A Tale of Two Cities – Book the Second: The Golden Thread Chapters 14–17

Summary: Chapter 14: The Honest Tradesman
One morning outside Tellson’s Bank, Jerry Cruncher sees
a funeral pass by. Jerry asks a few questions and learns that the
crowd is preparing to bury Roger Cly, a convicted spy and one of
the men who testified against Darnay in his court case. Cruncher
joins the motley procession, which includes a chimney-sweep, a bear-leader
and his mangy bear, and a pieman. After much drinking and carousing,
the mob buries Cly and, for sport, decides to accuse passers-by
of espionage in order to wreak “vengeance on them.” At home that
night, Cruncher once again harangues his wife for her prayers. He
then announces that he is going “fishing.” In reality, he goes to
dig up Cly’s body in order to sell it to scientists. Unbeknownst
to Cruncher, his son follows him to the cemetery, but runs away
terrified, believing that the coffin is chasing him. The next day,
he asks his father the definition of a “Resurrection-Man”—the term
describes men like Cruncher, who dig up bodies to sell to science.
He announces his intentions to have this job as an adult.
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Chapter 14: The Honest Tradesman →
Summary: Chapter 15: Knitting
In Paris, Defarge enters his wine shop with
a mender of roads whom he calls “Jacques.” Three men file out of
the shop individually. Eventually, Defarge and the mender of roads
climb up to the garret where Doctor Manette had been hidden. There
they join the three men who recently exited the shop, and whom Defarge
also calls “Jacques.” The mender of roads reports that, a year ago,
he saw a man hanging by a chain underneath the Marquis’ carriage.
Several months later, he says, he saw the man again, being marched
along the road by soldiers. The soldiers led the man to prison,
where he remained “in his iron cage” for several days. Accused of
killing the Marquis, he stood to be executed as a parricide (one
who murders a close relative). According to rumor, petitions soon
arrived in Paris begging that the prisoner’s life be spared. However,
workmen built a gallows in the middle of town, and soon the man
was hanged.
When the mender of roads finishes his recollection, Defarge
asks him to wait outside a moment. The other Jacques call for the
extermination of the entire aristocracy. One points to the knitting work of
Madame Defarge, which, in its stitching, contains an elaborate registry
of the names of those whom the revolutionaries aim to kill. He asks
if the woman will always be able to decipher the names that appear
there. Later that week, Defarge and his wife take the mender of
roads to Versailles to see King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.
When the royal couple appears, the mender of roads cries “Long live
the King!” and becomes so excited that Defarge must “restrain him
from flying at the objects of his brief devotion and tearing them
to pieces.” This performance pleases the Defarges, who see that
their efforts will prove easier if the aristocrats continue to believe
in the peasantry’s allegiance.
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Chapter 15: Knitting →
Summary: Chapter 16: Still Knitting
The Defarges return to Saint Antoine later that evening.
A policeman friend warns Defarge that a spy by the name of John
Barsad has been sent to their neighborhood. Madame Defarge resolves
to knit his name into the register. That night, Defarge admits his
fear that the revolution will not come in his lifetime. Madame Defarge
dismisses his impatience and compares the revolution to lightning
and an earthquake: it strikes quickly and with great force, but
no one knows how long it will take to form. The next day, Barsad
visits the wine shop. He masquerades as a sympathizer with the revolutionaries
and comments on the horrible treatment of the peasants. Knowing
that Defarge once worked as Doctor Manette’s servant, he reports
that Lucie Manette plans to marry, and that her husband is to be
the Marquis’ nephew, Darnay. After Barsad leaves, Madame Defarge
adds Darnay’s name to her registry, unsettling Defarge, the once
loyal servant of Manette.
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Chapter 16: Still Knitting →
Summary: Chapter 17: One Night
It is the eve of Lucie’s marriage to Darnay.
Lucie and her father have enjoyed long days of happiness together.
Doctor Manette finally has begun to put his imprisonment behind
him. For the first time since his release, Manette speaks of his
days in the Bastille. In prison, he passed much time imagining what
sort of person Lucie would grow up to be. He is very happy now,
thanks to Lucie, who has brought him “consolation and restoration.” Later
that night, Lucie sneaks down to her father’s room and finds him
sleeping soundly.
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Chapter 17: One Night →
Analysis: Chapters 14–17
Of the many shadows throughout the novel, that of death
looms most largely. Given the novel’s concern with resurrection,
death acquires an inevitable presence. Although young Jerry Cruncher’s aborted
trip to the cemetery at the heels of his grave-robbing father serves
little dramatic purpose, it functions as an important tableau. As
the boy runs home with visions in his head of Roger Cly’s coffin chasing
behind him, Dickens creates a suggestive symbol of the death that
overshadows and pursues everyone.
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.