Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cousin Carton

Last year when I was trying to read books set in Paris to get ready for my trip, someone mentioned that I should read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  I was surprised, because I had always thought that A Tale of Two Cities was about the two classes of English society, and not actually about two separate cities.  I had read Sybil, or the Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli, and thought that it was a later and more politicized version of Dickens' work.  Instead, Sybil, which really does tell the story of different classes within England, came out 14 years before A Tale of Two Cities, and may have been part of Dickens' inspiration. 

In reading Two Cities, I was also reminded of Parrot and Olivier in America  by Peter Carey.  Parrot, likeTwo Cities, is set in the time of the French Revolution, and involves a French aristocrat who leaves France, the English working class, secrets hidden in chimneys, and a strong French wife whose importance increases as the story continues.

What I liked best about Two Cities was that it was a great book that is still suspenseful and interesting, despite being 150 years old.  I constantly wanted to know what would happen next.  The characters who at first seem minor become intricate to the plot, and the characters who appear to be central are in the end less developed than the others.  In this vein, I may have run astray.  I finished the book, and felt like an idiot, because I never learned exactly how Darnay, the character who is at first on trial as a spy, and Carton, one of his attorneys, are related.  I checked Wikipedia to no avail.  I then Googled the question, and was surprised to learn that most readers believe that they are not related at all.  In fact, the few people who I found who asked the same question that was on my mind, were slammed with responses like "you're reading too much into this" or "duh, they're not.  Carton is from England and Darnay is from France."

It is not possible for me to believe anything other than that Carton and Darnay are related, but that Darnay does not know of the relationship.  To this end, I propose that Carton is the illegitimate son of Darnay's father or uncle.  There are several details that support this proposition.  First off, it is important to Dickens to convey that Darnay's father and uncle were twins.  This is stated both on page 129 and 333 of Two Cities as edited by Richard Maxwell, and is referenced several other times.  Why would Dickens stress this detail unless it is important? 

Carton first becomes important to the plot on page 76, when Darnay is facing a witness who is accusing him of being a spy, and Carton suggests that his co-counsel stand Darnay and Carton together, to get the witness to concede that they look very much alike, and by implication that Darnay may look like many other men.  After this trial, Carton insists that he and Darnay go out for dinner and drinks.  At that dinner, after several drinks, Carton asks Darnay if he thinks that he likes him. The thought that Carton disliked him had apparently not crossed Darnay's mind, but Carton answers that he doesn't think that he does like Darnay.  What may be the most important paragraph in the second book follows, as Carton says to himself:

"'Do you particularly like the man?' he muttered at his own image 'why should you particularly like a man who resembles you?. . . A good reason for taking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from and what you might have been!  Change places with him and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes as he was. . .?'" 

I interpret this as Carton coming close to revealing to Darnay that he is an illegitimate cousin, but then failing to do so, while lamenting how his life would have been different if he had been the legitimate child of Darnay's uncle.  Later in the book, when the denunciation is being read, it becomes clear that Darnay's father and uncle were not above taking the wives and daughters of their tenants when it pleased them.  Carton could have been a child resulting from the rape of a servant or tenant.  I think it is more likely that Dickens intended Carton to be a child of the uncle, because that would be the reason for making the father and uncle twins, rather than just implying that Carton and Darnay look alike because they have the same father.

Dickens also drops strong hints that Carton is not really from England, but was French born.  Specifically, the wood-sawyer calls him out as being "not English" on page 324, and Carton concedes that he was a student in France.  Similarly, when Carton decides to visit the Defarges, he says that it was "not difficult for one who knew the city well" to find their store, implying that he was more familiar with the town than the average English attorney.  He then feigns in the store that he does not understand French, and doesn't know his way around the town.  I will admit that if Darnay's uncle had an illegitimate child, that person would have been of great interest to the Defarges.  But what if the woman who was raped was married so that the child appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary?  Then, when the child grew to resemble a Evremonde, the family may have fled to England to try to keep safe.  Carton speaks of his father's funeral, which could defeat my argument.  But really, wouldn't it be normal for him to refer to the man who raised him, rather than the man who provided sperm alone, as his father?

So there you are.  I have decided that Carton is the illegitimate son of Darnay's uncle, and I think the text supports that interpretation.  However, this book has been discussed over the course of 3 centuries, and very few people seem to have reached this conclusion.  Therefore, if you have stumbled on this blog while researching a paper on the book, use my ideas with caution.  But if your teacher buys it, and I get an A, be sure to let me know!

Next up on CD:  Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.   Yep, you got it.  I am double teaming Thackeray by reading the book AND listening to the CD in my car.  I'm not very far into the book yet, and I am hoping that listening to a little bit of it every day will help me get through the slower parts.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...