Dickensian Paris

The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood, left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again. Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, 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.

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

It feels like people don’t read Dickens much anymore—at least I can’t remember anyone I know recently having read him. The last I remember was everyone having to read Great Expectations in high school and hating it (since I enrolled in my high school late I somehow avoided reading it). In the mood for some classic literature over the holidays, I decided to remedy this mysterious Dickens absence with A Tale of Two Cities, which I chose due to its relative brevity and its subject matter—London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution. I wasn’t disappointed: because the novel was written in installments for a newspaper, Dickens uses common literary devices such as plot twists and cliffhangers, and the characters are rich and complex despite the short amount of time taken to develop them (though the central young female character is an annoying idiot who faints due to overwhelming happiness/sadness depending on what is happening to the various men in her life. Naturally.) But the best part is how the cities themselves act as characters in the novel—Paris of course being the bloodthirsty unstable force that pulls the characters towards it and forces them to unleash their suppressed guilt/rage/heroism…and that threatens to behead you at any moment. Yeah, pretty awesome.

I adore how Paris is introduced in the novel, with a scene in which a cask of wine is accidentally spilled in the street, and every man, woman, and child in sight struggles to drink the wine directly from the ground lest it be wasted, cupping hands to bring up wine and mud from in between the cobblestones in a hungry frenzy that culminates in the wonderful foreshadowing passage above. Given the overwhelming decadence of today’s Paris, where the satisfaction of every sense is available on every corner, there is always a certain fascination that comes with reading about the periods in Parisian history when the city was under siege or on the verge of revolution, when people were driven to survive by eating rats, or something of that nature. This is more the sort of portrayal that Dickens offers, with everyone so impoverished (though some can still afford wine) and haunted by that other personified force, Hunger:

…the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sign, 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 the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread…Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.

By the way, the “suburb of Saint Antoine” is more or less where I currently live, and I imagine the wine scene would have taken place somewhere near the current Rue du Faubourg St-Antoine. Says the footnotes (by Richard Maxwell) of A Tale: “The faubourg or neighborhood of Saint Antoine, in the east, became part of Paris in 1702. Throughout the eighteenth century, this artisanal district—ever more densely populated—was much derided as a particularly ugly and disillusioning entrance to the city. The Bastille stood at its western edge.”

Storming of the Bastille, 1789

That’s what I love most about books like these, is the layers of literature and history that serve to make your walks down a city street all the more intriguing. I can still imagine hungry Parisians and future revolutionaries crowded around a vat of spilled wine on the street, even if that street is now characterized mostly by cigarette butts and trendy shoe stores.

Plus, I can finally start to use the word “Dickensian” in everyday conversation. “Kafkaesque” was getting old.

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