Grave Matters

I do not believe it. We have all smiled at innocence abroad but this one doesn’t just take the biscuit, he consumes the whole factory.

Having left his wife and child without telling where he was going, ignoring the intelligence and emigres at Tellsons, then persuading himself he is knight in shining armour our friend Darnay travels through Revolutionary France waving a letter giving his aristocratic name as if it were a passport. Shades of Larson’s deer and l’Oeil-de-Bouef.

Not only does he put one foot in the grave he seems determined to have two by exposing the fact that Lorry is at Tellsons despite Mr Lorry telling him that his mission was to ensure Tellsons was emptied of evidence which might be used to accuse others and he didn’t want to attract any revolutionary attention.

Quite why Dickens should want to portray Darnay in this way I find difficult to understand. Either Darnay is a high-minded Idealist believing that truth will shield him from danger and set Gabelle free, which Dickens would know by hindsight was not the way of bloody revolution, or he is driven by guilt. Guilt not only at leaving Gabelle to clear up his own mess, but guilt at not being honest with his wife and friends about his own history and going directly to confession.

The problem with such a confession is that it involves more than himself, as Dickens knows. In the Knitting instalment the name D’Everemonde is knitted into the register of those who are enemies of the people, ” ‘The chateau and all of the race, ‘ returned Defarge. ‘Extermination.’ ” Not only are Lorry and Darnay at risk, so are the two Lucies. Truth, Justice and honourable intentions can have their own hidden dangers and consequences.

There is a tension here. Is Darnay an noble, honourable man or is he guilty in not recognising his responsibilities. Could there be a hint of a struggle outside the context of the Tale?

When Darnay is escorted to La Force he has a strange conversation with Defarge and I have the impression that Defarge is not best pleased.

” ‘It is you, said Defarge in a low voice…” — ” ‘In the name ……La Guillotine, why did you come to France?’ ” — ” ‘A bad truth for you.’ ” The words Dickens uses are mild compared to those which must be rolling through Defarge’s head. Darnay has put him in a dilemma. He doesn’t want any harm to come to Manette’s family, at the same time he can’t go against the revolution he has taken part in much less against the Knitter. For the rest of the journey through the Parisian streets he plays a straight bat to all of Darnay’s questions refusing to help him in anyway and sticking close to the party line in case they are overheard and he will be at risk himself.

Like Dickens, Defarge is changing his sympathy not so much for the aristocrats but for the course that the revolution has taken. The overthrow of the Bastille hasn’t made any difference to the life of Sainte Antoine or any other part of France. The Legislative assembly is a talking shop full of mixed voices Jacobins, Girondistes, Feuillants, Herbists and a mass of political clubs each trying to push their own case and getting nowhere except when the country is threatened from outside. As a political animal can he sense that the whole country is a powder keg with no one in charge and that the name D’Everemonde could be one of the sparks  that will set off the barrel and so unleash a storm?

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7 thoughts on “Grave Matters

  1. I like the symmetry that is starting to appear. We begin the novel with springing a man from jail, and now his son-in-law is being put back in, the antithesis to “recalled to life”.

    Speaking of which, what about the book title? After “recalled to life” and “the golden thread” now we’re in the final section entitled “the track of a storm” (the dramatic quality of which is somewhat hindered by my immediate connotation of it with “tracks of my tears”…). So much of the story so far has been about anticipation, now we are being invited to watch not the event itself, but the aftermath, to journey, much as Darnay does, after the initial storm has brokend and to see the various examples of destruction and disorder left in its wake. It implies that the storm itself, as an act of nature/god, can be neither stopper, reasoned with nor explained, leaving the characters to pick up the pieces of waht’s left behind. There’s more of the imagery of telecommunications that Holly has been spotting – news of the revolution’s latest twists and turns – the seizing of property, the imprisonment of the king, reach Darnay’s ears in an unexpected and disorientating manner, news bulletins popping up with little information offered beyond the immediate headline, like those tickertape news feeds at the bottom of TV reports, or the sort of urgent messages that would be broadcast across a telegram.

    • Frivolous post alert: ‘Tracks of my tears’ doesn’t seem so far out of place here Pete. Reading the instalment (a bit late in the week!) with this mental soundtrack playing, I was pleased to note the significance of Smokey’s line ‘take a good look at my face’, as Darnay is kept hanging around in the prison reception, ‘detained to be imprinted on the memory of the chief and his subordinates’. This seems to have a partial symmetry with the revolutionaries taking close scrutiny of Dr Manette when he is in Defarge’s tower.
      Sorry! put it down to Friday afternoon madness . . .

      • Oh dear, I didn’t realise there was a frivolous post alert – in that case I must be setting it off quite regularly…tune in next week when I’ll consider the instalment in the framework of Adam Ant’s “Stand and Deliver”.

  2. On the subject of Charles, I never made the connection between him immediately contacting Lorry for aide when Lorry’s stated goal was to not attract attention to Telson’s. I’m willing to forgive him this–he didn’t have much of a choice. He could have involved Manette, but probably wants to keep Manette and Lucie as far away from the situation as possible. Presumably it would have been difficult to conceal his identity from Lucie had Darnay contacted Manette, and there is also Manette’s sanity to worry about. Lorry is a man he can trust who knows why he’s in France. Contacting him was probably the wisest choice, even though it could compromise what Lorry holds most dear–his business.

  3. There doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between Darnay being honorable and being guilty. He can be both. He can be both noble and incredibly naive–this is why he’s a realistic character. He can recognize that he’s guilty of shirking his duty in the past.
    He might not have intended negligence so much as he wanted to ignore the problem of his responsibility for properly administrating the land and serfs he didn’t want. He can be noble in wanting to address the problem now AND motivated partially by guilt. Not many actual people have a single motivation for anything that they do. It’s usually a combination of motivations, some selfish and some not.
    That Dickens was capable of creating a character with conflicting motivations need not be indicative of anything other than that Dickens was a good observer of humanity, and had some detatched awareness of the functioning of his own mind.

    • I quite agree, motivations are often complex and can’t be reduced to a single idea. However his departure for France is as JRS says ‘Foolhardy’ at the least. I accept that he is in a Catch 22 as far as his relationship with Manette is concerned but bolting away wasn’t the best way of getting out of it. His reasons for going are honourable enough but this part of the narrativedoesn’t really gel for me.
      Itis one of those nits I have to scratch and for the sake of my own sanity and maybe yours I’ll write the journey off as a disappointment and wait to see what storm is going to break over his head.

  4. I haven’t got much to add to the above comments except to say that clearly Darnay is on a foolhardy mission and is behaving in a foolhardy manner – most obviously in betraying Tellson’s confidence. What was striking this week was to read further on, to the other contributions to the week’s AYTR. Two of them contain more than passing reference to France: Adelaide Procter’s advice to women readers on how to dress commends the Frenchwoman’s “innate sense of colour” among other things, but more pertinently John Hollingshead’s “Trains of Thought” is partly about a train journey to Paris and back, thus making a nice then-and-now contrast between two trips – his just the previous month, and Darnay’s fictional one, only some 60-odd years earlier.
    Which leads one to wonder: would Dickens have told Hollingshead about his episode plans? Would Hollingshead have suggested that he might go to Paris by train and write about this to coincide with Darnay’s journey to Paris? Given that Hollingshead’s excursion was in mid-August, he must have had to write his piece against a fairly tight deadline. (And had he already written his other piece, “The Buckinghamshire Man”, which also features a train journey?)

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