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Face value in A Tale of Two Cities

Research output: Contribution in Book/Report/ProceedingsChapter (peer-reviewed)

Publication date06/2009
Host publicationCharles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, and the French Revolution
EditorsColin Jones, Josephine McDonagh, Jon Mee
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)9780230537781
<mark>Original language</mark>English

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture


This essay considers how proper names and faces construct, destruct, and reconstruct social identity in A tale of two cities. Manette’s identification at the start of the novel, for example, occurs chiefly through a recalled proper name and face. As the French Revolution worked to destroy privileged, individuated identities, so too have contemporary theories of identity, which dismiss individual identity and remain preoccupied with identity at the level of common nouns and generic bodies. However, the near escape of Louis XVI in 1791 highlighted the failure of common noun categorisations and generic bodies to establish social identity. Named and disguised as a valet, Louis was identified by the resemblance of his embodied face to its representation on the money of the period. This picture-identification ushered in a law requiring facial descriptions in passports. Madame Defarge’s knitted register follows pattern of these descriptions. The nearly identical faces of Darnay and Carton, however, thwart her attempts at picture-identification. Where the shared family name and face condemn Darnay by association, physiognomical resemblance to the unrelated Carton saves him. It rescues not only Darnay but also Carton from legal, moral, female, and lower-class condemnation, allowing the French aristocrat to escape public guilt by family, class, and national association and the degraded English middle-class professional to emerge sanitised from his private moral guilt as an international, intergenerational hero. The process operates under a model of simile. Simile, eschewing the metaphoric merger and metonymic displacement reserved for women and the lower classes in the novel, allows each man to exchange his guilt for the other man’s innocence and innocence for the other man’s guilt. It ushers in a perpetual identity theft that allows the individual sins and class crimes of ruling males to pass unaccounted for and be refigured as innocence and heroism.