What does the defense lawyer try to do to John Barsad in his cross examination in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are three significant trials in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and the first one takes place in book two, chapter three. Charles Darnay is on trial for treason, and John Barsad is a witness against him. After the prosecutor established Barsad as an upstanding, patriotic witness, the defense lawyer has a chance to cross examine Barsad, and he has a specific strategy in mind.

Here is what we learn about the wonderful character of John Barsad through a series of simple questions asked in cross examination:

  • He has never been a spy, and this is a "base insuinuation."
  • He makes his living by his property.
  • He does not "precisely remember" where his property is.
  • He does not believe it is anybody's business what kind of property it is.
  • He had, indeed, inherited the property.
  • He ¬†inherited it from a "distant relation"--a VERY distant relation.
  • He has certainly never been in prison.
  • He does not see what being in debtor's prison has to do with these proceedings.
  • He may have been in debtor's prison "two or three times."
  • Upon reflection, he may have been in debtor's prison five or six times.
  • His profession is "gentleman."
  • He might or might not have ever been kicked before.
  • He certainly has not been kicked frequently.
  • He most certainly has never been kicked down the stairs; however, he

once received a kick on the top of a staircase, and fell downstairs of his own accord.

  • He was not allegedly kicked for "cheating at dice," though

[s]omething to that effect was said by the intoxicated liar who committed the assault, but it was not true.

  • He absolutely, positively swears that this is not true.
  • He has never cheated at gambling.
  • He has made his living by gambling, but certainly "not more than other gentlemen do."
  • He has borrowed money from the prisoner, Charles Darnay.
  • He has not repaid the prisoner, Charles Darnay.
  • He promises, really and truly, that he and the prisoner are the closest of friends, and their relationship was not

a very slight one, forced upon the prisoner in coaches, inns, and packets.

  • He is is certain that he saw the prisoner with the lists (the condemning evidence).
  • He knows absolutely nothing more about the lists than he has already said. Nothing.
  • He did not "procure them himself." Nope. Did not happen.
  • He certainly expects no compensation for the evidence he is giving today. No money.
  • He is in no way being paid regularly by the government to be a spy and "lay traps" for people at the government's request. Would not happen.
  • He would not do anything like that. Ever.
  • He swears to that, "over and over again." He has absolutely no motives other than "sheer patriotism." None whatsoever. At all.

Clearly the defense attorney's plan is to ask a series of questions to reveal the information he (or someone) has gathered, rather than make some sweeping accusations which Barsad would deny anyway. By the end of the cross examination, Barsad is portrayed for what he really is: a man of no means (poor) and low character who is willing to commit whatever crimes he must to make a profit and who has sold his loyalties and testimony to the highest bidder (in this case the government). He is not, under any circumstances, the altruistic, patriotic man the prosecuting attorney portrayed him as being. Barsad has been exposed as a mercenary, untrustworthy, and somewhat foolish witness. 

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