Not all of them, of course. Now that I have read all but two of his novels, and a fair swath of his shorter fiction, I continue to be astounded at his constant failure to imagine heroes and heroines of the slightest artistic interest, particularly baffling given that Charles Dickens is the most inventive creator of characters in – I want to be careful not to exaggerate here – in the history of literature.
Worse, Dickens was perfectly aware of the problem, and had solved it twice already, in David Copperfield and Bleak House, and was on the verge of writing Great Expectations. Let’s not revisit that argument. The solution, such as it is, that Dickens employs here, is to displace the conventional characters, to the extent possible, with more interesting people, especially in the final thirty pages or so.
The story of the supposed hero actually ends with him unconscious, as interesting as he was when awake. But the conventional hero is not the genuine hero of the book, so Dickens seems to be cleverly attempting to deflect my attention with this non-entity. Too bad we have to spend so much time with the dull blocks of wood in the process. Too bad Dickens could not have given Charles Darnay a hobby, or a funny hat, or anything.
Great shame about the heroine, too, but I have given up hope there. No, I still hope – fingers crossed for Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. And the problem is with the bland heroines, not with other women. The great triumph of A Tale of Two Cities is a woman, sort of, a parody of Joan of Arc and Marianne, the embodiment of the totalitarian spirit of the French Revolution, the great Madame Defarge:
She tied a knot with flashing eyes, as if it throttled a foe. (II.16)
The superhuman Mme Defarge is a force of history that has somehow become incarnated in a woman who runs a Paris wine shop. She is in no sense a real character, even in ordinary fictional terms. That she is entirely unchanging over the eighteen years of the novel, that she is ageless, that her powers never diminish, is only logical once we realize that she is not human but a tool of higher powers.
She is visiting Versailles to see the king and queen. The Revolution is still many years in the future:
‘You work hard, madame,’ said a man near her.
‘Yes,’ answered Madame Defarge; ‘I have a good deal to do.’
‘What do you make, madame?’
‘For instance – ‘
‘For instance,’ returned Madame Defarge, composedly, ‘shrouds.’ (II.15)
The imaginative leap Dickens makes in A Tale of Two Cities is to insert a character along the lines of The Ghost of Christmas Past into a nominally realistic novel, a representation of Death, with knitting needles replacing the scythe, draping her in just enough ordinary novelistic characterization to allow her to walk amongst the more human characters and readers, unknowing and complacent until it is too late.