A reflection on Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities

By Igor Damous.

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it.

With this reflection, Charles Dickens opens the third chapter of the first book of his most famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Everything in Dickens’s narrative is full of symbology, especially the names and terms coined to entitle his passages—they were specifically chosen, each one, to show something and to suggest much more than what was shown. A simplistic and obvious interpretation would see the title of the book as a reference to the two cities in which the story happens, London and Paris. But Dickens is not for hurried glances—one must take the risk to entangle himself in his hidden meanings to properly understand his work’s profoundness. And these depths of meaning are exactly the main theme of the novel. The existence of two parallel cities in each and every city; one of them easily perceived, a city constructed for appearances, that sees social cohesion as a result of norms or necessities, and that pursues the planning of souls through neutrality and equality; the other, a phantom, mysterious and borderless city, composed by unique souls and its secrets, where cohesion, if it exists or not, is made through affection and sympathy. That is, a fictional and public city and a real city of privacies. One to be seen; the other to be touched.

Russell Kirk once said that to be fairly human, one must understand that we are part of a community of souls. This platonic statement, like Dickens’s statements, is an invitation to a curious passerby to pay a little more attention and go down the rabbit hole, then start to understand reality properly by going deeper. That we live in communion, we all know. Even materialists notice that. And the most notable characteristic of this communion is the existence of words. Communication is not a human luxury, but a necessity of a being that lives among others. It is a major aspect of a community. That each of us has a separate soul, materialists would disagree. But even to those who are right, those who agree, this statement still does not affect the idea that communication is something only mundane, that we communicate only to express how lonely we feel. However, what is interesting about the idea that we are part of a community of souls is that it changes the whole discussion from the false perception that we communicate only politically, that we communicate through words and with definitive intentions within a lifetime, to the more accurate conception that we indeed communicate politically, but, at the same time and in a different level happens a parallel dialogue shapeless as mist, that glimpses eternity and the crude reality, trafficking with the deepest sorrows of human existence. We live in a community of souls, not in a silent collective of them. There is a connection between our souls; they speak with each other.

But not by words. That is why the third chapter of A Tale of Two Cities is called Night Shadows. Our souls, as well as their dialogue, precipitate over this world losing their pureness, gluing onto the mundane in images that barely represent the nobleness of what they really are, like shadows dancing upon a wall. We understand that these images, all these signs are clues of a different dimension to which we also belong. It does not mean that they are not important. It is the complete opposite. Without these shadows, we could not understand this world. As Kirk wrote in Decadence and Renewal in Higher Learning, “We cannot find our way in this world without images; for, as G.K. Chesterton tells us, all life is an allegory, and we can understand it only in parable.”

Our allegorical world attests to man’s creative power as the only way for him to live as a man, as a way of filling the inexorable vacuum of knowledge that separates us from the truth, linking us to reality through dream-made bridges. But at the same time, fantasy separates us from the world, ratifying man’s existence as self-sufficient and his desolation in this world as an insupportable albeit mandatory burden to be carried. In this way, every man becomes a kind of god cursed to live alone, trapped in himself, far from everyone, like Frankenstein’s monster. And that is not the case. This desolation, all the sadness that comes from man’s detachment from the world, is exactly what links all hearts burdened to live here. Our loneliness is our bond, the profound sadness that we feel is a statement: that we live in a precarious world, and that there is a place where we all are part of a delicate veil of dreams. Dreams are meant to be dreamed alone, said Joseph Conrad; but they are just tools to interpret a world in which we live together but in which we do not understand each other, a tool to access the bond that we share in another world. They are necessary, but not sufficient. And the only means that we humans have to access this dreamy world is love.

Every time I enter a great city by day I see small independent worlds flourishing: I see lovers exchanging plans and carving their names over a tree, I see crossed glances of strangers imagining what could be, I see impressions shared by the painter and the one who contemplates the work, I see a father and a son parting future through past, I see a mother singing for a child within her bosom who dreams a world yet to be lived, I see a park bench bearing the memories of walks and exchanged whispers, I see the sorrows of a poet opening the heart of a timid man to a beloved one, I see the tears of a writer falling over a paper in a vain hope of reaching the soul of someone who understands. All of them are shared secrets, shared dreams, shared hopes, shared sorrows, spontaneous glimpses of the communion of souls of which we are part, which silently determines our world’s destiny. A dimension of abysmal profoundness and dancing shadows, a dimension that challenges the one who wants to understand it with an enigma, be ye therefore perfect, to remain continually learning about the moveable world in which we live. Perfection and continuity, therefore, love.

“We live in a fantasy world,” wrote the English novelist Iris Murdoch, and the great task in life is to find reality.” Every city is formed by these two struggles: an attempt to understand reality through fantasy, and an attempt to escape from fantasy to fully understand reality. First, a superficial city composed of crystalized fantasy, created by many human lives to understand reality minimally and conform it to the urges of human survival. It is a city that exists to set men free, a vertex that aims to be a starting point—that man should live as a man—but that does not determine the way he will live. A city of laws, of order, a city of force and cohesion, intrigue, and treason, theorems, etiquettes, and oligarchies. A city that detests nature, and recreates it in a different fashion, in human fashion sets men free from animality. This city is an attempt to define the shadowy city that ethereally happens inside its bosom, escaping through its fingers, living behind the doors. The last, a city in which politics have no relevance and the language is spoken through gestures, silent or confessed affections, is a city of hope and sentiments, of friendship, charity, and compassion, which is activated to solve the enigma of existence. In other words, it is a city of concreteness and depth, a city of love. “It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists,” mused Murdoch. It is, therefore, a city that deals with beauty and goodness.

History, political science, and sociology are ways created to understand this static and presumptuous city of appearances, to understand the public city. Literature, poetry, experience, and art are ways to find the humblest and most whisper-talking of them both. The democracy of G. K. Chesterton, the government of the living and the dead, is only possible with a sense of affection between the young and their ancestors, a private relationship between the living and those who are gone around the sorrows of human existence that bond us all. Democracy is an agreement, easily gone when broken; real democracy is a communion, even if it is parted. Common people know the difference between a house and a home, but specialists do not. The concept of a house changes through time, but the sense of home does not. When looking at our caveman ancestors, at the caves they lived in, we barely can say they had houses. But the fires around which they gathered as a family are like our hearths. The hands marked on the walls remind us of our diaries. Thousands of years separate our dwellings from theirs. Only an instant separates our lamentations.

That is the reason why it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. The era of superlatives, the French Revolution, was the time when real people, tired of their private sufferings, abandoned their real names to become citoyens—public entities—the time when privacies and the public began to be so distant that the frugality of the public turned to be the only stable ground that people saw as a salvation, and then appearance devoured reality. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and other pompous terms, took the place of the real, little, and unwordable affections, turning friends into foes, in the name of an unreal solidarity. It is a common trait of bad sentiments: they create a need for escape from reality, a necessity to hide behind absolutes and sublime abstracts, to live in fantasy. 

Au contraire: Good sentiments, as G. K Chesterton explained, have “a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word.”

In every time period hides a timeless city of affections over which fantasy shall have no dominion, which time shall have no dominion, which death shall have no dominion. Let us live it.

Igor Damous is a Brazilian criminal lawyer.

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