This past week, Literary Life has been featuring chapter three of On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior. It’s the chapter entitled “Justice,” and the book featured by Prior to illustrate the idea is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
After A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities is likely Dickens’ most popular work. We like and remember it for is opening statement of contrasts, for the horrific mob scenes in the Paris of the revolutionary Terror, and for the sacrifice of the ne’er-do-well lawyer Sydney Carton, substituting his life for that Charles Darnay might be saved from the guillotine. And it was a sacrifice for love; Carton loved Darnay’s wife, Lucie, and he knew it would always be an unrequited love.
I first read the story in a Classic Illustrated comic book edition. Shortly afterward, our reading teacher in eighth grade included it on our reading list, a list that also included some decidedly non-eighth-grade works like Day of the Triffidsand Alas, Bablyon, both about the world after great catastrophes. Prompted by some concerned parents, the principal reprimanded the teacher, but A Tale of Two Citiesstayed on the list.
I read the novel last year, more than a half century after that first reading, and I was still thrilled by the story. And what a story it is! It has suspense, romance, terror, good and evil contending for supremacy, personal revenge becoming wrapped in political upheaval, redemption, and salvation. It has evil aristocrats (the St. Evremondes, Charles Darnay’s family) and it has evil revolutionaries (like the character simply known as The Vengeance). And it has the irrationality and brutality of the mob, itself brutalized and personified by Madame Therese Defarge, scowling as she sits with her knitting needles clicking away.
Dickens turns Madame Defarge into the ultimate villain of the book. She comes to personify the French Revolution and the Terror it spawned, consuming everything and everyone until it started consuming itself. Initially driven by a desire for revenge against the St. Evremonde family, she is determined not to stop until everyone is eradicated, includes Charles Darnay, his wife Lucie Manette Darnay, and their young child.
Hers is a directed, crazed, and compelled vengeance. She will allow no one to escape her justice, the justice of the mob and the guillotine; the clicking of her knitting needles continues as she sews the names of the people she condemns into her work. The image here that Dickens creates is marvelous; the clicking of the needles is but a prelude of the guillotine to come.
Standing in contrast to Madame Defarge is the character I’d forgotten until I reread the story. Miss Pross is Lucie Manette Darnay’s maid, confidante, surrogate mother, and protector. Dickens presents her as the quintessentially English servant and proper English woman, with very strong beliefs in right and wrong. She plays a critical role in one of the novel’s climactic scenes, confronting Madame Defarge as the revolutionary demands Lucie and her child.
Miss Pross is as determined to protect as Madame Defarge is to destroy. They’re more than evenly matched; Madame Defarge has a pistol and intends to use it. And so the representation of English social order and sensibility embraces in battle with the representation of French terror and mob rule. It’s a thrilling scene and the outcome is far from assured.
The larger story of Carton’s sacrifice overshadows the Pross-Defarge conflict, but it and the success of the novel depend upon it. Carton’s sacrifice will be for naught if Lucie and her child are killed. And while the great, almost cinematic climax of Carton being trundled through the streets of Paris in the cart and then mounting the platform of the guillotine is what we remember, the conclusion is made possible by Miss Pross. In that almost garret-like room, she takes Madame Defarge on and executes a rough justice of her own.
Dickens invested greatly in his characters, even his minor ones like Miss Pross; characterization is one of his strong suits. He uses their looks, their speech, their mannerisms, and even their clothes to help tell his stories. Miss Pross is a fine example of that. Her physical presence, thoughts, and speech embody the idea that nothing will survive the mob unless the mob is faced down.
She may be one of Dickens’ most courageous characters.