What effect does Dickens achieve with personification in Chapter 5, Book 1 in A Tale of Two Cities?
Chapter 5 in Book 1 of Charles Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities is entitled "Wine Shop." In this chapter, the setting changes from Dover, England, to Saint Antoine, a small village in France. The people living there are in abject poverty. Dickens shows this by the event of a wine cask being spilled in the street. People flock to it and are described as lapping up the wine, cupping it in their hands to drink, using handkerchiefs to soak it up and give it to babies, and licking the cask itself. Shortly after this, Dickens personifies hunger in these lines from the chapter:
"Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung on poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeating in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil."
In this passage, Dickens capitalizes the word hunger like a name, which gives a human quality to the condition of starvation that was prevalent in France at the time. Hunger pervades every aspect of life, and to personify it suggests the level of intensity with which it was experienced by the citizens of Saint Antoine. When it stares down from smokeless chimneys, not only is it watching over every aspect of life, it is also punctuating the lack of life's basic needs, like warmth. It further punctuates this lack in the shabby clothing and scant firewood. It writes upon shelves where the sustenance of life should reside but doesn't. The image of sausage being made of dead dogs is startling and made even more poignant by the fact that Hunger, this personified thing, has pushed the people to this point. Hunger gets down to a molecular level in the last lines, where it is shredded into atoms in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato. A farthing porringer was worth about a quarter of a penny and is meant to convey a meager and insufficient meal. It is also significant that hunger is given human qualities because it was this along with taxation that led people to such desperation that the French Revolution was initiated.
Dickens also personifies the village of Saint-Antoine itself, describing the "sacred countenance" of the village, which is meant to describe its citizens and all other inhabitants. Saint Antoine is a suburb of Paris, and in the 18th century, it was a poor manufacturing district. To call it sacred is indicative of the many contrasts which make this novel famous.
In Chapter 5 of Book 1 Dickens personifies hunger. He does this by giving the sensation of hunger the ability to take action in people’s lives. It is noteworthy that Dickens does this immediately after describing a comical scene in which people are attempting to suck up wine from a broken cask off the very street. For Dickens, tragedy and comedy are often closely related.
In this paragraph Dickens repeats the capitalized word “Hunger” eight times. Lines like “Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder” show hunger with a will, something that, in extreme conditions, is able to take action on its own.
The overall effect is to establish in the reader a sense of desperation on the part of the French people. These are people who have been pushed to the brink. It gives a basis to the accounts of the French Revolution that are to follow.