Week 26 The Fruitiness of Man?

Months and months ago, back when we first started this blog, there was some debate as to the rules of how we should proceed.  With such a famous novel even those who hadn’t read it before had some awareness as to plot or character or oft-repeated quotes – could we discuss these things as we went? Could we even refer to Lucie as “Lucie” and not Miss Manette given that Dickens didn’t get round to mentioning her first name for what seemed like an age? It was decided that no, we could not, there should be no spoilers. And fair enough, we don’t want to ruin anyone’s experience of reading the novel. But when reading this instalment it occurred to me, that such rules have meant that we have had to read against the grain to an extent and curtail our discussion of what seems to have been a vital part of the text. Note, this isn’t a criticism – I absolutely see the necessity of the rule – but this is a novel that is constantly looking to the future, hinting at a known or unknown something just around the corner.  The echoing footsteps are back in this part and back in force. Carton’s wanderings around Paris clearly point to something, even if we do not yet know exactly what that something is.

The clues have been there all along, I think, even if we do not yet know quite how to interpret them. Is Dickens suggesting something of this kind through Mr Lorry’s idea of the cyclical pattern of life in this part?:

‘[A]s I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now, by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep, of my pretty young  mother (and I so old!), and by many associations of the days when what we call the World was not so real with me, and my faults were not confirmed in me’.

Beginnings and endings are not so different. Life is a circle. This fits with the Bible passage that haunts Carton on his wanderings:

‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were
dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die’.

It also seems go well with the poem that follows on from this instalment, entitled ‘Life’.

LIFE is a tree, and we and all mankind
Are but the tender germ or fruit thereon.
Some born to blossom, some to fade away,
Some to endure the end by furthest stay.

[…] Yet, mortal, hear,
And chiefly note, O man, the fruit shall die
Whilst thou endure the vast eternity.

Perhaps this is why, despite the rather creepy paragraph regarding eyes in the courtroom, and ghoulish guillotine-barber timekeeping, there seemed to be something hopeful about this instalment for me, and the image that sticks with me is that of Carton helping the small girl across the mud and asking her for a kiss.

Post Script: On a random note, the mention of Sydney’s white coat seems rather odd – could this be a reference to Fielding’s Tom Jones?

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20 thoughts on “Week 26 The Fruitiness of Man?

  1. I’ll get back to you on the white coat as I’m halfway through an enquiry on another white-clad figure in Dickens (oh the exciting lives we lead!). In the meantime, there are quite a few other points that grabbed my attention this week, not least the sudden introduction of Carton’s father. He is first mentioned in passing when Carton talks in veneration of Lorry, and comparing him to his father remarks “You are free from that misfortune, however”. The intrigue then continues when he goes on to talk of following his father’s body to the grave, his mother already dead (a possible Pip prototype perhaps? [alliteration alert]). Then there’s another intriguing piece of Carton pre-history when the wood-sawyer/road-mender/Jacques-four(delete as applicable) mistakes him for a Frenchman due to his speaking like a native, to which Carton responds “I am an old student here”, which is certainly the first we’ve heard of it. All in all, there’s a hell of a lot we don’t know about Sydney, and this got me thinking about his untold story, and the potential for “A Prequel of Two Cities” focusing on how Carton has become the man he is, after being a youth of such promise.

    Incidentally, staying with Carton for a moment longer, did anyone pick up on the moment when he calls himself a “vagabond” in relation to his tendency to wander the streets at night? Dickens said the same of himself in May of the following year in “Shy Neighbourhoods”, and it’s interesting to see the character mimicking the habits of his creator here: is that as far as the autobiographical aspect of Carton’s persona goes?

    Anyway, enough of Carton, because by the end of the chapter the focus is on Darnay who’s in court yet again (isn’t this the third time now? He needs a new lawyer…) and yet another shock twist – Manette is the third accuser! Suddenly Defarge’s little trip in the Bastille makes a bit more sense, and it’s great how everything then leads up to the letter which – typical – is postponed until next week. Another cliff-hanger, and another week of being good and not reading ahead even though the book is sitting there on my shelf within reach as we speak…sigh,

    • Carton’s being an old student in Paris was mentioned waaaaay back when he was drinking with Striver. But it is hard to remember back that far, at this point.

      I also was struck by the mention of Sydney’s father here. (Wrote an article touching on it once, but I won’t post the link now — too spoilerish. Maybe later)

      • Ah, you’re right. Off to the dunce’s corner for me then. Now, the question is, if I were reading this as a book, and not over such an extended period of time, would I have remembered that Carton had said that, or would I have missed that detail along with the other finer points we’ve been focusing on each week?

    • My thoughts have recently been going to Dickens paralleling some of his more negative characters. Particularly I’ve been seeing Scrooge as an alter-ego of Dickens (I feel torn with these thoughts though because of the innate interest in seeing a creator in his works and the repulsion I feel for doing so). It would seem to me that the writer is able to let himself off the hook here in some respects by having these apparently unfeeling misers hearts grow three sizes (as in the Grinch) by the end of the story. I hate to pigeon-hole Dickens here, but I can’t help feeling that Carton is in some way part Dickens, or maybe, someone Dickens would like to play at being, and he reconciles himself with this by using Carton as the Jesus-figure…I can say no more without spoiling. But it is a completely valid point that this novel is very forward thinking as Hazel mentioned. We can of course see shades of this in the “whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

  2. Okay, so I didn’t get much further with investigations into white coats, but my inital impression was that its importance was in making Carton “look very pale” in the light of the fire. When you add this to the resurrection quote, and his wandering about Paris, it characterises him as a restless spirit, distanced from everything around him (which we’ve known for some time). He does not notice his foot is still upon a burning log – he is insensitive to the immediate physical sensations around him, and has become somewhat disembodied. While Lorry will be missed by many, Carton has failed to make an impression upon the world and when he leaves it will do so with little impact: he is the man who is not there.

    • Also, he is in the same city as Lucie but will not see her – he wanders in her footsteps, occupying the same space as her but without any tangible contact: all in all it’s getting a bit “sixth sense”.

    • I wondered if it was meant to represent his purity as it does with Tom Jones, who while being a bit of a scalliwag is underneath the representative of goodness. but the idea of it being indicative of his ghostliness makes sense.

      • No reason why it can’t be both (diplomacy being my middle name and all) – he could be a pure or benevolent spirit (I’ve got images of the ghost of christmas past in my head). Just to go post-watershed for a moment, for purity can we also read virginity? Carton is supposed to be this lost soul, but how lost is he? Has he ever been with someone – however briefly – or is he utterly distanced from humanity?

  3. I figure that given Sydney Carton’s past as a wastrel with low friends and habits that he can’t bring himself to escape that he’s not physically pure. I never thought of the pallor as indicating ghostliness but I think you might be right. It’s interesting that he reminds Lorry of a prisoner, perhaps imprisoned by his mental state and his nature. It’s also perhaps an indication that he’s not physically in good health–he mentions to Lucie that his lifestyle isn’t conducive to health in “the Fellow of No Delicacy”.
    I also think that his assessment of himself as a person who has done nothing to win himself a place in anyone’s regard might not be actually true, but might be a motivation for whatever he is going to do.

    • I agree that Carton’s self-assessment is incorrect, although it is shared by many other characters in the novel, so you can see how he would continue to believe it. Frequently we are told how others see little in him, while all the time we as readers are prompted to feel differently. There’s definitely potential for exploring the idea of depression in Carton, as he insists on believing the worst of himself. He is bright and clearly has a kind heart, but by refusing to utlise this he is also self-destructive, he makes his own prison, which, as you point out, ties in to Lorry’s comparison of him to a prisoner. For whatever reason, Carton is trapped in this life he has made for himself and cannot seem to break free from the pattern. Dressed all in white, he just needs to carry long chains “forged in life” to complete the picture.

      • It is interesting that it is at this point when he seems almost disembodied, as you say, and to be letting go of this world and humanity, that he seems in a way most connected to it – the mention of his father and his request that the little girl kiss him – he is both grounded and ethereal in this chapter.

  4. Related to all this (I wasn’t sure whose comment I should reply to, so I’m just making this a general reply 🙂 ), I’m pretty sure Dickens spends more time describing Sydney’s physical appearance here than ever before. Until now, we’ve only heard that he looks like Darnay — now we read about his clothes and his pallor and his “naturally handsome features.” As if — at the same time he’s losing touch with the physical world — he’s finally gaining more of a physical presence AND becoming a fully defined person in his own right. Fascinating!

    • Good point. Is it also that previously Dickens didn’t want us to pay too much attention to Carton, whereas now he wants to ensure we take the time to focus on him? Or is it actually the case where Dickens himself is guilty of rushing past Carton’s introduction and now feels the imperative to establish his image more firmly in the reader’s imagination? I’d like to think the former in this instance.

  5. I think Carton is presented as a ‘fallen’ man by his affinity for water/ and the hints at the death associated with the desperate bridge jumping prostitute/ fallen woman. Compare his lingering by the stream, ‘watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless until the stream absorbed it, and carried it out to the sea. – “Like me!”‘, to Martha’s ‘Oh the river, the river’ scene in David Copperfield.

    • How interesting to think of the fallen man, as opposed to woman. For women, their fall was often defined in sexual terms – the poor needlewoman, however destitute, always had her morality intact, but the prostitute, or deceived lover, was somehow damaged goods. There’s another interesting commentary on their bridge jumping in “Wapping Workhouse” (ATYR 18 February 1860), where Dickens visits “Mister Baker’s Trap”:

      ” ‘A common place for suicide,’ said I, looking down at the locks.
      ‘Sue?’ returned the ghost, with a stare. ‘Yes! And Poll. Likewise Emily. And Nancy. And Jane;’ he sucked the iron between each name; ‘and all the bileing. Ketches off their bonnets or shorls, takes a run, and headers down here, they doos. Always a headerin’ down here, they is. Like one o’clock.
      ‘And at about that hour of the morning, I suppose?’
      ‘Ah!’ said the apparition. ‘They an’t partickler. Two ’ull do for them. Three. All times o’ night. On’y mind you!’ Here the apparition rested his profile on the bar, and gurgled in a sarcastic manner. ‘There must be somebody comin’. They don’t go a headerin’ down here, wen there an’t no Bobby nor gen’ral Cove, fur to hear the splash.’
      According to my interpretation of these words, I was myself a General Cove, or member of the miscellaneous public. In which modest character I remarked:
      ‘They are often taken out, are they, and restored?’
      ‘I dunno about restored,’ said the apparition, who, for some occult reason, very much objected to that word; ‘they’re carried into the werkiss and put into a ’ot bath, and brought round. But I dunno about restored,’ said the apparition; ‘blow that!’ — and vanished.”

      So is Carton there, like the women, because he wants to be saved, to be restored? And if he is fallen, what is the root of his moral decline?

      • I don’t think Carton is suicidal. I think if he simply wanted to off himself there was nothing to stop him from doing it a long time ago. We’ve seen that he’s slightly more religious than the other characters seem to be–in his discussion with Darnay where he asks if Darnay will treat him as a friend, he mentions something about how he hopes that his inability to forget what he’s done when he’s drunk will be taken into account when all days are finished for him and then tells Darnay that he’s not going to preach!
        His conversation with Lorry and the fact that he’s still around after being such an epic failure in life and love, and having been apparently drowning in helpless self loathing for ~12 years now indicates that even he does not entirely believe his own bleak portrait of himself.
        I like to think of this chapter not as a deliberation on suicide or even being symbolic of suicide or falling from grace. I think it’s clear that Carton has already fallen from grace, but as Gina has pointed out, this chapter is of resurrection and hope. If anything, Carton finds peace in this chapter and finds resolve and surety, even if part of that resolve involves, like the eddy struggling against the current and then flowing out to sea, giving in and letting go of both his past disappointments and future dreams.

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