RWM: A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, Chapter XVI

Previously: Book II, Chapter XV | Coming Soon: Book II, Chapters XXVII-XXVIII

Welcome to the fifteenth week of this read-with-me project. This week we read Chapter XVI: Still Knitting. This section was first released in a magazine called All the Year Round on Saturday, August 6th 1859.

The story so far…
Previously we were back in Paris learning a little more about the revolutionaries. It transpired that Monsieur Defarge was holding secret meetings to discuss those individuals who were enemies of the revolutions. Madame Defarge’s kitting was not random but the pattern spells out the names of their enemies and those whom they are planning of disposing of.

In this chapter…
Dickens treats begins this section by treating us to some glorious descriptions of the scenery to set up the location

“Chateau and hut, stone face and dangling figure, the red stain on the stone floor, and the pure water in the village well—thousands of acres of land—a whole province of France—all France itself—lay under the night sky, concentrated into a faint hair-breadth line. So does a whole world, with all its greatnesses and littlenesses, lie in a twinkling star. And as mere human knowledge can split a ray of light and analyse the manner of its composition, so, sublimer intelligences may read in the feeble shining of this earth of ours, every thought and act, every vice and virtue, of every responsible creature on it.”

He takes us from looking at something relatively small and places it within the grand scheme of the universe. The description positions ‘greatness’ and ‘littleness’ next to one another to encourage comparison. This shows us how small our lives are in comparison to what is out there. It may also encourage us to look beyond the physical object that we can see and towards something much bigger, and perhaps more metaphorical.

When the Defarges return to the wine shop we are introduced to a new character, John Barsad, an English spy who later arrives at the shop.

Before his arrival, the husband and wife discuss the long road toward revolution. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, ‘What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.’ (‘The World Was Wide Enough, Hamilton, 2015). Their discussion revolves around this idea that what they’re doing may seem to be small things, but it will have a bigger effect and they have to have faith in that.

This chapter sees Dickens use a lovely metaphor though the description of flies.

“The day was very hot, and heaps of flies, who were extending their inquisitive and adventurous perquisitions into all the glutinous little glasses near madame, fell dead at the bottom. Their decease made no impression on the other flies out promenading, who looked at them in the coolest manner (as if they themselves were elephants, or something as far removed), until they met the same fate. Curious to consider how heedless flies are!—perhaps they thought as much at Court that sunny summer day.”

The flies are described as being uncaring towards their fellow species, not caring that their corpses lie where the living one’s fly. This can also be seen in the actions of the humans, particularly in this Paris close to boiling point. The rich seem not to care that the corpse of the poor litter the streets and they continue regardless. It is an interesting comparison as flies are often considered one of the lowliest of creatures, and often seen as a sign of decay int themselves. This suggests that humans have more in common than the lowly fly than anything else.

Johan Barsad arrives at the Wine Shop and is incredibly obvious as he attempts to fish for information from the proprietors. In his attempts, he reveals that Lucie is set to marry Charles Darnay and that Charles Darnay is, in fact, a French Aristocrat. This information, though joyous to the reading, leads to his name being recorded in Madame’s knitting.

The chapter finishes with the following line:

“So much was closing in about the women who sat knitting, knitting, that they their very selves were closing in around a structure yet unbuilt, where they were to sit knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads.”

I love this line and think that it’s the perfect way to finish this chapter. The repetition of the word knitting, at two points within the sentence, mimics the repetition of the act itself. It also acts to remind the reader of the act of knitting and the consequences of these particular stitches. The verb ‘knitting’ has two syllables, which the words ‘counting’ and dropping’, which have the same amount’ mimic the cadence of the words creating a strange feeling of repetition. It is as though, while ‘knitting’ is not being used directly we are still reminded of it. The words ‘counting’ and ‘dropping’ also relate to knitting in both a direct sense with the counting and dropping of stitches but also in the way that this particular knitting will result in death. From the beginning, I have been saying that we should pay attention to Madame’s knitting and I am glad that we are finally seeing that in the text.

What about you… Are you reading along with A Tale of Two Cities, and if so, what did you think of this section?

Dates for your diary:
Chapters XXVII-XXVIII on the 13th of August (Post: 15th of August)
Chapters XIX-XX on the 20th of August (Post 22nd of August)
Chapter XXI on the 27th of August (Post:29th of August)

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