How Charles Dickens made us appalled by (and sympathetic to) mobs
by Daisy Fried
“You can get enough of those sentence tones that suggest grandeur and sweetness everywhere in poetry… I have tried to see what I could do with boasting tones and quizzical tones and shrugging tones (for there are such) and forty eleven other tones. All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book. I don’t say make them, mind you, but to catch them. No one makes them or adds to them. They are always there—living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were. And they are as definitely things as any image or sight.”
—Robert Frost, 1915, in a letter to a friend
TONE INTERESTS ME more than most things in poetry and prose. Mediocre writing is toneless. Francis Ponge spoke of the “ronron poetique,” the self-satisfied poet purr (French cats say ronron instead of purr-purr), a default tone that poets hope will inject heightened feeling. But there’s plenty of fiction and poetry that doesn’t have any tone at all. “Affectless presentation,” the doctor-reports I used to summarize as a medical malpractice paralegal would say about some psychiatric patients. As it happens, tone may be a matter of ethics. Well, so is everything else in poetry: one makes a million little choices to make something which will exist dynamically at the intersection of poet and perceived world—will characterize the nature of that intersection.
That sounds grandiose. I can put it in formal terms, too. The questions that have been concerning me as poet lately include how to arrange tones at angles to one another in a poem, as a compositional matter, maybe the way a painter might put a red triangle over here and a white line over there, because of the particular way it balances or imbalances the composition. How to get anger, trust, bemusement, querulousness, yearning, fear—all those cave things—into the same poem, chafing at one another? How to use tone to bring the reader closer, or move her farther away? There’s plenty of “lets-see-if-I-can-manage-it” game-playing brinksmanship to this, which readers may never be aware of in the final product, just as another poet might try and see what insane metrical and sonic heights she can achieve with fixed form. But there’s more to it. Tonal nuance and tonal shifts are a great way to get at emotional and ethical complexity.
Maybe because I use a lot of fictional techniques in my poems – characters, characterization, settings – I find fiction writers useful when thinking about tone. Dickens is a master. Not just his characters when they’re speaking (though who has a better sense of the satiric and expressive possibilities of the vernacular?) but also his narrators, who often seem omniscient in their panoramic knowledge and ability to see into multiple characters’ psyches, but who also seem to react very personally to what they’re talking about.
Take A Tale of Two Cities. Early on, in the impoverished section of Paris near the Bastille, St. Antoine, the neighborhood from which the French Revolution will emerge, where the bitter Defarges have their wine-shop, a large cask has been dropped and broken in the street, and everyone in the neighborhood drops everything to slurp up whatever spilled wine they can.
Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined and sipped or tried to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip, before the wine had all run out between their fingers. Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads, which were squeezed dry into infants’ mouths; others made small mud-embankments to stem the wine as it ran; others, directed by lookers-on up at high windows, darted here and there, to cut off little streams of wine that started away in new directions; others devoted themselves to the sodden and lee-dyed pieces of the cask, licking and even champing the moister wine-rotted fragments with eager relish.
Dickens’ approach here is journalistic. Event is inflected with opinion, but at some reserve. The action is collective—no individual is focused on. At least two mothers squeeze out wine-drenched hankies in babies’ mouths; at least two people chew on rotted fragments of cask wood. This keeps us from getting too close: these are extras, not protagonists. Dickens is bemused and fascinated, delighted and—not quite appalled, but expecting his reader may be. His tactic is humor, without playing for punchlines. Observing myself read I notice I experience anxiety and enthusiasm, but we’re allowed to like these people, to feel, maybe, that we are on the street with them, even if we’re only watching. That’s a good thing, that enjoyment, considering what these same people will get up to later on, during, say, the storming of the Bastille, or the September massacres, or looking on at Charles Darnay’s trial.
Concluding the crowd scene, Dickens allows the mob to re-emerge as individuals. A man returns to sawing firewood, a woman returns to a pot of hot ashes she’d been using “to soften the pain in her own starved fingers and toes or in those of her child,” and—Dickens is a dab hand if not a light touch at foreshadowing—“one tall joker… besmirched [with wine], his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees—BLOOD.”
The graffito acts as an uncorking. Dickens begins a sort of chant.
…Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger- was repeated in every fragment of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse or anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves….
Big tonal shift. Hunger is personified, begins every clause. Each time Hunger is invoked, its actions take more and more words to describe, until late in the passage when the clauses suddenly get shorter: a gathering gathering gathering, then breaking of the wave. Dickens is no longer journalistic, he is prophetic. He is grand, and maybe even angry. Where before his phrases were like simultaneous varied rivulets, they become tidal: they bear weight, they force things awfully forward.
Why shift tone, perspective, and proximity all of a sudden? One possibility is that Dickens is softening up his reader, probably a middle-class, respectable, quiet type of person afraid of revolution—revolution outside, revolution within. Dickens describes; we watch at a safe distance. We go closer to see BLOOD scrawled on the walls. We get excited with the prose poem of Hunger, hunger, hunger. We are manipulated in our proximity and the angle at which we see the events. We are given information, we are given ways of seeing, we submit to Dickens.
And thus we’re softened up for the later mob scenes. Here’s the mob at the grindstone during the September massacres, sharpening their weapons after murdering prisoners in the jails, readying to murder again:
The grindstone had a double handle, and, turning at it madly were two men, whose faces, as their long hair flapped back when the whirlings of the grindstone brought their faces up, were more horrible and cruel than the visages of the wildest savages in their most barbarous disguise. False eyebrows and false moustaches were stuck upon them—
a note in my edition says this is a reference to an apocryphal report that when the mob killed the Princesse de Lamballe in prison they mutilated her vagina and used her pubic hair as mock-facial hair—
False eyebrows and false moustaches were stuck upon them, and their hideous countenances were all bloody and sweaty, and all awry with howling, and all staring and glaring with beastly excitement and want of sleep… The eye could not detect a creature in the group free from the smear of blood….
Which way I fly is Hell, myself am hell, says Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Elsewhere the mob, seized by ghoulish joy, dances the Carmagnole, as Lucie, the typical sentimental Dickens heroine, stands near the prison where her husband Darnay is incarcerated:
At first, they were a storm of coarse red caps and coarse woolen rags; but, as they filled the place, and stopped to dance about Lucie, some ghastly apparition of a dance-figure gone raving mad arose among them. They advanced retreated struck at one another’s hands, clutched at one another’s heads, spun round alone, caught one another and spun round in pairs, until many of them dropped… Suddenly they stopped again, paused, struck out the time afresh, formed into lines the width of the public way and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped screaming off.
Dickens is fascinated. We all know that Milton, in Paradise Lost, was of the Devil’s Party, whether he realized it or not. Is it too much to say Dickens is of the mob’s party without realizing it?
After all, the drearily admirable Lucie talks like this: I will be submissive to you. I see in your face that you know I can do nothing else than this. I know you are true. Baleful, pitiless Madame Defarge talks like this: Then tell wind and fire where to stop, but don’t tell me! I’m pretty sure which woman Dickens approves of. And I’m pretty sure which one he really loves.
Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens makes clear that mob violence is appalling and also that the aristocracy are to blame for what the mob has been forced to be. But he can’t just say, “look, the mob is really right” or “the mob is necessary.” He has to get us to the point where he can sweep us along in the Carmagnole with them, sweep us to the grindstone with god help us the bloody bits of our victims on us. He can make his intellectual argument, his political argument, all he wants, but to get us into the mob, he must help us into the doubleness of being at once appalled by and sympathetic to them. So he sends us at them early on in the book to laugh and share and watch fascinated, close up, far away, through declamation and witness into their midst. He can’t do this without inhabiting tones and shifting them, and this is what allows his complicated feelings about them to become easy to understand, share, dance, and even grind our knives along with.
DAISY FRIED's latest book is Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, London Review of Books, and elsewhere.