Sunday, January 20, 2013

In Both Countries it Was Clearer Than Crystal


The stars have aligned and my love of literature has come full circle. I am teaching Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities at the same time that my fourteen year old son has (finally) agreed to read this, one of my favorite books. I think Ben (the aforesaid son) has finally given in because I said I came to love it in sixth grade when my teacher, Mr. Akeley, read it aloud while we ate our lunches. Ben's in 8th grade, so I think he sensed a challenge. 

Yeah, that's right, a gauntlet was tossed down, and I can win. But only if he loves the book.

So. Taking a cue from a post I did a while back for Great Expectations, I'm doing the same for the first book of A Tale of Two Cities. This is for my students, their parents, and my son. Accordingly, all page numbers in my notes refer to the text I like to use in my classroom, the EMC Masterpiece Series Access Edition. I like the notes in the margins and use them as quiz questions.

Oh! And Katherine Schulten, the august and editorial genius of The New York Times Learning Network. She became my editor last summer when she asked me to write some critical thinking quizzes for The Learning Network. She was a teacher in Brooklyn for ten years, has been a curriculum writer since the invention of fire, and has won all kinds of awards for her work in education, but she has one major failing. She does not love A Tale of Two Cities. 

Today, I made a bet with her: one lunch in the New York Times cafeteria (notably not excluding the sushi bar) that I can make her love this book. The stakes are high, people, and I'm playing for keeps.

Brace yourself, Ben and Katherine, because this will be one wild ride.

Book the First - Recalled to Life

Chapter One: The Period

As we go through this novel, remember that Dickens published it in installments. In the tradition of serial writers and dramatic television series writers throughout history, that calls for some really great cliffhangers, and Dickens delivers.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity [skepticism], it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the season of hope, it was the winter of despair..."

Yeah. I know you know that one, and it goes on for a while. 

This paragraph is one of the most famous in all of literature. I like to bring in some other famous first lines when we talk about this one in order to compare/contrast. Moby Dick ("Call me Ishmael") and Pride and Prejudice (extra credit for the students who memorize this one: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.") top the list. 

This first paragraph is easy at first - best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, Light/Darkness, hope/despair - but goes off into stuff that only readers in Victorian London will understand. But that first part? That first part is killer. It's the contrast of opposites - a rhetorical device called antithesis. Antithesis is about the setting up opposites for effect, and to take it one step beyond the pale, there's another rhetorical device that defines serial antithesis called isocolon. This first paragraph is one massive example of isocolon, and it's chock full 'o examples of allusion to the Enlightenment ("Light," "Dark"), Genesis ("Light," "Dark"), Revelations ("clearer than crystal"), Matthew ("loaves and fishes," 14:17), and some verbal irony. "Things in general were settled forever." Um, no. They were the exact opposite. Totally unsettled in the short term. 

This is why Tale of Two Cities is perfect for the 8th grade. Middle school students are smack in the middle of so many things, notably their transition from literal to figurative thought. This transition is not about "smart"; it's about neurological development. Sorry, parents of kids who have been accelerated in school, but this ability to connect can't be taught. I can present metaphor and allusion until I turn blue, but those sort of connections just have to happen on their own sweet neurological time. These connections must be made in the brain before my students can make the leap from concrete understanding of literature to the symbolic, abstract, figurative wonderland that is the stuff of mature reading. I've written about this transition before, the moment when a student moves from the world of black and white to one of technicolor. I call it the "Dorothy Moment," and I am forever grateful to be there when it happens to my students. For seventh graders fortunate enough to make that leap, it tends to happen during Great Expectations. If it happens in 8th grade, it happens during A Tale of Two Cities. The allusions, metaphors, and symbols are just too thick on the ground, and even the most immature 8th grader can't help but trip on a few. 

But back to the text. 

You can just relax through some of the incomprehensible references of the next couple of pages, because all that stuff about the Cock Lane Ghost and the sister of shield and trident (Britannia), people being buried alive after not kneeling down to monks (the execution of Chevelier de Barre in 1766; he did not take his hat off at an inopportune moment in front of church members), and the state of rampant lawlessness in England is only comprehensible to people who lived and read the newspaper during Dickens' lifetime. Don't worry about it. Dickens is setting the scene. Here are the relevant points:

1. Things were bad in England. Worse, actually, than in France, where much of the action of this novel will take place. Lawlessness reigned, no one trusted anyone else, and people were put to death for everything from the worst to the most trifling offenses. The country was overrun by burglars and highwaymen (this will be important in chapter 2). 
2. Dickens uses a lot of irony and dark humor to convey how bad things actually were. "Dear old year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five" (3) is ironic. It was not, in the least, "a dear old year." It was horrific. 

One last note. Note the mentions of the Woodman, Fate and the Farmer, Death. Keep these allusions in mind. This paragraph (2) just beautiful, just so...oh, dear, so lovely. 

"It is likely enough that, rooted in the wood of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it. terrible in history." (2) 

This quote refers to the trees that will someday become guillotine. That have already been marked for that purpose. Fate, the Woodsman, already knows. It's already done. The trees are growing, they will be felled, the guillotine will be made, and the Revolution will take place. Capital F-Fate has determined it all. 

"It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution." (2) 

See? Again, it's already done. Death has already decided which farmer's carts will serve as the tumbrils (carts) that will transport what used to be farmers' harvests but which will now be the prisoners of the Revolution to the guillotine. Done. Over. Don't even try to pretend the future is not set in cobblestones. 


Chapter Two: The Mail

Jarvis Lorry (the "he" of this chapter), an employee of Tellson's Bank in London (and its profitable Paris branch) is on the Dover Road (the road between London and Dover, about 71 miles long) in a mail coach - hence "The Mail."

The coach at Shooter's Hill, about 8.5 miles outside London, when it gets stuck in the much and mire and fog. At this point, I tend to gesture back one year to our reading of Great Expectations when we talked so much about the fog and "clammy and intensely cold mist" (4) and its ability to create a mood of tension and uncertainty. That's what's going on here. The passengers have to get out and push. No one trusts anyone else, everyone is freaked out, and the coach is stuck on a hill. The horses are shaking and breathing so hard that the motion is transferred to the coach and, well, yikes. 

A messenger approaches the coach from "T, and Co." (Tellson's Bank), looking for Jarvis Lorry. Everyone else is frightened and hangs back. The message for Jarvis Lorry (after some paranoid back-and-forth between the coach drivers and the messenger) is: RECALLED TO LIFE. No, you are not supposed to understand this message. Yet. 

Jerry, the messenger, reveals that he'd be sunk if "RECALLED TO LIFE" were to come into fashion. This will be important later. I get kind of tired repeating "Trust me, this will be important later," but trust me. This will be important later. 

NB to teachers and frustrated readers: Adolescents are not used to waiting for information. YA fiction and television tend to give the plot away on an as-needed basis, and as today's adolescents NEED stuff IMMEDIATELY, they are not used to waiting. I like to assign a book like Skellig as a way of getting used to the idea of waiting for information. It's short, but doesn't give it all up in the first chapter. 

Chapter 3: The Night Shadows 

"A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other." (10) This, and "He was on his way to dig someone out of a grave" (12) are the main points of this chapter. 

People in England are so freaked out by each other, that even among those three passengers in the Dover Mail, "they were mysteries to one another, as complete as if each had been in his own coach and six, or his own coach and sixty, with the breadth of a county between him and the next." (10) Those passengers are so distrustful, and the people of England, by extension, are so distrustful of each other, that even when they are sitting next to each other in a coach, they may as well have the distance of an entire county between them. 

This whole first paragraph is about mood. Well, tone and mood. Okay, well tone and mood and the theme of imprisonment

Jarvis Lorry is on his way to Dover to meet someone and then head to France, where he will "dig someone out of a grave." (12) Not literally, of course. Jarvis Lorry is no grave-digger; he's a man of business. His digging will be metaphorical. Trust me, it's okay that you don't understand what his musings/delusions/nightmares mean yet. 

Know that the subject of this chapter, even with the switches between "he" and "I" is Jarvis Lorry. Jerry Cruncher, the messenger, makes some appearances to wonder about that RECALLED TO LIFE message, but the main focus of this chapter is Lorry. 

All of that confusing "dialogue" between Lorry and someone else is imagined. He's dreaming, hallucinating, fearing, whatever...he's worried about his coming meeting with the person who has been RECALLED TO LIFE and it haunts him. All that dig - dig - dig, is figurative, not literal digging, as I mentioned before. 

And in the final paragraph, we find out that whomever has been buried, has been buried for eighteen years. 

But the lovely part of this chapter is the change in tone between the meat of the chapter and this final paragraph. Dark, mist, hallucinatory nighttime images morph into, "He lowered the window, and looked out into the rising sun. There was a ridge of plowed land, with a plow upon it where it has been left last night when the horses were unyoked; beyond, a quiet coppice wood, in which many leaves of burning red and golden yellow still remained upon the trees. Though the earth was cold and wet, the sky was clear, and the sun rose bright, placid and beautiful." (14)

Can you see it? The beautiful scene indicating a change in tone from hopeless to hopeful, all "placid and beautiful"?

And with that new sense of hope, I call it a night. Even the dog is having nightmares as Ben watches the British version of The Office, which means it's time to go to bed. Please forgive the insane commentary behind the twitching paws. It's not me, it's Ricky Gervais. 

Tomorrow, chapters 4-6.

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