Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What the Dickens is that thing in the dark?

I am reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time. This is only my second Dickens book (first was Great Expectations) and I'm loving it.

Here's one of my favorite elements -- and I saw this in Great Expectations too: Dickens takes the reader through a series of scenes, or sometimes whole chapters, which seem completely unrelated to the action at hand.

For example, our hero is following his father one foggy night, only to find that he and his ne'er-do-well co-conspirators are digging up bodies. He flees in terror! And then we have two or three consecutive chapters of a French nobleman mistreating the locals. Maybe then we'd jump ahead four months, or a year, to a criminal trial where entirely new characters are speaking, worrying, fuming, and so on.

But gradually, for such is the magic of Dickens, the threads tying all these miniature stories together become apparent. Slowly I realize that this person is the same Jacques referred to three chapters earlier; that the dissolute lawyer is actually in love with the young woman we last saw as a small child five chapters before.

At first this seemed distracting and random, but now it's almost a game as I try to piece together the narrative from these various viewpoints, for the story is larger than any one character can tell. (It's also a warning to read everything closely, since you can never tell what will turn out to be significant: a good warning for fast and careless readers like me.)

It reminds me of the story about blind men and an elephant, though I prefer regular people and an elephant in the dark. Why does that sound so strange?

They circle around this great and silent mystery in the dark, one of them touching a trunk and reporting a snake, another brushing against a leg and claiming that it is a tree, etc.

Come on, metaphor, we're almost there, hold together!

The elephant is the story. Each person's perceptions are a part of the larger whole. And it makes me wonder: how much of this could I get away with in my own writing?

1 comment:

Barbara said...

I never noticed Dickens twirling his plots around like that. Now I'm motivated to dig out some of his other books and read them to check out your theory. Are you sure you just hadn't had a bit too much of that Hong Kong beer whilst reading??