Week 17: The Murder of the Bench

Once again, reading the novel week by week seems to make individual incidents stand out with far greater clarity than when racing through a paperback eager to find out what happens next. The most startling scene for me in this week’s instalment, vivid in its oddness, is that of the sacrifice of Dr Manette’s work-bench. For Mr. Lorry with his business-like sense of materiality (‘a plodding man of business who only deals with such material objects as guineas, shillings, and bank-notes’), the sign is the thing, or at least the ‘retention of the thing’ equates to the ‘retention of the idea’. So Dr Manette’s work-bench is sacrificed for his mental health, and notably, for Lucie, who is later on described in almost religious terms when asking Darnay to be have greater compassion for Sydney Carton (‘She looked so beautiful, in the purity of her faith in this lost man’). This sacrifice is strangely violent, drawing analogies and contrasts between innocent comedic characters such as Mr Lorry and Miss Pross with their more violent counterparts in the novel. One cannot help but read a judgement on the masses so soon due to rise up, in the statement

‘So wicked do destruction and secrecy appear to honest minds, that Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross, while engaged in the commission of their deed and in the removal of its traces, almost felt, and almost looked, like accomplices in a horrible crime’.

Apparently, to honest minds, even burning a bench, strikes horror into their hearts, even if in doing so they are helping a friend, and causing no harm. There is something quite grisly in Dickens’s description of the deed:

‘There, with closed doors, and in a mysterious and guilty manner, Mr. Lorry hacked the shoemaker’s bench to pieces, while Miss Pross held the candle as if she were assisting at a murder—for which, indeed, in her grimness, she was no unsuitable figure. The burning of the body (previously reduced to pieces convenient for the purpose), was commenced without delay in the kitchen fire; and the tools, shoes, and leather, were buried in the garden’.

On a side-note, it is interesting that Mr Lorry’s euphemism for Dr Manette’s cobbler work is ‘Blacksmith’s work’, which of course, makes us think of Dickens’s next novel, Great Expectations and Pip, the young gentleman who is ashamed of his past as a blacksmith’s apprentice, particularly given our discussion last week of Dr Manette as a cypher for Dickens himself. Mr Lorry and Dr Manette’s analysis of Dr Manette’s psychological state throws up a few more remarks to lend weight to that notion. The most obvious being Dr. Manette’s tendency to over-work himself. One does not need to know much about Dickens to realize that he could have been as easily describing himself when he writes of Dr Manette: ‘It may be the character of his mind, to be always in singular need of occupation’. Moreover, Dr Manette’s later statement that ‘He may have observed himself, and made the discovery’ recalls to mind a line from ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’, written much later, in 1869, in which Dickens writes in relation to a period of over-working himself, ‘Being accustomed to observe myself as curiously as if I were another man, and knowing the advice to meet my only need, I instantly halted in the pursuit of which I speak, and rested’ (http://www.djo.org.uk/all-the-year-round/volume-i-new-series/page-589.html).

Can we find any significance in the fact that one of the later articles in the number recounts the story of a forger of bank-notes who was sent to Australia as a convict? In this case, the materiality which Mr Lorry depends on, those bank-notes and shillings and guineas, does not quite equate what it is supposed to.  What about Wilkie Collins’s question ‘A New View of Society’ of ‘whether I am fit for Bedlam, or not?’ I quite enjoy the playful interaction of this text with TOTC, in which Dickens’s serious treatment of the subject of psychology and mental health is juxtaposed with Collins’s musings on the ‘insanity’ of societal conventions, bringing in a lighter note, to an issue which I found rather gloomy, although without quite knowing why – perhaps because at this late Gstage in the novel, as a reader, one feels that storm clouds must be gathering soon – or perhaps it is just the image of Dr Manette sitting in his office with his blackened hands.

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5 thoughts on “Week 17: The Murder of the Bench

  1. I quite like the idea of murdering a bench and burning it. However; why murder the bench and reduce it to ashes but give the tools and leather a decent Christian burial?
    Ashes have played a part in the Tale earlier. The bowl of Dead Sea fruit and the smoking ashes in the ruins of the Maquis’ chateau seem to suggest some forthcoming cataclysm. Could it be that by burning the bench Lorry and Pross are in the position of representing the avenging son Manette has dreamed about earlier, the bench being a symbol of the corrupt system which imprisoned him and took away his life

  2. I am so glad that Dickens used Miss Pross and Jarvis Lorry to kill the workbench. As hazelmcknz pointed out here, they are two of our most comedic characters, and when Dickens uses them as the killers of the workbench, we can easily see the shifty eyes of Pross looking over her shoulder for a witness to the crime, and Lorry pulling down his wig in his nervous way as he dismantles the bench. The edition I am reading of ATOTC includes Phizz’s drawings and if I can figure out how to actually write a post (and not just respond to other people’s) I will include a photo of it. Since we’ve recently been discussing the quality of the illustrations, I think it would be a good edition here and also a way to lift Phizz’s illustration abilities up from our cutting them down. I believe that it is his best illustration this far of this novel! It’s titled, humorously, “The Accomplices.”

    • You have to wonder how this would translate to screen given that Lorry and Pross are, as you say, comedy characters. In other words, would their dread and fear of the “crime” they are committing reduce the moment to parody?

      • Interesting thought. I’d like to think that no, the scene wouldn’t be reduced to one of pure giggles, and that the importance of what they’re aiming to do through destroying the workbench would be preserved. So much of this book is really terrifying though and when picking these characters to destroy Mannette’s bench, I feel as a reader that Dickens is trying to give me a break so to speak, from one horrible historical scene after another so that I can breathe.

  3. I liked the murder of the bench, but was more touched by the idea of Manette treating himself, which all veers towards the idea of multiple personality, further backed up by the unwareness of the shoemaker and the doctor of each other – as a shoemaker, he has no memory of his life outside the tower, as a doctor, he does not recall his time in relapse.

    How are we to interpret Lorry’s decision to talk to Manette about the issue in the way that he does? On the one hand, there is the idea that this is Lorry’s typically subtle way of touching upon a painful subject (he uses the third-person treatment way back in part 2 when he first talks to Lucie about her father). However, in the light of Lorry’s suggestion that there is “There is no man in this world on whom I could so rely for right guidance, as on you”, this argues that the only person who can save Manette is himself, which in turn argues that the pain is self-inflicted and its continuation is choice made by Manette.

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