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September 13, 2007

Blog-a-book: Life out of death

Two_cities Under Kristine’s last post on A Tale of Two Cities, Elizabeth comments,

So is Dickens' point the sacrifice of others is required to bring life out of death? Will any love do this? Certainly Mr Carton's words might lead me to think Dickens was showing his actions were based on faith in gospel promises. Is there any record of what Dickens intended to convey by this novel? Is it more than a political statement? If you can answer these questions or point me in a direction to look for them, I would appreciate it.

Those are excellent questions, and I apologize for taking so long to get back to this topic.

When I look at the “big picture” of A Tale of Two Cities—which is a little easier to do than with most Dickens novels because of both its relative shortness and its structure—I see a certain cycle. The phrase “a vicious cycle,” in fact, might have been invented expressly to describe this story. A certain group of people are horribly oppressed for many years. They rise up and throw off their oppressors, and then they in turn become the oppressors.

It’s interesting to note that Dickens holds no one side in the conflict completely to blame; nor he does he consider either side completely free from blame. He sympathizes in turn with the poor being oppressed, and with the rich whom they later murder indiscriminately when they come to power. Despite the fact that his own childhood poverty and struggles (echoed in David Copperfield and other books) would never stop haunting him, and that his heart was consequently with the poor all his life, he refuses—unlike many other authors—to fall into the easy trap of justifying everything they do to avenge themselves on their tormentors.

(Spoilers after the jump)

So when we discover the terrible Madame Defarge’s secret, it makes her no less terrible—in fact, it makes her worse. We sense something of this, in fact, even before we learn her secret, when she responds, “coldly as ever,” to Lucie’s plea for her husband's safety with these words:

"All our lives, we have seen our sister-women suffer, in themselves and in their children, poverty, nakedness, hunger, thirst, sickness, misery, oppression and neglect of all kinds. . . .  Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?"

So it is no surprise when we finally learn the reason behind Madame Defarge’s relentless pursuit of the Darnay family and her creed of “extermination.” The wrongs suffered by her family have hardened her and shaped her for revenge.

It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them. It was nothing to her, that his wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan; that was insufficient punishment, because they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live.

Because Madame Defarge was left fatherless and alone when the Darnay family murdered members of her own family, the innocent daughter of Charles Darnay—who was only a child himself when those murders took place—is to be left fatherless and alone. The cycle is to be perpetuated.

Until Sydney Carton, with no connection to this bitter history and no other motive but love, steps in and gives his life to stop it.

That’s why, yes, I believe Dickens was presenting a sort of picture of Christ’s redeeming work here, and that dissolute Sydney Carton becomes a Christ figure in the end. The parallels aren’t exact, obviously—Carton’s act of love redeems him as well, whereas Christ needed no redemption—but then they never are exact with literary Christ figures. No one is sinless but Christ, after all, so comparisons can only go so far. Nonetheless, in the remarkable scene where Carton repeats John 11:25-26 to himself over and over as he walks through the city two nights before his death, Dickens leaves us no room for doubt about who has transformed him and who is inspiring the action he is about to take.

It is only one action, known at the time only to a few, but out of such actions redemption and reconciliation are born. Here’s where I see the parallel to Rwanda coming in. Look at the words of Antoine Rutiyesere that Catherine quotes below: “Deep inside the healing is taking place slowly, slowly, one individual at a time. A healing there, a repentance there, a restitution there, a change of system there . . . “ Much of Dickens’s work (the ending of Little Dorrit comes to mind) seems to posit that change can come only slowly and individually, but that where love, sacrifice, and redemptive acts are present, it does come.

I don’t know if I’ve answered all your questions, Elizabeth. Feel free to write again if you want to talk about this more, and Kristine, please jump in here with your own insights if you’d like.

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