After last week’s intense gothic tale, which raised a few questions in readers’ minds, as the discussion showed, we are firmly back in the present, 1793, with Darnay only twenty-four hours from execution and Dr Manette resolved to use what remains of his influence to save him . Lucie is given leave for a final embrace by a momentarily tender hearted Barsad and then, once he is taken away, swoons at her father’s feet. Who springs forward to pick her up? The same person who at Darnay’s first trial, suddenly spotted that she was about to faint, and directed a court officer to take her out of the room. Did I immediately make that connection? I’m not entirely sure.
But Dickens IS very demanding of his readers, as Pete said last week. Carton, determined to make himself visible in Paris, purposefully walks to Sainte Antoine, entering the Defarges’s wine shop, ordering a glass of wine in ‘indifferent French’ and then, when questioned by Madame Defarge, responding with the careful accents of an English speaker of French. Madame Defarge is struck by the likeness between the Englishman and Evremonde, Defarge agrees. At this point, I had to flip back to the instalments for weeks 6 and 7, to the scene in the court during the earlier trial, when a seemingly inattentive Carton suddenly tosses a note to Stryver, and the court is invited to consider the likeness between him and the prisoner, Darnay, particularly after Carton takes off his wig. Carton and Darnay drink a toast to Lucie, at Carton’s instigation. ‘Is it worth being tried for one’s life, to be the object of such sympathy and compassion Mr Darnay?’, Carton asks. And later, looking in the mirror, asks himself, ‘Do you particularly like the man…why should you particularly like a man who resembles you?’
Did Dickens expect his readers to have complete recall of an episode they had read some five months earlier? The answer simply is yes. Just as Pete had to remind himself of earlier episodes in an effort to remember which of the brothers was Darnay’s father, so I found myself rereading the episode for week 6 and then week 7, wondering if I was the only one who didn’t have these far off instalments completely clear in my mind?
There are other things to think about. Dr Manette returns, defeated, and worse, has regressed to the state he was in when released from the Bastille. In this novel which supposedly turns on plot, not character, we’re being introduced to some complex psychology. How much did Dickens know of contemporary psychological theories – it was still a science in comparative infancy, after all?
And then there is the terrifying pronouncement of Madame Defarge, ‘Tell the Wind and the Fire where to stop; not me!’ ‘Defarge, that sister of the mortally wounded boy upon the ground was my sister, that husband was my sister’s husband, that unborn child was their child….’. So far we’ve been commenting on Dickens’s oscillation between presenting the aristocracy as the villains, and then the revolutionaries. Is Madame Defarge the villainess of the novel, or a complex portrait of a woman who has been so hardened by a life time of witnessing injustice that all compassion, all humanity has been removed – the perfect revolutionary?
The signals this week are clear. Darnay will not survive. There are only a few hours before left before his execution. BUT we still have another three weeks to go.