other people have been similarly buried in worse prisons, before now.

Darnay's reply is damning, an indictment of the entire revolution. But never by me, Citizen Defarge.

There's the rub indeed. Darnay is a good man. But the mob in its anger and vengeance, its blood and its hate, cannot see the worth of an individual. Rather the crowd collapses on its lofty notions, liberty, equality, fraternity - and makes a mockery of them.

Tale of Two Cities

Corollary to the worth of an individual is the value of having a society where such worth can be celebrated and recognized. Note that two of the important characters of the novel are immigrants, Darnay and Dr. Manette.

Each man could not find a place in France. Darnay was doomed by the evil actions of his family and French society could not accept that he was any different from that of his clan. Dr. Manette ran afoul of the rich and was imprisoned.

Yet in London, in England, each prospers because each man is industrious and fair, intelligent and just.

The novel then argues for a marked contrast between Paris and London, as noted in the title itself. Of course the difference is not in the cities themselves but in the attitude of their people. In Paris worth is passed down with ancestral names and family money. In contrast, in the London of the novel, a hardworking man may thrive and prosper regardless if he is from a storied past or not.

Review:

Tale of Two Cities read to me like a Filipino soap opera. There's a lot of high emotion, endless bits about how a fair and true hearted lady (Ms. Manette) makes everything better, and finally, surely to good to be true coincidences. (Solomon as Mrs. Pross's long lost brother, who is conveniently discovered to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right motivation to, spring Charles out of jail.)

The book is a tad maudlin.

What kept me going though is that Dickens has, strewn about the melodrama, some great imagery. See how wonderfully he evokes the stuffiness and single-minded purpose of a bank, ...where Mr. Lorry sat at great books ruled for figures, with perpendicular iron bars to his window as if that were ruled for figures too, and everything under the clouds were a sum.

Then there is the neat way he is able to encapsulate his characters in a mannerism or an object. Witness the stolid nature of Mr. Lorry, as dependable as his watch, a loud watch ticking... it pitted its gravity and longevity against the levity and evanescence of the brisk fire.

Finally the subject matter of the novel kept me reading. I come from a country where the social class is very stratified. In the Philippines something like 5% of the population has around 99% of the country's wealth. (This is not an accurate statistic but you get the idea.)

To imagine the French revolution was easy because, to my mind, it would be like the large mass of poor Filipinos storming the exclusive enclaves of Makati. It would be like angry boys in t-shirts storming Congress and beheading all the fat, smug, abusive and rich (let's not forget that) honorable representatives of the House and the Senate.

Such images were fantastical and horrible and compelling all at the same time.

Yes the poor will always be with us but it is not in every era that they take knives to the throats of those who have while they have had not for so long.

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