‘For maximum literary effect, sensationalism and violence have to be juxtaposed with female innocence and vulnerability’. Discuss with reference to the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens and ‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins.
The title quote is probably too fixed. Generally, there can be no such prescriptive methods for writing literature, however, there is certainly evidence to show that when contradicting qualities or concepts are presented in close proximity, the intensity of the situation is heightened. Milton used this technique in Paradise Lost – assembling a clear-cut universe comprised entirely of polar opposites and without ambivalence or moral middle ground. Hence in Milton, every physical or mental property is in effect generated and defined by the absence of its opposite counterpart. So darkness is the complete absence of light, and evil is the complete absence of good etc. Dickens’ and Collins’ use of juxtaposition in their novels is more reticent than Milton though with a similar intent and evident immediately in the opening passage of a ‘Tale of Two Cities’: “It was the best of times it was the worst of times… in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” The quote is also an admission on behalf the nature of the novel itself and it is with this ‘superlative degree of comparison’ that we will be made to receive much of the events that unfold, and discover in the process that no such fixed model can properly express human nature which is too often ambiguous or prone to change.
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Both authors were aware that their novels were to be published as serialisations and so there was a very real need to maintain the reader’s interest between chapters. It is perhaps with this concern in mind that the authors penned their mild heroes into lurid depictions of violence and human brutality since the jarring of good and evil makes for shocking subject matter and invariably what is shocking is also powerful. With Dickens’ novel as with Collins’ the real dramatic tension is created by placing feminine champions of goodness and temperance within a masculine context of immorality and violence. As well as the perceived distinction between innocence and guilt, frailty and brutality, patience and impulsion, there is also a subtle contrast between an inner world and an outer one. A world of the soul, which is implicit and inherently good, and a world of the physical or the body which is explicit and outwardly evil. In both novels, the language separates in a similar way – outwardly graphic and sensational, yet with a subtle and often more powerful subtext. The texts of both novels are founded in conflict and perpetuate a sense of tension so it serves us well to do close readings of a short passage as much as an overview of the whole.
We shall take first this passage from Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’:
“The boat-house was large enough to hold us all, but Sir Percival remained outside trimming the last new stick with his pocket-axe. We three women found plenty of room on the large seat. Laura took her work and Madame Fosco began her cigarettes. I, as usual had nothing to do. My hands always were and always will be as awkard as a man’s. The Count good humouredly took a stool many sizes too small for him, and balanced himself on it with his back against the side of the shed, which creaked and groaned under his weight. He put the pagoda cage on his lap, and let out the mice to crawl over him as usual. They are pretty innocent-looking little creatures, but the sight of them creeping about a man’s body is for some reason not pleasant to me. It excites a strange responsive creeping in my own nerves and suggests hideous ideas of men dying in prison with the crawling creatures of the dungeon preying on them undisturbed.”
Marian’s narration begins as ‘matter of fact’ and becomes imagined and complex. From the start of the passage to the end her attention is drawn from objects and characters far away from her, closer in to those surrounding her, then to her own self and identity, and finally the introspective and private thoughts of her own mind. The first sentence raises the idea of a separate world of violence lying outside Marian’s own. She highlights Sir Percival’s decision to remain ‘outside’ despite the boat-house being ‘large enough to hold us all’ so she could be implying an obstinacy in his actions or perhaps more likely, she may be perplexed by his behaviour. The very action of trimming a stick with a pocket axe carries various connotations with violence and masculine sexuality. It is of course an arbitrary occupation of his time and serves as a meaningless and almost sinister method of disconnection between himself and the others and hence a source of confusion. Marian’s next comment ‘We three women’, at once it unites the women together as a concept or a quality of femininity and further separates them from the singular identity of Sir Percival. Marian’s language is deeply characterised by ideas of containment. The ladies sit inside and they are easily accommodated: ‘we three women found plenty of room on the large seat’. This statement contrasts directly with her comment about the Count a little later, who ‘took a stool many sizes too small for him, and balanced himself on it with his back against the side of the shed, which creaked and groaned under his weight’ – a sentence which trails on for longer, more involved and awkward. The Count and Sir Percival, by their cumbersome inflexibility, rebel against and test the physical world. Their presence is more palpable and harder to contain unlike the women who are compliant, slight and ensconced by the physical world. This whole image is a dilution of the revolutionary world as emasculated, savage and violent – the container and oppressor of feminine goodness.
As we have seen the direction of Marian’s thought is inward but her language and the use of symbolism give an added suggestion of moving from an open, free space, to a confined, interior space. Initially Marian uses words like ‘outside’ and phrases such as ‘plenty of room’ but her train of thought finishes in reflection on ‘Pagoda Cages’, on ‘prison’ and ‘the dungeon’. Herein lies the horror for Marian. Her language is the language of oppression and confinement: ‘My hands always were and always will be as awkward as a mans.’ Her use of the phrase ‘always were and always will be’ excludes all sense of hope and the awkwardness of the repetition is emblematic of her bitterness and resent of the awkwardness of her situation. Her use of the word awkward itself is interesting, used as much no doubt as the implied opposite of delicate or relaxed and the whole image of a woman being burdened with the tools of man’s violence towards the world is a powerful one.
The shift in Marian’s observation of mice running freely over the Count’s person, to an imagined picture of rats crawling over a morbid prisoner is a much more tangible instance of frailty and innocence played against sensational horror. The real power of the text here lies in the compression of a quaint image into a one which repulses. But further it suggests there is a macabre bent in Marian or an inclination of thought towards something deeper and darker than her reality. Can it be that she relates with both images – the ‘pretty-innocent looking creatures (my italics)’, how she and women seem to be, or should aspire to become, and ‘men dying in prison with the crawling creatures of the dungeon preying on them undisturbed’, how she and other really feel?
We will turn now to the following passage from the last chapter of Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’:
‘The second tumbril empties and moves on: the third comes up. Crash! – And the knitting-women, never faltering or pausing in their work, count two.
The supposed Evremonde descends, and the seamstress is lifted out next after him. He has not relinquished her patient hand in getting out, but still holds it as he promised. He gently places her with her back to the crashing engine that constantly whirs up and falls, and she looks into his face and thanks him.
“But for you dear stranger, I should not be so composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart; nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here to-day. I think you were sent to me by Heaven”…
The two stand in the fast-thinning throng of victims, but they speak as if they were alone. Eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, heart to heart, these two children of the Universal Mother, else so wide apart and differing, have come together on the dark highway, to repair home together, and to rest in her bosom.’
Dickens’ tale is related in the third person and there is consequently less room for personal introspection, the like we saw in Marian’s narration (although Dicken’s does dispense with this convention to allow a voice to Carton’s final thoughts in the last lines). However, Dickens’ presents a more sensational description of the world outside his characters. The opening of the passage here imparts a sense of horror by the alarming regularity and routine of the public execution. The relentless killing punctuated consistently by the knitting women as they count towards the heroes’ death. Throughout this passage, Dickens offsets the outside world of motion and with the interior capsule of calm between Carton and the tragic seamstress. The language of impending doom – ‘empties and moves on’, ‘never faltering or pausing’, ‘the crashing engine that constantly whirs up and falls’, and the ‘fast-thinning throng of victims’, is juxtaposed with language of stillness, timelessness and peace – ‘not relinquished’ ‘her patient hand’, ‘still holds’, ‘so composed’ ‘stand alone’. Evident in this passage is a contradiction between the real world of horror and the machinery of violence, and the seamstress’ admission of her own vulnerability – ‘I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart’. But where in previous parts of the novel this opposition was played out with the effect of crushing feminine innocence and creating suspense and horror as a consequence, at this point the woman finds strength in her company. In fact the arrangement of her statement reinforces this idea. ‘But for you dear stranger’, and ‘my thoughts to Him’ surround her admission ‘I am naturally a poor little thing’ – she takes comfort between these objects. They surround her and protect her from the brutality of the outside world.
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In this closing chapter of the novel, when finally the fragility of female innocence collides with the horror and mechanics of the revolution, Dickens actually draws a crucial separation between the two concepts. United in love, the protagonists fall away from the physical world – the guillotine a machine which by designs cuts people in two: ‘The two stand in the fast thinning throng of victims, but they speak as if they were alone’. In this final point of the novel – the characters break free from their context. In fact, Dickens uses different paragraphs to describe the human moments and the fall of the tumbril blade as though the outside influences have no control over the characters. ‘Eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, heart to heart,’ where the novel has been an exploration of pairs of opposites, the best of times, and the worst of times, it champions as it denouement pairs of equals and connection rather than argument. The passage unites two concepts into one, so ‘The two stand’ become in transformation ‘they speak’. Though they are ‘two children’, they are born of one ‘Universal Mother’, and though ‘so wide apart’ they have ‘come together’.
What is important here, is that Dickens has chosen to create a different literary effect at the end of his novel from that outlined in the title, by a confrontation of equals rather than opposites. It may show that the collision of brutality and compassion work to create shock and suspense during reading but it is with one motivation that a reader continues through these moments and that is to reach a fitting harmony.
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