I almost wet myself the first time I read the denouement of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities and I still love the pacing and tension between the comic and the terrifying in that scene. This book is an old favorite, and one nurtured by a beloved high school English teacher. I can still hear Mrs. LaBelle talking about Jerry Cruncher, the honest tradesman and Jarvis Lorry, the man of business; about the mender of roads in the blue cap who becomes the sawyer in the red cap; 105 North Tower, and the evocative and cryptic “Recalled to life.”
A Tale of Two Cities is a book about death, redemption and retribution with images of such flowing like the blood and the wine from the beatific to the crass. When it opens, it is 1775; Jarvis Lorry, solicitor of Tellson’s Bank and Lucie Manette are on their way from London to Paris to collect Lucie’s father who had been released (recalled to life) from the Bastille where he had been imprisoned for 15 years, long after everyone thought he was dead. He is in safekeeping in the home (and wine shop) of his former servant Ernest Defarge and his wife Therese who, for the moment, merely knits and “sees nothing.” As events unfold, Madame Defarge knits and “sees nothing” often enough as to be unnerving.
Back in London we make the acquaintance of Sydney Carton, lazy, alcoholic reprobate and Charles Darnay, man of such honor and goodness that his teeth gleam. They bear a physical resemblance to each other and both are in love with Lucie, the Dickensian angel du jour. Lucie marries Darnay and becomes the unattainable Beatrice, Laura, and Stella to Sydney Carton.
Fifteen years later, the Revolution is about to explode in France. Charles Darnay receives word that an old family retainer has been thrown in prison by the revolutionaries because of his association with Charles’ family, the aristocratic Evrémondes. Without checking the web cam for Paris, Charles leaves for France and is arrested as an enemy of the Revolution. Jarvis Lorry, Dr. Manette, Lucy and her little girl set out after him. With them are Jerry Cruncher, Lorry’s gopher; and Miss Pross who has been Lucie’s nurse, governess and companion all her motherless life.
Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher are minor characters but they have more life to them than Lucie and Charles, and I get a kick out of them. Jerry Cruncher, the honest tradesman, sits outside Tellson’s Bank with rust on his fingers, awaiting orders from Jarvis Lorry. The message with which he is entrusted–“Recalled to life”– worries him because it suggests– to him, if not the reader– a curtailment of some mysterious activity of his. At home he keeps a steady surveillance on his wife to see she isn’t “flopping” against him.
As slowly as these hints are doled out, they are elucidated: Jerry is a “resurrection man,” a grave robber. That’s why his fingers are stained with rust and why he doesn’t much care for the idea of anyone being recalled to life. On one of his Boys’ Nights Out Jerry and his associates dig up a coffin that’s full of rocks; he blames his wife. (“What do you mean by flopping yourself down and praying agin me?”) Only late in the story do we learn that the body supposed to be in the coffin was that of a double agent who is still very much alive.
Miss Pross and Jerry both come to France with the retinue that is determined to free Charles Darnay. There’s a menacing scene when Madame Defarge and her BFF, The Vengeance, pay them a visit, ostensibly to ascertain where the Manettes live in order to spare them in the coming Revolution. But by this time we know what it means that Madame Defarge knits and “sees nothing.” She is creating The Register, a list of names coded into her knitting.
Miss Pross, however, is not impressed. She, with her “rooted conviction that she was more than a match for any foreigner, was not to be shaken by distress and danger, appeared with folded arms, and observed in English to The Vengeance, who her eyes first encountered, “Well, I am sure, Boldface! I hope you are pretty well!” She also bestowed a British cough on Madame Defarge. . .”
Not only does Dr. Manette, with his clout as a former prisoner of the Bastille, fail to get Charles freed from prison, his whole family is knitted into The Register as enemies of the Republic who are to be arrested and eventually guillotined.
This is Sydney Carton’s hour. The nonredeemable lout’s eyes have been raised to visions of goodness merely by brushing up against Lucie Manette in her London drawing room. He hatches a plan to impersonate Charles Darnay and go to the guillotine in his place. While he is exchanging clothes with Darnay in the prison cell, Jarvis Lorry bustles Dr. Manette, Lucie and her daughter out of their Paris lodgings and into a coach that only needs a drugged Charles Darnay to be slopped inside before they can rattle up to the coast and board a ship for England.
It’s at this point that Madame Defarge decides it’s time to dispose of the entire Manette family herself. Her husband has a regrettable tendency towards kindness and he is too fond of Dr. Manette. Madame takes a pistol and a knife and sets off. “There were many women upon whom the time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand, but there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman now taking her way along the streets. Of a strong and fearless character, of shrewd sense and readiness. . . She was absolutely without pity. . .”
Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross are to follow the Manettes in a separate coach. They have seen the Manettes and Charles Darnay off and were “concluding their arrangements to follow the coach even as Madame Defarge, taking her way through the streets, now drew nearer and nearer.” Jerry and Miss Pross get into a discussion about whether it might not be better to take their departure from a different street seeings as how one coach has already left the area. Two might look suspicious.
“And still Madame Defarge, pursuing her way along the streets, came nearer and nearer.”
Jerry has an explosion of conscience and guilt and starts to unburden himself about moonlighting in graveyards. He goes on incoherently about his wife’s predilection for “flopping.”
“Whatever housekeeping arrangement that may be,” said Miss Pross. . . “I have no doubt it is best that Mrs. Cruncher should have it entirely under her own supervision.”
Jerry fervently hopes she is flopping for him right now.
“And still Madame Defarge, pursuing her way along the streets, came nearer and nearer.”
Miss Pross tacks back to her idea of leaving in a coach from a different street.
“Madame Defarge was drawing very near indeed.”
Miss Pross takes a final tour through the empty rooms, and then leans over a basin to splash cold water on her face. As she comes up from one such splash, she sees Madame Defarge standing in the doorway.
“The wife of Evrémonde; where is she?”
Miss Pross with great presence of mind runs to shut the doors of all the empty rooms in order to obscure the fact that the birds had flown. She plants herself firmly in front of Lucie’s door.
“Years had not tamed the wildness nor softened the grimness of her appearance; but she too was a determined woman in her different way, and she measured Madame Defarge with her eyes, every inch. . .
Madame Defarge looked at her scornfully, but still with something of Miss Pross’ own perception that they two were at bay. . .
‘On my way yonder,’ said Madame Defarge. . . ‘where they reserve my chair and my knitting for me. I am come to make my compliments to her in passing.’
‘I know your intentions are evil,’ said Miss Pross. . .
Each spoke in her own language; neither understood the others’ words; both were very watchful, and intent to deduce from look and manner, what the intelligible words meant.”
Every critics in history may agree that Dickens needs an editor, but I already feel I have travestied his writing by cutting out numerous paragraphs to suggest the suspense this scene carries. I love the build-up.
Anyway, the two women struggle. Miss Pross gets Madame Defarge in a lock. The pistol goes off. Madame Defarge takes the bullet. Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher get away.
Sydney Carton achieves his redemption if redemption is something one can be said to achieve. He goes to the guillotine in place of Charles Darnay. Charles Darnay gets through all the roadblocks on Sydney Carton’s travelling papers.
A Tale of Two Cities begins and ends with two of the most famous passages in English literature.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The End, spoken by Sydney Carton at the end of an operatic speech at the mouth of the guillotine:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
This book is only corny because it’s so well known. It’s well known because it’s been so loved. I can’t get through it without sobbing.