A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens' lifetime coincides with the greatest period of penal and legal
reform in British history, during which studies of the causes of crime,
and attempts to remove these causes, led to developments in educational
and charitable institutions (Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime, 3rd edn.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994: 2). Dickens himself had great sympathy
for suffering children, which drew much of its strength from the traumatic
experience of his own childhood. He also felt great pity for female offenders,
was charitable and kind to them, devised and virtually ran a home for fallen
women, and was more lenient towards female rather than male offenders.
This was probably because he saw them as victims of circumstance; despite
the possibility of almost certain ill-treatment, they remained loyal to
their pimps - something Dickens demonstrates in Nancy's loyalty to Bill
Sikes in Oliver Twist. One reason why Dickens gave so much attention to
crime and its effects in his works was that crime was an inescapable social
problem at the time, and Dickens had a great passion (according to Philip
Collins) for dramatising and commenting on the outstanding topical issues
of his day (Collins, Dickens and Crime: 2).
Yet Dickens was also concerned about the possibilities of avoiding a life of crime. In The Life of our Lord, which he wrote for his children at the age of 32, he summarises the topic of forgiveness as follows: "We must always forgive those who have done us any harm .... and never hate them or be unkind to them" (cit. John R. Reed, Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness, Ohio University Press, 1995: 65). On the other hand, few Dickens novels end without the operation of human or divine justice against offenders. The form of punishment he chooses most often is self-punishment, usually arising from a guilty conscience. This reflects the manner in which Dickens constructed his moral world, in which mercy and forgiveness are signs of virtue; and punishment for evil is unnecessary, as the evil characters ultimately inflict such punishments on themselves. As Reed states, Dickens applied the same principles in his fiction as those in fairy tales and children's literature of nineteenth century England: evil intentions are the evil person's own undoing (Dickens and Thackeray: 471-2). It is the purpose of this essay to explore this further with reference to four novels: Oliver Twist, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
In Oliver Twist, Dickens shows that only Oliver remains untainted by
evil - despite the ill-treatment he receives, and the darkness and corruption
that surround him - chiefly as a result of his goodness and "sturdy spirit"
(Oliver Twist, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974: 49, hereafter referred
to as OT). Fagin fails to instill "into his soul the poison" which he hopes
will "blacken it forever" (OT: 185). By contrast, the "blackening" process
seems to have affected most of the other characters in the novel. Bumble,
the exemplar of workhouse injustice, cannot rise above muddle and perverse
official thinking. Magistrate Fang, the exemplar of workhouse injustice,
irrationally and arbitrarily abuses his authority. The workhouse, an institution
originally designed to help the poor, has been transformed into a house
of punishment by the New Poor Law; and callous officials like Bumble and
Fang have contrived to make conditions worse. Hardened criminals such as
Fagin and Bill Sikes thrive; this is a world devoid of humanity and social
justice. Dickens makes his intentions clear in the preface to the Third
Edition of Oliver Twist: "[I intend] to draw a knot of such associates
in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all
their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives" (OT: 34).
The thieves and assorted underworld characters in this novel are full of
wretchedness and misery. They did not become criminals of their own volition:
unless slums were cleared, one could not expect any moral improvement in
To survive in this world, one must either be rich, or be sufficiently strong to preserve one's essential goodness of heart. As a "parish child", Oliver is "a half-starved drudge - to be cuffed and buffeted through the world - despised by all, and pitied by none", the "victim of a systematic course of treachery and corruption" (OT: 47). Yet despite Fagin's attempts to turn him into a thief, Oliver remains uncorrupted by crime; ultimately he is thrown into the arms of Brownlow (who helps him to recover his fortune), and subsequently encounters the angelic Rose, who turns out to be his aunt. Despite the ill-treatment meted out to him in Fagin's den, Oliver nonetheless prays for his forgiveness, once the Jew is taken into custody.
But can the other characters in the novel remain equally pure in intention? Oliver's mother, Agnes, indulged her sexual desires; and as her lover died before they had the chance to marry, she had to suffer the inevitable consequences - penury and humiliation. Nancy, a prostitute since childhood, is bound to Bill Sikes, not only emotionally but also financially; and considers herself irredeemable, despite the fact that the narrator suggests that she is not totally corrupt. She fails to see that her guilt is socially imposed. When she attempt to help Oliver, this act of generosity leads to her death. The implication is clear; if Nancy could have been extricated from the corrupting influences around her, she might have had the chance to reform. However, in this indifferent, callous world of nineteenth century London, no one had thought of helping her - something which, as Reed suggests, provides an indictment of the largely middle-class Church of England and its adherents (Dickens and Thackeray: 78), which believe that working-class prostitutes such as Nancy are irredeemable.
It seems that Rose Maylie might be thought of as much the same kind of person; she is illegitimate and thus not able to enter respectable society. However, her compassionate, forgiving spirit gradually comes to dominate the narrative. Her first significant act is to protect the injured Oliver from the criminal underworld. She subsequently joins forces with Brownlow; all of them are saved; and Rose herself learns the truth about her parentage. Just like Oliver, she achieves a kind of 'victory', by solving the mystery of her own birth (Dickens and Thackeray: 79), as she discovers she is not illegitimate through the sister of the fallen Agnes. Clearly Oliver Twist suggests that redemption from evil is possible, so long as one remains true to one's generally good intentions. However, those who transgress have to suffer punishment - hence Agnes dies, and Nancy is murdered, despite their attempts to redeem themselves.
The conscious injustice and the crimes of Fagin, Bill Sikes and their group have to be punished more severely. Justice is meted out to Mr. Bumble through his marriage to Mrs. Corney for money, and his marriage precipitates a fall "from all the height and pomp of beadleship, to the lowest depths of the most snubbed henpeckery" (OT: 328). Both Mr. and Mrs. Bumble become paupers in that same "workhouse in which they had lorded it over others" (OT: 477). Monks is not a criminal by profession; but nonetheless attempts to prise Oliver's inheritance away, by virtue of the fact that both have the same father. He eventually dies in prison after squandering his share of the inheritance, and being involved in fraud (OT: 476).
At first glance, Fagin's criminal underworld seems to resemble a charitable institution, in that it offers food and protection for several waifs. But behind this facade lurks an atmosphere of unrestrained exploitation. As in the state of England as a whole, the sense of community in the thieves' den is informed by self-interest, or, in Fagin's words, regard for the "number one" (OT: 387). Fagin realised that it is this philosophy that drives his thieves to crime; but it also ensures their survival as a unit. He tries to explain this to Claypole:
You depend upon me. To keep my little business snug, I depend upon you. The first is your number one, the second my number one. The more you value your number one, the more careful you must be of mine; so ... a regard for number one holds us all together (OT: 388).
If anyone forgets this notion, then punishment is swift and savage. Nancy is punished for her acts of generosity; Oliver is threatened, locked up and called ungrateful for wanting to lead a crime-free life. Fagin himself approves of capital punishment, as it is a convenient way to dispose of potential informants. Such punishments are meted out by Bill Sikes, a hardened criminal who bullies and terrifies the boys, and eventually murders Nancy. None of these characters escape Dickens' retributive punishments. Haunted by Nancy's phantom, Sikes accidentally hangs himself - a death whose self-punishing nature, as Reed remarks, is accentuated by his belief that Nancy's eyes appear before him, thus causing him to slip (Dickens and Thackeray: 81). Fagin's den is eventually discovered; and the Jew himself is sentenced to execution, allowing him plenty of time for possible repentance. Instead he is filled with despair at the prospect of death. Although aware of his guilt, he feels no repentance, only fear at having to pay the price for his actions by death. Fagin's authority was once founded on fear; according to the retributive scheme of the novel, it is appropriate that he himself should experience suffering and fear, prior to death.
In Hard Times, as Barbara Hardy notes, there is a new approach to the
social conditioning of character (Charles Dickens, the Writer and his work,
Windsor, Profile Books, 1983: 76). The narrator takes sides at once and
does not let the reader forget the Utilitarian principle of "educating
the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections"
(Hard Times, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1984: 89, hereafter referred
to as HT). Such attitudes, it is suggested, inevitably lead to some form
of perversion. Three significant examples of this are Tom and Louisa Gradgrind
and Bitzer. As with Fagin and his crew, Tom and Bitzer learn to look after
number one: Bitzer, a prig in the classroom, becomes a spy, in the hope
of personal gain; Tom, by contrast, is prepared to sacrifice Louisa in
an attempt to improve his own social situation. He compounds this offence
by stealing money from Bounderby's bank and then putting the blame on the
innocent worker, Stephen Blackpool. Louisa herself is prepared to suppress
her own emotions by marrying Bounderby. The philosophy of their father,
Thomas Gradgrind, has taught them "that everything has to be paid for ...
Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be
a bargain across a counter" (HT: 304).
By choosing a dissolute life, Tom Gradgrind wants to punish his father for his teachings, and thus attempts to live a life totally in contrast to them. However, Dickens will not let him escape so lightly; he shows that Thomas's so-called 'escape' is not an escape at all; he works in a bank with figures. After he has stolen money from Bounderby, Thomas uses statistics to depict his crime as 'normal'. He is a prisoner of his upbringing; although he escapes legal punishment and achieves repentance in exile, he is nonetheless punished by the narrator for his sins, as he dies of a fever, "in penitence and love of Louisa, his last word being her name" (HT: 313).
Louisa herself also suffers the consequences of her actions. Having married Bounderby, whom she does not love, to benefit her brother, she finds it impossible to continue her sham existence. She flees to her father's house, telling him she curses the hour she was bred through his philosophy to a life without sentiments of the heart and graces of the soul. She asks: "How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death?" (HT: 329). Her chief transgression, her marriage, is its own punishment. Yet she feels a great need for forgiveness; and for this she chooses Sissy Jupe, a member of Sleary's circus, who nonetheless possesses all the natural impulses Louisa has been forced to repress. Louisa cries "Forgive me, pity me, help me!" (HT: 248); Sissy responds by taking her hand; with this scene of forgiveness Louisa can begin her process of redemption.
The one truly unscrupulous character in Hard Times is Bounderby - a shameless exploiter of men, who constructs an elaborate autobiographical fiction, with himself as the hero at the expense of other members of his family (Reed, Dickens and Thackeray: 224). His punishment at the end of the novel is to be revealed as a fraud - someone who not only loses his wife, but who is shown to be a lying, heartless braggart, caring for no one but himself. As with Sikes in Oliver Twist, Bounderby's retribution culminates in death; he dies of a fit in the street five years later.
Unlike Oliver Twist, however, Hard Times suggests that a Utilitarian world might have no place for goodness. Despite a fundamentally kind, generous nature, Stephen Blackpool tends to have injustice upon injustice heaped upon him. He loves Rachel, (who appears to represent all the best in humanity); but cannot marry her, as he is already married to a drunken wretch. All she can do is to save Stephen from his guilty dream of murdering his wife, or letting her destroy him. Blackpool is wrongfully accused of stealing money from the bank; on his way back to plead his innocence, he falls into an abandoned mine shaft and later dies. But perhaps Blackpool is not a wholly 'good' character: the fall may be a kind of instant punishment for his earlier intention to kill his wife, and for the injustice he bears towards Louisa (Bounderby's wife) (Reed, Dickens and Thackeray: 230).
Both Tom and Louisa Gradgrind are prisoners of the Utilitarian philosophy, which prevents them from having the dreams and memories of a joyful childhood. By contrast, Sissy Jupe, whose father believes strongly that 'people must be amuthed' (HT: 82), knows the value of such memories, and how imagination begets sympathy and understanding of others. Her future life is depicted as potentially happy, with "children loving her" (HT: 313), on account of her moral capacity to deal with the world. By contrast, Louisa's is considered "simply as a duty to be done" (HT: 313) - that is, until she tries to reform. Even Gradgrind himself is finally filled with repentance for ruining the lives of his children, as he decided to make "his Facts and Figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity" (HT: 312).
A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities is another story of guilt and retribution, which
operates at both the personal and historical levels. The novel denounces
the kind of retribution brought about by the French Revolution, based on
hatred, vengeance and spite. It suggests that only by forgiving, or pardoning
guilty people, can individuals escape from the cycle of crime and revenge
that causes endless suffering. This is especially evident in the fate of
Dr. Manette, who has unjustly endured solitary confinement for eighteen
years in the Bastille, for having written a letter revealing the cruel
and criminal activities of the Evrémonde brothers. When he is transported
to England can he learns once again to establish contact with reality,
although he is still prone to fits of distraction. By the time the story
ends, he is still a "helpless, inarticulately murmuring, wandering old
man" (A Tale of Two Cities, The New English Library, 1963: 348, hereafter
referred to as TTC). What has caused Dr. Manette's suffering? The greatest
burden of responsibility rests with the self-indulgent, exploitative and
unjust French aristocracy - the marquis who throws a coin to the father
of a child whom he has just run over and killed. The narrator suggests
that as one sows one must reap, and Madame Defarge alludes to the moral
rule that evil brings its own consequences. Yet a violent response to injustice
is not the answer. Blinded by rage, the revolutionaries become as unjust
and as cruel as the aristocrats they used to hate. Even Dr. Manette himself
must take some responsibility for this; his curse on the whole St. Evrémonde
family provides the justification for further bloodshed, as Charles Darnay
is arrested and sentenced to die at the guillotine. Manette's cry for revenge
against the whole family of his oppressors was as unjust as their behaviour,
and it only leads to suffering for him.
Madame Defarge embodies the worst aspects of this retributive tendency. In her heart there is only an unforgiving hatred and a desire for revenge against all the Evrémonde family. Her involvement in the revolutionary cause is provoked mostly by personal hatred and a desire for eye-for-an-eye justice, rather than by political convictions. Her hatred is so excessive that in her desire for personal retribution she takes justice into her own hands. Yet Dickens will not let her escape her own retribution: while trying to injure Lucie Manette and her daughter, she kills herself with her own dagger.
Charles Darnay, who emigrated to England after renouncing his aristocratic title, returns to France "to do something to stay bloodshed and assert the claims of mercy and humanity" (TTC: 240); but he is powerless to do anything because he is liable to suffer retribution from the revolutionaries, on account of his background. What saves him from the guillotine is Lucie's loving heart, which arouses a spirit of forgiveness and unselfish loyalty in the drunken lawyer Sydney Carton, which inspires him to the generous act of self-sacrifice for Lucie's happiness. Charles is sentenced to die at the guillotine; Carton volunteers to go in his place, and thereby extricates himself from the cycle of crime and suffering that dominates the novel.
Great Expectations is a novel which focuses once more on the destruction of the heart; not through violence this time, but through living in an uncaring, often brutal society. Barbara Hardy remarks that
One of ... [its] successes ... is its fusion of the individual story with the social indictment. Dickens shows in Pip the natural unconditioned life of the heart and the socially destructive process that weakens and distorts it, transforming instinct into calculation, human love into manipulation, generosity into greed, spontaneity into shame and ambition (Charles Dickens: The Writer and His Work, 40).
In his aspiration to become a gentleman Pip always represses the memory
of his association with the criminal Magwitch and rejects Joe, Biddy, Orlick,
Pumblechook and the life of the blacksmith's forge as degrading. Yet despite
his move up the social scale Pip can never escape a sense that he is affiliated
to a criminal. As a child, Pip is forced by the grown-ups around him to
identify with the murderers of fatherly uncles - like George Barnwell;
and prodigal sons. The selfish and unloving Mrs. Joe makes him feel guilty
all the time; and this is exacerbated by his secret intention to steal
food for the convict - Magwitch - who threatens to rip his young body open.
The mere fact that Pip has a close association with a convict blights the
boy's existence; he puts the bread and butter he steals for the convict
down his trouser-leg, because it makes him think of the man with the load
- that is the iron - on his leg. References to chains, leg irons, files
and handcuffs crop up frequently in the text, to reinforce this notion
of pervasive guilt.
Pip's sister - Mrs. Joe - uses religion to subordinate Pip, while all the time treating him as a thing of no value, something she fishes up by the hair or uses as a "connubial missile" to throw at Joe (Great Expectations, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1983): 44, 41, hereafter referred to as GE). At the forge Joe and Pip are "fellow sufferers" in the face of Mrs. Joe's tyranny (GE: 40). But the forge also teaches Pip something about human relationships, chiefly through the character of Joe himself. He refuses to see Pip as an investment or commodity; when Pip ultimately leaves him, he asserts that no amount of money can compensate for the loss. Joe teaches Pip that value is a function of conviction, not of money, and that the individual can find "purposive identity" only through empathy (Badri Raina, Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986: 112). Of Mrs. Joe he says "Your sister is a fine figure of a woman", and he finishes his talk by asking Pip to "overlook shortcomings", and to forgive his sister (GE: 78, 80). In his inarticulate manner Joe tries to convey the message that an individual can only be sustained through relationships with other people; and that such relationships can only be sustained by sacrificing oneself. Pip admits that he "dated a new admiration for Joe from that night", and through this begins to recognise the true life of the heart (GE: 80).
However, such feelings of generosity are soon destroyed, when Pip reaches Satis House. When he is contemptuously fed like a dog in Miss Havisham's yard, his feeling of class antagonism is born. Having been called "a common labouring boy" by Estella, he is troubled by things that never troubled him before - his "coarse hands" and "thick boots" (GE 89,90). Pip admits that "Her contempt for me was so strong that it became infectious, and I caught it" (GE: 90). The forge, which he once regarded "as the glowing road to manhood and independence", now seems "coarse and common".
Yet it is not only Pip who becomes a victim of a selfish, materialistic, class-conscious society. Magwitch's apparently selfless act of making Pip a gentleman conceals an overtly selfish purpose, as we shall see; Miss Havisham, by contrast, seeks to use Estella to make men suffer like she herself suffered. Like Madame Defarge, however, such hatred only serves to inflict more punishment on herself, as she is deprived of the love of Estella, whose nature she has warped so much that she cannot feel love for anyone. When Estella says, "I am what you have made me" and "I have never been unfaithful to you or your schooling" (GE: 322, 324), Miss Havisham realises how she has destroyed herself. In this sense, her eventual death, in the fire at Satis House, seems strangely appropriate.
Magwitch's munificence towards Pip is also a form of revenge on a society that victimised him, as he hopes to create a gentleman out of the only human being who ever offered help. In doing so, however, he seems unaware that he wants to transform Pip into another Compeyson, the man responsible for his wretched life in the first place. However, he gives Pip what he himself never had: a chance to remain respectable. Pip's name stands in his memory for human fellowship and that is why he wants the boy always to bear the name of Pip. Unfortunately, as soon as he goes to London Pip disowns himself by allowing Herbert to call him "Handel" (GE: 202).
It is clear, then, that as in the other novels covered in this essay, Dickens shows some kind of retributive justice at work. Mrs. Joe is punished by being brutally beaten into a mute and humbled condition for her treatment of Joe. As death approaches, she has Biddy put her arms round Joe's neck, in an attempt to ask forgiveness. The last word she utters is "Pip". Orlick's assault on her has the effect of making her realise her errors; in this sense, Orlick might be thought of as an unwitting agent of justice. Yet his aggression does not go unpunished, as he is imprisoned for robbing Pumblechook's shop.
But what about Pip himself? As he gradually moves up the social scale, he begins to notice the adverse effects of so-called 'great expectations' on his personality. In an attempt to overcome this, he becomes Herbert Pocket's secret benefactor, a genuine gesture of affection and generosity - unlike that of Magwitch, for instance. It must be remembered, however, that Great Expectations is an autobiographical novel, told by the older Pip, who deplores the insensibility and unfaithfulness of his past life (Hardy, Charles Dickens: The Writer and His Work: 85). In a sense, therefore, the novel becomes a kind of confessional, in which the narrator cites numerous examples of his unwise and snobbish behaviour; he calls himself a "self-swindler" (GE: 247), for staying at the Blue Boar instead of staying at Joe's when he returns to the village. He knows he and Herbert are going "from bad to worse" (GE: 304), and recognises the folly of his love for Estella: "I loved her against reason, against hope, against unhappiness" (GE: 253-4). Before leaving for London, on his visit to the marshes, he remembers with shame his association with Magwitch, being at that moment unaware that the convict is the agent of his transformation. Later, on the way to the village, even being in the same coach with Magwitch disgusts him and fills him with fear (GE: 249).
The mature Pip, who narrates the story, considers all these instances as moral faults, that deserve punishment. What gives Pip the real opportunity for repentance, and moral growth is the force of events. As he realises how attached Magwitch is to him, Pip becomes concerned for his safety (GE: 394). Magwitch is so contented by being close to his dear Pip, that the possible danger to his freedom, and to his life, is unimportant. As a result, Pip no longer feels repugnance for Magwitch, and sees that the convict has been "a much better man than I had been to Joe" (GE: 457). Pip's process of self-discovery continues, as he returns to the forge, to find Biddy married to Joe. For the happiness of the newly-married couple Pip decides on a painful act of self-exile. He tells them he will go away to repay the money Joe gave to keep him out of prison, but he also knows he has a moral debt of inadequate affection and gratitude, which he can never pay back. For this he asks their forgiveness: "Pray, tell me, both, that you forgive me!" - which they readily do (GE: 488). Suffering, moral or physical, is a reparative activity because it leads to a deepened awareness of our human-ness and of what is right for us (David Holbrook, Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, New York University Press, 1993: 8). At the end, Pip has endured several punishments and extended his forgiveness to several people. He has learned to endure hardship and injustice. He has gained insight into himself and become capable of love and affection. Instead of riches, he is rewarded with a new-found self-awareness. And the faithful Joe, who responded to Mrs. Joe's sadism with forgiveness and to Pip's ingratitude with generosity, is rewarded with marriage to Biddy, the only other character who shares his sensitive feelings.