Week 20: I have a bad feeling about this…

My history’s a little rusty, but even I know that a French aristocrat travelling into the centre of the French revolution isn’t the smartest plan ever devised. But I’m diving right in at the end of the instalment. The beginning has time flying again – the pacing of the story is rather stop-start isn‘t it? Another three years have gone by, and this time they’re thrown away in a line rather than the echoes of footsteps giving us information on deceased children along the way. The revolution is in full force by now, and after all the build up we can perhaps appreciate Dickens’s surprise at the aristocrats who never saw it coming – of course, the build up we have been experiencing is a condition of hindsight where the end has already occurred, and it is with that hindsight that Dickens perhaps treats the aristocracy unfairly in presuming them well-versed in foretelling their future. I particularly enjoyed the reference, when likening the aristocracy’s provocation of the mob to devil worship, to reading the lord prayer’s backwards – so that’s what they did before the Beatles started making records.

I was also intrigued by the continuing reduction of the aristocracy in Dickens’s narrative to the singular title/persona of Monseigneur. It has a dual effect: on the one hand it reinforces the anonymity of each nobleman and is therefore dismissive of their individuality, suggesting that who they are as a person is irrelevant to what they have done – or rather not done, en masse; a particularly significant judgment compared to Darnay‘s own beliefs that he will not be in danger from the mob because of his previous fairness and qualities as an individual. On the other hand, continuing to resurrect Monseigneur as a title for a multitude of characters is suggestive of the immortality of the class – kill one and another will take its place, a hierarchical hydra that shows the limit and futility of the fury and rage sweeping through Paris.

There are more doppelgangers and dual identities this week in Darnay and the Marquis St Evremond. Just as Dr Manette talked about himself in the third person, so too does Darnay try to justify himself from an outside perspective rather than coming to terms with himself. The idea that Darnay and the Marquis are two separate entities, their boundaries defined by the English Channel, results in a loss of self-awareness, further underlined by Darnay’s naïve optimism about the success and security of his trip abroad.

However, one simplification this week is that there are no longer any misconceptions about Stryver, whereas in his early appearances he maintained two personas as a great barrister and a ruthless manipulator resting on the laurels of Carton, now his hypocrisies and more odious characteristics are obvious to the central characters; interestingly this coincides with their greater appreciation of Carton’s true potential and worth; to know the one is to know the other.

It’s a shame that in arranging the contributions to this week’s edition that Dickens didn’t place “The Future” immediately after ATOTC as the ponderous, half-morbid, half-hopeful forecasting within fits in nicely with the tone of Darnay’s own musings over the fate awaiting him abroad and in book three. Instead, the instalment is followed by “North Italian Character” with its rather jarring, Stryver-like judgements early on that “The French never do so well as when their vessel of state is steered by a firm, a capable, and even a severe pilot”.

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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com).

8 thoughts on “Week 20: I have a bad feeling about this…

  1. I like this chapter. I think I mentioned at Gina’s page a while ago that this is one of the first times that Darnay starts to seem very realistic. He might not be very appealing, but there are a lot of real people out there like him–whose privledge has given them an overinflated sense of importance and whose well-meaning naivete leads them into serious danger. Recent but extreme examples include the kids from Berkeley who just happened to wander into Iran on a hiking trip. In the early part of the war in Afghanistan there was a Japanese student who traveled to Afghanistan with the purpose of spreading peace who ended up being killed. There’s a paralel to be found in Christopher McCandless, about whom the book Into the Wild was written. Less extreme examples abound–Charles is the archetypical young activist. He knows he wants to help, he feels he can help, but he doesn’t really have the street smarts to really understand what is going on. Philosophically, he’s got it. In reality, he hasn’t a clue.
    What I find very interesting about this chapter is that in an earlier chapter, Darnay mentions Carton as a problem of “Carelessness and Recklessness”. The modern viewer see’s Carton’s problem as more of a deep-seated psychological one. It is Darnay whose actions are here “Careless and Reckless”, endangering the family and friends around him as well as himself.
    I think Dickens did say something about wanting to write a novel where the characters’ actions drove the plot instead of dialog. There is an interesting dichotomy here in Darnay’s accusation towards Carton versus how both of them act that really underscores this purpose.

    • Interesting point, so Darnay’s naivity is a danger to himself and others. But are his actions a sign of his humility (compared to the other nobility) or arrogance in assuming that he can make everything better?

      There’s a more flattering view, which is that Darnay knows it’s not going to go well, but also knows Gabelle is effectively standing judgment in his place. If Darnay were to stay in England, would we think any better of him, or condemn him as a coward?

      • So, this is where Darnay becomes a multi-faceteed character, and I don’t think Dickens gets enough credit for Darnay’s character. Darnay has the arrogance of a person from privledge. He’s never been poor he’s never wanted for anything as far as we know. He’s self-assured, and nothing that’s happened to him that we know of has forced him to confront himself as anything but an unmitigated success. He had the resources to come to England and make something of himself. He had the idealism and resources to abandon his family. He had the good fortune not to get framed for treason by his uncle. He’s got a lovely wife and child. He’s got no past personal experience to inform him that his trip to France might end in failure. He’s got no reason to be unsure of himself and lacks the self-awareness to predict that he might have cause to be unsure of himself. (In this he is Carton’s opposite. Carton overanalyses himself, and his own harsh judgement on his own faults (which are never really elucidated) has paralyzed him in society and in his own mind. He can’t get out of his current situation because he doesn’t trust himself enough to try. )
        Back to Darnay, he’s got the humility to be ashamed of his family. He is humble in that he accepts at least partial responsibility for Gabelle and for the peasants under his charge. He’s not humble enough to admit he might need help from other people or any sort of plan in order to free Gabelle.
        The most likeley candiate that he could have consulted is Dr. Manette, who already knows about his past. He could ask the odious aristocrats at the bank what the situation regarding returning emigrees is. He could talk to Lorry in hypothetical terms. He’s not humble enough or brave enough to do any of these things which is why the more flattering situation isn’t all that flattering at all. He could have talked with Lucie in hypothetical terms, or even to Sydney Carton. (The last two would be out of character for him since he definitely has an idea of people whose ideas are to be respected and those two people are clearly below his own council in the pecking order)
        So, I would not call Darnay selfish for taking the course that he does, but I would definitely call him careless and reckless. He’s got aspects that are both humble and arrogant, but he doesn’t exemplify either. Like a real person, whether he’s arrogant or humble depends on the situation.
        Sorry for the tl;dr

  2. One more thing that I have to add is that Darnay isn’t so far from the aristocracy that he tried to abandon. His particular branch of the aristocracy was quite conservative and Dickens makes this clear. In one of his letters he mentions that he envisions the Evremonde family as being a family that is an anomalous throwback. By the late eighteenth century, the enlightenment had bred a generation of aristocrats and upper middle-class citizens who considered themselves very socially conscious, and whose ideals at times drove the official side of the Revolution.
    Darnay’s lack of thought regarding his role in uplifting the poor of France does not seem out of place with the ideas of many of his class of the age. I think the real crime of the generation of nobility that suffered through the revolution was one of too little too late and of not really understanding their own role in exacerbating the situation. Marie Antoinette, for example, was very charitable, but her indulgence in a replica peasant villiage at the petit triannon where she could pretend to be an idealized shepherdess belies her misunderstanding of the situation of her own people.

  3. I have also had a problem with stop-start, it makes the story hiccup along in a disconcerting way which at first I thought came from the serialization. However i think Dickens had the idea all along and left a clue on Dover beach in a paragraph which has no apparent reason to be there.
    “The beach was a desert of heaps of sea and stones tumbling wildly about, and the sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction.”
    Throughout the tale there are images of tides of footsteps and surging crowds ending last week in a sea of people. It seems to me that theTale is carried forward by a seriees of waves each followed by a trough of calm.
    By using the sea as a metaphor for time passing Dickens gives himself space in which to adjust his creatures relationship with one another and allow for moments of tension as a new wave comes along. His creatures are on a small boat being dragged through the sea by a Golden Thread of Fate.
    The sea likes destruction but it doesn’t really destroy anything, it only changes the state of whatever it breaks, in this case it is monseigneur, who as you say, is changed from a mass of stone into particles of sand which still retain the characteristics of their original form.
    The sea has no control of itself. it is governed by the lodestone of the moon, each molecule in it has to do as its neighbour does and can’t act individually. the stones can however change and convert themselves into something else, not quite the same as they were but containing the essence of their previous existence.
    May be a lttle fanciful but it does seem to work

    • Ooh Mr Booley, I like it! A very salient point (or should that be saline point?). The contrast of breakneck speed and moments of calm is complemented through the geographical juxtaposition of the calm world of the Manettes and the rush of crowds and events in Paris. there’s more I could say on time but to avoid spoilers I’ll remain silent for now, but I think there’s definitely mileage in the idea of time itself as a tool for showing unrest and change.

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