Week Five

Several weeks ago someone commented on this blog saying what a tease Dickens is and I think that was my first reaction to this week’s installment. Five years later and five installments in and we still haven’t even progressed to knowing our heroine’s first name. After last week’s reunion of father and daughter, one might have expected the second book to open with a domestic scene, more or less cheerful, in which we might start to get to know these characters a little better, but we barely see them until the end of the installment and then only from the perspective of strangers. It still feels like the story has barely begun—what patience Victorian readers had!

Instead we are steeped in darkness once more as Dickens describes the claustrophobic and oppressive workings of Tellson’s and of Britain as a whole. An interesting critique of the savagery of the British government and justice system (I do love the image of the heads on Temple Bar), particularly when compared to the periodical’s discussion of the Indian Mutiny just pages later in ‘An Empire Saved’:

It was famous, too, for the pillory, a wise old institution, that inflicted a punishment of which no one could foresee the extent; also, for the whipping-post, another dear old institution, very humanising and softening to behold in action; also, for extensive transactions in blood-money, another fragment of ancestral wisdom, systematically leading to the most frightful mercenary crimes that could be committed under Heaven (A Tale of Two Cities).

But against actual mutiny the Government of England in the Punjab was able to show itself terrible in strength. In five out of the eight cases the mutineers were captured and either almost or utterly destroyed. It was a wise rigour (‘An Empire Saved’).

How do these two very different takes on ‘wisdom’ interact with each other? To the modern reader, perhaps it suggests the hypocritical nature of colonialist discourse, but what about the contemporary reader?

Another ironic overlap this week is the poem ‘The Cobbler’—a strikingly different picture of a shoe-maker than the one Dickens gave us last week. The polyvocal nature of the periodical was really underlined for me in this issue, despite the homogeneity implied by the magazine’s formal presentation.

The most striking image for me this week however was that of Jerry Cruncher sucking the rust from his fingers while watching the trial of Charles Darnay. Again there is this image of animalistic hunger (Cruncher is likened to a monkey earlier in the installment) and the question of what exactly it is that Cruncher is feeding on—what is this mysterious rust? The red colour of the rust makes one immediately think of blood, and the blood-thirstiness of a crowd that pays to see a man quartered. It also seems symbolic of the rot and corruption in a justice system that is sure to find a man guilty whether he is or not. Or is Cruncher simply trying to hide his own rot or blood-steeped hands?

What did everybody else think?

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5 thoughts on “Week Five

  1. This chapter felt very reminiscent of earlier novels. The description of Telson’s brought to mind the offices visited by Pickwick, not to mention the workplace of the Brass siblings, while the courtscene inevitably brought to mind Bleak House. It’s all very domestic and familiar compared to the last two weeks in Paris – even here, Dickens is retreading old ground with these geographical contrasts, such as the glamour of Italy and the humdrum life of Bleeding Heart Yard in Little Dorrit, or the to-ing and fro-ing from America to England in Martin Chuzzlewit. However, what’s interesting this time is that the juxtaposition of Paris and London is used to show the similarities, rather than the differences. While the prosecution compartes the French king with “our said serene, illustrious, excellent”, Dickens is showing throughout this installment that England is just as savage as France, from the quartering that awaits the guilty, or the “Ogreish” interest of the audience who treat the whole scene like theatre. There was a lot of tension after the French revolution that similar events could occur elsewhere (as indeed they did), so Dickens’s likening of pre-revolutionary France to England is quite the incendiary.

  2. The image that sticks with me is the spectator’s description of the execution process. Two phrases especially — “before his own face” and “while he looks on” — add that extra touch of horror that render it unforgettable. The unnamed man certainly has a way with words.

  3. I have to admit my heart sunk when I read ‘Five Years Later’. It is beginning to feel as though I am starting a new novel every week (yes, I am a week behind but will be catching up with week 6 later this week!). I didn’t even remember Jerry was in it before and wouldn’t have realised if it hadn’t been pointed out on this site. After a more promising episode the week before, I have to confess I’m beginning to lose interest. Let’s see if next week picks up a bit.

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