RWM: A Tale of Two Cities, Book III, Chapter I

Previously: Book II, Chapter XXIV| Coming Soon: Book III, Chapters II-III

Welcome to the twenty-first week of this read-with-me project. This week we read Chapter I: In Secret. This section was first released in a magazine called All the Year Round on Saturday, September 16th 1859.

The story so far…

Despite the dangers, Charles travels to Paris amidst the bloodthirsty revolution to save a man from an unjust death. 

In this section… 

We follow Charles as he travels through France in 1972, where he is arrested and confined to a prison called Le Force. He meets Monsieur Defarge, whom he asks to get a message to Mr Lorry of Tellson’s who is currently in Paris. Unfortunately, he finds Defarge unsympathetic. 

Charles is imprisoned ‘in secret’, which is also the title of this chapter. We first hear about this from another prisoner who implies that it is not an enjoyable state. This first mention creates an ominous tension, while the fact that it is also the chapter title alerts us to the phrase. We then learn that Charles is to be imprisoned ‘in secret’, and it is as though the other prisoner’s words of warning have come to pass as Charles experienced isolation. 

He is shown to a meagre cell where he will spend his imprisonment. It’s notable that from this point onwards for the remainder of this chapter he is referred to only as The Prisoner. Not only does this bear all the trappings of dehumanisation it’s also a reminder of the theme of identity which is so prominent in this book. 

Towards the very end of this chapter we get the following lines: 

“Five paces by four and a half, five paces by four and a half, five paces by four and a half.” The prisoner walked to and fro in his cell, counting its measurement, and the roar of the city arose like muffled drums with a wild swell of voices added to them. “He made shoes, he made shoes, he made shoes.” The prisoner counted the measurement again, and paced faster, to draw his mind with him from that latter repetition. “The ghosts that vanished when the wicket closed. There was one among them, the appearance of a lady dressed in black, who was leaning in the embrasure of a window, and she had a light shining upon her golden hair, and she looked like * * * * Let us ride on again, for God’s sake, through the illuminated villages with the people all awake! * * * * He made shoes, he made shoes, he made shoes. * * * * Five paces by four and a half.”

I want to draw your attention to this section because to me it stands out from the narrative voice, we have heard so far. It veers towards a more stream of conscious style narrative, a term coined by Alexander Bain in 1855 and is probably most notable as part of the modernist movement. While this does not technically constitute the stream of consciousness as it is more familiarly used by writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, the short repetitive sentences give us an insight into Charles’ thoughts in that exact moment. The lack of Dr Manette’s name, suggests that this is thought without the consciousness of a reader. Charles does not have to say Dr Manette made shoes, because Charles knows to whom he is referring with the pronoun ‘he’. The repetition also implies a panic as he realises the reality of imprisonment, and thus suggests his mental state as begin unstable in this moment. Overall, I found this paragraph truly fascinating and believe that there is even more to unpack should you wish to dive a little deeper. 

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: 

Book III, Chapters II-III on the 24th of September (Post: 26th of September)

Book III, Chapters IV-V on the 1st of October (Post: 3rd of October).

Book III, Chapters VI-VII on the 8th of October (Post: 10th of October)

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