Imagery

A Tale of Two Cities

by

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities: Imagery 3 key examples

Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Book 2, Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Feasting Eyes:

In Darnay’s two courtroom scenes, Dickens merges the act of looking with the act of devouring, turning observers into violent consumers. In Book 2, Chapter 2, Dickens describes the attitude of the spectators in the British court:

Eager faces strained round pillars and corner, to get a sight of him; spectators in back rows stood up, not to miss a hair of him; people on the floor of the court, laid their hands on the shoulders of the people before them, to help themselves, at anybody’s cost, to a view of him… The accused […] was (and […] knew he was) being mentally hanged, beheaded, and quartered by everybody there.

In the minds of the crowd, the purpose of Darnay’s trial is not to dispense justice, but to satisfy their violent imaginations. The spectators of Darnay’s second trial, which takes place in France, watch him in a similarly ravenous manner, as described in Book 3, Chapter 9:

In dead silence and stillness—the prisoner under trial looking lovingly at his wife, his wife only looking from him to look with solicitude at her father, Doctor Manette keeping his eyes fixed on the reader, Madame Defarge never taking hers from the prisoner, Defarge never taking his from his feasting wife.

Madame Defarge is not just looking at Darnay, she is feasting her eyes on the sight of him powerless before the Tribunal. Dickens suggests that the act of looking is not passive. Both crowds of courtroom spectators look at Darnay hungrily and violently, suggesting that observation and surveillance can be forms of control. The spectators’ violent attitude also suggests that, in periods of unrest, the desire for blood, retribution, and decisive action can become a kind of hunger. French citizens like Madame Defarge “feast” on the sight of the condemned Darnay because every drop of blood spilled by the guillotine feeds the revolution.

Book 2, Chapter 22
Explanation and Analysis—Religious Imagery:

The violent cries of the peasant women recall images of pagan fertility rituals and the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist. Calling for the murder of Foulon, the French Controller-General of Finances, the women yell:

Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass! Give us the blood of Foulon, Give us the head of Foulon, Give us the heart of Foulon, Give us the body and soul of Foulon, Rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, that grass may grow from him!

In an earlier ironic aside, Dickens comments that the French aristocracy is “a great means of regeneration” for the human race. In this scene, however, that snide remark becomes literal as the starving women of the peasantry plan to rip an aristocrat’s body apart and use it to grow crops. This image is a corrupted version of the Christian Eucharist, in which believers remember Christ's atoning death by consuming bread and wine that symbolize his body and blood. It is also reminiscent of pagan fertility rituals, in which a person (or in later years, a bull) would be cut apart and devoured to regenerate the earth. Dickens portrays these rituals as gruesome and bloodthirsty, and privileges Christian self-sacrifice over violence as a method of provoking social change.

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Book 3, Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—The Windows of Heaven:

Dickens uses the image of a flood and of the heavens opening to contrast revolutionary energy with Christian faith:

What private solicitude could rear itself against the deluge of the Year One of Liberty—the deluge rising from below, not falling from above, and with the windows of Heaven shut, not opened!

This image is an allusion to Genesis 7:11, which contains the story of Noah’s Ark. Because the people are wicked, “the windows of heaven are opened” and God floods the entire Earth. By claiming that the coming wave of revolution is rising from below, not falling from above, Dickens suggests that the violent fervor of the French peasantry is not of heaven, but of hell. Since the windows of heaven are closed, the revolution is not God’s work. According to Dickens, then, positive social change must be heaven-sent, driven by Christlike sacrifice and Christian goodwill.

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Book 3, Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—Feasting Eyes:

In Darnay’s two courtroom scenes, Dickens merges the act of looking with the act of devouring, turning observers into violent consumers. In Book 2, Chapter 2, Dickens describes the attitude of the spectators in the British court:

Eager faces strained round pillars and corner, to get a sight of him; spectators in back rows stood up, not to miss a hair of him; people on the floor of the court, laid their hands on the shoulders of the people before them, to help themselves, at anybody’s cost, to a view of him… The accused […] was (and […] knew he was) being mentally hanged, beheaded, and quartered by everybody there.

In the minds of the crowd, the purpose of Darnay’s trial is not to dispense justice, but to satisfy their violent imaginations. The spectators of Darnay’s second trial, which takes place in France, watch him in a similarly ravenous manner, as described in Book 3, Chapter 9:

In dead silence and stillness—the prisoner under trial looking lovingly at his wife, his wife only looking from him to look with solicitude at her father, Doctor Manette keeping his eyes fixed on the reader, Madame Defarge never taking hers from the prisoner, Defarge never taking his from his feasting wife.

Madame Defarge is not just looking at Darnay, she is feasting her eyes on the sight of him powerless before the Tribunal. Dickens suggests that the act of looking is not passive. Both crowds of courtroom spectators look at Darnay hungrily and violently, suggesting that observation and surveillance can be forms of control. The spectators’ violent attitude also suggests that, in periods of unrest, the desire for blood, retribution, and decisive action can become a kind of hunger. French citizens like Madame Defarge “feast” on the sight of the condemned Darnay because every drop of blood spilled by the guillotine feeds the revolution.

Unlock with LitCharts A+