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…hauling up men by those ropes and pulleys, to flare upon the darkness of their condition.

The practice of hanging offenders from the Parisian street-lanterns becomes, in A Tale of Two Cities, as in Dickens’ chief historical source (Carlyle’s French Revolution), emblematic of patriotic retribution. In The French Revolution, the practice is inaugurated in a chapter titled “The Lanterne,” in which the people, after taking the Bastille, hang certain officials from the lanterns near the Hôtel de Ville. “To the lantern!” or simply “Lanterne!” always implies, in Carlyle, imminent execution.

The Paris lanterns, and especially their projecting lamp-irons, were apparently of convenient shape and stature for use as makeshift gallows. Mercier (whose Tableau de Paris [1771-88] was one of Dickens’ French sources) notes, in an account of “Street Lighting” (“Réverbères”), that the oil-lamps of Paris were “badly hung; they made, in Milton’s words, darkness itself visible. They should be fixed close to the wall, not swung out above the street on great brackets” (43). It is perhaps this distance of the lantern from the wall, and the length of the bracket from which the oil-lamp was suspended, which suggested the more grisly use to which the fixtures could be put.

“What now? Are you a subject for the mad-hospital?”

“Mad-hospitals” in France dated from the mid-17th century, but were not like modern asylums for the mentally ill. Instead, they were more like prisons, outfitted with cells and dungeons, and they contained not only the “mad,” but also the poor, the indigent, the unemployed, and the criminal. Michel Foucault notes that, after the establishment of these hospitals, “one out of every hundred inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined there” (124); in fact, he associates confinement in mad-hospitals with the confinement resulting from a lettre de cachet, and suggests that madness was in fact generated by confinement to hospitals – not cured by it. Thus, when Defarge asks the man who writes “BLOOD” on the wall in the Saint Antoine district whether he is a subject for the mad-hospital, this may be a critique of the man’s sanity; on the other hand, it may – in light of the nature of such institutions at the time – be merely a critique of his idleness.

The Hôpital Général, established by royal edict in 1656, initiated what Foucault calls the “Great Confinement,” intended to heal the sick, but also to prevent “mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorders” (Foucault 124-9). Dickens, sensitive to social injustices and particularly to the institution of social confinement (a visit to Newgate Prison is recorded in Sketches by Boz, and a visit to prisoners in solitary confinement in a Philadelphia prison is described in American Notes) would probably have been well aware of the nature of French madhouses (and similar English ones, like Bedlam) in the 18th century. Further, he may have read Mercier’s report of Bicêtre in the Tableau de Paris (1781-88), a collection of sketches on which he drew for details of pre-revolutionary Paris:

Debtors are incarcerated here [in Bicêtre], beggars, and madmen, together with all the viler criminals, huddled pell-mell. There are others, too; epileptics, imbeciles, old men, paupers and cripples, who, not being criminals, are known by the generic title of “good poor”; to my mind they should find refuge elsewhere, apart from the rogues their neighbors. (160)

Mercier’s description of the appalling conditions in Bicêtre – as many as six sick men to a bed, a general lack of ventilation and drainage (to the extent that one prisoner feigned death three times just to be carried upstairs to purer air, and wasn’t believed when he finally did die) – tends to confirm Foucault’s argument that asylums frequently created the illness and insanity they were meant to cure.

Her knitting was before her, but she had laid it down to pick her teeth with a toothpick.

As Richard Maxwell points out in his edition of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens revised his original portrait of Madame Defarge to agree with the image of the citoyennes tricoteuses – the “knitting citizens” (female) of the Revolution, “notorious for their regular attendance at public executions” (448). In Dickens’ original conception (found in the manuscript version of A Tale), Madame Defarge was addicted to needlework instead of knitting.

“What the devil do you do in that galley there?” said Monsieur Defarge to himself.

This apostrophe of Monsieur Defarge’s is usually used as an example of Dickens’ attempt to represent French linguistic constructions in English. Sanders, in his Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, glosses “What the devil do you do in that galley there?” as the idiomatic “equivalent of the French ‘Que faites-vous dans cette galère?’ – ‘What are you doing in this mess?’” (47). Monsieur Defarge’s “what … do you do” is meant to reflect the French use of a present tense verb. In English, we would choose between the present and the present progressive. (“Que faites-vous?” is an interrogative conjugation which may be translated either “What are you doing?” or “What do you do?” according to the context of the phrase.)

…and fell into discourse with the triumvirate of customers who were drinking at the counter.

Here, “triumvirate” is used mainly in the generic sense of a threesome; yet the word – adapted from the Latin and originally referring, in Roman history, to “[t]he position, office, or function of the triumviri …, an association of three magistrates for joint administration” or “[b]y extension: any association of three joint rulers or powers” (OED) – suggests political collusion. It may also faintly foreshadow the neo-classical allegiances of revolutionary Paris, when “the republican spirit of the Parisians revived the classical coiffure of Rome, and a ‘tête à la Brutus’” (Planché 403-4) demonstrated an aesthetic and political nostalgia for antiquity.

“How goes it, Jacques?”

The fact that the members of the “triumvirate” with whom Monsieur Defarge confers address one another as “Jacques” not only supports the impression of their collusion, but invokes the revolutionary overtones of the “Jacquerie” – a name originally used as a general term for the French peasantry (from the moniker “Jacques Bonhomme” – roughly “Goodman James” in English), but particularly applied to the individuals involved in a 14th-century peasant rebellion (1357-8) in Northern France (Sanders 47). This rebellion might be said, as a revolt of the French poor against the aristocracy, to prefigure the Revolution of 1789. Indeed, it not only contributes to Dickens’ revolutionary vocabulary (his use of the term “Jacques”), but to the geography of his revolutionary novel: The 14th-century revolt of the Jacquerie was initiated in the area around the town of Beauvais – the birthplace of Lucie’s father, Doctor Manette, in A Tale of Two Cities (Sanders 47).

…and nothing within range, nearer or lower than the summits of the two great towers of Notre-Dame had any promise on it of healthy life or wholesome aspirations.

The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, like St. Paul’s cathedral in London, stands on ground which has had religious significance since the period of Roman settlement. One 19th-century guidebook gives the following account of its construction and the religious buildings that preceded it on the spot:

Notre Dame … was begun in the year 1163 by Maurice de Sully, the sixty-second bishop of Paris. Pope Alexander III laid the foundation-stone. Two churches had stood previously upon the same ground …, one dedicated to St. Etienne and the other to La Vierge Marie [the Virgin Mary]. During … excavations [later] made … under the choir of Notre Dame, stones were discovered showing that the Parisian sailors had upon this spot erected an altar to Jupiter, in the reign of Tiberius Caesar. In the 6th century was dedicated the church to St. Etienne, and in the following century, that to the Virgin…. (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 165-7)

The religious significance of the location of Notre Dame – from antiquity onward – contributes to its status as a spiritual center for the city of Paris. Indeed, Tronchet’s Picture of Paris (c. 1818) calls Notre Dame “the mother church of France,” and Dickens frequently uses it (though partly no doubt because of its fame even among English readers) as a point of geographical reference in A Tale of Two Cities. Notre Dame stands on the east side of the Ile de la Cité – one of the Parisian islands in the Seine – and is less than a mile from the Saint Antoine district (measured from the Place de la Bastille as the crow flies). Nevertheless, the “summits of the two great towers” of Notre Dame are probably more of a symbolic than a literally visible landmark in A Tale of Two Cities. At the beginning of the 19th century, Notre Dame was described as follows:

[It is] so surrounded with houses that there is no spot from which it may be seen with advantage. It is a Gothic edifice, built in the form of a cross, and remarkable for the lightness of its structure. But its two large square towers, in giving a stateliness, give also a heaviness to the building. (Tronchet 227)

The two great towers, which were apparently originally intended to have spires, never received them. One 19th-century guidebook warns English tourists that “Until our eye has got accustomed to the spireless towers they may appear stumpy” (Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris 167); and Baedeker’s Paris and Its Environs (1878) remarks that “The general effect, though not unimposing, is hardly commensurate with the renown of the edifice. This is owing partly to structural defects, partly to the lowness of its situation, and partly to the absence of spires” (212).

This engraving of Notre Dame, included in Tronchet’s Picture of Paris (c. 1818), shows the cathedral with the river in the foreground, from the east. The perspective from Saint Antoine would be from the northeast – and probably impeded.

Click on map for larger view

This portion of the Plan de la Ville de Paris en 1789 shows Notre Dame relative to Saint Antoine (the Bastille is visible at the far right).

“Why! Because he has lived so long, locked up, that he would be frightened – rave – tear himself to pieces – die – come to I know not what harm – if his door was left open.”

In his account of the liberated behavior of Doctor Manette, Dickens seems to follow French accounts of the experience of actual prisoners of the Bastille. One of Dickens’ sources for many of the Parisian elements of A Tale of Two Cities was Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-88); and the character of Doctor Manette is probably partly based on a figure in an “Anecdote” in Mercier’s Tableau. In both the “Anecdote” and A Tale of Two Cities, the prisoner is released from the Bastille during the reign of Louis XVI; in both, he finds his release unendurable; and in both, he goes to live with an old servant. The “Anecdote” is excerpted below:

When Louis XVI came to the throne, new and humanitarian ministers performed an act of justice and clemency, in inspecting the registers of the Bastille and freeing many prisoners.

Among them was an old man who, for forty-seven years, groaned, detained between four thick and cold walls…. [Then one day the] lower door of his tomb turns on its frightening hinges, opens, not just halfway, as is its custom, and an unknown voice says to him that he can come out.

He thinks he is dreaming. He hesitates, he rises, he makes his way with a trembling step, frightened of the huge space through which he moves. The stairs of the prison, the hall, the court, all appear enormous to him, almost without end. He stops as though confused and lost; his eyes have difficulty tolerating the full light of day; he looks at the sky as at an object utterly new; he stares, he cannot cry. He is astounded by his freedom to move from place to place; his legs, despite his efforts, remain frozen as his tongue. He finally passes through the formidable gate.

When he feels himself carried away in the vehicle which will return him to his ancient habitation, he gives articulate cries; he cannot tolerate the extraordinary movement; he must get out.

Conducted by a charitable arm, he asks for the street where he once lodged. He arrives; his house is no longer there; a public building has replaced it. He recognizes neither the quarter nor the city nor the objects which he once knew. The dwellings of his neighbors, imprinted on his memory, have taken new forms. In vain his looks interrogate those around him; he does not see a single face of which he has the faintest memory.

Terrified, he stops and gives a deep sigh. This city, so beautifully peopled with living beings, it is for him a necropolis; no one knows him; he knows no one; he weeps and longs for his cachot [dungeon cell].

At the name of the Bastille, which he invokes and claims for himself as an asylum, at the view of his clothing, which speaks of another era, a crowd surrounds him. Curiosity and pity press in upon him; the oldest question him and have no idea of the deeds which he recalls. By chance they bring him an old servant, porter for a long time, trembling in the knees, who, confined in his lodge for fifteen years, has scarcely enough strength to pull the rope for the door.

He does not recognize the master he once served; but informs him that his wife died thirty years ago, of sorrow and misery; that his children have departed for unknown lands; that all his friends are no more. The indifference with which this tale is told shows that it speaks of events long ago, almost effaced…. Crushed by grief, he [the released prisoner] goes to find the Minister whose generous compassion has made him a present of that liberty which so much weighs upon him. He bows and says: Let me be taken back to the prison from which you have drawn me…. The minister’s heart grows tender. The unfortunate one is given as a companion the old porter who can speak to him still of his wife and children…. (qtd. in and translated by Maxwell 416-7)

Doctor Manette’s response to liberation is similar to the old man’s in Mercier’s “Anecdote.” Though he was (as we find out later) imprisoned in the Bastille for about 18 years instead of 47, and though his servant (Defarge) is much younger, hailer and heartier than the old man’s, the stories are obviously similar.

…unglazed, and closing up the middle in two pieces, like any other door of French construction.

An “unglazed” window is simply one without glass (OED); doors of “French construction” are even now called “French doors” or “French windows” (OED) and are readily recognizable – instead of sliding up and down within a frame, or opening from one side, a French window is “a long window opening like a folding-door, and serving for exit and entrance” (OED).




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