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Free Study Guide-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Free BookNotes
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Chapter Sixteen: Still Knitting

Summary

Defarge informs his wife that another spy has been assigned to watch the neighborhood. His name is John Barsad, the man who had testified against Darnay in England. Defarge describes him as a man of forty, five feet nine inches tall, with black hair, a dark complexion, dark eyes, a thin, long, sallow face, and a crooked, aquiline nose that gives him a sinister expression. Madame Defarge remarks that she will add his name to the register. Defarge complains about the slow progression of the revolution. His wife replies that vengeance and retribution take a long time; she assures him, however, that the revolution will occur.

The next day at noon Madame Defarge sits knitting at her usual spot in the wine shop when a stranger walks in. On seeing him, she picks up a rose from the counter and pins it to her cap. When she does this, the customers stop talking. She recognizes him as the spy John Barsad. He greets Madame Defarge and ironically compliments her on her knitting style, saying the pattern is pretty. He asks her what her knitting is for; she replies that it is just a pastime, but maybe someday she will find a use for it.

During their conversation, a few men enter the shop, but on seeing the rose they look around and leave promptly. Also all the customers that were already in the shop have now departed. As they talk, Madame Defarge knits Barsad's name into the register. He tries in vain to extract information from her and even mentions Gaspard's execution. Madame Defarge stoically shows no reaction.


Defarge enters the shop, and the spy greets him as Jacques. Defarge corrects him by calmly informing him that his name is Ernest. Barsad tries to gather information from him as well, but to no avail. He then taunts Defarge by telling him that Lucie Manette is going to marry Charles Darnay, who is the son of Madame D'Aulnais and the nephew of Evremonde. Madame Defarge shows no reaction to this information, but her husband does. Barsad notices Defarge's response and is pleased to have made an impact. Satisfied with his work, Barsad pays for his wine and leaves.

After the spy is gone, Defarge wonders out loud if this information could possibly be true; Madame Defarge thinks it may be. Defarge, saddened by the information, hopes that Darnay does not come to France. Meanwhile, Madame Defarge knits Darnay's name in her register. At the end of the chapter, she takes off the rose, and customers re-enter the shop.

Notes

The reappearance of the police spy, John Barsad, is not a mere coincidence. It is again an illustration of Dickens' skill in plotting his story. Since he testified against Darnay in his trial, it is appropriate that the breaks the news of Darnay's engagement to Lucie Manette. When Barsad states that Darnay is an Evremonde, Defarge is visibly shaken. His stoic wife shows no reaction; she simply knits Darnay's name into her register.

The differences between Monsieur Defarge and his wife are highlighted in this chapter. He shows his impatience, wondering whether the revolution will ever be a reality. His wife is calm and certain, sure that the revolutionary vengeance will sometime erupt in war. Defarge shows that he is human, not devoid of emotion. He is visibly upset when he hears of Lucie's forthcoming marriage to Charles Evremonde Darnay and hopes that he will never come to France. Madame Defarge, on the other hand, shows no emotion and merely knits Darnay's name into her register. Her resolute and accepting ways turn her into a symbol of Fate.

Dickens, in the final paragraphs of this chapter, depicts many poor women knitting to stop thinking about their poverty hunger; later women will sit at the foot of the guillotine and calmly knit as people are decapitated. The knitting, therefore, becomes a symbol of death, as if these women were knitting funeral shrouds. Madame Defarge knits the names of the aristocracy that are to die; the peasant women knit to stave off poverty and hunger, but many will die as a direct result of starvation; and finally, the women who sit and knit at the guillotine are in direct vision of bloodshed and death.

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