The following article is taken from my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. It follows discussions of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni and discusses the influence of those works on Dickens’ writing of A Tale of Two Cities:
Dickens’ Carlylean Gothic
Despite Charles Dickens’ constant use of Gothic elements, his place in the Gothic tradition has not been adequately explored by critics. Dickens was a master novelist within the Gothic tradition, innovatively building upon Carlyle’s natural supernaturalism to create grotesquely Gothic characters whose bodily disfigurements reflect the state of their souls. While Dickens’ use of the Gothic deserves a full-length study, a brief overview of his position in the Gothic tradition will display how he helped to transform the Gothic genre. My concentration upon A Tale of Two Cities will demonstrate Dickens’ literary debts to his Gothic predecessors and his unique revisions of the Gothic genre to create a novel that is life-affirming and provides redemption for its Gothic wanderer characters.
Early in his career, Dickens considered himself as writing within the Gothic tradition. In The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) Dickens’ intention was to create a short Gothic story. Dickens recalled his original plan:
“it [had been] always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.” (Coolidge 114)
While Dickens does not use the word “Gothic” here, he does use the word “grotesque” and throughout his works, the Gothic and the grotesque have the same definition, specifically in character descriptions. Claire Kahane has remarked that the “modern” Gothic “by its transformation of the unseen to the seen, moves the Gothic toward the grotesque” (351). Kahane uses the word “modern” to refer to twentieth century writers like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, but Dickens can be credited over a century earlier with equally moving the Gothic toward the grotesque.
Dickens’ use of the grotesque to create Gothic situations was inspired by Carlyle’s Natural Supernaturalism which expressed that the human soul is hidden by the body but if our souls were visible, we would all be recognized as ghosts and beings of the supernatural. Dickens adapted Natural Supernaturalism, blending it with allegory, to show that the state of one’s inner soul is reflected by the state of one’s visible, outer body. Consequently, Dickens’ most Gothic characters are also the most physically grotesque because their souls lack spiritual nourishment and have practically died within them. Dickens uses these grotesque characters to criticize the society that makes them grotesque. While some individuals naturally tend toward evil, Dickens also realizes that society and its injustices contribute to the deformity of people’s souls and by extension, their bodies. Dickens purposely depicts a selfish, money-grubbing character like Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop as a dwarf to symbolize how Quilp’s selfishness has stunted the growth of his moral character, reflecting Dickens’ disapproval of an increasingly capitalist society that valued money over the well-being of the human spirit. In Bleak House (1853), Richard Clare becomes pale and drained because the Court of Chancery and its vampiric lawyers have sucked his life and energy from him by entwining him in a decades’ long lawsuit. Also in Bleak House, Tulkinghorn, the blackmailer of Lady Dedlock, is depicted as grotesquely devilish. Dickens creates numerous hints of Tulkinghorn’s satanic nature. Tulkinghorn’s name may be interpreted to mean “Old Horny” referring to the devil’s horns. Tulkinghorn always wears black and his clothes “never shine” but are “irresponsive to any glancing light” (10), which recalls Milton’s Satan whose “lustre” is “visibly impair’d” (IV, 850) and who has lost his former “transcendent brightness” (I, 86) only to have a “faded splendor wan” (IV, 870). In addition, Tulkinghorn’s apartment resembles Hell because it is an “oven made by the hot pavements and hot buildings” (542-3) (Georgas 25). Such examples demonstrate that the grotesqueness of Dickens’ characters reflects the state of their spiritual natures; such grotesque characters’ allegorical implications attest to Dickens’ Christian agenda in writing his novels.
Dickens’ use of Carlyle’s Natural Supernaturalism made him Carlyle’s greatest literary disciple, as acknowledged by his contemporaries. In 1841, after reading The Old Curiosity Shop, Caroline Fox remarked of Dickens, “That man is carrying out Carlyle’s work more emphatically than any other” (Oddie 1). Dickens himself told his son, Henry Dickens, that “the man who had influenced him most was Thomas Carlyle” (Oddie 3). Dickens and Carlyle first met in 1839, but it would not be until writing The Chimes in 1844 that Dickens would first feel he was working within a Carlylean tradition. Nevertheless, Dickens may have been unconsciously influenced by Carlyle in his earlier works, such as in Oliver Twist where clothing references suggest a debt to Sartor Resartus (Oddie 4). Carlyle was seldom a fan of Dickens’ novels, but he greatly approved of A Tale of Two Cities, pleased with its expression of his own belief system. Carlyle also assisted Dickens with the novel by loaning him numerous works about the French Revolution. Carlyle’s own history of the French Revolution, along with Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni, became major sources of inspiration for A Tale of Two Cities.
Despite Carlyle’s influence upon Dickens, there are notable differences between the philosophies of the two men as expressed in their writings. Carlyle’s belief in the importance of heroes made it difficult for him to admire Dickens’ lower-class characters as sympathetic or inspiring examples of the human spirit (Goldberg 16). William Oddie argues that Carlyle believed in a God of Vengeance, whereas Dickens believed in a God of Mercy. While Carlyle would try to show how men like Teufelsdrockh can be heroes by refusing to abandon themselves to despair, Dickens realized that many people face severe disadvantages that prohibit them from exerting such heroic strength. Dickens’ compassion for such people was the result of his own impoverished childhood which taught him to sympathize with the lower classes, the oppressed, and the outcasts of society (29). While Dickens believed in affirming life and the strength of the human soul, he was also aware of the many social injustices that prevented people from cultivating their spirituality. Consequently, Dickens’ grotesque characters are not always Gothic in the sense that they are guilty of transgressions. Dickens realized that people become so focused upon the daily need to support themselves that they often neglect their spirituality, and eventually this neglect can result in a one-sided, fanatical interest in acquiring material possessions. While Dickens tends to become overly sentimental in depicting the plight of the poor in his novels, his use of the Gothic is revolutionary in such cases because it is sympathetic. Whereas Gothic horrors had been created by earlier novelists to cause terror for victimized characters, or to serve as a means of punishment for transgressions committed, Dickens used the Gothic to reflect the everyday horrors of the modern world and to sympathize with people who suffered from these modern day horrors. Dickens’ Gothic worlds often become places of extreme nightmares from which good people can escape by their virtue, courage, and endurance. A Tale of Two Cities serves as a perfect example of how Dickens depicts the modern world as a place of terror where people can become Gothic wanderers, but where also the human spirit can rise above earthly concerns to achieve redemption and salvation.