Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

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…not often troubling himself to reflect that dust he was and to dust he must return…

The reflection that one is dust, and that to dust one will return, echoes Genesis 3:19, in which Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden of Eden and told by God, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” This passage is also echoed in the Burial Service in the Book of Common Prayer, and is a familiar part of funeral orations (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”).

…looking at the pillar of fire in the sky. “It must be forty feet high,” said they, grimly; and never moved.

The pillar of fire in the sky invokes Exodus 13:21, in which God leads the people out of Egypt and through the wilderness: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.” This, as an image of liberation, is appropriate to the pillar of fire issuing from the burning château, for the fire symbolizes the abolished tyranny of the Marquis. Further, the people’s estimation of the height of the pillar of fire – forty feet – associates it with the gallows upon which Gaspard was hanged. Thus, the pillar of fire becomes symbolic of both personal and national vengeance – vengeance for Gaspard against the Marquis, and vengeance of the oppressed masses against a tyrannical aristocracy. The Exodus allusion helps to strengthen the association between a single event – the destruction of the Marquis and his château – and a national movement of the oppressed.

It had never been a good eye to see with – had long had the mote in it of Lucifer’s pride, Sardanapalus’s luxury, and a mole’s blindness – but it had dropped out and was gone.

The “mote” in the “Bull’s Eye” alludes to Matthew 7:3-5:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Sardanapalus’ luxury refers to the last king of Assyria (7th century B.C.), who was famous for his sensuality and material largess. Besieged, and aware that his downfall was imminent, Sardanapalus threw himself on a funeral pyre with all his possessions on it, surrounded by his harem (Sanders 128). Byron made Sardanapalus the subject of a tragedy, and there is a famous painting – “The Death of Sardanapalus” – by Delacroix (which can be viewed at 

Finally, moles, as subterranean creatures, have very poor eyesight. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) describes and illustrates the mole as follows:

MOLE. – An animal chiefly remarkable for leading a subterranean life. It is from four to six inches in length; the body is thick and cylindrical, the head much prolonged, especially the muzzle, and the legs extremely short. These little animals are generally regarded as pests, and are suspected of committing great ravages with plants and agricultural produce. To exterminate this animal, it is sometimes considered best to remove the mole hills. (687)

Drawn to the Loadstone Rock

A loadstone is a magnet, specifically one consisting of magnetic oxide of iron. The word “load-stone,” meaning literally “way-stone,” comes from the use of magnets in marine navigation (Oxford English Dictionary); figuratively, a loadstone is an object that attracts. In Dickens’ use of term – in the title of this chapter, and in later references within the chapter – he is alluding to a particular loadstone in the Arabian Nights. In the story called “The Third Calender’s Tale,” Ajib, a prince and a calender (a calender is a Persian or Turkish mendicant dervish [OED]) describes a voyage of discovery in which his ship was irresistibly drawn to an enormous Loadstone Rock. The Rock, exerting such a force on the ship as to pull all the nails out of its structure and sink it, effectively marooned the calender on its shores. It was surmounted, however, with a bronze statue of a horse and rider; and Ajib, receiving advice (in a dream) that he should shoot the statue with a bronze bow he had found, did so and was liberated: The statue disintegrated, and Ajib was borne off in a bronze boat to further adventures (summarized in Sanders 125-6; Burton, vol.1, 139-61).

Like the fabled rustic who raised the Devil with infinite pains, and was so terrified at the sight of him that he could ask the Enemy no question, but immediately fled; so Monseigneur, after boldly reading the Lord’s Prayer backwards for a great number of years, and performing many other potent spells for compelling the Evil One, no sooner beheld him in his terrors than he took to his noble heels.

Sanders, in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, suggests that the story to which Dickens alludes here is Aesop’s fable of “The Old Man and Death,” which runs as follows:

An old labourer, bent double with age and toil, was gathering sticks in a forest. At last he grew so tired and hopeless that he threw down the bundle of sticks, and cried out: “I cannot bear this life any longer. Ah, I wish Death would only come and take me!”

As he spoke, Death, a grisly skeleton, appeared and said to him: “What wouldst thou, Mortal? I heard thee call me.”

“Please, sir,” replied the woodcutter, “would you kindly help me to lift this faggot of sticks on to my shoulder?”

We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified. (Æsop, “The Old Man and Death”)

Death in this fable seems to appear much as the Devil is supposed to, though the Old Man does not exactly go to “infinite pains” to raise him. Sanders suggests that Dickens may have been thinking of La Fontaine’s version of the fable, in which the “sufferings of the French peasantry” are explicitly represented.

Reading the Lord’s Prayer backwards is supposed to be a charm for raising the Devil; indeed, the notion has survived up to the present day. Multiple websites transcribe the prayer backwards, both word-by-word and phonetically. Forwards, the Lord’s Prayer (from the Book of Common Prayer) reads as follows:

Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them, that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

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