Saturday, April 5, 2014

What kind of person am I? A Tale of Two Cities update

Maybe my 6th-grade teacher was right, and I shouldn't have written quite so effusively about A Tale of Two Cities before finishing the book.

As my literary experiment limps on, I am coming to the conclusion that I just don't much like to read classic adult fiction. After my previous post on the book, I let A Tale of Two Cities sit in the trunk of my car for two months, then picked it up again during one of E's band practices.

Did I previously write that Lucie Manette is "a little too diminutive"? That was mighty generous of me. She's so sincere and delicate and at-the-service-of-others that she's hardly human. She's earnest and pretty and boring.

I had high hopes for this book, especially following The Scarlet Letter. Where Hawthorne is just mean, Dickens is amusingly snarky. For example, whereas Hawthorne repeatedly harps on his Custom-House colleagues for tipping their chairs backward and snoozing their mind-numbingly dull days away, Dickens more vividly and cheerfully compares bankers to cheese:
Cramped in all kinds of dim cupboards and hutches at Tellson's, the oldest of men carried on the business gravely. When they took a young man into Tellson's London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old. They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon him. Then only was he permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books, and casting his breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment. (Dover Thrift Edition, 1999, p. 40).
When Dickens coined the adverb "adverbiously," I practically swooned:
Charles Darnay had yesterday pleaded Not Guilty to an indictment denoucing him (with infinite jingle and jangle) for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King, by reason of his having, on divers occasions, and by divers means and ways, assisted Lewis, the French King, in his wars against our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth; that was to say, by coming and going between the dominions of our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, and those of the said French Lewis, and wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously, revealing to the said French Lewis what forces our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, had in preparation to send to Canada and North America. (pp. 46-47)
But somehow the excitement dropped off somewhere in France, especially as attention turned to the solemn and rather boring love between Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay. Thus I hid the book in the trunk.

Upon retrieving it, I wondered why on earth a teacher would offer this text to 11-yr-olds. The language is occasionally so oblique that even as a 46-yr-old skimmer, I'm not entirely certain I'm understanding it correctly. I picked up that Charles wanted to marry Lucie, and then that Charles was indeed going to marry Lucie, and then that they were married and off on their honeymoon; and then in the course of a page or so (pp. 161-162), I thought I read that Lucie maybe nearly died during pregnancy or childbirth, and they had a daughter, and then also a son, but the angelic boy died as a young child. What? Did I read that right? I re-skimmed the pages and still wasn't sure, so I tried googling for confirmation.

That was a mistake, because instead of finding confirmation, I found a SPOILER that indicates that the interesting, clever, revolutionary, strong female character--Madame Dufarge--is "the villainess in the novel," and as such, is going to get bumped off by Lucie Manette's proxy, Miss Pross. I haven't gotten far enough into the book to understand that Madame Dufarge is "a monster"--just far enough to admire her involvement in espionage and observant knitting. Dang.

This reminds me of another book I read (and actually enjoyed): Gregory Maguire's Lost (2001). I don't remember much about the book, other than that it had something to do with Dickens and Scrooge and ghosts or some such, but I do remember really liking the female protagonist, Winifred Rudge. The edition I owned had some questions for reading groups, and I recall one of the questions saying something along the lines of, "Many readers find Winifred Rudge to be extremely unlikable blah blah blah"--which made me wonder what kind of person I must be if I liked her. And here I am, enthusiastically preferring Madame Dufarge to the feminine ideal of Lucie Manette. Oh dear, oh dear, and I still have 130 pages to go.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation, you're not alone: I infinitely preferred Madame DeFarge to Lucie as well. Lucie is so sweet she sets my teeth on edge, and so stupid I can well believe that one of Dickens' daughters said "My father didn't understand women." How on earth anyone but a pedophile could manage to feel anything remotely resembling sexual desire for this poor naïve child is beyond me.

Mind you, she and Darnay make an excellent couple: I've never had any idea what made him such a moral exemplar. If he'd actively tried to improve matters for the people on his father's properties once he'd inherited them, you could at least respect him, but he didn't; despite knowing what his father and uncle had done and how terrible the lives of their vassals had been and still were, he just dumped responsibility on the steward and stayed safe and warm in England. When Gabelle was jailed, he did feel a trifle guilty about not having done something, but he headed back to France more because his pride was stung than from any real concern for the people his family had abused and exploited for decades.

Dickens' lack of sympathy for the DeFarges -- and all the taradiddle around the flat fact of kidnapping, rape, torture and murder -- just plain annoy me. After what was done to her family, expecting Madame DeFarge to melt into a rapture of repentance at the sight of sweet, innocent Lucie's tear-filled eyes was unutterably ridiculous. She's supposedly a monster, but Dickens seems to ignore the fact that she was what she had every right to be: furious and vengeful. If she is a monster, it was a monstrous injustice that created her. Mind you, Dickens has always been one for the young, pretty, naïve, angelic heroines who faint at the drop of a hat, so I'd imagine the thought of someone like Madame DeFarge -- who didn't see herself as needing any man's protection, much less direction -- probably scared him senseless.

When an author insists that everyone loves a particular character, I'm always convinced that the author might very well love such a person, but suspects that no one else would be able to stand them.