‘As at a Play’: Week 19.

After we have inexorably tended towards this outbreak of revolutionary violence, it is, as Pete mentioned last week, a relief, of sorts, that ‘at last it is come’. With typical ominousness Madame Defarge replies to this, ‘almost’. I was struck again by the grisliness of the depiction of violence here – a world without mercy on either side, as we are shown revolutionary cause and effect. I was quite disturbed, as I think Dickens intended his readers to be, at the rage at the discovery of Foulon, for whom a ‘grand mock funeral’ cannot guarantee safety – ‘Then a score of others ran into the midst of these, beating their breasts, tearing their hair and screaming, Foulon alive! Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass . . .’ – and the visceral descriptions of the violence to him:

‘Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now, full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see . . .’

The significance of witnessing/ seeing is strongly emphasised as Madame Defarge ‘clapped her hands as at a play’. Dickens draws out the theatricality of revolution, fermented, in part, by spectacles of suffering, like the peep show of Dr Manette broken by the bastille. There’s a parallel here with the continuing language of the ‘theatre of war’, which registers the intense action and emotions of wartime, at the same time, I think, as de-realising and distancing them. I’d be interested to hear what others think about the effects of Dickens’s emphasis on spectacle and theatricality.

The spectacle of punishment is the subject of the installment’s fourth article, ‘Small Shot’, which looks at the history of the stocks in Britain. ‘County Courted’ continues the questioning of systems of justice, providing statistics of those imprisoned after county court trials for debts. The article emphasises the disproportionate treatment of rich and poor, with sympathetic examples of the latter, like a woman imprisoned for ‘a debt of twenty pence’. I was surprised to see how fully this T of TC  installment of revolutionary fervor is part of the week’s treatment of questions of discipline and punishment.

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About Holly Furneaux

Holly is a Reader in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. She has written variously on Dickens, including a book, Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities. For more details of her work, and her current research on the Military Man of Feeling, see her staff page:http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/people/hollyfurneaux

4 thoughts on “‘As at a Play’: Week 19.

  1. It’s interesting to see now how the sympathies of Dickens and the reader are tested as the people of Saint Antoine, whose misfortunes we’ve been following since week 2, now retaliate with horrific violence and agression. Suddenly the oppressors are the oppressed and we read of the ordeal of Monseiur Gabelle with hope for his survival from the mob, just as we read the fate of Foulon with disgust. The theatricality of the moment again goes back to Dicken’s witnessing of the Manette’s execution and his disgust in particular at the crowd. Here, as with the revolution, the execution itself is a necessary form of justice, but the bloodlust of the mob and the unnecessary crowds who gather solely to witness such violence are, to Dickens, humanity at its worst.

    Just to introduce another train of thought, what about Dickens’s description of the women? Given the long-standing criticism againts Dickens for his stereotyping of women into beautiful innocent or grotesque comic (which I don’t personally agree with), I felt there was nonetheless some significance here as Dickens drew on the inumanity of the women as somehow more terrible than the inhumanity of the men:

    “The men were terrible […] but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions.”

    Dickens decision to focus on this does not necessarily have to be an example of outdated sexism, but rather a recognition of gender roles at the time and the implications of that come the revolution. The men are leaving their work to one side to join in the revolution, but in joining them the women are abandoning their “household occupations” – i.e the children and elderly, which Dickens uses to show the irony at the heart of the revolution, that the poor show as little regard for the needy as the oppressors before them.

  2. I have been reading Lillian Nayder’s fascinating article, ‘The Cannibal, the Nurse, and the Cook in Dickens’s The Frozen Deep’ (Victorian Literature and Culture, 1991) and she discusses the recurring images of oral rapacity and cannibalism found in Victorian accounts of ‘mob’ violence and revolution. Indeed, cannibalism stands as a metaphor for social collapse itself. In TOTC, Dickens criticises the aristocracy for their failure to nurture the people (like a good mother) and for their voracious and single-minded consumption of the nation’s natural resources, wealth and power. In these violent scenes, the tables are turned and the people, previously represented in broadly sympathetic terms, become themselves the ferocious cannibals, devouring their masters.

    These images of a social and natural order of brute force and the cannibalistic consumption of the weakest certainly chime with a broadly Darwinian model; but they also dovetail with later psychoanalytic accounts of the aggressively desirous infant who wishes to incorporate the mother orally. Nayder argues that infantile aggression towards the mother is projected outwards within cultures as a fear of the devouring mother. Madame Defarge, who is a perverse sort of ‘mother’ to the Parisian poor, certainly fits this bill and, as Pete observes, the mothers of Paris are figured here as epitomising the devouring violence of the revolution.

    Holly makes a really fascinating point about the distancing effect of spectacle and theatricality. There is a feeling of melodrama and of the panorama and diorama here. Perhaps this effect is also intensified by Dickens’s strong reliance on Carlyle’s account of these events; Dickens’s is essentially a boiling-down and re-presentation of the historical work of others, with a good dash of the usual Dickensian ingredients, which perhaps slightly accounts for the sense of distance?

  3. I, too, liked Holly’s comment on the effect of theatricality. It reminded me of Wiliam Axton’s book, “The Circle of Fire,” in which he argued the influence of theatre over Dickens’s vision and style. As far as I can remember the main point of his argument was that Dickens added vividness to his prose by using theatrical metaphors, but what is more interesting is the detachment or the distancing effect as Holly puts it. I think the audience-like standpoint of Madame Defarge in this case distances Dickens and also the readers from Madame Defarge.

  4. Thanks all for the really interesting conversation. I’m fascinated by this teasing out of the dynamics of sympathy, and how Dickens uses stock devices to incite sympathies, respectively,
    for both sides. Ben’s points about cannibalistic imagery in descriptions of mob violence reminded
    me of the earlier discussion of coding of aristocratic cruelty through hard riding/mowing down of children with horses. I’m wondering whether readers who recognised these devices from their previous reading found these scenes more or less affecting.
    On the topic of spectacle and distance I’ve also been thinking about the incredible description of an early telegraph in this instalment. My Penguin notes tell me that the name ‘telegraph’ was first given to a signalling device, invented by a Frenchman, in 1792:
    ‘The people immediately behind Madame Defarge, explaining the cause of her satisfaction to those behind them, and those again explaining to others, and those to others, the neighbouring streets resounded with the clapping of hands. Similarly, during two or three hours of drawl, and the winnowing of many bushels of words, Madame Defarge’s frequent expressions of impatience were taken up, with marvellous quickness, at a distance: the more readily, because certain men who had by some wonderful exercise of agility climbed up the external architecture to look in from the windows, knew Madame Defarge well, and acted as a telegraph between her and the crowd outside the building.’
    Satisfaction and impatience here are transmitted over ‘a distance’ through word-of-mouth and by passed on gestures. I’m fascinated by the idea that feeling itself is telegraphed.

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