The Perplexity of A Tale of Two Cities (Tastes, Rather Than Glimpses)

The Perplexity of A Tale of Two Cities (Tastes, Rather Than Glimpses)

Steven Connor

A talk given at the Birkbeck Dickens Day on Tale of Two Cities, 25 September 2004


Staring and Blaring

A Tale of Two Cities offers an absorbing field for anyone interested in Dickens’s material imagination. As in nearly all of Dickens’s writing, the novel meets and mediates its leading themes, of history, violence, loyalty and love, through intense meditations upon states, moods and movements of matter. These states of matter are governed in the novel by two great, competing perceptual orders, which are signalled during the court scene in which we first see Charles Darnay in the dock:

The accused, who was (and who knew he was) being mentally hanged, beheaded, and quartered, by everybody there, neither flinched from the situation, nor assumed any theatrical air in it. He was quiet and attentive; watched the opening proceedings with a grave interest; and stood with his hands resting on the slab of wood before him, so composedly, that they had not displaced a leaf of the herbs with which it was strewn. The court was all bestrewn with herbs and sprinkled with vinegar, as a precaution against gaol air and gaol fever.

Over the prisoner’s head there was a mirror, to throw the light down upon him. Crowds of the wicked and the wretched had been reflected in it, and had passed from its surface and this earth’s together. Haunted in a most ghastly manner that abominable place would have been, if the glass could ever have rendered back its reflections, as the ocean is one day to give up its dead. Some passing thought of the infamy and disgrace for which it had been reserved, may have struck the prisoner’s mind. Be that as it may, a change in his position making him conscious of a bar of light across his face, he looked up; and when he saw the glass his face flushed, and his right hand pushed the herbs away.

These perceptual modes, signalled by the mirror and the herbs, are the orders of vision, and of participative apprehension, here primarily through olfaction. Vision makes the prisoner a spectacle, set apart, exposed and isolated in the illumination that it throws down upon him, in a premonitory ‘bar of light’, even though he himself assumes no ‘theatrical air’. But it is precisely the air that, competing with the order of specularity, yields the other perceptual mode of this chapter and the book. The court protects itself against the threat of contagion from the prisoners by strewing herbs and vinegar, to keep noisome odours at bay with sweetness and astringency. The court attempts to create an untraversable bar across which smells and their associated dangers cannot carry.

But of course, they do carry. The irony of the herbs placed on the bar of the dock is that they seem as though they might be more of service in quarantining the prisoner from the crowd in the court rather than they from him. For Charles Darnay is not only stared at by the crowd assembled in the close-packed, malodorous courtroom – Dickens calls it a ‘human stew’ (79) – he is also ‘breathed at’, the object of both ‘staring and blaring’ (67).

Everybody present, except the one wigged gentleman who looked at the ceiling, stared at him. All the human breath in the place, rolled at him, like a sea, or a wind, or a fire. Eager faces strained round pillars and corners, to get a sight of him; spectators in back rows stood up, not to miss a hair of him; people on the floor of the court, laid their hands on the shoulders of the people before them, to help themselves, at anybody’s cost, to a view of him stood a-tiptoe, got upon ledges, stood upon next to nothing, to see every inch of him. Conspicuous among these latter, like an animated bit of the spiked wall of Newgate, Jerry stood: aiming at the prisoner the beery breath of a whet he had taken as he came along, and discharging it to mingle with the waves of other beer, and gin, and tea, and coffee, and what not, that flowed at him, and already broke upon the great windows behind him in an impure mist and rain. (62)

The cooperating and competing perceptual iioms of eye and nose correspond to two phases or conditions of matter: what may be called the elementary, in which objects and forms are discrete and distributed, which is to say set off from, or even set against each other, and the compound, in which objects and elements are in states of mingling and mutual transformation. Borrowing a phrase from Michel Serres (1985), we may call the latter Dickens’s ‘philosophy of mixed bodies’.

The mixed body of the crowd in the courtroom is made to mingle in the novel with other vengeful mobs and aggregations, in both London and Paris. Their buzzings of anticipation are ‘as if a cloud of great blue-flies were swarming about the prisoner, in anticipation of what he was soon to become’ (66). The crowd is as it were vaporised and atomised into this buzz: at the end of the trial the ‘loud buzz swept into the street as if the baffled blue-flies were dispersing in search of other carrion’ (78). These flies reappear in the account of the journey of Monseigneur to his chateau in his coach, whose postilions have ‘a thousand gossamer gnats circling about them in lieu of the Furies’ (117). Appropriately enough, in this novel of coalescing contrarieties, flies are both feasters and feasted upon: in Defarge’s wine shop

heaps of flies, who were extending their inquisitive and adventurous perquisitions into all the glutinous little glasses near madame, fell dead at the bottom. Their decease made no impression on the other flies out promenading, who looked at them in the coolest manner (as if they themselves were elephants, or something as far removed), until they met the same fate. Curious to consider how heedless flies are! – perhaps they thought as much at Court that sunny summer day. (181)

The element of the fly, despite their glutinous decease in the sanguineous lees of Defarge’s wine-shop, is the air, especially the corrupted air. Odours, atmospheres, miasmas, and clouds of various kinds abound in the novel. There is little open air in the novel, given the multitude of prisons and claustral spaces. Among the most remarkable of these is the first description of Tellson’s bank:

Tellson’s was the triumphant perfection of inconvenience. After bursting open a door of idiotic obstinacy with a weak rattle in its throat, you fell into Tellson’s down two steps, and came to your senses in a miserable little shop, with two little counters, where the oldest of men made your cheque shake as if the wind rustled it, while they examined the signature by the dingiest of windows, which were always under a shower-bath of mud from Fleet-street, and which were made the dingier by their own iron bars proper, and the heavy shadow of Temple Bar. If your business necessitated your seeing “the House,” you were put into a species of Condemned Hold at the back, where you meditated on a misspent life, until the House came with its hands in its pockets, and you could hardly blink at it in the dismal twilight. (53)

The contractedness of this space goes along oddly with its tendency to promote confusion or intermingling of entities within it:

Your money came out of, or went into, wormy old wooden drawers, particles of which flew up your nose and down your throat when they were opened and shut. Your bank-notes had a musty odour, as if they were fast decomposing into rags again. Your plate was stowed away among the neighbouring cesspools, and evil communications corrupted its good polish in a day or two. Your deeds got into extemporised strong-rooms made of kitchens and sculleries, and fretted all the fat out of their parchments into the banking-house air. (53-4)

The space of the bank manages to be both ill-ventilated and characterised by evaporation and the airborne exchange of substance. A little later in the novel, we read of the peculiarly self-abnegating manner of the employees’ handshakes ‘when the House pervaded the air’ (143), a phrase which manages to hint more than that the head of the bank is in attendance, for it also suggests a curious kind of topological convolution in which the air inside the House is progressively being permeated by the house itself. At one point that air seems to be thickened into visible form. When Jerry Cruncher protests to Mr Lorry against all the beneficiaries of his nocturnal recyclings of human materials ‘banking away like smoke at Tellson’s’ (309), his metaphor wonderfully draws together the combustible energy of capitalism, the incendiary products of revolution and the fumes that rise from the opened grave.

Like other spaces of confinement and withdrawal in the novel, Tellson’s is pervaded by air, which, in the form of wind, is a powerfully, destructively associative force in the novel. For, once in motion, air is the element that denies or prevents distance, rather than the inert space between things. Mr Stryver expresses some of this ambivalence, at once cramping and compressing the space around him, and threatening to burst violently out of it, in a premonition of the inflammatory expansiveness of the revolutionary spirit in France. It is not just that ‘he always seemed too big for any place, or space’ (143); even making an exit has an explosive effect: ‘Mr Stryver turned and burst out of the bank, causing such a concussion of air on his way through, that to stand up against it bowing behind the two counters, required the utmost remaining strength of the two ancient clerks’ (147).

It is for this reason that wind, or pressurised air, can be both expansive and bring about a contraction of space. Among the many intimations of spatial shrinking in the novel is the wind that blows in the morning after Stryver’s and Carton’s long night of legal cramming: ‘wreaths of dust were spinning round and round before the morning blast, as if the desert-sand had risen far away, and the first spray of it in its advance had begun to overwhelm the city’ (90-1). Wind is alsothe vehicle of knowledge and rumour, conveying the news of the Monseigneur’s murder mysteriously to the mender of roads, who, a couple of paragraphs later, has equally mysteriously ‘penetrated into the midst of a group of fifty particular friends’ (128-9).

These evocations of the condition of mixed rather than discrete bodies draw and depend upon what are called the nonvisual or ‘proximity’ senses, those which require a mingling of the stimulus with the sensing body, as in smell or taste, or direct impact between them, as in touch and hearing. A sensitivity to aroma and taste in particular, often intensified into a kind of texture or tactility, is characteristic of much of Dickens’s writing. In A Tale of Two Cities, there seems to be a new ethical urgency in contracting the physical remove that vision requires and affords, in the interests of making us smell and taste the misery of the French people. The ‘happy chocolate’ so laboriously and ceremonially conveyed to the lips of Monseigneur, who is otherwise engaged in ‘rapidly swallowing France’ (104) is in grotesque contrast with the habitual taste ‘of black bread and death’ (33) in the mouths of those who scrabble for the muddy wine in the streets of St. Antoine. Often, Dickens’s evocations of saturated or contaminated spaces seem to privilege tasting over sight, as for example in his account of Mr Lorry’s climb to Defarge’s attic:

Each of these stoppages was made at a doleful grating, by which any languishing good airs that were left uncorrupted, seemed to escape, and all spoilt and sickly vapours seemed to crawl in. Through the rusted bars, tastes, rather than glimpses, were caught of the jumbled neighbourhood; and nothing within range, nearer or lower than the summits of the two great towers of Notre-Dame, had any promise on it of healthy life or wholesome aspirations. (35)

Smell vies with sight for dominance in the account of the street outside Defarge’s wine shop, which is ‘a narrow winding street, full of offence and stench, with other narrow winding streets diverging, all peopled by rags and night-caps, and all smelling of rags and night-caps’ (30). Defarge’s own shop ‘close shut, and surrounded by so foul a neighbourhood’, is ‘ill-smelling’ (179). The odour-borne ‘gaol fever’ against which aromatherapeutic precautions are taken in the Old Bailey is recapitulated in the first impression which the prison of La Force makes upon Darnay’s nostrils: ‘The prison of La Force was a gloomy prison, dark and filthy, and with a horrible smell of foul sleep in it. Extraordinary how soon the noisome flavour of imprisoned sleep, becomes manifest in all such places that are ill cared for!’ (258)

Not that the evidence of the nose is always to be mistrusted or recoiled from. In his sharp response to Stryver’s snide reference to the quickness of his eye in seeing Lucie Manette’s distress during the trial, Sidney Carton seems to articulate a preference for the intimate intuition of the nose over the testimony of the eye: ‘ “If a girl, doll or no doll, swoons within a yard or two of a man’s nose, he can see it without a perspective-glass” ‘ (90).

Damp Ways and Dry Ways

At the beginning of the second chapter of Book 2, Jerry Cruncher is sent on his errand to the trial of Darnay at the Old Bailey, accompanied by a letter that Dickens lets us see being prepared for him:

As the ancient clerk deliberately folded and superscribed the note, Mr. Cruncher, after surveying him in silence until he came to the blotting-paper stage, remarked:
‘I suppose they’ll be trying Forgeries this morning?’
‘That’s quartering,’ said Jerry. ‘Barbarous!’ (59)

Dickens means us not to miss the similarities between the body-mangling barbarity of the law on both sides of the Channel. So far into the physical details of his story does his sense of the reality of what is being discussed here soak, that the sentence seems foreshadowed even in the details of the conversation between Cruncher and Tellson’s clerk. What is the careful folding of the paper, after all, but itself a kind of quartering? The conversation continues with an evocation of a kind of judicial physics. Cruncher’s permanently rheumy voice, which we will learn comes from his nocturnal grave-robbing, as though the mud and corruption had got into his throat as well as on to his boots, is presented as both an alternative and a parallel to the punctilious abstraction of the clerk:

‘It is the law,’ remarked the ancient clerk, turning his surprised spectacles upon him. ‘It is the law.’
‘It’s hard in the law to spile a man, I think. It’s hard enough to kill him, but it’s wery hard to spile him, sir.’
‘Not at all,’ retained the ancient clerk. ‘Speak well of the law. Take care of your chest and voice, my good friend, and leave the law to take care of itself. I give you that advice.’
‘It’s the damp, sir, what settles on my chest and voice,’ said Jerry. ‘I leave you to judge what a damp way of earning a living mine is.’
‘Well, well,’ said the old clerk; ‘we all have our various ways of gaining a livelihood. Some of us have damp ways, and some of us have dry ways.’ (59-60)

The cooperation of the damp and the dry here carries forward the interchange enacted a moment before in the clerk’s quartered and blotted page. Soaking up excess ink may recall the ‘damming into little pools’ of the wine spilt into the streets of St Antoine, and its capture ‘with handkerchiefs from women’s heads, which were squeezed dry into infants’ mouths’ (28). This novel wells with such spillings and soppings. Blotting, in the senses both of disfiguring and of erasure, also recurs. During the account of the preparation and pouring of Monseigneur’s chocolate, we hear that ‘[d]eep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two’ (104).The metaphor of blotting operates in Charles Darnay’s meditations in the aftermath of the Revolution on the flight and extermination of the aristocracy, who ‘were trooping from France by every highway and byway, and their property was in course of confiscation and destruction, and their very names were blotting out’ (243-4). And the idea returns in the closing lines of the novel as a promise of a more benign forgetting, as Carton thinks of his name being redeemed by Lucie’s son: ‘[M]y name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away’ (377).

Even more prominent than the action of blotting is the idea of staining. Nothing testifies more emphatically to the seemingly irresistible mixing of bodies than the action whereby entities leak into each other and take up each other’s tincture. First of all, of course, there is the spilled wine that runs through the streets of Paris in the fifth chapter, foreshadowing with such painful obviousness the blood that will later run in the streets:

The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood, left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again. (29)

The grindstone scene in chapter 3.2 will provide a close recall of this ecstatically shared defilement:

Shouldering one another to get next at the sharpening-stone, were men stripped to the waist, with the stain all over their limbs and bodies; men in all sorts of rags, with the stain upon those rags; men devilishly set off with spoils of women’s lace and silk and ribbon, with the stain dyeing those trifles through and through. (265)

But there are other, subtler modulations of the idea of staining. Manette’s ghostly and tenuous voice at the beginning of chapter 1.6 suggests another use of the word:

It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain. (38)

Here the visual figure of the stain itself spreads or displaces into the auditory register, perhaps through the implied rhyme of ‘stain’ and ‘strain’. Such staining recurs in chapter 2.21, in the evocation of the ‘echoing footsteps’ of the chapter’s title. The forcing of the distant footsteps upon the secluded Soho ear is itself like the spreading of a stain:

Headlong, mad, and dangerous footsteps to force their way into anybody’s life, footsteps not easily made clean again if once stained red, the footsteps raging in Saint Antoine afar off, as the little circle sat in the dark London window. (216)

These pervasive suggestions of soiling and spoiling even spill across into the domain of vision. A kind of scarlet fever gets into the eyes as well as on the clothes, not just of the murderous mob, but also of their observer: ‘The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood…the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes’ (265). It is this same redness that Miss Pross seems to be washing out of her eyes at the end of the novel when the arrival of Madame Defarge causes her to spill the bowl of water. The muddy ‘rust’ which crusts Jerry Cruncher’s footsoles and fingernails seems to have connections with this substance, as do the many other evocations of rust throughout the novel The light of the sun itself is made subject to this contamination, for example in the incarnadine dawn that breaks after the Monseigneur’s murder: ‘Lighter and lighter, until at last the sun touched the tops of the still trees, and poured its radiance over the hill. In the glow, the water of the chateau fountain seemed to turn to blood, and the stone faces crimsoned’ (127). Light is often rendered in the novel as a staining or contaminating form of touch, not least in the many shades and shadows that fall across faces, figures and landscapes, such as ‘the heavy shadow of Temple Bar’ that falls over Tellson’s (53), and the gloom that seems sometimes to fall across Dr Manette, ‘as incomprehensible to those unacquainted with his story as if they had seen the shadow of the actual Bastille thrown upon him by a summer sun, when the substance was three hundred miles away’ (79). Being looked at is itself a kind of contamination, as for example, in the remark about the situation of Tellson’s bank close to Temple Bar, ‘where, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty, the first letters written to you by your old love, or by your little children, were but newly released from the horror of being ogled through the windows, by the heads exposed on Temple Bar with an insensate brutality and ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantee’ (53-4). The most remarkable evocation of the pollution of vision or rather, perhaps, vision as itself a material form of pollution, the ‘substance of the shadow’ as the title of chapter 3.10 has it occurs during the road-mender’s account of the hanging of the suspected murderer of Monseigneur, which recall the folk belief that the reflection of a corpse befouls the water it is seen in: ‘ “In the morning, by the fountain, there is raised a gallows forty feet high, poisoning the water… He is hanged there forty feet high–and is left hanging, poisoning the water…How can the women and the children draw water! Who can gossip of an evening, under that shadow!” ‘ (172-3).


The degradation of all the senses and their varying modes of relation to modes of touch is reflected in the emphasis throughout the novel on processes of warping, twisting, crushing, crunching, milling, mashing, moiling and mangling. Grinding abounds. Early in the novel there is the glimpse of the inhabitants of St. Antoine, ‘samples of a people that had undergone a terrible grinding and regrinding in the mill, and certainly not in the fabulous mill which ground old people young…The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old’ (29). Mrs Cruncher is subject to the ‘whirling grindstone’ of Jerry’s indignation (57), and even the Earth itself becomes ‘the great grindstone’ (266). Discrete material forms are permanently subject to the threat of being melted down into amorphous masses, like the body of the assassin, into which ‘will be poured boiling oil, melted lead, hot resin, wax, and sulphur’ (171), and the ornaments and appurtenances of the Monseigneur’s chateau, which will end up consumed in fire. The novel looks forward to the day when the church bells of France will be ‘melted into thundering cannon’ (188) and the roof of the chateau might be ‘shutting out the sky in a new way – to wit, for ever, from the eyes of the bodies into which its lead was fired, out of the barrels of a hundred thousand muskets’ (123). Mist and cloud frequently merge with water and sea, for example in the ‘clammy and intensely cold mist’ of the opening scene of the novel, which ‘made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do (6). All of this blending, pounding and melting of matter upon itself seems to create a kind of implosion, or Big Crunch, into a dense, close-packed plenum with no gaps or breathing-spaces. So oppressive at times is the sense of the hyperproximity of things, rendered in a kind of ‘close writing’ (rather than close reading) that the novel seems impelled to sudden, spasmodic enlargements of perspective, like the cosmic cut-away that occurs abruptly at the end of Book 1: ‘Beneath that arch of unmoved and eternal lights; some, so remote from this little earth that the learned tell us it is doubtful whether their rays have even yet discovered it, as a point in space where anything is suffered or done: the shadows of the night were broad and black’ (49).

But there is another mode of relation, between these absolute polarities of interstellar distance, and mirey undifferentation. It is signalled by the word which I have adopted for my title. Perplexity is formed from Latin per, through, and plectare, to plait or interweave. From its first appearances in English, it has had a primarily negative connotation, signifying a painful or paralysed condition of uncertainty, bewilderment or confusion in the face of intricate or involved circumstances.
The first appearance of the term in A Tale of Two Cities is in the third chapter, as Jerry rides away from the mailcoach from which he has received Mr Lorry’s enigmatic message, which ‘perplexed his mind to that degree that he was fain, several times, to take off his hat to scratch his head’ (14). Perplexity is associated with the winding of threads, lines, fabrics and filaments and, in particular, that human filament, hair. But Jerry is unable to perform the action which is performed by Dr Manette and others, the action of riddling or ravelling the hair, since his hair is more like a wall or a barrier than a fabric: ‘so like smith’s work, so much more like the top of a strongly spiked wall than a head of hair, that the best of players at leap-frog might have declined him, as the most dangerous man in the world to go over’. Jerry’s jagged coiffure belongs to the world of profound and incommunicable secrets evoked at the beginning of this chapter: ‘A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there is, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it’ (11). Walls, surfaces, mirrors, all signify a world of blank surfaces, presented to the eye only to display their inscrutability. The eye comes up against these obstacles so regularly, that it is as if vision, that sense that traditionally offers the clearest and most distinct grasping of the world, were here associated particularly with obstruction, division and limit.

Perplexity recurs throughout the novel. When Mr Lorry first sees Lucie Manette in Dover, she too is subject to perplexity, this time in combination with a knitting of the brow: she has ‘a forehead with a singular capacity (remembering how young and smooth it was), of rifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity, or wonder, or alarm, or merely of a bright fixed attention, though it included all the four expressions – as his eyes rested on these things’. Lucie’s perplexity is revived by her father’s intricate account of his dreams and fantasies while in prison: ‘ “Can you follow me, Lucie?”, he asks. “Hardly, I think? I doubt you must have been a solitary prisoner to understand these perplexed distinctions.” ‘ Perplexity is associated with imprisonment, stasis, confusion. It features in the obsessional shoemaking work undertaken by Manette. As he explains to Lorry, after his relapse, referring to himself in the third person:

“[I]t is very hard to explain, consistently, the innermost workings of this poor man’s mind. He once yearned so frightfully for that occupation, and it was so welcome when it came; no doubt it relieved his pain so much, by substituting the perplexity of the fingers for the perplexity of the brain, and by substituting, as he became more practised, the ingenuity of the hands, for the ingenuity of the mental torture; that he has never been able to bear the thought of putting it quite out of his reach. (205)

Manette’s shoemaking is matched by another, and much more obvious ‘perplexity of the fingers’, namely the mnemonic knitting of Madame Defarge. Manette stitches to forget: Madame Defarge knits in order never to forget. Her knitting is a denial of the cruel quarantine in which the suffering people are kept by the indifference of the aristocracy. But the more they hold themselves apart, the more Madame Defarge’s knitting insists on their intricate entanglement with each other (intricacy itself being formed from tricoter, to knit). It is not just Madame Defarge who knits: the people too have ‘foreheads knitted into the likeness of the gallows-rope they mused about enduring, or inflicting’ (30). Knitting is a form of register, but not, it seems, a visual or even visible one, like a tapestry: mute though she may be for much of the novel, Madame Defarge is no Philomela. Her knitting seems to bypass or surpass the eye: ‘Madame Defarge knitted with nimble fingers and steady eyebrows, and saw nothing’ (48); ‘Madame Defarge…leaned against the door-post, knitting, and saw nothing’ (49). The human person is taken up in to the action of knitting not just through the knitting of brows, but also, as we have seen in the case of Jerry Cruncher, through the hair. She is all curls, coils and roils: when first seen in the novel, it is with ‘a quantity of bright shawl twined about her head’. She implicates her own hair in her knitting, in the rose that she pins into it to indicate the presence of a spy. ‘She rolled up her knitting when she had said those words, and presently took the rose out of the handkerchief that was wound about her head’ (187)

The horror of Madame Defarge’s knitted register is not that it knits things together, but rather that, once having done so, it refuses any possible further change, erasure, or remission. Her unrelenting register refuses to forget; the relentless act of revenge seems to result literally in the killing of time:

In the black prison of the Conciergerie, the doomed of the day awaited their fate. They were in number as the weeks of the year. Fifty-two were to roll that afternoon on the life-tide of the city to the boundless everlasting sea. Before their cells were quit of them, new occupants were appointed; before their blood ran into the blood spilled yesterday, the blood that was to mingle with theirs to-morrow was already set apart. (348)

As her husband says: ‘ “It would be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase one letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge” ‘ (174). Her knitting is a kind of statuary: literally a stitch in time, it binds past, present and future into hard, insoluble knots. The novel refers us conveniently to a myth that knits together entanglement and petrifaction, that of the Gorgon. With her winding hair, matching the ‘matted locks’ of her people, Madame Defarge is a kind of Medusa, herself the agent of paralysis (though Dickens allows himself the grim variation on the Medusa myth that, where it is the dissevered head of the Medusa that turns its victims to stone, here it is the stony gaze of the Medusa that results in the severing of so many heads).

However, there are other, more necessary and positive forms of perplexity in the novel. Where in other novels, like Bleak House and Little Dorrit, Dickens seems to share his characters’ horror at being caught up in unfathomable complexity, and their longing for disengagement, here there not only seems no prospect of escape, entangement also seems to have more positive values. Lucie Manette exercises her own art of knitting, ‘ever busily winding the golden thread which bound her husband, and her father, and herself, and her old directress and companion, in a life of quiet bliss’ (212). This thread recalls and extends ‘one or two long golden hairs, which he had, in some old day, wound off upon his finger’ (45) which Manette has kept around his neck during his imprisonment. We even get a glimpse of Miss Pross, as she plays with Lucie’s son, ‘in harness of string’ (212). Sydney Carton, working through the tangles of law cases for Stryver, is also, not entirely unpleasurably, tied up in knots:

[T]he jackal, with knitted brows and intent face, so deep in his task, that his eyes did not even follow the hand he stretched out for his glass – which often groped about, for a minute or more, before it found the glass for his lips. Two or three times, the matter in hand became so knotty, that the jackal found it imperative on him to get up, and steep his towels anew. (88)

Perhaps the mode in which perplexity is most pervasively enacted in the novel is in the many forms of chiasmic crossing and recrossing which it entertains: the repeated barring or crossing of the light, the shadows that fall across faces and landscapes, the crossing of borders and rivers, as well as, most importantly, the repeated crossing and recrossing of the Channel. Most importantly, there is the cross drawn in the air with his own blood by the wounded brother in Manette’s account (328).

The strongest embodiment of the principle of crossing is Miss Pross. Our first sight of her is as the brawny restorer of Lucie Manette, after she has been rendered insensible by Mr Lorry’s news of her father’s disinterment. Miss Pross deploys odour against spectacle, calling for ‘smelling-salts, cold water, and vinegar’ (27), to thaw out her young charge, who has been left ‘with her eyes open and fixed upon him, and with that last expression looking as if it were carved or branded into her forehead’ (26). Despite her Gorgonian air, Miss Prosss is n fact an anti-Medusa, awakening statues and caring little for statutes. She proudly holds herself apart, intact, fearing involvement and despising the French. ‘ “If it was ever intended that I should go across salt water, do you suppose Providence would have cast my lot in an island?” ‘ (27). And yet there is something in her look and composition that suggests a Gallic tincture. She is ‘a wild looking woman, whom &Mr Lorry observed to be all of a red colour, and to have red hair'; on her reappearance in chapter 2.6, she is again ‘wild, and red, and grim’ (98). Even her headgear seems to mirror the revolutionary cockade: ‘a most wonderful bonnet like a Grenadier wooden measure’ (26). At the climax of the novel, she will end up not only across the channel, but up close and personal with her counterpart, in the desperate wrestling embrace she has with Madame Defarge. Even after the death of her opponent, she continues to bear the marks of her rowelling fingers, as though she had got entangled in the ghastly Defarge knitting machine: ‘the marks of griping fingers were deep in her face and her hair was torn, and her dress (hastily composed with unsteady hands) was clutched and dragged a hundred ways’ (370).

The idea of crossing becomes redeeming, and is itself redeemed in the final heroic substitution of Carton for Darnay, heralded, appropriately enough in this novel of crosswinds and drifting vapours, by a smell:

The pen dropped from Darnay’s fingers on the table, and he looked about him vacantly.
‘What vapour is that?’ he asked.
‘Something that crossed me?’ (353)

The crossing of identities is reinforced by the exchange of clothes, which recalls the sartorial reversals in the account of Darnay’s trial, in which ‘Mr Attorney-General turned the whole suit of clothes Mr Stryver had fitted on the jury, inside out…Lastly came my Lord himself, turning the whole suit of clothes, now inside out, now outside in, but on the whole decidedly trimming and shaping them into grave-clothes for the prisoner’ (75). Changing clothes also involves changing hair: ‘Carton…combed back his hair, and tied it with the ribbon the prisoner had worn’ (354).

The novel of course draws itself up into the perplexed relations and antagonisms that are its subject. It is itself a kind of knitting machine, that knits itself into its own pattern. This gives it a particular perplexity. For it must find a way to imagine interconnection without indifferentiation, affinity without the collapse into universal resemblance, the world of Jacques One, Jacques Two and Jacques Three. In particular, it must imagine a way of linking the past to the present in such a way as to preserve the powers of time, both to ravel and unravel. All too aware and fearful of the possibility that present conditions might precipitate a repetition of the French Terror, Dickens must insist on the continuity between past and present, while also resisting the simple collapse of the present into the past. In the end, one can must trust in the operations of time to unknit its own perplexities. Writing against the dense repetitiveness that is its own manner, A Tale of Two Cities must puzzle out a way to resist its own tendency to compress everything into self-resemblance. In the end it can only yearn, impossibly, to put itself on the side of, in the place of time as undoing, unravelling, ‘wearing out’.


Dickens, Charles (1994). A Tale of Two Cities. Ed. Norman Page. London: J.M. Dent.
Serres, Michel (1985). Les cinq sens: Philosophie des corps mêlées. Paris: Grasset.