There are times when reading that a particlar word or phrase sets one scratching at one’s head as if trying to get rid of those little crestures who live in the comfort of hair. These nits are often dismissed as we rationalise and  assume that the words mean what we want them to be so that we can carry on with the narrative.

There have been a few of these for me as I have made my way through the Tale. Looking back over the last chapter I have come across two examples which I would like to share (the words I mean, not the nits, so rest easy).

“The shining Bull’s Eye of the Court was gone, …”

Dickens has used the Bull’s Eye before and I took it as a metaphor reprenting the aristocracy seeing in my head a huge black bull staring down at the peasantry, using its power of presence to frighten and oppress the poor. Going through Carlyle’s History to broaden my background knowledge to the story  the phrase ‘Oeil-de-Boeuf” is used as an expression not of the aristocracy as a whole but the immediate circle surrounding the King, in other words, the Government. The soubriquet comes from the octagonal room, with a small oval window, where the members met.

Translating Oeil-de-Boeuf as Bull’s Eye adds a slightly different dimension to the phrase. In English there are three different interpretations, that which I assumed as referring to a bull, a bulls eye as in a window pane and bullseye as in a target. A bulls eye window would suggest a distorted, narrow view of the world which was true of the Ancien Regime. Bullseye as a target might suggest that Dickens considered the Government was ripe for overthrow and a new (parliamentary?)system should have replaced it. Did Dickens use these words as a code for all three meanings? Was he saying in effect that a narrow minded government needed to be overthrown by what ever means?

In the same paragraph he goes on ” … never been a good eye to see with – had long had the mote in it of Lucifer’s pride, Sardanapalus’s luxury and a mole’s blindness …” Obviously the eye is distainful and proud, not a much as Lucifer but enough to make it unacceptable. Sardanapalus  is surely one of those legendary  monarchs from the mid-East or Mediterranean  whose wealth made luxury the norm whist we all understand a mole’s blindness. In a nutshell the eye belongs to a pleasure seeking, overweening, blind set of people who have over time accepted their luxuries as of right.

These interpretations give rise to a great amount of scratching.

Beside the biblical connotation of  motes and beams, Lucifer’s pride lead to his downfall and expulsion from heaven. Sardanapalus  was reputed to be the last king of Assyria and fabulously wealthy. He was also debauched in every concievable way. When his kingdom was about to fall he built a huge pyre and burned all his concubines and catamites along with his whole wealth and possessions before immolating himself. (Thank you Google.) Not only is the mole blind it is destructive causing problems for toilers of the soil. All of which puts a more powerful spin on what Dickens is conveying. The Ancien Regime was not only blind but depraved and debauched and cast out by the hand of God, or am I reading too much into it.

Even now I have the desire to scratch, so I’ll close before I contaminate the keys.


4 thoughts on “Nits

  1. In addition to being the circle in a window pane, a bull’s eye could also refer to a lens with a series of concentric rings such as would be used to focus light in a lighthouse or lantern. So the fact that Dickens refers here to a shining bull’s eye, when put in context both of the chapter title, puts me in mind of the lighthouse. the sentence continues “The shining bull’s eye of the court was gone, or it would have been the mark for a hurricane of national bullets”; now adimittedly, while bullets calls to mind the target, the use of hurricane again brings us back to the lighthouse connotation of bull’s eye.

  2. I really enjoyed your scratching away at the surface of the bull’s eye to reveal all these layers of significance Mr B. Reading in instalments certainly gives scope for key images of the instalment to take on, almost, a life of their own. My nit of this week is Tellson’s anticipating the trading news screens at Canary Wharf, or even twitter, in their concise news feed: ‘Tellson’s sometimes wrote the latest news out in a line or so and posted it in the Bank windows, for all who ran through Temple Bar to read’. I still have last week’s human telegraph (communicating Madame Defarge’s responses) in mind, so this struck me as another instance of prescient information technology. Is this a communications revolution in action?

  3. Walker in his Dictionary (1848) defines telegraph as “An instrument that answers the end of writing by conveying intelligence to a distance through the means of signals.”
    Louis Braille had developed his system of communicating in form of binary code in the 1830’s, Sam Morse et al produced the telegraph in 1836 and Broca was studying the human speech centre during the fifties and sixties. Dickens himself was facinated by the development os print sorting by mechanical means (HHW 1851)
    The crowd’s telegraph would appear to be an extention of these and I would agree that your examples are an anticipation of IT. However I am not sure about ‘the end of writing’

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