Week 15

As Joanne mentioned in her blog last week, the pace of the novel is really increasing now. The tension in the wine shop is palpable as the utterly incongruous rose sported by Mme Defarge signals danger to her regular drinkers. Most striking initially though is the telescoping effect of the opening paragraphs which brilliantly convey to interconnectedness of Saint Antoine and ‘the village’, ‘a speck in a blue cap’ and the Marquis, a skinny villager and a ‘more fortunate hare’. This is synthesis operates spatially and temporally, but not yet morally.  I’m really strongly reminded, as Dickens original readers couldn’t yet have been, of the experience of reading Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, which would come out later in 1859. The lines of interconnection that we can see spinning out of Paris, the ways in which single events reverberate throughout the web of affinities that Dickens is weaving here, and the sense of scale that Dickens conjures in the opening of this chapter, all share in the qualities of interconnectedness that Dickens’s theory of evolution was exploring. This is underlined for me by the instalment’s second paragraph where Dickens concentrates the French elements of his tale into ‘a faint hair-breadth line’ which ‘lay under the night sky’. I’m not sure I’ve quite fathomed his meaning here, but the perspective from which he writes is intriguing. His sense that a ‘whole world’ ‘lie[s] in a twinkling star’ is a remarkable frame for the chapter that follows. That it will be a chapter for us to observe and analyse closely is suggested by this paragraph’s also dwelling on the work of the scientist. 

M. and Mme. Defarge are close observers, as we see in Mme Defarge’s sparring match with Barsad, but the more muted presence of her husband also provides us with a point of view with which Dickens makes us engage. Defarge watches his wife, ‘complacently admiring’ her competence and business acumen, and inviting us to join him in his appreciation of her.  But his affectionate regard for her is subsumed within her ever-present desire for revenge and also within a time-scale that returns me to thoughts of Darwin and the slow evolutionary movements that have come for us to characterise our sense of the development of the universe. Mme Defarge too adopts such a scale when it comes to encouraging her husband.  She asks him to think of how long it takes to ‘make and store the lightning’, or how long  an earthquake is in the making.  These seem to me to be ideas absolutely indebted to contemporary ideas of evolutionary progress, and thus offering us as readers another model of history to set alongside the one that Mme Defarge is narrating. 

The instalment ends with Dickens moving out again from the specifics of the moment to anticipate the building of the guillotine; it also invokes multiple forms of darkness, both actual and metaphorical, and thus includes an element of morality which has no room in evolutionary theory as initially advanced by Darwin. This sombre instalment sets our characters within a broader universe than we’ve seen before.

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About Gail Marshall

I joined the University of Leicester as Professor of Victorian Literature in January 2010. My main interests are in the fiction and theatre of the period, and in women's history and literature of the time. I've long wanted to see how it might feel to read a Victorian novel serially, and am looking forward to examining this experience.

2 thoughts on “Week 15

  1. In catching up with the last two instalments I decided to leave at least 24 hours between the two parts to create some sense of separation, and in the space of a day my attitude to the Defarges has switched again. The unimposing title of “still knitting” could be better titled “beneath the surface” as we see the building tensions and passions beneath the cool exteriors of the French. In particular,the treat in store this week is being let into the inner thoughts of the previously impenetrable Madame Defarge – the storm of thoughts that erupts beneath the cool exterior when she talks to Barsard made me review the previous scenes we have seen her in Lorry and the Manettes and to consider what thoughts ran through her mind then. We also see her use of rhetoric in the allusions to lightening and earthquakes that Gail mentioned, as well as references to Henry V’s Harfleur speech, with talk of her teeth being set, and tigers let loose.

    Nice also to see plotlines intertwining and coming together here with the arrival of Barsard in the in the wine shop, and furthermore in his talking of the Manettes and Darnay – the golden threads being knit together into a coherent plot at last. That the chapter ends with yet more premonitions of revolution is in one sense wearisome (yes, Charles, you’ve set your story in the time of the French revolution, we get it, we know what’s coming), but also takes that sense of tension and anticipation to its utmost, stringing both us and the peasants of French to our utmost point before letting all hell break loose – soon, surely.

  2. Thank you, Gail, for this wonderful, thought-provoking post. I usually associate this idea of the law of consequences with writers such as George Eliot, who proffers a view of the social world as one in which even minor acts of selfishness have inexorable consequences. However, as you make so wonderfully clear, Dickens, too, seems to subscribing to this view. Evidently, scientific ideas, particularly of the incremental, millennial and relentless changes of geological and evolutionary time, played an important part in this. I also wonder if there is something of the prophetic, apocalyptic view of Carlyle in both Eliot and Dickens? Your point reminds me of the mud and mire of the opening two instalments, in which natural forces of change figure as merciless, ferocious and implacable – rather like Madame Defarge. Dickens presents her pitiless vindictiveness as terrifying and yet, dare I say, almost erotic as well. We seem to be dealing with two metaphors here: one of weaving and knitting in which threads are brought together to create a whole; and one of natural forces, of the inevitable build-up of energy which only finds release in violent tumult. Perhaps these broadly map onto the famous division within Victorian thought between the mechanical and the organic?

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