Monday, March 3, 2014

A Tale of Two Meanings

You may not think of Charles Dickens as a writer of allegory, but allegorical elements find their way into many of his novels. When Little Nell, for instance, leads her grandfather through the fires and smokestacks of industrial central England and finally finds peace in a church in the northern dales, it isn’t hard to see the episode as a parallel to a spiritual story of passage through and out of Hell and into the rest of Paradise. As another example, at the end of Bleak House, Mrs Clennam leaves her dark house to ask Amy’s forgiveness just before the old house falls to a heap; the allegory of seeking forgiveness in order to escape eternal destruction is clear.

Nowhere does Dickens develop Christian allegory as extensively as in A Tale of Two Cities. “In short,” as Dickens’s own Wilkins Micawber would say, the allegory centers around two spiritual themes: sin and redemption. The token of sin in the novel is the aristocratic system. The French aristocrats – represented mainly by the cruel and callous Marquis d’Evrémonde – abuse, starve, overwork, torture, and kill the people on their estates. Here sin partly represents itself since the pride and self-obsession of the aristocrats makes them desperately wicked. But the aristocracy itself signifies further aspects of sin. Like sin, aristocratic life looks pleasant at first; Charles Darnay says.“To the eye it is fair enough . . . ; but seen in its integrity, under the sky, and by the daylight, it is a crumbling tower of waste, mismanagement, extortion, debt, mortgage, oppression, hunger, nakedness, and suffering.” Like sin, the aristocracy leaves even those who reap its privileges enslaved to it; Charles (nephew and unwilling heir to the Marquis) says that he is “bound to a system that is frightful to me, responsible for it, but powerless in it.” Finally, like sin, the aristocracy carries a death sentence (once the Revolution starts) and passes down by heredity; even Darney’s little daughter has her name knitted into Mme Defarge’s secret rolls of the doomed.

Redemption comes about by Sydney’s sacrificial act. Sydney looks like Charles, a fact that saves Charles’s life on more than one occasion. The likeness calls to mind passages of Scripture such as this from the letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus had to be made like us, his brothers and sisters, in every way.” Sydney goes to the prison where Charles is held just before his death, makes him faint with chloroform, and then changes clothes with him. More Biblical words seem to run through the events: “For he has made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us,” and “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The man with the key (having been persuaded by Sydney earlier) takes away the man who now looks like Sydney, leaving the real Sydney in the dungeon to wait for the tumbril that will carry him to his execution. Then, in the last pages, Sydney bravely dies in Charles’s place on the guillotine. (Do I need to cite Scripture on that one?)

A Tale of Two Cities doesn’t read like the most famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. For one thing, Dickens’s story makes sense on its surface level. No random giants that only occupy one particular field. No sloughs that people walk through instead of just walking around. No pleasant inns run by godly people who inexplicably don’t have to make the pilgrimage to Celestial City. But also, in Dickens’s novel, the spiritual themes don’t always shine in the forefront. The book has humor, love, satire, and a little adventurous action as well as death and resurrection. And that means that the book works very well at two levels. In other words, the novel can be read and understood in either of the two Cities.

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