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Spatial Poetics in Literature: A Study on A Tale of Two Cities

Updated on March 4, 2016
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Andrea loves to write on the zodiac, Myers Briggs, and texting. She is an expert on romance and relationships. She also has two cats.

Spatialization in literature refers to the narrative space utilized and how language, temporality, and setting are all used together to define the story world in which characters, focalizers, and objects all occupy. According to Susan Stanford Friedman: “Space in narrative poetics is often present as the ‘description’ that interrupts the flow of temporality or as the ‘setting’ that functions as static background for the plot, or as the ‘scene’ in which the narrative events unfold in time” (Phelan, 193). Spatial poetics can reveal how the choice of location will in effect characterize the story world as well as the characters involved within the narrative. Through studying how narrative space is defined within the first three chapters of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, the following study intends to show how examining the techniques used in spatialization will unveil some of the major thematic elements that are carried out within a given narrative.

Written in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris before the French Revolution from 1789-1799. The novel characterizes several societal groups and how these groups function in regards to one another. Paralleled in both England and France, the underclass of peasants face scrutiny from the aristocracy along with the upper echelon of royalty, and alongside these levels of social classes, there are even more divisions with clergy, spirits, criminals, merchants, travelers, and beggars alike. Through the interactions of these multitudes of characters, society is formed, but in operating under difficult conditions, such as high taxes and suffocating law, the systems of people inevitably revolt against their country for a new order.

Contrasting Social Classes

In Chapter one of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens lays out the structure of contrasting social classes from the very beginning, and through his choice of words he paints the temporal space that defines each group. From the first sentence, Dickens portrays the myriad of contrasts that work together to portray the generation of this time:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period...

that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Dickens, 7)

From this verbose sentence, the reader is launched into a world of differences; various opposing concepts are bridged together and all at once every type of human capacity is expressed from the age of wisdom and foolishness, to the spring of hope and the winter of despair. This single sentence that operates as its own paragraph foreshadows the entire piece and philosophically details the world of tropes to be found within the novel. After this introduction, the chapter focuses on the top of the tier: the royalty of England and France, but before further delving into how Dickens frames royalty in this chapter, it should be noted that literature scholars often ponder on how language ties in with space, for instance: “Ricoeur, the preeminent theorist of narrative temporality, writes, for example: ‘My first working hypothesis is that narrativity and temporality are closely related… [I]ndeed, I take temporality to be the structure of existence that reaches language in narrativity and narrativity to be the language structure that has temporality as its ultimate reference’” (Phelan, 193). Therefore, with language, Dickens focuses on the infrastructure of the highest social class: royalty; the author uses the following words to map out the type of power in control: “king”, “queen”, “throne”, “fair face”, “crystal”, and “lords of the State” (Dickens, 7).

Definition by Juxtaposition

Dickens then transitions into another story world structure by revealing the religious atmosphere of the time in England; Dickens focuses on how religion relates in peculiar ways to the royal governors by putting into question how these type of inquirings may “have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood” (Dickens, 7). The type of temporal language used here helps characterize the spiritual plane while also revealing an undertone of superstitious behavior utilized by the highest governing body. There is a large amount of space for interpretation in spirits for this particular generational hue, and with the author’s choice of words, it is clear that there is a great deal of mystery left open while also some scrutiny is passed onto mass unified thoughts, such as revealed with the sentence stating that spiritual communication is about as worthwhile as “chickens of the Cock-lane brood” (Dickens, 7). Clearly, this sentence is going beyond the everyday communication of a rooster call in the morning to wake people for work; it is deliberately thrusting spirituality into satire. This paragraph on spirituality uses such words as: “Our Lord”, “spiritual revelations”, “blessed”, “prophetic private”, “Life Guards”, “heralded”, “sublime appearance”, “Cock-lane ghost”, “rapping out its message”, “spirits”, “supernaturally”, and “earthly order” (Dickens, 7). With such a strong paragraph focusing on a multitude of religious aspects from spiritual revelations to ghosts, Dickens is setting the stage for the novel in that religion does play a key part in the makeup of the story.

The successive paragraph transitions from the highly spiritual foreground and moves on to define how France is immersed in a world of commerce: “France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it” (Dickens, 7). Through this paragraph, the language shifts to the harsh reality France faces with its love for materialism against the authoritative power of religion. Dickens uses the following phrases to portray this monetary landscape in France: “Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself”, “sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks”, and “snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution”(Dickens, 7-8). In a myriad of ways, Dickens is characterizing the religious plane of France in a different way than England. In the previous paragraph, Dickens focuses on the superstitions of England and some of the peculiar revelations that the aristocracy and upper elite of royalty use, while in France, the brutality of work has worn out the lower class and they are also hit brutality from religion. It as though Death's character is a farmer: work and religion are the same.

The Interconnectedness of Society

Dickens in the next paragraph transitions back to England, but this time he focuses on the world of crime and the obvious lack of order: “there was scarcely an amount of order and protection to justify much national boasting” (Dickens, 8). In order to describe the crime in England, Dickens writes in a polyphony of events to pinpoint the tone and verisimilitude of characters giving momentum to disorder: “daring burglaries by armed men”, “families were publicly cautioned not to go out of town”, “the guard shot three dead, and then got shot dead himself”, “prisoners in London gaols fought battles with their turnkeys”, “the majesty of the law fired blunderbusses”, and “the hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition: now, stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals” (Dickens, 8-9). It is difficult to capture all of the language Dickens uses and nail down how it demonstrates the anarchy occurring in England; however, this section shows how on multiple levels across various classes and stereotypes that crime does occur, whether through the majesty or through roadside robbers. At the end of this chapter, Dickens places the Woodman and Farmer side-by-side while also focusing on the divine rights of the kings and how “myriads of small creatures” (Dickens, 9) all work together to build society.

Essentially, Dickens opens the novel by first compiling the philosophical landscape by contrasting a number of concepts together, and then he addresses and characterizes the royal class that governs the whole of society, and he moves on to compare the elite version of royalty in England to the lower class struggles with religion and work in France, and then Dickens allows the narrator to divulge into the barbaric world of crime in England, and at last, Dickens recaps the chapter by focusing on how each of these classes come together under the governance of the monarchy and how this novel is about “myriads of small creatures— the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—along the roads that lay before them” (Dickens, 9). By narrowing in on different sectors of society, Dickens uses language and tone to define the workings of England and France while foreshadowing how religion and the monarchies will come into play with the story. In the end, through revolution, the unceasing worker may be able to help spawn a new society where these variables of government and religion can find their proper place, but only under the right pretense or else this emergent revolution will die under the umbrella of treachery, as detailed in Dickens’ line: “the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous” (Dickens, 8). Clearly, through Dickens word choice, the reader is able to navigate through prose into the complex social networking of pre-revolutionary England and France.

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The second chapter, The Mail, focuses on the journey of a Dover mail carrier who travels on Dover road on a late Friday night in November. By focusing on a single character on the roads in England, Dickens has opened up his prose to connect various story worlds with the types of stereotypes mentioned earlier and traverse through these types by using a single focalizer. Dickens choice to cover this section in night and during a fairly cold month shows an intentional usage of the potential type of events that occur during these temporal spaces. Night, for one, often relates to more criminal and sensual type of pleasures as compared to day; as well, night often appears more dangerous and lonely. By having this section in November, this adds coldness that the individualized focalizer must face. Furthermore, with night there is more chance for the mind to take on a more imaginative side in regards to spirituality, and in the end, Dickens uses all these variables to pull at England’s current state — the darkness of night, the coldness of November, and the open imaginations of the characters.

Language Shifts to Express Emotion

From the very beginning of the chapter, Dickens focuses on human and animal burden: “he walked up-hill in the mire by the side of the mail, as the rest of the passengers did; not because they had the least relish for walking exercise, under the circumstances, but because the hill, and the harness, and the mud, and the mail, were all so heavy, that the horses had three times already come to stop…” (Dickens, 9). Not only does Dickens articulate the harshness of the circumstances in this sentence, but he also stresses it heavily by adding ‘ands’ in the series: “and the harness, and the mud, and the mail…” (Dickens, 9). With this stylistic choice, the author intentionally brings out his characters’ burdens. This stressing on harshness continues within the chapter: “With drooping heads and tremulous tails, they mashed their way through the thick mud, floundering and stumbling between whiles as if they were falling to pieces at the larger joints” (Dickens, 11). Dickens’ density of language here helps to characterize and emotionally convey physical stress; it is a clever technique used by various authors, notably Edgar Allan Poe who wrote in a similar pattern around this time in the United States: “Edgar Allan Poe’s initial consideration when beginning to write, he says in ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ is the effect, or impression, he wants the story or poem to have on its reader” (Phelan, 253). Essentially, the type of space being addressed in literature not only helps characterize the story world, but also helps convey emotion.

Furthermore, in this chapter, shades of religion come back into the foreground, as predicted will occur frequently by Dicken’s choice of words at the beginning of the novel; however, this time Dickens is more clear about where religion is headed, the chapter moves past potential superstitions as focused on in chapter one, and into a more haunting realm as depicted by such word choices as: “streaming mist”, “all the hollows”, “roamed in its forlornness”, “like an evil spirit”, “seeking rest and finding none”, “a clammy and intensely cold mist”, “it made its slow way through the air in ripples”, and “it was dense enough to shut out everything from the light” (Dickens, 11). The same repetitious language is used throughout the chapter with a focus on the harshness of the night, the riddled religious language, and the suspicious nature circulating around the Dover mail carrier and his coach.

The third chapter, The Night Shadows, plunges into the nature of secrecy:

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness...

even of Death itself, is referable to this. (Dickens, 16)

Dickens begins this chapter by focusing on the wonders of secrecy, and he starts with the widest possible frame with every single human holding their own profound secret to narrowing in by focusing on every house, to every room, and then down to the smallest level of secrecy within a beating heart. From this point on, Dickens focuses on the sinister inner workings of the human heart and the capabilities of what can be found there; he uses the mail carrier to explore a tone in conjunction to graveyards with such words as: “look into the depths”, “unfathomable water”, “buried treasure”, “other things submerged”, “shut with a spring”, “locked in an eternal frost”, “stood in ignorance on the shore”, and “my friend is dead” (Dickens, 16). With so many words dictating tone, Dickens numerous amount of cryptic phrasing in itself adds density to the subject matter he is at the same time exposing.

After this passage on secrecy and death, the messenger from Dover road is focused on as an active focalizer, but this time with much less human burden and with three new passengers in his company: the King, the first Minister of State, and the richest merchant in London. Dickens uses the Dover mail carrier’s head to focus yet again on the various compositions of social class in England and France; the messenger has a head full of hair “except on the crown, which was raggedly bald” but “was so like smith’s work, so much more like a top of a strongly spiked wall than a head of hair, that the best of players at leap-frog might have declined him, as the most dangerous man in the world to go over” (Dickens, 17). Subsequently, the messenger journeys further into a realm of shadow whereby his own mare is spooked: “for she shied at every shadow on the road” (Dickens, 17). Edging forward on the uncharted journey with curious events pulling at the mind of the characters and horse, the “three fellow-inscrutables inside” are at last defined, but only through one of the characters: the Tellson banker.

The language Dickens uses to detail the banker is filled with references to wealth: “chink of money”, “drafts were honoured”, “paid in thrice”, and “valuable stores and secrets” (Dickens, 18). After detailing the banker, the narrator then reminds the reader where this coach with people is headed, which is to “dig someone out of a grave” (Dickens, 18), but before arriving at this point, Dickens is building the characters who represent the status quo of society in order to wedge together the complexity of people involved in this time period. Dickens delves once more into the world of the dead; his choice of words help to paint the gloomy tone: “the true face of the buried person”, “in the ghastliness of their worn and wasted state”, “varieties of sunken cheek, cadaverous colour, emaciated hands and figures” and “every head was prematurely white” (Dickens, 18). After glancing into the foreboding nature of death, it is possible that Dickens has the banker communicate with a spectre, for he inquires to something unseen: “’Buried how long?’” (Dickens, 18). The narrator momentarily decides not to help the reader to a firm understanding of the events playing out — it is hard to tell whether the focalizer of this coach, the banker, is speaking to a spectre or if he is going mad: “The answers to this question were various and contradictory” (Dickens, 19), but with a new paragraph the narrator does at last invade this event to allow for some clarification: “After such imaginary discourse, the passenger in his fancy would dig, and dig, dig—now, with a spade, now with a great key, now with his hands—to dig this wretched creature out” (Dickens, 19). The narrator expounds how the banker is digging at something in his mind, as if he were digging at a pile of dead bones to bring out and into life some once forgotten idea.

The mauling over in the banker’s mind continues as he journeys further into his thoughts, it is as if his mind is its own story world with its own rich network of people, houses, rooms, and heartbeats: “The real Banking-house by Temple-bar, the real business of the past day, the real strong-rooms, the real express sent after him, and the real message returned, would all be there” (Dickens, 19). While the other two undefined members of this coach sleep, this awake banker relentlessly plows through his mind, whether with a metaphorical or literal ghost, and the banker at last does uncover some abandoned piece of information: the call for revolution. The banker lowers one of the windows and the sun rises as the banker is possessed with an idea, or has come across a true apparition and is being mentally motivated by it. Out of the darkness, light awakes and the pull on words having to do with death switches over to a vulnerable state of birth, creation, and supple youth: “Though the earth was cold and wet, the sky was clear, and the sun rose bright, placid, and beautiful. ‘Eighteen years!’ said the passenger, looking at the sun. ‘Gracious Creator of the day! To be buried alive for eighteen years!’ (Dickens, 20). The seed of revolution is beginning to take fruition and Dickens is using this moving caravan to introduce this world of enlightenment through this individualized focalizer of a banker. These opening chapters help to round out and show the interlocked relations of various social classes, and through narrowing in on a specific event with a handful of characters, Dickens helps the reader to make these concepts clear, while at the same time, the author uses poetic language to paint how revolution is born within the blossoming, yet naïve mind that goes hand in hand with the youthful mental landscapes on reform.

In conclusion, space in literature helps to form the world in which characters interact, and through that space, characters are defined, not only by the gravity of space itself, but also the type of location — whether a gothic castle, mountainous region, or desert plain — these settings and the type of characters found there have a symbiotic relationship: space influences characters as well as characters have the capacity to change and reinvent their surroundings. In regards to space, “story development is inconceivable without the setting, which makes it possible for actions to take place and actants to become involved in them. It is impossible to imagine roles and events without embedding them in time and space” (Herman, 57). Space allows for characters to carry out their roles while that space also shapes the type of destiny characters can wield. Space provides context, therein meaning that “The sense of being starved for space underscores how much we expect, even crave, that narrative be spatial as well as temporal. We want to know where this action takes place, what kind of space it occupies, what else if anything is present in this space, how vast it is, how confined, how it looks and feels” (Porter, 162). All of the questions Porter is posing on spatialization are the types of questions which not only define the story world in which a narrative occupies, but also help to unveil the major themes of a work. A Tale of Two Cities provides a great deal of philosophical thought on revolution, and by using setting and intermixing it with a polyphony of voices and specific focalizers, the concepts circulating around pre-revolutionary countries become accessible in a handful of pages.

Works Cited

Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Second ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Barnes & Noble Classic ed. New York City: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. Print.

Herman, Luc, and Bart Vervaeck. Handbook of Narrative Analysis. the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, 2005. Print.

Phelan, James, and Peter J. Rabinowitz, eds. A Companion to Narrative Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Print.


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    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 15 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      Dickens was a great writer. At school we studied 'A Tale of Two Cities' and learned to appreciate it very much. Thank you for such an interesting article.

    • SerenityHalo profile image

      Andrea Lawrence 15 months ago from Chicago


      Thank you for your feedback! It's always nice to hear from readers.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 15 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Fascinating stuff.

    • SerenityHalo profile image

      Andrea Lawrence 15 months ago from Chicago


      Thank you! Glad you could find something interesting.

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