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Monseigneur, a great lord in the royal court, holds a reception in Paris. He surrounds himself with the greatest pomp and luxury. For example, he has four serving men help him drink his chocolate. The narrator tells us that Monseigneur’s money corrupts everyone who touches it. Monseigneur parades around his guests briefly and then returns to his sanctuary. Miffed at Monseigneur’s haughtiness, one guest, the Marquis Evrémonde, condemns Monseigneur as he leaves. The Marquis orders his carriage to be raced through the city streets, delighting to see the commoners nearly run down by his horses. Suddenly the carriage jolts to a stop. A child lies dead under its wheels. The Marquis tosses a few coins to the boy’s father, a man named Gaspard, and to the wine shop owner Defarge, who tries to comfort Gaspard. As the Marquis drives away, a coin comes flying back into the carriage, thrown in bitterness. He curses the commoners, saying that he would willingly ride over any of them. Madame Defarge watches the scene, knitting the entire time.
The Marquis arrives in the small village to which he serves as lord. There, too, the people live wretched lives, exploited, poor, and starving. As he looks over the submissive faces of the peasants, he singles out a road-mender whom he passed on his journey, a man whose fixed stare bothered him. He demands to know what the road-mender was staring at, and the man responds that someone was holding onto the bottom of the carriage. The Marquis continues on his way and soon comes upon a peasant woman, mourning at a rustic graveside. The woman stops him and begs that he provide her husband’s grave with some stone or marker, lest he be forgotten, but the Marquis drives away, unmoved. He arrives at his chateau and, upon entering, asks if Monsieur Charles has arrived from England.
Later that night, at the Marquis’ chateau, Charles Darnay, the nephew of the Marquis, arrives by carriage. Darnay tells his uncle that he wants to renounce the title and property that he stands to inherit when the Marquis dies. The family’s name, Darnay contends, is associated with “fear and slavery.” He insists that the family has consistently acted shamefully, “injuring every human creature who came between us and our pleasure.” The Marquis dismisses these protests, urging his nephew to accept his “natural destiny.” The next morning, the Marquis is found dead with a knife through his heart. Attached to the knife is a note that reads: “Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from Jacques.”
In Chapter 5 of Book the First, we read a description of the French public squabbling over the spilled contents of a broken wine cask; this passage, in its indictment of the greed and viciousness of the mob, forms the backbone of Dickens’s criticism against the impending revolution. In this section, in contrast, Dickens expresses an equal disapproval for the aristocracy whose vile mistreatment of the peasantry contributes to the revolution. Again, Dickens uses sarcasm to great effect as he describes the Monseigneur’s ridiculous dependence on his serving men:
It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep 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.
Dickens’s choice of the word escutcheon, referring to a family coat-of-arms, is key to our understanding of Monseigneur. For this emblem represents what the he sees as a power inherent to his family’s bloodline, an innate nobility that he thinks justifies his absurd lavishness. Dickens undercuts Monseigneur’s reverence for this symbol of his own power by commenting on his ridiculous fear that he might damage his reputation should he prove insufficiently ostentatious in the frivolous act of drinking chocolate. Moreover, in noting Monseigneur’s deep interest in the ritual of imbibing his little treat, Dickens contrasts him with the more loftily motivated characters in the novel. While the novel’s worthy characters act according to selfless and righteous goals, the Monseigneur conducts himself according to base and earthly instincts.
Dickens uses the Marquis Evrémonde to give a similar portrait of the aristocracy as elitist. The Marquis displays no sympathy for Gaspard, the father of the boy whom his carriage crushes. Rather, he believes that his noble blood justifies his malicious treatment of his plebian subjects. In tossing the coins to Gaspard, he aims to buy his way out of the predicament and rid his own conscience of the nuisance of Gaspard’s grief. He believes that it is the commoner’s lot in life to struggle and suffer. Likewise, he has no doubt that his nephew’s rightful station is to dominate commoners, referring to his nephew’s noble blood as his “natural destiny.”