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A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens

Book the Second: The Golden Thread Chapters 1–4

Summary Book the Second: The Golden Thread Chapters 1–4
Read a translation of Chapter 4: Congratulatory →

Analysis: Chapters 1–4

The courtroom scenes that open the second book of the novel allow Dickens to use a wonderful range of language. He employs a technique known as free indirect style, which fuses third-person narration with an interior point of view. He reveals the charges for which Darnay is being tried while rooting the reader in the uneducated mind (and ear) of the spectators: “Charles Darnay had yesterday pleaded Not Guilty to an indictment denouncing him (with infinite jingle and jangle) for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince. . . .” The juxtaposition of formal (“our serene, illustrious, excellent”) and informal (“and so forth”) speech produces a comical effect by highlighting the unrefined crowd’s zealous craving for the juicy details of the case, even as they recognize the decorum of their setting.

Dickens also uses these scenes to implement another of his favorite literary devices, parody. The Attorney-General’s long, self-important, and bombastic speech at the opening of Chapter 3 offers a highly comical imitation of legalese and serves indirectly to ridicule the Attorney-General, as well as the entire legal system. Thus the Attorney-General’s informs the jury:

[I]f statues were decreed in Britain, as in ancient Greece and Rome, to public benefactors, this shining citizen [his witness] would assuredly have one. That, as they were not so decreed, he probably would not have one.

The Attorney-General melodramatically touts the virtues of his witness, John Barsad, and absurdly deifies him, as though Barsad were a great figure from antiquity. When he explains that Barsad would not in fact have such a statue erected in his honor, as no such practice exists in England, his words again produce a comical effect. They draw attention to the fact that the attorney’s first sentence glorified Barsad to the point of irrelevant hypotheticals. Moreover, the redundant nature of the Attorney-General’s statement highlights his obliviousness to the emptiness of his words.

The passage makes clear how Dickens’s comical characterizations have won him the admiration of generations of readers. A Tale of Two Cities, however, is far from a comic novel; and perhaps in withholding humor from the book, Dickens sacrificed some opportunity to put his greatest talents to work. Dickens’s most “Dickensian” novels abound with hilariously grotesque characters, whose speech (usually vulgar) and appearance (usually freakish) are rendered with extreme exaggeration. With his impeded speech, violent temper, mysteriously rusty fingers, and muddy boots, Jerry Cruncher comes as close as any other character to this sort of caricature. But with A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens was making a conscious decision to steer away from his trademark characters, in order to write a novel in shorter and more frequent installments than usual. He determined to strip the story of dialogue, upon which he often relied to flesh out his characters and further his narration, in favor of describing the story’s action. By shifting his attention from character to plot, Dickens crafted A Tale of Two Cities into a rather un-Dickensian novel. His biographer, John Forster, doubted the benefits of such a move:

To rely less upon character than upon incident, and to resolve that his actors should be expressed by the story more than they should express themselves by dialogue, was for him a hazardous, and can hardly be called an entirely successful, experiment.

As Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton take the stage in this section, Forster’s comment becomes particularly pertinent. Darnay makes as uninteresting a hero as Lucie does a heroine. Both characters prove rather one-dimensional in their goodness and virtue. Only the supposedly loveless Carton promises more depth. He descends into the darkness of alcoholism while others bask in the glow of Darnay’s acquittal. Reading of this, one cannot help but suspect that elaborate secrets dim his past.