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2 of Air - Madame Therese Defarge


Madame Thérèse Defarge


A Tale of Two Cities

    When we first meet Madame Defarge, she doesn't say a word. She just sits, listening and knitting. She is awaiting her moment to avenge the rape and murder of her sister by the Marquis St. Evrémonde. Her brother had tried to avenge their sister's honour and been killed himself. Their father died of grief. In a country of well-deserved hatred and resentment for the aristocracy, Madame Defarge has as much right as any to seek retribution.


 The image of the seething, white-hot Thérèse Defarge just sitting, knitting, patiently perched like a black panther for her moment to pounce, is one of the most striking in all of Dickens' work. Defarge is one of a group of real-life French women called the tricoteuse, a nickname meaning women knitters. On October 5, 1789, a group of irate working-class women marched from the markets of Paris to the Palace of Versailles to protest high food prices and chronic food shortages. Numbering in the thousands, the crowd of women commanded respect and attained from King Louis XVI of France their demands for bread. Maintaining their collective structure, the women were celebrated as “Mothers of the Nation”, treated as heroines, and continued to influence Paris politics. When the Reign of Terror erupted in 1793, these women were seen as a dangerous and unruly contingent; they were excluded from their traditional spectator seats at the National Convention and were prohibited from all forms of public assembly. In response, these women gathered at the Place de la Révolution for the daily public executions at the guillotine and became the tricoteuse -  deprived of their power, they knit in silence, encrypting like Madame Defarge the names of those executed through a sequence of stitches.


 With her insatiable bloodthirst and relentless drive for vengeance, Madame Defarge was used by Dickens as a symbol of the chaos unleashed by the French Revolution, which culminated in the Reign of Terror. Dickens himself felt sympathies with the revolution, as his depiction of the Marquis St. Evrémonde belies, but his own terror of mob rule and the power of life and death in the hands of the proletariat so panicked the author that he made of Defarge a monstrosity and a scapegoat. In a somewhat disgraceful coupe de grâce, we see the prim and proper Miss Pross go head to head in a battle royale with Madame Defarge – a long-awaited grudge match between Old Blighty and la République. When Madame's own gun accidentally goes off, killing her, its a clear case of being hoist by her own petard. The years of injustice, cruelty, and apathy by the noble classes of France have made her what she is; her painful loss, indignation, and death have made her their victim many times over.


 As frightening as the Reign of Terror was, those killed in Paris numbered 2, 639 – a count hardly comparable to the vast number of deaths caused by starvation prior to the revolution, or a single battle such as Waterloo with some 20, 000 dead, or the Crimean War, which cost the lives of 440, 000. In the end, Thérèse Defarge is a projection not only of Dickens' own terror, but the terror of all so-called civilized society – terror of the awesome power over the conditions of life and death which they themselves wield, turned against them in retribution.


 Shorthand : égalité - the conflict of opposing forces - an eye for an eye - hard choices - severity - tough love - truth or truce - weighed in the balance and found wanting - the fabric of society rent - discord for its own sake - dudgeon - rage - righteous indignation - abuse of power - vigilante justice - amputation - polemics - a critical point - which side are you on? - fraternité leaves out femmes - live by the sword, die by the sword - sacrificial lamb - heads or tales? - vive la différence.

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