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.