Who are your gods? Whom do you worship in actions, and whom in words? Charles Dickens waggles his finger in my face, the finger of a crone, of a maiden, of a businessman. The polished finger of a marquis, the calloused finger of a knitter. He makes his point with the appropriate number of adjectives and with enough humor to break through the polished shell of morality and reach something true. When you dress your Good up in robes and worship it, maybe what you truly worship is Death. And Dickens graciously bows his way out of the room.
It is confusing to talk about successes and failures in A Tale of Two Cities
because what doesn’t really work for me actually does, and there’s something beyond what really does work that I can’t quite get at. Maybe on my fourth or fifth reading I will have nestled into what I can’t quite get, but until then, I will have to rely on something contrary to my instincts. The thing that puts me off, but then, ultimately, makes the story what it is, is this image of the shy, humble nuclear family – the blond girls named Lucy and the unassuming, faceless father. The easiest shorthand for goodness, the celestial, angels.
That is not my god, and even though I mistrust it, deeply – I mistrust it to whatever marrows up the marrow of my bones – it makes sense for what it is in this story. It is a symbol for something not grasping about humanity, a symbol for something that wishes happiness, not destruction, on people, and that does seem like a symbol of Good to me, even if its trappings are soaked in the suspicious. Where to me the Darnay-Manette family is code for abuse and for valuing security over integrity (the apologetic wife who so desperately craves her husband’s affection that she pretends helplessness; the husband who grovels to his father-in-law and otherwise has no remarkable personality traits), for Dickens it was not that. And I can see it and respect what he was doing here.
I don’t know, maybe I don’t think a hopeful family has been written, just like I haven’t seen a real-life family that would fit me right. But, where the girl action hero is a symbol of hope to me, I can see how Lucy Manette is a symbol of hope in reverse of that, but not in a bad way. She is a symbol of, “What if people were generous?” And she does not really have enough contrast to be an interesting character, but she, in herself, is a contrast. Because is this book about her or is about Madame Defarge? Really, it is about neither and the one is only a contrast to the other. Madame Defarge is more interesting to me, knitting revenge, but Lucy is still functional, and she still has meaning. She is the innocence that a person saves if we can.
But, back to our gods. The various choruses running through this book of sacrifice and resurrection, execution and revenge, wove together with the worship of the gods cleanly and in a way that resonated with me and made me think about how our actions reveal what gods we worship, if we, today, could call our gods by the helpful, honest names of the ancients – Wine, Beauty, Love, War, Freedom, Death, etc. The refrain of liberte, egalite, franternite, or death
rings through the story like “my husband, my father, my brother, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, hush.” It is about the hopelessness of the death penalty, and it counts down from resurrection to death.
It questions all of our gods, with the goddess Liberty riding on a chair over a blood-soaked, rioting crowd; the sacrifice of Christ made by a dissipated drunkard; the British bank seeking execution, like the French aristocracy and serfs. None of us are safe; none of our hands are clean. In the words of the Biblical Christ, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Even honest tradesmen.
We know our gods, not by the names we attribute to them to make sure we have VIP access to the coolest back-stage events with our friends who call their gods by the same name. We know our gods by our own actions – how we act to ourselves and how we act to others. The revolutionaries in this book chant, “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, or Death,” and Dickens makes it clear that the people worship “or Death” even while they name it Liberte. In that same way, when we destroy our bodies and souls in the name of love by starvation, mutilation, or cultivating mental illness, we are not worshiping Love, even if we name it that. Today, for example, girl who starves herself, and a man who wins on steroids, do not worship Beauty or Strength through those actions; they worship Self-Destruction, Death. Because when beauty and strength are gone, that is the monster, the god, who thrives on your sacrifice. Be the best version of yourself, this book pleads, and if you cultivate self-destruction, at least let your sacrifice be voluntary and for something noble, not blind and hungry. Know the god you worship. But, do we ever? And how can it be anything but sympathetic when we do not? Because this life is all of our crazy mess, with all of our gods wearing halloween masks of another god.
As with any Dickens, the best parts of this book are in the common people. Mr. Cruncher and his honest trade of resurrection, and the good Ms. Pross and her noble work as executioner, are the best moments. The good, rough English folk are where Dickens truly shines. But, the political commentary of this book is very strong, as well. The parallels of London and Paris; the executions in both cities, by the rich and the poor; the self-descriptions of Mr. Cruncher and Mr. Lorry as honest businessmen, honest tradesmen, are all powerful statements about thinking of any class of society as subhuman – the poor, the rich, criminals. Everyone is someone’s husband, brother, someone’s father, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, hush. We may talk about our wrongs as though they were the “only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown,” but they are ours, sown by what we have worshiped. Or so judges Dickens . . . and he is a just executioner.