Knitting a Revolution: Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities

SEPT / OCT 2013: BY GINA DALFONZO

madam

She appears so quiet and calm at first glance—the wife of a Parisian wine vendor, focused on her knitting, self-contained and self-sufficient. But looks can be deceiving. Inside the quiet woman is a seething cauldron of suppressed rage, hatred, and vengefulness, just waiting for the right moment to boil over and scald everything in its path.

If Madame Defarge looks meaningfully at you as she knits, believe me, you will live to regret it.

In fact, Thérèse Defarge personifies all the terror and vengeance of the French Revolution, in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Like many other historical novelists, when dealing with the sweep and force of a major event from the past, Dickens created a handful of individuals to represent that event for us, and thus to place it on a more human, more comprehensible scale. The revolution arose out of many complex factors and causes, but in Dickens’s retelling, all the bitterness, injustice, and unrest are distilled in one woman who, after many patient years of waiting and plotting, at long last exchanges her knitting needles for a dagger.

The tragic events that spur Madame Defarge’s rage are buried deep in the past, not to be unearthed until late in the story. She was born into a peasant family who were mercilessly tormented by the St. Evrémondes, an aristocratic family who, for all intents and purposes, owned them. Thérèse’s sister, brother-in-law, brother, father, and unborn niece or nephew all died at the hands of these corrupt and cruel aristocrats. Thérèse herself only escaped their brutality because her brother was able to smuggle her away and hide her before they could get hold of her.

The destruction of her family was, naturally enough, the defining event of Madame Defarge’s life. Bent on avenging her family and punishing all aristocrats —especially Charles Darnay, the descendant of the St. Evrémondes—she has become a woman without mercy. Having lured her intended victim from England back to France, she toys with him like a particularly masterful cat with a particularly naïve and helpless mouse. Dickens writes of her:

Imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress … It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them. It was nothing to her, that his wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan; that was insufficient punishment, because they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live.”

It’s noteworthy that we only see Madame Defarge responding to the events of her past with anger and hate—as a “tigress.” At some point, she must have felt terrible sorrow and grief, but never for one instant do we, the readers, see those emotions in her. They have all been transformed into a burning desire for revenge.

I think there’s a reason that Dickens never lets this character show a softer emotion. I think he’s trying to show us something about the nature of hate, and what it does to us. As she methodically plans to wipe out her victim and his entire family, Madame Defarge tells her compatriots: “Tell Wind and Fire where to stop … but don’t tell me.” She has become more a force of nature than a human being, and a force of nature has no heart. It has no ability to hear, to feel, to experience any sort of genuine connection with anyone.

The real tragedy of Madame Defarge—a tragedy that she never recognizes, and probably wouldn’t care about if she did—is that she has become what she hates. Just like the men who tortured and killed her family members, she persecutes the innocent. Their family connections are enough to blacken them in her eyes; she cares about nothing else. It’s chilling to see how she has become the perfect reflection of the evil men who stole her family from her.

While A Tale of Two Cities as a whole tells a beautiful story of love and redemption, Madame Defarge haunts it like a dark, foreboding shadow—a picture of what life looks like without those things in it. That bleak picture should give us pause before we allow hatred—no matter how justified—to infect our own lives. ♥

septoct2013

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