Week 23: Butchery So Dreadful

As Joanne observed, Dickens has quite dramatically and forcefully re-orientated our sympathies. The revolutionaries are now ‘wicked and distracted’, having descended into murderous, lawless anarchy and abandoned the hard work of achieving deep-rooted socio-political transformation: ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death;—the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!’ Indeed, this trajectory closely follows contemporary and Victorian responses to the Revolution: celebration and sympathy at the initial events of 1789; horror and outrage at the September Massacres and the Terror. It’s interesting that Dickens focuses mainly on the Parisian ‘mob’, identifying them with a primordial savagery and violence apparently unjustified by, or springing from, their oppression.

Dickens instead facilely posits an idealised domesticity as the foundation of socio-political order, ‘civilised’ progress and individual and collective happiness. If only Madame Defarge were as gentle, kind and domesticated as Lucie, everything would be alright! It’s interesting how MD, like France, is devoured by burning rage and vengefulness, while Lucie and Dr Manette curiously lack any negative feelings towards the Ancien Regime which falsely imprisoned him. As Cathy Waters has observed (Dickens and the Politics of the Family [CUP, 1997], pp. 122–49 and 216–18), it is telling that the guillotine was always gendered as a woman – ‘her’ blood-thirstiness, pitilessness and relentlessness (like MD) epitomised all that was apparently opposed to femininity.

Dickens nervously espies rage, blood-lust and cannibalism bubbling beneath the ‘civilised’ surface of society; yet it feels that, as an author, he is enjoying unleashing these forces (just as we readers are enjoying devouring them?). As Cathy Waters puts it, ‘The narrator’s denunciation of the revolutionary mob remains haunted by a fascination with its frenzied forms of power’ (p. 149). I was particularly struck by the wonderful image of the French peasantry rising, almost zombie-like, from the Earth to overwhelm their (mis)rulers. Earlier, this image of monstrous cannibalism – of Cronus devouring his own children – was used to critique aristocratic misrule, but the aristocrats have slunk off and now the Revolution itself has become the child-gobbling monster. Do injustice, violence and oppression ‘inevitably’ give way to new forms of injustice, violence and oppression? This seems a very conservative perspective; and this intense fear of unleashing a primeval human violence, madness and depravity coloured Victorian anxieties about ‘the mob’ and revolutionary change (Dickens famously worked as a volunteer guardsman during the 1848 Chartist meeting).

There are echoes throughout this instalment of Barnaby Rudge, particularly the racialised depictions of the revolutionaries as savages and as animals, and, also, the sense that Dickens’s narrative voice is being overwhelmed by the historical events he depicts and by its rapid shifts of perspective. Dickens is trying to be everywhere and to convey everything, moving from the historical to the domestic. It is telling that it is Lucie, the faithful British wife and mother, the exemplar of domestic ideology and feminine virtue, who is caught up in the whirlwind of the revolutionaries’ wild dance, with its distinct air of sexual menace. Similarly, the Wood-Sawyer represents the extreme anti-domesticity of the Revolution, with its all-consuming blood lust which extends, horrifyingly, to entire families (like a fairy-tale monster that gobbles up children).

If the French peasantry are zombies then Dr. Manette has become a disembodied spirit, moving through the dangerous streets of Paris like a ministering angel. Manette has used the force of his will to overcome his trauma and has restored his manliness through hard work and purposefulness. This rather pat solution to Manette’s emotional and psychological trauma reflects the gospels of self-help, work and domesticity which are increasingly coming to the fore in the novel. In a rather silly moment, Dickens asserts, ‘No man better known than he, in Paris at that day’ – this being the era of St-Just, Danton and Robespierre! As with the unconvincing machinations by which the entire cast of characters is moved to Paris, Dickens deploys a similar narratalogical outlandishness in order to give Dr Manette the freedom to swan around Revolutionary Paris, unquestioned and unharassed. The Manettes represent superior British domesticity, which Dickens is offering as a panacea to the turmoil of Revolutionary anarchy. Lucie is ‘true to her duties’ – teaching her child, keeping the home tidy, looking ‘neat’ (whatever that means – presumably the Vengeance looks suitably untidy) – and loyally stands outside the prison every day. Perhaps the prison wall makes a better husband than damp squib Darnay.

After a dawdling climb to the acme of the Revolution, Dickens is now racing at breakneck pace through the historical events – the king and queen are dispatched in a few lines, almost as violently as in real life – and he breezily pushes the story forward by over 15 months. I was reminded of the novel’s breakneck opening, with the horses-and-carriages serving again as an apt metaphor for the narrative’s acceleratory transitions. Also, am I pushing it too much to see in the guillotine a metaphor not only for the chopping up of the weekly (and monthly) instalments, but also for the rapidity of the storytelling? Like the guillotine ‘shaving’ dozens of victims in as many minutes, Dickens seems to be dispatching the story with an equal ferocity and rapacity.


6 thoughts on “Week 23: Butchery So Dreadful

  1. One imagines that poor Little Lucie is going to be pretty scarred by that woodcutter later in life. Seeing her mother threatened like that would have been terribly traumatic. I’m also not sure that the point of the story is that Madame Defarge ought to be like Lucie. I think Dickens has made it reasonably clear that Lucie is the exception and not the rule. I think that the point here is that Lucie had support around her, Miss Pross, Lorry, Her mother at first, which allowed her to act as a positive force within the tragedy of her family. She is good natured, but she’s been allowed to be and I think Dickens realizes that his domestic ideal isn’t applicable in all situations. Lucie can overcome the tragedy of her father’s imprisonment and act as a stabilitzing force for him because she was fortunate enough to have people who could support her. She didn’t have to “cling to revenge.” In this way, Lucie didn’t “lift herself up by her bootstraps” and overcome her family’s ordeal by will alone. I find the Victorian self-help angle interesting but only partially applicable true in this paritcular example.

    • Many thanks for this post, Rokujolady – insightful as ever. Thinking about Lucie Junior’s experience with the wood cutter got me thinking about Great Expectations, Dickens’s next serialisaed novel in AYR, with its opening scene of a small child terrorised by a half-crazed man.

      Lucie is an exception, certainly, but I think that indicates that she is an ideal to which women can (should?) aspire. Her ‘type’ certainly occurs throughout Dickens’s fiction. I think it’s really interesting how, throughout his novels, Dickens presents failures of domesticity (and even his own failure, which he publicised on the front page of Household Words) and yet he keeps returning to it as an ideal of social organisation. As much as Dickens loved his ideals, he loved transgressing them even more! I’m not sure if I really see Lucie as a three-dimensional character with her own motivation and psychology. She seems more like a stock melodramatic ‘type’ to me: the dutiful, faithful, long-suffering daughter. It’s fascinating though to imagine Lucie’s psychology, motivation and back-story.

  2. There’s definitely a sense now of plot dictating the story rather than character; I think someone mentioned before that Dickens wanted to make this story more about plot, but in previous instalments – especially the English scenes – it has felt very much like typical Dickens with the interplay of characters and caricatures. But now suddenly everything feels very focussed and directed; we seem to have lost Stryver along the way and even though we’ve been told Jerry is in France, we’ve yet to see him. Dickens has spent the time building these characters up in subplots only to now apparently drop them as the main plot comes into full effect.

    The role of femininity in all of this is a thorny one; at the risk of drawing criticism, Lucie’s maternal shows are tempered by her continued dragging of her child to outside the prison, more for Darnay’s benefit than little Lucie, who as Rokujolady notes must be terrified of the wood-cutter. Madame Defarge pops up briefly, but there’s not the same conflict that we saw on their last meeting; instead, interestingly, Dickens pushes her character back to calm and barely betraying emotion this week, which is a little disconcerting after all the hell-fire we’ve been witnessing from her recently. As Lucie gets agitated, Madame seems calmer. Incidentally, and tentatively, for fear of going down the Lady Macbeth route, how many children had Madame Defarge? That is to say, is there a significance in Dickens’s decision not to give the Defarges any children?

    And going back to that wood-cutter a moment, I’ve yet to see a purpose why the wood-cutter should be the road-mender we’ve met previously. It seems as though in portraying the revolution Dickens is keen to make it about a handful of individuals as much as a faceless mass. Hence not only does the road-mender keep popping up, but the Defarges too go on from their early involvement with the Manettes to be key figures continually crossing paths with them, sometimes by coincidence as much as design. By focusing on these individuals at various points through the revolution it allows Dickens to show the way in which they are changing and hence the personal impact of the national upheavals.

    • Yes this is more plot than story, but it does give time for the reader to sit back and contemplate just what has happened and why.
      What better way to lure Darnay back to France than appeal to his (mistaken?) sense of duty. Having got him there give him the run around and delay his journey whist letting Lucie know and tempt her to follow.
      Nothing about the meetings between the Defarges and the Darnay family is coincidental, they have lured their victims in and are hanging on to them. It was no accident that Defarge was at the barrier when Darnay arrived, and we can be sure Defarge was waiting for Manette when he came to the tribunal at the head of a crowd. Knowing his mission it was sure that he would turn up there, and can we doubt who was responsible for the delay in releasing Darnay from prison despite Manette’s impeccable Republican credentials having been a Bastille prisoner for eighteen years. The Defarges have the Evermond name registered in knitting and they won’t let him go.
      Nowhere does Dickens overtly tell us but, as any good author should, he drags us to the edge of our seat shouting, as in a pantomime, “Look behind you!”
      There are quite a few minor characters to account for but all would have a reason for being there. A heavy weight bruiser would be useful in a scrap, a loyal and belligerent Sea Dragon has a fallback position to look out for both Lucies should it be necessary and a wood sawyer to keep tabs on Lucie as she stands in an alley.
      The road-mender has been involved in a lot of the story in various disguises. It was he who spotted Gaspard under D’Evremont’s carriage, he is introduced as Jaques Four to the conspirators and is tutored by Defarge. As Jaques Four he exchanges glances with Gaspard when he is captured and gives directions to the Sanscullottes who burns the chateau. Now he is in Paris to witness the finale.
      Meantime what about Carton, where will he fit in and what about Basard, he has turned coat before might he do it again. Speculations no doubt but isn’t that what Dickens intended, hook us all onto a golden thread, push our buttons and ring our bells. Brilliant!

      • Many thanks for these great insights, Mr Booley. I hadn’t noticed how the Defarges are everywhere, taking part in every event and almost guiding events with the quiet forcefulness embodied by MD. I was reminded of the character Hugh in Barnaby Rudge, an almost animalistic ostler who is described, during the novel’s culminating riots, as being ‘here, and there, and everywhere – always foremost – always active’ (p. 560, Penguin edn.). Also, perhaps MD’s knitting is akin to a spider’s web, with the Defarges drawing in their victims? The novel certainly abounds in images of webs, threads, traps, imprisonment and blood-sucking monsters.

    • Many thanks for this, Pete. Yes, it does feel that, in this instalment, History-as-plot takes over the lesser, more ‘PIckwickian’ plots that have been at the forefront of the novel. As one of THE defining moments of modern History (even of modernity itself), the French Revolution exerts a powerful, gravitational force, sucking in Dickens’s story. I think the rapid shifts of perspective in this instalment, and the sense that the characters have been subsumed by historical events, shows how even Dickens’s narratological powers are dominated by the gravitational pull of the Revolution.

      I love the idea that Lucie and MD are somehow symbiotically linked as opposites: one gets agitated and the other grows calmer, which made me think of their placing on the monthly wrapper illustration. I think MD’s lack of children must be significant, although I’m not quite sure what Dickens may be saying. Her childlessness perhaps ties in with the images of the Revolution and the Guillotine as murderous mothers.

      I also love your observation about Dickens trying to make this epoch defining moment of History more manageable by re-presenting a small circle of individuals caught up in it.

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