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.