Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I did not exactly enjoy the Christian imagery in A Tale of Two Cities, but it was hard to miss

I’m on the barricades in Les Misérables (1862) with Victor Hugo’s revolutionaries:

The old man fell to his knees, then rose up, let go of the flag and fell heavily backward onto the pavement inside, with his arms stretched out in a cross. (IV.14.ii)

Subtle, huh?  Let’s skip to the end of the long defense of the barricade:

[The revolutionary], pierced by eight bullets, remained backed up against the wall as if the bullets had nailed him there.  Except that his head was tilted.
[His disciple], struck down, collapsed at his feet. (V.1.xxiii)

The chapter title is “Orestes Feasting and Pylades Drunk,” a classical rather than biblical allusion, and I am, of course, cheating by calling the friend, Pylades, a “disciple.”  Still.  I detect the shadow of the Crucifixion, even if it is borrowed from Goya.

In Hard Times (1854), Charles Dickens restrains himself from shaping his Christ-figure into a cross, but that is perhaps because we only see him taken down from his metaphorical (industrial) cross, and simultaneously emerging, resurrected, from his metaphorical (industrial) tomb:

But, ring after ring was coiled upon the barrel of the windlass safely, and the connecting chains appeared, and finally the bucket with the two men holding on at the sides – a sight to make the head swim, and oppress the heart - and tenderly supporting between them, slung and tied within, the figure of a poor, crushed, human creature.  (III.6)

The two Marys cleanse his wounds; he preaches to his disciples; he ascends into heaven:

Very few whispers broke the mournful silence.  It was soon a funeral procession.  The star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer's rest.

In A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the cross is replaced by a guillotine, and the Marys are replaced with Martha, or so I guess based on the insertion of John 11:25-6, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” etc., which, oddly, is in quotation marks but is attributed to no particular speaker.  It is Sydney acting as Anglican priest for the girl, or for himself, or a higher power, the author, perhaps, speaking to both.

More curious is the anti-Christian figure, the great Madame Defarge, who “might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,” or so says the great Miss Pross, the only person who can see Madame Defarge’s true nature.  How can she see the truth?  “I am an Englishwoman.”  And soon Lucifer’s wife disappears in “a flash and a crash” and a cloud of smoke.

I had not really noticed Madame Defarge’s Satanic nature until the end of the book, so I was not looking for the cloven hoof earlier.  The most interesting scene that I have found is the end of the visit to Versailles that I mentioned yesterday, where Madame Defarge converts a disciple using a parable, a horrible inversion of the parables of Christ.  A bit of the murderous Parable of the Dolls and Birds:

“And if you were shown a flock of birds, unable to fly, and were set upon them to strip them of their feathers for your own advantage, you would set upon the birds of the finest feathers; would you not?” (II.15)

Um, no – what?  Hey, I’ve got another one.  There’s a character who claims to go fishing every night, but is, in fact, a fisher of men, although not quite in the way Christ meant.  He’s also known as a Resurrection-man.  “’Oh, father, I should so like to be a Resurrection-Man when I’m quite growed up!”

I don’t have any argument here.  This is more of a catalogue, a guide to my future re-reading of A Tale of Two Cities.


  1. The Resurrection Man, who digs up bodies for medical researchers right, is a fisher-of-men. What is Dickens trying to say with that? My, oh my.

    Isn't he playing with the idea of resurrection throughout Tale of Two Cities? Just how entombed is the prisoner of the Bastile all those many years?

  2. Now I know the flags when I read, for the first time, A Tale of Two Cities. Thanks

  3. And a guide to my future re-read of A Tale of Two Cities. Thanks.

  4. CB - that's right, release from prison is another form of resurrection. Although here's an example of the variety of the metaphor. When the Bastille is sacked, seven prisoners are liberated ("the storm that had burst their tomb") - but their resurrection is not like that of Christ. Rather, it is "as if the Last Day were come, and those who rejoiced around them were lost spirits."

    Pretty rich, isn't it? As with the body-snatching fisher of men, though, I am skeptical that it is all particularly meaningful.

    But, yes, these are flags planted for future reading. Who knows what I, or you, will find.

  5. The incidences you post about escape me, as it's been at least five years since I read A Tale of Two Cities, but the most Christian reference I see in the novel is the end when one character dies for another. To me, you can't make a more clear reference to Christianity than that.

  6. Exactly - that's where the character, or the narrator, or someone, quotes John 11:25-6. Dickens does not just rely on the correspondence, but actually inserts Christ' own words.

    Strange, isn't it, that A Tale of Two Cities is sort of an Easter novel.

  7. Now that youo mention it, it is rather an Easter novel...with it's themes of sacrifice and salvation of sorts. I should read it again, soon; I loved it when I read it in 2006.