The “Night Shadows” Passage in A Tale of Two Cities

The “Night Shadows” Passage in A Tale of Two Cities

The “Night Shadows” Passage in A Tale of Two Cities: Narrative Anxiety and Conscious Fiction-Building*

Beth Graham

A web of secrets shapes the plot of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  Lucie’s mother hides from her that her father is alive.  Miss Pross and Lorry conceals Dr. Manette’s regression from newlywed Lucie, while he keeps secret the identity of her husband Darnay from her.  Darnay hides from his family that he must return to France.  In France, the Jacquerie hide their anger, their bitterness, and their plotting.  To guide us through this maze of hidden truth and half knowledge, we as readers need an omniscient narrator, one who knows the characters’ inner selves, who can reveal their thoughts and even foreshadow their futures.  Throughout most of the novel, we have such a narrator.

            However, as Sylvere Monod notes, this narrative situation in A Tale of Two Cities shifts in a few instances (497).  The following passage, which opens the “Night Shadows” chapter, is the narrator’s only use of “I”:

A wonderful facto to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.  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 nearest of it. (1.3.44)1


*This article was previously published in Kentucky Philological Review 10 (March 1996).

1 All references to the text of A Tale of Two Cities indicate book and chapter. Page numbers refer to the 1970 Penguin Books edition.

Because the passage breaks with the narrative stance of most of the novel, critics have challenged it, considering it an aberration.  J.M. Rignall, for example, calls it an “excursus” (578).

            Rignall’s evaluation of the “Night Shadows” passage as digressive ignores that A Tale of Two Cities is a tighter novel than Dickens’ earlier work, with a smaller, better developed cast of characters and fewer subplots; moreover, Dickens did not view his works as digressive.  In his Postscript to Our Mutual Friend, he compares the novelist to a “story-weaver” who intertwines the “finer threads” of his work to create a “whole pattern.”  Dickens here portrays the novelist as a craftsman deftly integrating the separate elements of his world into an order, a pattern.  To dismiss the “Night Shadows” passage as a digression denies Dickens’ view of himself as a “story-weaver.”

            Rather than dismissing the passage, Richard Dunn and Michael Timko argue that it demonstrates Dickens’ adherence to Carlylean theories of transcendence.  Dunn calls the passage “one of Dickens’ most overt Carlylean statements” in which he joins Carlyle in “stressing the wonder of facts” and acknowledging “the celestial force invisible within” (121).  For Timko, the passage reflects Carlyle’s influence on “Dickens’ awareness of the mystical or transcendental nature of humanity” (186).  The passage itself, however, shows little evidence of the transcendental or the “celestial force,” and its only “mystical” element might be the enigma each of us is to the other.  More nihilistic than transcendental, the passage denies any hope of connection:

No more can I take the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all.  No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary light glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged.  It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore.  (1.3.44).

Dunn and Timko might argue that the images of the book and the water represent divinity; however, the narrator does not experience transcendence but alienation.  Eternally, the book is shut and the water is frozen.

            If our narrator “stands in ignorance,” where are we left?  The “Night Shadows” passage, a unique narrative moment in the novel, raises intriguing narrative questions.  The passage is, according to Monod, the narrator’s only use of “I,”and he dismisses it as “the philosopher’s I . . . used for general statements, not in order to convey any impression of the narrator as an individual person” (497).  Although Monod hesitates to associate the use of “I” in the “Night Shadows” passage with the narrator as a specific individual, he suggests that in the following passage, a rare instance of first person plural, the author rather than the narrator speaks: “In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret inclination to die of it.  And all of us have like wonders in our breasts, only needing circumstances to evoke them” (497).  Monod offers no evidence for his contention that Dickens speaks here.  Moreover, he fails to note a significant comparison between this passage and the opening of the “Night Shadows” chapter.  These passages—rare moments of first person narration in the novel—both mention secrets and both indicate that we cannot know one another. 

            Why does secrecy become an issue in the few instances in which our omniscient narrator speaks directly using first person, especially since, more than any other genre, the novel creates a sense of voyeurism, of playing “Peeping Tom” to the inner selves of others?  J. Paul Hunter writes of “The novel’s willingness—indeed, incessant need—to invade traditional areas of privacy (the bedroom, the bathroom, the private closet) and explore matters traditionally considered too personal to be shared” (37).  Catherine Gallagher explains that revelation, particularly in the Victorian novel, is the goal of the omniscient narrator (126).  Dickens himself in Dombey and Son calls for “a good spirit who would take the house tops off . . . and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes.”

            However, when the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities speaks to us directly, he challenges his own role as “revealer.”  Not only can he not “take the house tops off,” but he finds each house as a harbor for secrets: “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 a secret” (1.3.44).  As we’ve already seen, the narrator questions his own ability to read a book, nor can he “read” people: “In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, to their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them” (1.3.44)?  As our narrator asks, “How much can we know of one another?” this novel, meant—like all novels—to be a vehicle for revelation, challenges the possibility of revelation itself.

            The “Night Shadows” passage, with its denial that people may ever connect, brings us to the brink of the void.  Through this moment of narrative anxiety we are left to ask if we may know anyone or anything; however, the novel withdraws from this almost nihilistic basis.  Having through the narrator’s uncertainty challenged itself as a construction, the novel then “reconstructs,” so to speak, by showing that fictions are necessary.  In his final act of the novel, the narrator constructs a prophetic fiction of salvation.

            Despite its optimistic conclusion, the novel shows some constructions are destructive—specifically, the construction of ideologies.  Cates Baldridge agrees that the “Night Shadows” passage rethinks the rest of the novel; however, he sees it not as a moment of narrative anxiety but as a subverted ideological statement.  He believes that Dickens, although he seems to condemn the single-minded madness of the revolutionary mob, actually considers “with sensitivity and even enthusiasm the liberating possibilities offered by an ideology centered elsewhere than upon the autonomous self.”  He reads the passage as a lament which expresses a “despairing desire . . . to enter a state of communal knowledge and even communal being.”  This is the novel’s “(suppressed) thematic center” (634-637).  Such an argument has a convenient loophole: if one fails to agree with Baldridge, then one has failed to recognize what is “suppressed.”

            However, A Tale of Two Cities, more than any other of Dickens’ novels, expresses his fear of radical ideologies.  For ironic effect, Dickens repeats throughout the novel the motto of the Revolution, the ideology for which the mob commits its terrible acts: “Republic One and Indivisible, of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death” (3.1.275).  This motto becomes ironic within a context of bloody executions committed in the name of fraternity.  Dickens even provides a symbol for the Revolutionary ideology as a “destructive construction”: Madam Defarge’s knitting is a creation which chronicles annihilation. 

            Through its construction of the family, the novel presents an optimistic counterpart to Madame Defarge’s knitting and to the motto of the Revolution.  Only in the novel’s “ideology” of family is such a motto not ironic, because only in the family is fraternity coupled with individual liberty and equality (at least within the limitations of the Victorian Age), and only for the family as symbolized by Lucie is the most genuine act of the novel, Carton’s sacrifice, committed.  Unlike Madame Defarge’s destructive knitting, Lucie “wind[s] the golden thread which bound her husband, and her father, and herself, and her old directress and companion, in a life of quiet bliss” (emphasis added, 2.21.239).  The repetition of “and” emphasizes the individual while also stressing connectedness—both liberty and fraternity.  This resembles but reverses the “Fraternity” of the Revolution, which subsumes the individual will to the will of the Republic.  Through the family, the novel presents a construction which allows us to connect with one another—Lucie is her father’s “other and far dearer self” (2.10.166).

            Yet, to be “other” is also to be separate.  Family as a construction in the novel presents a fundamental problem: while it is the “golden thread” which unites individuals and counteracts the essential separateness which the “Night Shadows” passage explores, family must be buttressed by an elaborate web of secrets.  The “Night Shadows” passage links secrecy with separation, yet the family as the vehicle for unity in the novel depends upon and even creates secrecy.  Lucie’s mother constructs the fiction of her father’s death to protect her: “the love of my mother,” Lucie says, “hid his torture from me” (1.6.78).  When Dr. Manette learns Charles Darnay’s identity, he suppresses this knowledge to protect Lucie.  When Darnay determines that he must return to France, he protects his family by refusing to tell them.  Such fictions even protect those who are undeserving.  Miss Pross constructs a fiction to protect her brother Solomon and to protect herself from seeing his weakness, and Mr. Lorry joins this well-intentioned conspiracy.  In A Tale of Two Cities, fictions are necessary because they allow characters to protect their connections with one another.

            More than protection, fictions are, in the final moments of the novel, salvation itself; moreover, the narrator here accepts and becomes conscious of his role as a fiction-builder.  Throughout most of the novel, Carton’s character represents the despair expressed by the narrator in the “Night Shadows” passage.  Like the narrator, he feels alienated from those around him, as he expresses in the following encounter with Darnay:

‘Do you feel, yet, that you belong to this
      terrestrial scheme again,
      Mr. Darnay?’
‘I am frightfully confused regarding time and
      place; but I am so far mended as to
      feel that.’
‘It must be an immense satisfaction!’
He [Carton] said it bitterly, and filled up his
      glass again: which was a large one

More than any other character in the novel, Carton faces the void.  His character is often associated with the word nothing: for example, when confronting Lucie, whom he calls “the last dream of my soul,” he says, “you kindled me, heap of ashes that I am, into a fire—a fire, however, inseparable in its nature from myself, quickening nothing, lighting nothing, doing no service, idly burning away” (2.13.181).  However, the end of the novel shows Carton’s image of himself is a fiction, while the true Carton will sacrifice himself for love.  No longer alienated, in his last moments Carton connects with the seamstress who will share his fate:

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.  (3.15.402)

If forging this connection were not enough to save Carton, the narrator creates a fiction which connects Carton to the future he himself will not know. 

            In this act, our narrator, who had in the “Night Shadows” passage challenged his own omniscience, becomes fully conscious of the importance of his role as fiction-builder and even reaffirms the importance of prophetic fictions.  In the opening of the novel, we are told that “Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twenty blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster” (Dickens, Tale 35).  Although here our narrator has some fun with the idea of prophecy, this passage demonstrates early in the novel an interest in revelation, and by the end of the novel, prophecy is no laughing matter.  In the “last words” of Carton, the narrator consciously builds a prophetic fiction, and his introduction of it emphasizes this consciousness:

One of the most remarkable sufferers by the same axe—a woman—had asked at the foot of the same scaffold, not long before, to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her.  If he had given an utterance to his, and they were prophetic, they would have been these… (emphasis added, 3.15.404)

While in the “Night Shadows” passage the narrator questions if he can read a book, here he “reads” what has not been written and reveals what cannot have been said.  Moreover, his use of “if” shows that he is no longer an anxious narrator but one who accepts his role as a builder of fictions.

            As the narrator writes Carton’s final thoughts, he builds a fiction which pulls away from the void and offers a hopeful prophecy: “I see . . . long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use.  I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from the abyss” (3.15.404).  The narrator withdraws from the abyss of the French Revolution by creating a fiction.  By doing so he also overcomes the narrative void of the “Night Shadows” passage.  The novel, which had earlier questioned itself as a fiction, here shows that fictions are important, a necessary means of constructing something which we may know.  In his final affirmation of the importance of fictions, the narrator justifies Carton’s death by constructing an afterlife of sorts for him.  The narrator imagines Carton imagining that Lucie’s son will bear his name, as will that son’s child, and that Lucie’s son will “tell the child my story, with a tender and faltering voice” (3.15.404). 

            In this final section of the novel, we are far removed from the “reality” of the work.  Our narrator, who had earlier questioned his own ability to know anything about anyone, constructs an elaborate statement of a character’s final thoughts.  In that statement, he imagines a story passed down from generation to generation.  Through this story, the narrator creates a final “unreality,” but this is not the “leprosy of unreality” (2.7.137), of false photographers, quacks, and painted women, which he shows us at the Monseigneur’s.  Rather, Carton’s final thoughts reaffirm the narrator’s role as fiction-builder and as “revealer.”

Works Cited

Cates Baldridge.  “Alternatives to Bourgeois Individualism in A Tale of Two Cities.”  Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900.  30.4 (Autumn 1990): 633-654.

Charles Dickens.  A Tale of Two Cities.  Ed. with an Intro. by George Woodcock.  London: Penguin, 1970.

 _____________.  Our Mutual Friend.  Ed. with an Intro. by Stephen Gill.  London: Penguin, 1971.

 Richard Dunn.  “A Tale for Two Dramatists.”  Dickens Studies Annual.  Vol. 12.  New York: AMS, 1983. 

Catherine Gallagher.  “The Duplicity of Doubling in A Tale of Two Cities.”  Dickens Studies Annual.  Vol. 12.  New York: AMS, 1983.

 J. Paul Hunter.  Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth Century English Fiction.  London: Norton, 1990.

Sylvere Monod.  “Dickens’ Attitudes in A Tale of Two Cities.”  Nineteenth Century Fiction.  24(1970): 488-505.

Michael Timko.  “Splendid Impressions and Picturesque Means: Dickens, Carlyle, and the French Revolution.” Dickens Studies Annual.  Vol. 12. New York: AMS, 1983.