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A sceptic's guide to the universe, part IV: 'Recalled to life'--literary tool or universal human hope?

By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
web posted May 2, 2022

Like many, I find the opening lines of Charles Dickens' great novel, A Tale of Two Cities, oddly compelling. The idea is simple; two major cities juxtaposed, one in the throes of pre-revolution, the other in a state of uneasy peace. Paris would soon be the vision of anarchy, a catastrophic bloodbath; Londoners were feeling the stirrings of unrest from their southerly neighbor, in relative stability. Early in the narrative we are introduced to Dr. Manotte, a highly respected Parisian physician who has been wrongly imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years. He has a daughter, Lucie, who lives in London; she doesn't know her father is even alive, let alone released after nearly two decades. Intercepting her carriage late one night, a messenger hands a note to one of her fellow passengers--whose verbal reaction to this note is strange and cryptic: "Recalled to life.."

The concept to which this phrase refers is a central theme, woven into the tapestry of the narrative. As it unfolds, we are repeatedly submerged in the worst human actions, alongside the very best. Remorseless cruelty was inflicted on the innocent and those of decent character–their only mistake, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The toll was devastating on the witnesses and survivors of such brutality; France was staggering under the weight of injustice. 

Like most of the severely mistreated, Dr. Manotte's physical and mental health had deteriorated significantly. There was little hope of recovery. While imprisoned he was tasked with making shoes all day; he obsessively continued doing the same, many months after his release. But when he met his daughter for the first time, the kind and noble qualities of his wife (long deceased) were quite apparent in their daughter. After a time, Manotte gradually regained health and hope. His daughter got married and he befriended his son-in-law, another key to the narrative.

We are introduced to a gentleman called Darnay, on trial in London for espionage. Born of a wealthy, aristocratic French family, Darnay wanted no part in the inhumanity perpetuated by his ancestors on the less fortunate. Renouncing his family and inheritance, he went to London seeking a normal life. Unfortunately, the deeds of his ancestors seemed destined to follow him. He was acquitted by the unexpected testimony of a man named Carton, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Darnay. We learn that Carton has lived a selfish and purposeless life thus far. He admires Darnay and knows he is a man of action and decency. Darnay and Carton's chance meeting turns into friendship.

Among the witnesses at Darnay's trial, Dr. Manotte and Lucie recognize that the French revolutionaries are chasing down all aristocrats, intending to murder every last one. Lucie encourages Darnay to stay in England to avoid persecution, and it is Darnay that she eventually married.

Paris was thrown into the darkness of revolution only a few years later. Returning to France to help secure the release of his former servant, Darnay put himself in the midst of this danger. He'd known the servant most of his life, a man who imprinted Darnay with a conscience. After the servant's release, as Darnay prepared to return to London he was arrested. Denied a trial, he was to be executed in less than 24 hours.

Upon hearing Darnay's fate, Carton was determined to find his purpose, the life he'd never lived. Walking the streets of Paris, by chance he overheard revolutionaries plotting the arrest of Darnay's wife and daughter as well. Within hours he devised and arranged a clever plot to switch places with Darnay, allowing the family to flee Paris. Carton found his way to Darnay's cell and told him what he intended. He drugged Darnay, switched clothes and had him carried out to Manotte's waiting carriage, Lucie and daughter already inside.

The next morning Carton went to the gallows–willingly, and without anyone's suspicion. He was neither sentimental nor suicidal. His self-centeredness had followed him like a dark cloud; Darnay's unselfish love and courage broke through that seemingly impenetrable darkness within Carton. The only possibility for a second chance was the certainty of Darnay's death; only he, with his remarkable physical likeness, could take Darnay's place.

The concept of regaining a life that was lost has been used by many great writers, including Alexandre Dumàs, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and Joseph Conrad, and by less great writers like Stephen King (Shawshank Redemption). It's a potent theme in our collective consciousness but is it a reality?

A thought occurred, perhaps this phenomenon is actually real, and it's not uncommon. Being "recalled to life" may not always be so dramatic and doesn't usually make headlines. Someone in a near-fatal accident is told they'll never walk again. After years of struggle and physical therapy, this person is now walking without assistance. A lifelong acquaintance is no longer held captive by grief and trauma. Just comprehending such possibilities reaffirms our capacity to heal from unspeakable hurt. According to Charles Dickens, this is hope: second chances, renewal, wounds healed that were beyond repair. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the one thing every intelligent being has in common, no matter how rich and powerful or courageous, if they've been broken by life they will plead with God for a second chance.

At his execution, the character named Carton left the world with these words: "I see a beautiful city rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

Charles Dickens penned these words over a century and a half ago. More than just a notable character's famous last words, they are a poignant and powerful statement about hope, healing, and the gift of life. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician and recording artist. In her free time she enjoys writing and regularly contributes to Enter Stage Right and she attained a Bachelor's Degree in Molecular Biology.

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