Harrison Middleton University

Long Novel Weekend

Long Novel Weekend

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October 21, 2022

Thanks to Peter Ponzio, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

The Great Books Council of San Francisco held their annual Long Novel Weekend over October 1st and 2nd, with A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens as the chosen novel for 2022. The Council recommended the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, so that participants could follow along when discussing passages from the text. The weekend was organized by Louise DiMattio with Nancy Carr as the featured speaker on Sunday, October 2nd. Nancy specializes in Victorian Literature and received her PhD from the University of Virginia. She has taught at Northwestern University and Loyola University of Chicago, and worked in various capacities at the Great Books Foundation.

During the course of the two days, between 25 – 35 people attended the discussions via Zoom. On Saturday, discussions were held from 10:00 AM to 12:15 PM (Pacific time), and then from 2:30 PM until 4:30 PM. During the first discussion on Saturday, participants were separated into two groups to discuss Book 1 plus Book 2 through chapter 9. During the first session’s discussion several topics were explored by the participants, including: the nature of dualities in the novel; Dickens’s use of psychology in his portrayal of Doctor Manette; the similarity of the nobility in France and England; the conditions leading up to the French Revolution with special emphasis placed on the poverty of the peasants and the lack of concern for their plight on the part of the nobility; the similar appearance of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton which foreshadowed later developments in the novel; the ministrations of Lucy Manette and the similarity of Lucy to Ellen Tiernan, Dickens’s mistress.

The second discussion on Saturday featured questions about Lucy’s marriage to Charles Darnay and Doctor Manette’s concerns about the marriage; the contrast between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton both with regard to their character and their relation to Lucy; the relationship of Charles Darnay and the noble family of the Evremondes; and an exploration of the nature of the Defarges (husband and wife) to Doctor Manette and the Evremondes. The final chapter covered on the first day, entitled “Echoing Footsteps,” was the subject of a great deal of discussion and was seen as a pivotal chapter in the development of the plot. In this chapter, the “echoing footsteps” returns the reader to the themes of the opening chapters: the similarity of the two countries and the dualities that exist in the novel. Dickens effectively locates the echoes within the Manette family residence and summarizes a period of several years in the lives of the main characters which point to some inevitable, but as yet unseen, conclusion to the work. Dickens uses a technique that invokes a dream-like or fugue state in the chapter that imparts a surreal, almost mystical tone to the chapter.

Day two began with Nancy Carr addressing the attendees and highlighting a number of the themes already identified in the discussions on the first day. The chapter entitled “Drawn to the Loadstone Rock,” elicited a great deal of discussion from the group. Why did Dickens choose to use an image of a loadstone to describe Charles Darnay’s trip to France? Was Darnay foolish, naïve, inspired by the notion of noblesse oblige to defend the honor of his servant Monsieur Gabelle, was Darnay operating from altruistic or personal reasons in journeying to France, or was he merely being drawn like iron to a magnet by some unseen force?

The second chapter in Book 3, entitled “The Grindstone,” is meant to contrast with the Loadstone of chapter twenty-four of book 2. Like the Loadstone, the Grindstone has a certain inexorable quality about it. If Charles Darnay’s intention could be categorized as altruistic, no such benign intentionality can be ascribed to the participants operating the grindstone: their intent is obvious: revenge. Indeed, one of the many characters in the book who populate the rioters is given the epithet “Vengeance.” The main characters behind the angry mob are the Defarges: Ernest Defarge, erstwhile servant to Doctor Manette, and his wife, Therese Defarge, who works in concert with her assistant, the Vengeance.

As the novel draws towards its conclusion, the reader learns that Therese Defarge is the sister of a lady beaten, raped and killed by one of the Evremonde brothers, and that Charles Darnay is the son of one of the brothers. Madame Defarge’s sense of justice demands that everyone related to the Evremonde family should be brought to account, a form of justice that demands execution, no matter if the surviving family members had nothing to do with the original crime. It is a sense of justice that is not tempered by pity or reason, but propelled by a sense of vengeance that is unquenchable.

In one remarkable scene in chapter fourteen of book 3, the dualities Dickens has developed through the course of the novel come together in the person of two women: one from England, Miss Pross, and one from France, Madame Defarge. Each woman represents the qualities of the countries at the time: Madame Defarge, bent on revolution and revenge, and Miss Pross who represents a kind of “John Bull” English steadfastness. The scene unfolds as Madame Defarge attempts to enter the apartment where Doctor Manette and his daughter, Lucy, have been living while in France, in order to wreak her vengeance upon them. Unbeknownst to her, the Doctor and his daughter are at that moment, making their getaway in a carriage headed for the coast. Miss Pross, refuses to let Madame Defarge pass in order to give the Doctor and Lucy time to escape.

As the two women face off, they hurl insults at one another, neither of them understanding the words the other speak, but knowing full well that they are engaged in a battle to the death. And death comes. Miss Pross emerges victorious and the Doctor and Lucy meet with Charles Darnay at the coast and arrive safely in England.

Yet the novel is not finished: there remains one last act: Sidney Carton must change places with Charles Darnay so that the latter can live a fulfilled life. Carton, who throughout the novel has been portrayed as a profligate, is redeemed by his love for Lucy Manette, now Lucy Darnay, and his transformation allows him to sacrifice himself for the woman he loves. On his way to Saint Guillotine, as that awful instrument of vengeance is termed, Carton meets a young girl who is a seamstress, and who is unjustly sentenced to die. Carton comforts her in an almost Christ-like manner, and Dickens, who throughout the novel offers scriptural passages when developing the characters of Lucy and Carton, expects the reader to understand that Carton’s sacrifice is Christ-like, and that the little seamstress is reminiscent of another woman unjustly accused, Mary Magdalene.

Nancy noted that Dickens bookends the novel with two of his most famous passages, the first beginning with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and the final passage, though not uttered by Sidney Carton, might have been expressed by him in this manner: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

Thanks to the Great Books Council of San Francisco and Nancy Carr for holding the event, and to all the attendees for their thoughtful comments and insights.

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