Drowning is not the death most people envision it. It is a silent killer. Creeping up slowly, it takes its victims by surprise, and often before five minutes have passed, death has them in its cold, cruel clutches. This silent action is paralleled in Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens speaks of a woodman, personified as fate, and a farmer, who is used to picture death, working silently but purposefully towards the French Revolution, getting ready wood for scaffolds, guillotines and tumbrels. As well as portraying the silent nature of drowning, Dickens also uses this motif to bring out another aspect of the revolution.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens uses the motif of drowning to portray the stages of the revolutionaries’ attitudes towards their condition. “The first step towards getting helped is realizing that you have a problem. ” (Anonymous) This well known quote clearly illustrates the first step of drowning. A man cannot save himself if he does not realize that he is in danger. When drowning becomes reality to its victims, their whole vision changes, and panic sets in. In A Tale of Two Cities, the peasant’s vision changed as they realized that if they did not act right away, they would die as victims of a tyrannical system.
If this fact in itself did not move the peasants into action, it was the fact that not only them, but their children and their children’s children would perish, smothered under the iron fist of the aristocracy. Their vision became visions of desperate people, as drowning people. This outlook was in many ways created and helped along by Monsieur and Madame Defarge. They showed the shrunken, wasted Doctor Manette to the Jacques, in order to change the way they looked at things and strike fear of their condition into their hearts. Dickens also uses the motif of drowning very strongly in the personal lives of his characters.
A quote found on page 255 reads, “All this was seen in a moment, as the vision of a drowning man. ” This quote refers us back to the Manette’s, where Jarvis Lorry reveals the terrible grindstone scene to the horrified Doctor. Doctor Manette’s vision changed at that moment as well, realising that death, though not for himself, was sure for Lucie’s husband if immediate action was not taken. When a drowning person obtains the vision that he or she is dying, panic takes control over both mind and body. From panic stems desperation and a desperate man is someone who will do anything to change his situation.
A drowning man no longer thinks about right and wrong, about what morals he practices, or what values he ought to follow. One thought consumes his mind, and that is to save himself. The means used to achieve deliverance does not matter, nor does the suffering person stop to consider if he is harming another in saving himself. In the novel, this is illustrated by the conflict between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge; “. . . Miss Pross . . . held her round the waist, and clung to her with more than the hold of a drowning woman,” (Dickens 357).
This situation clearly reminds the reader of the desperate circumstances in which the peasants found themselves. Just as Miss Pross’ hold on Madame Defarge was a matter of life or death, so the actions of revolutionaries were determining their end; a better future for all peasants, or a continuation of oppression from the ancien regime. In the above quote Dickens also speaks about the hold of a drowning person. A rescuer must always be careful when swimming up to such a person, because in panic, the victim may grab hold of him/her so tightly that both perish.
In the same way, the revolutionaries harmed others while trying to save themselves. In the senseless slaughter of those guilty and innocent alike, the revolutionaries drowned themselves along with their victims in a pool of immorality and revenge. For, even though they bettered their physical condition and brightened the future for their children, their conscience was passed over and ignored. Like a drowning man who before the actual act of death becomes unconscious, so the consciences of the revolutionaries were pushed away until they were silenced, no longer able to warn against the upcoming spiritual death. Death is the final outcome.
If a person has drowned, death has come to claim this person and there is no longer any chance of being rescued. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens speaks of the gaoler of Charles Darnay, his description being, “. . . this gaoler was so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water,” (Dickens 249). This man seems to point to all the revolutionaries, not in the physical description, but in a spiritual sense. The consciences of the revolutionaries have been drowned, silenced forever, and the people themselves have been filled with thoughts only of bloodthirsty revenge.
The picture of a drowned man is not a pleasant one. The death is most often an agonizingly conscious one, causing the expression to be one twisted in agony, the horrified expression of one without hope of survival. The lack of oxygen causes the skin to turn a sickly blue, and the water soaks into the pores and causes the persons face to be swollen and bloated. Ultimately, the person’s appearance is so altered that it is usually difficult, if not impossible to identify the person from the way they looked before.
Similarly, the revolutionaries were not a pretty picture in the way that they cared nothing for their fellow man and executed any who seemed to oppose them callously, without proof or proper trial. Proof of this callousness can be found in the example of the little seamstress towards the end of the novel, a representation of thousands of innocent victims sent to the guillotine. We read of how the women knitting below the scaffold counted the severed heads calmly, not in the least disturbed at the horrific amount of bloodshed occurring right before their eyes.
The wood-sawyer is another prime example of the uncaring attitude of the peasants when he talks flippantly to Lucie of the guillotine; “. . . Loo, loo, loo! And off her head comes! Now a child. Tickle, tickle; Pickle, pickle! And off its head comes. All the family! ” (Dickens, 341). We are horrified as we read of the Jacques gleefully talking about the way they enjoy seeing a woman with blonde hair and blue eyes being guillotined, and we are even more appalled when they speak with eager anticipation at the thought of seeing Lucie’s pretty child put to death.
Throughout all these examples we can see that Dickens has brought the motif of drowning to a close and the final outcome, death of the revolutionary’s morality, has been achieved. At the end of the novel, A Tale of Two Cites, the motif of drowning has come full circle. We read of how the peasant’s desperate situation causes their vision to be that of drowning people as they realize that death is imminent. Dickens moves on to portray the panic that causes morality to be ignored in the frantic attempt to preserve one’s own life.
Dickens shows that drowning people will do anything to save themselves, even drown their rescuer if they feel it will improve their own condition. In the same way the revolutionaries brutally disposed of any that seemingly hindered their desperate attempt to break their chains of oppression. The plot lines of the characters also vividly portray the way in which the consciences of certain characters are silenced, and the way in which no other thought than revenge is allowed into the minds of the revolutionaries. And then finally, death, the end of all morality.
The guiding principles of mankind were destroyed as the revolutionaries thirst for bloodshed did not abate, but instead grew more intense, as each day they longed for more heads to be added to the ever growing number. The motif of drowning is used very powerfully by Charles Dickens, and is employed in a way that effectively portrays the desperate position of the revolutionaries. The way in which Dickens uses this motif clearly parallels the changing attitudes of the revolutionaries, giving us a better understanding of them.