A Tale of Two Cities

by: Charles Dickens

Book the Second: The Golden Thread Chapters 14–17

As critic G. Robert Stange has noted, “the tableau technique” plays an important role in the novel. “Dickens tends throughout to make important episodes into set-pieces that are more visual than strictly dramatic.” Chapter 14 opens with such a tableau—that of Cly’s funeral scene. In the scene’s emphasis on bizarre and freakish imagery, we see a clear example of Dickens’s characteristic sense of the grotesque. The scene’s importance also lies in its depiction of the throng attending Cly’s funeral. Here, Dickens continues his criticism of mob mentality. Although Dickens intends the scene as largely comic, he also prepares the reader for his later, darker scenes of mindless frenzy and group violence in Paris. For example, as Cruncher participates in the burial of a man he does not know, his spirited condemnation of the deceased testifies to the contagious nature of the crowd’s anger and excitement. Indeed, once the body is interred, the mob’s energy remains unexhausted. Thus the group sets off to harass casual passers-by. Dickens later taps into the same frightening group psychology in the tableau that portray the French revolutionaries as they gather around the grindstone (in Book the Third, Chapter 2) and dance the Carmagnole (in Book the Third, Chapter 5).

The comedic atmosphere effected by Cruncher quickly lapses into a tone of ominous danger as the story comes to focus on Madame Defarge. For this woman possesses a vengeance and hatred that exceed all bounds. Indeed, the preceding scene presages her vindictive nature: the funeral-goers’ boisterous accusations of espionage against innocent passers-by, which they voice for the sake of “vengeance,” foreshadow the sweeping tide of hatred that consumes the revolutionaries, and Madame Defarge in particular. Two of the chapters in this section center around her knitting, her symbolic hatred of the aristocracy. When one of the Jacques inquires as to whether Madame Defarge will always be able to decipher this register, his query presages a time in which the woman will seek death even for those objectively innocent of any oppressive behaviors, a time in which her monomaniacal bloodlust will drive her to murder without heed of her scrupulous register.

Dickens derived his knitting motif from historical record: many scholars have recorded that women of the period would often knit as they stood and watched the daily executions. In the hands of Madame Defarge, however, the pastime takes on symbolic significance. In Greek mythology, the Fates were three sisters who controlled human life: one sister spun the web of life, one measured it, and the last cut it. Dickens employs a similar metaphor. As Madame Defarge weaves the names of the condemned into shrouds, her knitting becomes a symbol of her victims’ fate, their death at the hands of a vengeful peasantry.