Save him now, my doctor, save him!

Well that was a little intense.

The title of the third book informed us that we would be following the track of a storm, and I figured that storm was the revolution. Maybe it still is, but this week we were told of a different tempest. When Manette’s unfortunate, and terribly wronged, patient, finally dies, he sees her in her peaceful state and notes ‘It was as if the wind and rain had lulled at last, after a long and fearful storm.’ This is not a national revolution, but a personal case of one woman, and yet this long and fearful storm has proven at last to have left great devastation in its wake. Manette’s imprisonment, Lucie’s fatherless childhood, and now everything that falls on Darnay, all stems from this one moment.

The fact that this week’s instalment launches straight into the letter, told from the first perspective, with no preamble or explanation, is rather telling of where we are at with this story: anyone reading this now is assumed to have been following everything beforehand, and to have been eagerly awaiting this week’s instalment with the last one still fresh in their mind: arrogant, Mr Dickens, but accurate.  And he uses that familiarity to his advantage, making the most of the weekly structure by using this week’s instalment to tell what is effectively a self-contained short-story, although of course it is clear to see the ramifications of the events here to the larger narrative we have been following all these weeks. It’s also telling how France and Paris occur in the succeeding two articles, either with a passing nod in  Wilkie Collins’s ‘Small Shot: Cooks at College’ in the comparison of English and French food, or intrinsically as in ‘Paris on Rome’: is Dickens encouraging these echoes (and is that why they get to be second and third in the issue?); are other writers capitalising on the story and marketing articles that they hope the editor will favour; or, are they being influenced by the sweep of the story as it gallops towards its end?

At the risk of looking like an idiot, I’ll go ahead and confess that I found the twin brother’s a little confusing to differentiate: and struggled to work out which one is Darnay’s dad and who killed the girl‘s brother and so on. I went back a few weeks to re-read Darnay’s meeting with his uncle, and he refers to him as his father’s ‘joint-successor’, so I’m assuming that makes Darnay’s father the elder brother, and his uncle the younger (i.e. the one who tried to seize the girl and killed her brother, then years later runs over a child and gets murdered by an angry revolutionary). But I’m still not 100% convinced I got that right. Is that me being tired and not paying attention, or is it a consequence of Dickens’s decision  to use first-person for this week’s instalment? It adds a great deal to the narrative, but unfortunately it disallows Dickens from referring back and saying ‘you know, the one we’ve met already who got killed by Jacques’.

So, no outright references back to past weeks, but I was struck by a moment of déjà vu when the servant calls upon Dr Manette in ‘the room where I sat with my wife’: he intrudes upon the domestic scene just as the revolutionary soldiers intruded (or will intrude – prequels can be so confusing) to take Darnay into prison again. In each case we get this sense of the cosy and personal lives of these inoffensive people being disrupted by the machinations and injustice of the outside world, and it makes us revisit the previous/later moment and realise how doubly painful it must be for Manette not only to see his attempts to save Darnay thwarted, but also to relive that moment of his own incarceration.

Now, as much as I’m loving this story, and admire Dickens, I must point out one error, and I feel it’s a whopper: in this instalment the young Manette meets the even younger Darnay and his mother, and notes that they are innocent and trying to make amends, and this is a mistake. I can see why it’s in there, clearly Dickens as a writer wants us as the reader to still sympathise with Charles Darnay despite the wickedness of his family, but the mistake is in including this within Manette’s letter, because by implication that means Manette also recognises Darnay’s innocence, which then conflicts with his judgment just a few paragraphs later that all the house of Evremonde and all their descendants should be denounced. Now you could argue that Manette, imprisoned and alone in the bastille, is not thinking clearly, but he states specifically: ‘I solemnly declare that I am at this time in the possession of my right mind’. So this leaves two options – 1, Manette is a monster consumed with rage and vowing bloodshed upon an innocent as a consequence of his own suffering (a male precursor to the Vengance) , or 2, Manette is  justified in calling for the death of all Evremondes, and Charles Darnay’s genetics define him as the monster, and he deserves to die. Now both these options provide a wealth of opportunity for interesting readings of the story, but neither of them, I think, are what Dickens meant to achieve. No, pure and simple, it’s a mistake. Better if in the subsequent chapter Darnay himself had recalled his mother’s attempts at retribution, so as to leave the young and angry Manette ignorant of his future son-in-law and the promise for redemption he offers.

But let’s put things in perspective; after all who cares if a player drops the ball if he then goes on to win the game? Taken as a whole this is a gripping instalment, with great villains that make you shake the book (or laptop) in rage (a reaction previously reserved for Mr Pecksniff). And the tension maintained throughout the letter is fantastic, as is the final conclusion telling of its impact, with Madame Defarge’s triumph at Darnay’s fall (and how wonderful that she manages to do it so coolly, murmuring rather than shouting, and without succumbing to the ‘mwah-ha-ha’ that lesser villains might be tempted to do). The Defarges are sharpening the guillotine’s blade while Carton lurks in the background playing imaginary poker; Darnay has 24 hours left to live; Manette, his previous saviour, is to blame; Lucie is left in a position where her father has condemned her husband to die; and – worst of all – I HAVE TO WAIT A WHOLE WEEK BEFORE READING THE NEXT PART!!!

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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).

14 thoughts on “Save him now, my doctor, save him!

  1. I never noticed that mistake before. One could think that in Dr. Manette’s greif and misery, at his own imprisonment, he could knowingly condemn the innocent child of Evremonde. Afterall, he himself has an innocent child who is rendered fatherless by the family. I think that in such a situation of desperation, he does not need to be either a monster or insane to do this. However, I do agree with you that it’s probably a mistake.

    • You’re right of course that the circumstances explain the denouncement (unsettling as it is), prompting an otherwise gentle man to make such an aggressive statement, and how at odds it is with his character in the rest of the book. Two things strike me about this, the first being how this is the first time we have heard Manette express anger at those who imprisoned him – even before Darnay revealed his true identity to his father-in-law, we never saw Manette cursing the aristocracy, and there is nothing to tell us of his response to the death of Darnay’s uncle.

      The second thing is that perhaps this is Dickens showing the full power of the revolution and its causes. Madame Defarge has seemed fairly formidable from the start, so seeing her act so boldly and bloodily is not such a shock. But to show that even Manette, when subjected to the injustices felt throughout France, can be prompted to that same pitch of anger, is a fairly compelling argument for how so many flocked to the revolution when it broke.

      • I think this is another example of Dickens sacrificing psychological realism to the demands of his plot (which isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing). I always thought it was odd that Doctor Manette was apparently so sanguine towards his oppressors – I think most people would be a teensy bit cross about being falsely imprisoned for most of their lives.

        It’s fascinating how, after weeks of repeatedly condemning the ‘wicked’ revolutionaries for their animalistic anarchy, Dickens pushes the pendulum back, reproducing the novel’s earlier anti-aristocratic tone. The stand-alone narrative is wonderfully melodramatic; lots of melodramas were about ‘pure’, innocent girls seduced and abandoned by wicked aristocrats who were duly punished by Fate.

        Also, at the risk of straining credulity (who, me?!), Doctor Manette has already told us about his fantasies of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ children, attending him in his misery and sacrificing their lives to his redemption and renewal. The ‘children’ that failed in that purpose were rubbed out by Manette; so, in a sense, Manette has already condemned some of his (phantasmic) ‘innocent children’. Once again, I am reminded of the Guillotine as the symbol of a monstrous, devouring Parent.

      • Yeah, I also noticed the swing back to pro-revolution this week – although the ending is anti-revolution. Make your mind up Charlie…

        I love the melodrama angle you suggest. It made me wonder about the significance of the twin brothers – why not just one evil aristocrat who is both father to Darnay AND vile seducer/peasant killer? The introduction of identical twins for no apparent reason (unless there’s a further plot development coming) suggests Dickens is including the uncanny for its own sake: a little slice of gothic melodrama.

  2. I love the excesses of this instalment. It’s interesting that it is positioned next to a Collins piece in the issue, as it anticipates the ‘Woman in White’ and ‘Moonstone’, with this inserted fragment of original testimony that reshapes the plot. I liked Pete’s point that the publication of this as a single instalment allows it, in a way, to stand alone as a gripping short story. It would be interesting to check whether in Collins’s sensation novels, published in All the Year Round, there is a similar dividing up of the different voices by instalment so that they work on their own. Here, all the references to the mechanics of Manette’s writing in soot and blood on scraps of paper that are at risk of being removed, and his fear of being taken into the total darkness of the underground cells are sensation devices (prior to what is usually called the ‘decade of sensation’, the 1860s). So are the main plots of family secrecy, sexual predation, vengeance, and the villainous incarceration of innocent people. Perhaps because of the way we’re reading the novel, I was particularly struck by Manette as a serial writer, who breaks of at key points: ‘Where I make the broken marks that follow here, I leave off for the time, and put my paper in its hiding place. *********’ Given our growing desperation to read the next instalment – A WHOLE WEEK away – does this marking of Manette’s struggle to write his narrative create a particular sympathy for him in the serial reader I wonder?

    • Many thanks for these wonderful insights, Holly. It’s fascinating how TOTC reads as a sensation novel when contextualised alongside Collins and other authors in AYR. What’s been interesting us in the DJO office is that the serial fiction in AYR is markedly different from that in Household Words in its preoccupation with the upper strata of society. Basically, various pieces of serial fiction by Edmund Yates, Percy Fitzgerald, Eleanor Trollope and Amelia Blandford Edwards, among others, deals almost exclusively with the familial, sexual, and financial travails of the upper classes. HW, on the other hand, seems to have featured much more ‘social condition’ fiction, focusing on working people (lot of ‘e-by-gum Northern accents!). Given the broad hostility of TOTC towards the aristocracy, it’s interesting that Dickens’s journal would go on to offer a pretty untroubled, almost reverential, portrayal of this class later in the decade. Was Dickens the radical losing his bite as he got older, perhaps? Our Mutual Friend, coming bang in the middle of the decade, has been read as curiously positive about the upper classes (in the figure of the redeemed wastrel Eugene, who is prefigured by Sidney Carton, wouldn’t you say?).

    • I hadn’t thought about the breaks in that way! There is another aspect here where the serial format plays a part in this week’s instalment, which is that the space constraints of a weekly format give Dickens the choice either to spread the story of Manette’s imprisonment over two weeks (which runs the risk of losing an audience with a prolonged step away into the past) or to condense them into one, thus resulting in what is a pretty action-packed instalment. Consider some of the earlier week’s offerings where we’ve sat in Manette’s garden or witnessed Stryver and Lorry having a chat and in contrast there is a much higher density of events in this instalment, emphasising in turn its potential as a sensation tale.

  3. I for one, do not think you look like an idiot for trying to dissect which brother is which (or at least, if you are, than I am one too). I found myself backtracking to figure this out as well, but I somehow came out with the alternate ending and switched the brothers. I think perhaps I came to that conclusion because of the descriptions of the stares that the younger brother gives Mannette, and that he was more cordial in the way he spoke to Manette…being that those factors may have made him Darnay’s father. But, now that I look back at it again…I’m still confused as to who’s who. I feel like it’s that “Who’s on First” bit. As for the mistake, that is an absolutely fascinating catch! In thinking about the string of “well if this happened, then that means this other thing can’t happen, etc. etc.” it makes me again wonder who the real “villains” are here. I’m coming to the conclusions that there aren’t really any, just shades of gray.

    • That’s fine with me, so long as it’s not fifty shades (I was somewhat disturbed yesterday to see “50 Shades of Mr Darcy” in the new releases at the local bookshop – the mind boggles…). But yes, I think there is something to be said for the ambiguity of villainy in this novel, though it strikes me that while a lot of the characters occupy this grey area, there are some at least who are very definitely good or bad: the malevolent Evremonde twins are shown to have no redeeming features, while Lucie, and arguably Darnay also, are free of sin.

      • So yeah. Evremonde (x2) was definitely a bad guy, but I think you could argue that Darnay is not at all free of sin. He’s dragged his family into this mess because he was too much of a coward to deal with it when he first inherited the property. His is the sin of inactivity.
        He’s also quick to judge others as we saw in the chapter where Lucie chastises him for being unkind to Carton behind his back. Carton wears his moral ambiguity on his sleeve. As for Lucie, I shall have more to say about her faults next week!
        week!

      • I hadn’t thought about Darnay’s judgment of Carton. But in all his actions he lacks malice (he even remains polite with his uncle while accusing the Marquis of landing him in the English courts). Perhaps it is malice, or anger, which is the true unit of scale here, rather than sin in general? Question is, where does Carton fit into this?

  4. This is in response to Pete, Oct. 30, 4:11 p.m. (WHY won’t WordPress allow replies to every comment?? Bleah!)

    I think Dickens’s mind IS made up: He’s against cruel and unjust persecution. From whichever side. 🙂 When the peasants were persecuted, he was for them; when the revolution’s leaders went too far, he could be for them no longer.

    • You’re right of course Gina. It’s a little disorientating sometimes as a reader to see those who were villains become heroes and vice versa, and I think Manette’s involvement this week in Darnay’s sentencing is a perfect case in point of this. We’re left in an uncomfortable position where we’re not sure if the people we’re sympathising with are going to prove themselves unworthy of our affections – it’s great literature, but unsettling nonetheless.

      • TV does that a LOT these days. (“Once Upon a Time” does it practically every week, to name just one example.) Those who say Dickens would have been a TV writer if he’d lived today are probably right.

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