Updated: Nov 27, 2019
A case of PTSD
A Tale of Two Cities is a novel whose utterance is usually followed by an argument. For people who don't enjoy reading, this is a book that feels impossible to get through. Its length and density make it seem insurmountable for some, but for those who love to read, it seems impossible to not become engrossed by its poetic humor and incredible circumstances.
One time, I entered into an argument with a friend over A Tale of Two Cities. He was arguing that it was a very bad book that wasn't worth reading. When I began stating my case, he asked "have you actually ever read it?" I responded with, "Yes, I've read it four times. Have you?" He replied, "No, I only read the first couple pages." If I were to use an emoji in this moment, it would be the face palm one.
Moral of the story: Before you take another person's opinion into account, make sure they know the topic they are discussing.
I do understand; however, that this novel can seem daunting to get through, so rather than do an analysis or review of the book as a whole, today we're going to do a character analysis. What makes classics difficult sometimes is that they can be challenging to relate to, especially for youthful readers, but when you take characters as individuals and ponder over their circumstances, you quickly realize that while the years continue to change, people rarely do.
In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the narrator discusses “that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret mystery to every other” (8). He explains that each person has their own struggle and their own secret to bear. As readers, we're immediately reminded of that age-old adage; "before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes." Dr. Manette embodies this message better than anyone else in the novel. Manette’s relapses and unusual habits are means of dealing with his struggles, struggles that are kept secret from readers for most of the novel. It was still unknown even at the time, but Manette’s struggles and bizarre behavior is a result of what we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Dr. Manette is reunited with his daughter, Lucie, at the beginning of the novel after having been imprisoned for 18 years. Although his memory isn’t the same, he doesn’t look like he’s too disturbed or vastly different than he was before. This is a trait that many sufferers of PTSD share. Many soldiers coming home from war seem unaffected. They act the same way they did before the war, and when they come back to their normal lives, they continue the same routines, but what’s really happening is they’re covering up the trauma they have suffered by trying to act as normal as possible. They disassociate with the pain by going on as if nothing ever happened.
When Jarvis Lorry, Manette's dear friend, goes to find him, he enters Manette's room which had
“such a scanty portion of light…that it was difficult,
on first coming in, to see anything” (29).
When Lorry walks in, he finds
“a white-haired man sat on a low bench,
stooping forward and very busy, making shoes” (29).
He later goes on to find out that this was not Manette’s profession before he went to jail. The narrator subsequently tells us that habits like doing “any work requiring nicety in such obscurity” (29) could form in anyone, indicating a lack of understanding of Manette's condition by the rest of the characters.
While Lorry tries to talk to him, Manette’s voice is dreadful.
“Its deplorable peculiarity was,
that it was the faintness of solitude and disuse” (29).
Readers discover that Manette has lost the life that usually lies in a human voice, and this loss catches Lorry's attention.
Dr. Manette’s new hobby seems odd, but it is obviously a habit he took up to pass the grueling time while he was in prison. These ordinary habits are what saved him from going insane during those 18 years. Although PTSD is widely recognized and understood today, there wasn't much knowledge, much less compassion, regarding the condition in the Victorian Era when this novel was written. Today, we commonly associate PTSD with veterans and with sufferers of abuse, we've come to recognize the tell-tale signs, and we've become familiar with resources that help sufferers cope. Someone very close to me suffered abuse as a child and for many years she suffered night terrors and debilitating stomach aches as a result. Although she eventually escaped the abuse, she suffered from PTSD for many years, not knowing that her immersion in her studies and her tendency to be a perfectionist and over-achiever were coping mechanisms to handle her trauma.
Another aspect of Manette’s trauma is that he identifies himself as a number, “One Hundred and Five, North Tower” (31). This is a result of a total institution. In sociology, a total institution is a place where they strip you of your name and belongings and try to make everyone look identical in hopes of creating structure. The idea is to strip a person of their identity in order to make them disciplined, or as a means of punishment. Both the military and prison are considered total institutions, and people coming from both have high risks of suffering from PTSD. Abused children suffer from it because their identities are seemingly taken away and they are made to believe that they are worthless. During the Holocaust, prisoners were stripped of their names and given numbers to answer by. If you recall in the famed musical and classic novel, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is often referred to as 24601, his "name" during his time in prison.
Dr. Manette constantly relapses, and the people who love him have no idea of where his mind is at. Readers today will understand these relapses as flashbacks. In these moments of mental anguish, he returns to his shoe-making, a hobby that re-centers his mind and helps him regain control.
Trauma and grief go hand-in-hand, and the final of the seven stages (originally considered to be five stages) of grief is acceptance. Seeing as the model for grief wasn't introduced until 1969, readers today get to experience Manette's acceptance, something original readers may not have had the privilege of recognizing. In a moment when Manette finally opens up to his daughter about his trauma, he feels "a light of freedom shining on him" (34). Subsequently, he finally has a good night's sleep.
Grief and recovering from a trauma is a process, and it is a process that is different for everyone. Sometimes this process consists of obsessive or unusual behavior, and sometimes it consists of deep, long talks with the victim. Whatever the process may be, what's important is that the individual finds a mechanism that enables them to cope so that they aren't overwhelmed by loneliness, because often times that sense of loneliness is what leads sufferers to suicide.
Dr. Manette was a beautiful vehicle for Dickens to prove his point of people and secrets. His belief that everyone has their own cross to bear is a timeless truth, and his use of Manette's PTSD to prove this truth shows how ahead of his time he really was.
What is so incredible about A Tale of Two Cities is that Manette is just one, small aspect of this grand, epic novel. It is separated into three parts and each part introduces new characters. Amidst a backdrop of an impending French Revolution, readers experience a lengthy trial for treason, attempted executions, and a man who selflessly lays down his life for a friend. For those of you who find its length daunting, each time you are introduced to a new character, try picking out their traits and applying them to modern characters that you know or love, like what we've done today with Manette. By acknowledging his odd behavior as signs of PTSD and relating him to a soldier who has just returned from war, or a victim who is dealing with their trauma, we have immersed ourselves further into the story than one may have originally anticipated. Before you know it, you'll be so engrossed in the lives of the characters and so invested in their outcomes, that you won't be able to help but finish the novel.
One of my favorite things about literature is that it has this eternal power to connect us. Whether it's a social commentary, a spiritual truth, or a tendency of human nature, the power of the written word seems to defy time. In my opinion, few novels are as timeless as A Tale of Two Cities, and few writers are as prolific as Charles Dickens. Once his words touch your heart, you will never be the same.