If there is one thing that people remember about Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, it is of Madame Defarge knitting while the heads roll: “The ministers of Sainte Guillotine are robed and ready. Crash!–A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One.” (178)
This is a brilliant example of how brutality dulls the mind in the face of horror. Dickens uses knitting, which we normally associate with a cozy home life, and pairs it with the guillotine to make it seem sinister and arresting. What is odd about this scene is that it is the only example I could find of Madame Defarge actually knitting beside the guillotine, and she isn’t there, a fact that is made much of by her side-kick ‘The Vengeance’. So one could say that this scene is also a perfect example of how memory has difficulty in processing negatives. Because what people actually remember is that she is there, in her chair, knitting. Here is an actual example of Madame Defarge knitting, and why it is so important:
Next noontide saw the admirable woman in her usual place in the wine-shop, knitting away assiduously. A rose lay beside her, and if she now and then glanced at the flower, it was with no infraction of her usual preoccupied air. There were a few customers, drinking or not drinking, standing or seated, sprinkled about. The day was very hot, and heaps of flies, who were extending their inquisitive and adventurous perquisitions into all the glutinous little glasses near madame, fell dead at the bottom. Their decease made no impression on the other flies out promenading, who looked at them in the coolest manner (as if they themselves were elephants, or something as far removed), until they met the same fate. Curious to consider how heedless flies are!–perhaps they thought as much at Court that sunny summer day.
A figure entering at the door threw a shadow on Madame Defarge which she felt to be a new one. She laid down her knitting, and began to pin her rose in her head-dress, before she looked at the figure.
It was curious. The moment Madame Defarge took up the rose, the customers ceased talking, and began gradually to drop out of the wine-shop…(85)
Madame Defarge, while talking with the spy Barsad in the most unhelpful fashion possible, is knitting in code such details as his name and appearance. Which is presumably why she wants the other inhabitants of the shop to go away, so that she can concentrate. I love the way in which Dickens picks out seemingly unimportant details to make a point. For example, the flies are compared to those courtiers who lounged around Versailles, pursuing pleasure with abandonment, heedless of the storm that is brewing up beneath them. Five Stars.