Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I enjoyed the characters in A Tale of Two Cities

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?’
‘Many things.’
‘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.


  1. Poor Trollope, whose characters are so much more subtle and protean than Dickens'; Trollope's work is wonderful, and yet Dickens' work...glows.

  2. I'd give up hope on Dickensian heroines if Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend are all you have left to bank on...

    But I like your take on Madame Defarge...say more?

  3. Yes, Shelley, I agree. If we to make two lists, The Flaws, Weaknesses, Foibles, and Failures of Dickens, and then another for Trollope, the Dickens list would be longer and contain more serious crimes against good literature. And yet, Dickens is clearly the greater writer, or at least has been seen as such ever since both men were alive.

    Colleen - yeah, I was afraid of that. I had a college prof, a Modernist, who once said, with a grimace "Nobody cares about Little Dorritt!" I remember that sentence, but not the context, not at all. We were reading Joyce or Graham Greene or something like that.

    I'll work on Mme Defarge a bit more tomorrow. Poking around the book, the whole thing is even weirder than I realized.

    The basic problem - and it's the same for Wuthering Heights or Hedda Gabler - is this misplaced "realism" filter, applied even when the author directly states that the character is an ogre or elf or troll or the like. Or, in the case of Mme Defarge, "Lucifer's wife." On the one hand, this is all metaphor; on the other, the entire novel is metaphor.

  4. I wonder how much of our problem with Dicken's heroes is a product of our time. In his day, characters as bland as Little Nell had legions of followers. It's difficult to imagine anyone taking her very seriously today. (I fear you'll find Little Dorrit a very close cousin to Little Nell.) Dickens heroes and heroines are all very close to those that could be found in bestselling fiction of his day.

    His 'minor' characters are where things come to life. While I agree Madame Defarge is a memorable person, I don't count her as a character. I think she falls short. It's easy to imagine a character like Francis Micawber having a life outside of the novel he inhabits. The same is true for many of Dicken's other non-heroes and non-heroines. But while Madame Defarge is impressive, it's difficult to see her ever doing much more than knitting.

    Of all his novels, I think Tale of Two Cities has the fewest 'characters.' But it certainly makes up for this in plot. Only Oliver Twist comes close, and it doesn't come that close.

  5. I have not read ATofTC since I was in high school, but it impressed me enough at the time that I still (20+ years later) count it among my favorite works of literature because it is so masterfully plotted.
    My teacher, I recall, kept wanting us to notice the interesting minor characters (and did point out how silly and bland the official protagonists were) and I could sorta see how they were interesting, but it was the plot that filled me with despair.
    I wanted to write fiction, specifically, I wanted to write great novels, and I realized immediately I could not plot anything like that.
    This was weird, because in my high school hubris, I had a fairly high opinion of my ability to learn to do anything requiring thought. It was the plotting of ATofTC that awakened me to the notion that there was genius I just plain didn't have and never would.

  6. CB - what? Today's literature is full of Little Nell's. Sentimental stories about threatened children have hardly gone out of style. Or do you mean that today's bestsellers don't have bland characters? No, you can't mean that. They have almost nothing but.

    The boring virtuous heroes of Dickens resemble those of other, lesser novels of his day because everyone was imitating Walter Scott, who suffered from the exact same problem - vague center, brilliant perimeter. And in fact it goes back to earlier models, to the tradition of Fielding and Smollett.

    And Dickens is never thought of as just another bestseller, or a more skillful bestseller writer. He was a giant, almost immediately. Richard Stang's The Theory of the Novel in England: 1850-1870 covers this material extremely well. The relevant essays in Rohan Maitzen's anthology are another good source.

    I'm puzzled by the comment that Mme Defarge can't do more than knit. She coordinates and inspires the entire French Revolution! She leads the attack on the Bastille!

    I have a story like Sparkling Squirrel's, except it involves music and meeting Wynton Marsalis. Same ending - an early lesson in human limitation, and the difference between professionals and amateurs.

  7. I like Mrs. Dombey as a heroine. And Esther Summerson.

  8. Oh yes, Esther is wonderful. It's the first person narration, it makes all the difference.

    Edith Dombey is genuinely complex, too. Florence Dombey, the girl, the conventional heroine of Dombey and Son, has a promising start, but as she ages, as she becomes a romantic lead, she dulls, unfortunately. Edith Dombey becomes more interesting the more we get to know her.

  9. I don't share Lionel Trilling's crush on her, but Little Dorritt has her moments, and the heroines of OMF are among Dickens's best. As for the heroes of those two novels, CD tries hard to make them interesting. Irving Howe thought he succeeded, but YMMV . . .

  10. Trilling loved Little Dorritt? That explains something - a Subject for Future Research. Thanks.

    I always assume - the evidence seems clear enough - that Dickens is aware of his problems, and is working on them. He does not attempt to solve every problem within every book, like Flaubert, but is experimenting across books. Heartening to hear the good news about the Our Mutual Friend heroines.

  11. Lol about the funny hat! I have just got round to reading this, and am really dsappointed about Darnay's lack of depth. It seemed to show such promise, too, in the drama of the courtroom scene.

    We are never given any access to his mental processes. Somone wrote somewhere that he is a like a machine who's been programmed to be noble, honourable, etc!

    Does he never have any self doubt? What does he finally think of Carton? It's all obscure...

  12. You are right, Darnay's beginning isn't bad. Then he genericizes. Then he gets hit on the head and exits the novel, an undignified end for a romantic hero. Fitting here, though. No one misses him.