Friday, April 15, 2011

Aha, a perfect Frenchman! - questions about A Tale of Two Cities

Two questions.

1.  Why did Charles Dickens write A Tale of Two Cities?  Many reasons, yes.  Imagining the germ of the story, or a character or two, was sufficient.  But I also presume that Dickens had another purpose.

Is this novel his own response to Hard Times, published five years earlier?  In Hard Times, the Condition of England is Not Good, and the workers are up in arms, but only figuratively.  In some sense, Dickens is on the side of those workers, but in some other sense he is on the side of everyone.  If only we would all be nicer to each other, etc.  The practical politics of Hard Times are incoherent, and I’m not sure the impractical policitcs are much better.

I’m currently, oh, a third of the way into Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), listening to her characters rehash the same arguments.  Listening patiently, I hope.  This sort of thing is not the great strength of the novel as a form.  A strike is about to begin.  Perhaps the workers will begin breaking machines, forming committees, building barricades, and beheading noblemen.  There’s something the novel is pretty good at.

Charles Dickens does not want the workers to get to the point of beheading the mill-owners.  It would be easy enough to shade Hard Times into part of a call for revolution.  The events of 1848 left England untouched, but the example was fresh.  Perhaps A Tale of Two Cities is a piece of an extended novelistic argument – reform should go far, and Dickens is not quite clear on how far, but not that far, not as far as the French Revolution.  Earlier parts of the novel, the “Two Cities” sections, emphasize the poverty of London as well as Paris, but Paris and the Revolution swallow the novel.  The French go too far.

2.  Now, this will probably be of no interest to anyone who has not read the novel, and I believe I just made some unwarranted assumptions about those who have.

Please just go ahead and tell me this is nonsense:

Sydney Carton is Charles Darnay’s cousin or half-brother, yes?  We have the set of French twin brothers, Darnay’s father and uncle, and then we have his inexplicable English look-alike, who is, who must be, the illegitimate son of one of the brothers.

Dickens never mentions any of this – or there’s my question – did I miss it? The idea only occurred to me with about sixty pages left in the novel.  This passage did it:

‘But you are not English,’ said the wood-sawyer, ‘though you wear English dress?’

‘Yes,’ said Carton, pausing again, and answering over his shoulder.

‘You speak like a Frenchman.’

‘I am an old student here.’

‘Aha, a perfect Frenchman!  Good night, Englishman.’  (III.9)

A perplexing business.  Dickens wants to reassure me about Carton’s facility with Paris and with French, skills he needs to move the story along.  He sure does it in an odd way.

What I like about this idea – and, again, feel free to point out the so-obvious-they-are-not-even clues that I missed – is that Dickens, no stranger to over-explaining, omits all of this from the novel.  Maybe the resemblance between Darnay and Carton is just a freakish coincidence.  Maybe not.  Dickens never says.  Good for him.


  1. It's been some years since I've read AToTC, but I am tempted to disagree with you about the half-brothers/cousins idea. I think that Carton and Darnay might be more two-sides-of-the-same-coin, a way of showing a kinship between France and England, maybe. Because while they look alike, I don't think they act at all the same. Certainly Darnay doesn't have a moment anything like Carton's with a towel wrapped around his head to keep his brain from overheating. I think Darnay is a sort of failed nobility while Carton is a sort of hidden nobility, which seems to fit at least with my picture of Dicken's idea of Frenchmen versus Englishmen. A sort of "identical in all respects but this" kind of twinship, but not biological. More people-as-historical-forces, just like Madame Defarge. Maybe. As I say, it's been some time so I could be very far off base indeed.

  2. I have no presumption that cousins should act the same. Everything you say is consistent with blood relation. I assume, for example, with no evidence, that Carton's mother is English.

    You, Scott, are doing something much more substantial than I am - actually interpreting the novel in an interesting and useful way. I am unfortunately just chattering about plotty nonsense.

  3. Good point about cousins not acting the same. Any number of my cousins have served time in jail and been in rehab or both, while I've not enjoyed those particular pleasures.

    I dimly recall that while reading Tale of Two Cities, I was expecting Dickens to reveal a blood tie between the men. We never get Carton's backstory, do we? He could be anyone at all.

    Interpretation? I don't know about that; it's just a habit of mine to conflate every single story element with theme. We all need hobbies.

  4. Good question--why? I thought you covered it in the last entry, the idea that it's a fictionalization, some (James Fitzjames Stephen) would say rehashing, of Carlyle's lively stylized history.

    Really nice historical novel pairing. Quite impressive, even more so when you throw in your Esmond, and add your exhaustive Scott work. What's left?

    I would have guessed Romola, but as you're already North and Southing, and writing about Hard Times as much or more than Esmond or Hugo and Scott (still kind of hoping for some "potted" historical novel generalizations), you might want to do Felix Holt. Not so much fun, but in the wheelhouse. Just saying.

    And I'm curious about Grandes Meunles, which was hovering on my own stack, as my son had it. Companion to Anatole France? Will you write it up?

    Great work as always.

  5. Exactly, Scott - the complete absence of a backstory is evidence of a backstory! I'm like a crazed deconstructionist.

    J. F. Stephen is at least partly right - there is a lot of rehash in this novel. Carlyle's book not only exists, but is a landmark. So why revisit it? Dickens does not actually seem to be particularly interested in history as such.

    Middlemarch will be read before Romola and Felix Holt. Re-visiting War and Peace would be the next logical step, actually. Hugo's monster pairs up nicely with Tolstoy - two egomaniacal titans cramming their Theories of History down the gullets of their obese novels.

    Le Grand Meaulnes is not so atuned A. France. It is, in fact, a perfect companion to another 1913 French novel, a little obscurity titled Swann's Way. A little bit of Alain-Fournier next week, I think.

  6. I like your idea of Carton and Darnay being half brothers. I think Dickens moved away from over explanation later in his career. For example in Bleak House we do not learn very much about Esther's father. Nor the origins of the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case. A lot of things are allowed to remain mysterious.

  7. Those are great examples - the absence of Esther's father is especially relevant because it is a hidden part of the plot early on - maybe Jarndyce is assisting Esther because he is her father. Then, little twist, it becomes clear that he definitely is not. But then the question of paternity remains.

    To me, these absences are real gains in sophistication by Dickens.