The Ghostly Cycle in ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’

Perhaps no character is ‘recalled to life’ so forcefully as the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). The Horseman returns to the land of the living but does so without his head. In losing his head, he is physically deprived of an integral part of his being, and is therefore impaired. The Horseman’s possession of the traits of being able to return, and having an impairment, make him a prime example of a ghost. ‘Recalled to life’ is first spoken by Jarvis Lorry to Jerry Cruncher in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859).[1] Lorry is referring to Doctor Alexandre Manette, a French physician who has been released from the Bastille after an eighteen-year incarceration. Both Lorry and Cruncher plan to smuggle Doctor Manette out of France to reunite him with his daughter, Lucie Manette. It is Cruncher and Lorry who are recalling Doctor Manette back to life, by reuniting him with a vital connection that he was deprived of in prison: his family. Doctor Manette’s experience has left him a ghost of his former self. Like Doctor Manette, Rip Van Winkle in Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1819) is deprived of his family for a similar amount of time and is also recalled to life by being restored to his family. The traits that make the Horseman a ghost are noticeable in a variety of characters in the works of Dickens and Irving, including those who are living. As well as being a ghost, the Horseman repeatedly returns, and is sighted within Sleepy Hollow. Even after his rescue, Doctor Manette has a tendency to revert back to his former ghostly self. Some characters’ actions imply that they are caught within their own repetitive cycles. As these characters are ghostly, these cycles can be recognised as ghostly cycles. What appears to affect ghostliness, and the ghostly cycle, is the force of devotional love. This devotional love, in both texts, can be motivated by familial or friendly connections. This essay will examine the representation of the key characters in the works of Dickens and Irving, which suggests that the characters are caught in their own impenetrable ghostly cycles. It is devotional love, specifically the devotional love of daughters that is able to cure ghostliness, and break these ghostly cycles.

Irving’s Horseman is introduced as an ‘apparition’ (p. 313). The inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow recognise the abnormality of the Horseman as he lacks the possession of a head, and is not a physical being of flesh and blood. The Horseman is a mercenary ‘Hessian trooper, whose head has been carried away by a cannon ball’ during the American War of Independence.[2] The inhabitants note that the Horseman ‘rides forth to the scene of battle in a nightly quest for his head (p. 314). The gap in his physical body, realised by his lost head, speaks to the gap in time between his death and the present.[3] His ability to travel across multiple generations confirms his status as a ghost, as he has returned from the past to the present. As the Horseman tries to reunite with his head ‘nightly,’ he is caught in his own ghostly cycle, in which he continually tries to remedy his physical impairment. Without his head he lacks an identity, and instead appears as a relentless, faceless force that is representative of the revolutionary violence that was exacted upon him, and that he exacted upon others. The traits of the Horseman provide the definition of a ghost, as he has the ability to return, and has done so with the purpose of recovering something that is lost to him.

Rip Van Winkle becomes a ghost when he awakens from a twenty-year slumber in the Catskill mountains. When walking back into his village, Rip notices that people stare at him, and ‘invariably stroked their chins’ (p. 41). The villagers point out Rip’s ‘foot long’ (p. 41) beard, due to its abnormality. The length of Rip’s beard is symbolic of the length of time of his absence, prompting him to realise that he does not belong in the present time that he currently finds himself in. Rip is a remnant of the past that has returned to the present. ‘Rip’s heart died away at hearing these sad changes in his home and friends’ (p. 44). Rip realises that his friends have all moved on or died. Rip does not lose a physical aspect of himself like the Horseman does, but instead loses the physical beings that once surrounded him. Rip is now deprived, or impaired, of a key aspect of his being: his friends, who constituted his society. As the Horseman has lost his identity by losing his head, Rip has lost an aspect of his identity by losing his society. Rip finds himself alone in the world, questioning in despair ‘Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?’ (p. 44). It should be noted that Rip only returns once, and so is not caught in a repetitive cycle of returning like the Horseman is. However, at the end of the novella, Irving notes that Rip ‘used to tell his story to every stranger that arrived’ (p. 47). Rip’s return leads to the generation of a cycle which sees his story repeatedly return, as Rip repeatedly tells it. Rip’s ability to return, and to do so with an impairment, make him a ghost, who is caught within his own ghostly cycle, much like Doctor Manette.

Due to his lengthy imprisonment, Doctor Manette’s bones ‘seemed transparent’ (p. 43). Doctor Manette seems to lack the physical properties that make him recognisable as a human being. Instead, he appears as an ‘apparition’ like the Horseman. Doctor Manette also exhibits a ‘hollowness and thinness’ (p. 42). Doctor Manette’s physical ‘thinness’ implies that he has been starved of nourishment. This explains his extreme frailty, and why he looks ‘transparent.’ Doctor Manette’s ‘hollowness’ implies that he is empty inside. This may be due to his lack of nourishment, but also his emotional deprivation as a result of being separated from his family. When asked his name, Doctor Manette replies with ‘One Hundred and Five, North Tower’ (p. 44). Doctor Manette substitutes his name for his prison cell identification. In doing so, he removes an aspect of his own identity. Dickens concludes that Doctor Manette has ‘faded away into a poor weak stain’ (p. 42). Doctor Manette’s lack of physical and emotional nourishment, as well as his lack of identity, prompts Dickens to remark that he has evanesced to the point at which he is no longer recognisable as a human being anymore. Doctor Manette’s time in prison has impaired him of his humanity.

When hearing that her father is alive, Lucie notes that ‘I have been free, I have been happy, yet his Ghost has never haunted me!’ (p. 28). Lucie had previously believed her father to be dead and until now has been ‘free’ and ‘happy,’ as this belief has not been disputed. In hearing that Doctor Manette is alive, Lucie feels ‘haunted’ by him, as in her mind, he has returned from the dead. Doctor Manette’s ability to return, coupled with his impairment make him a ghost.

When Lucie is reunited with her father, he is obsessively making shoes. Later in the novel, Doctor Manette explains that ‘My mind is a blank, from some time – I cannot even say what time – when I employed myself, in my captivity, in making shoes, to the time when I found myself living in London with my dear daughter here’ (p. 76). Doctor Manette implies that he began making shoes to distract himself from the horrors of his imprisonment. When asked about his imprisonment, Doctor Manette draws a ‘blank’ meaning that his shoemaking has been successful in blocking out the memories of his incarceration. Doctor Manette takes his tools back with him to England, and takes up shoemaking again when Lucie and Charles Darnay go on their honeymoon in a relapse that lasted for ‘nine days’ (p. 204). Doctor Manette does not just return to this activity to forget his imprisonment, but uses it as a coping mechanism in times of anxiety. In this instance, it is the loss of Lucie that causes his anxiety. Although Doctor Manette has been rescued from his imprisonment, his continual relapse into shoemaking demonstrates that he is caught in his own ghostly cycle, as are the peasants of Saint Antoine.

In the street, ‘a large cask of wine’ (p. 30) drops and breaks, and in order to consume the wine, the peasants ‘made scoops’ of it in their hands. The wine runs ‘out between their fingers’ (p. 31). This technique of drinking the wine is inefficient, as some of it is wasted. The peasants’ use of this technique emphasises their desperation to consume the wine immediately.  This draws attention to their extreme hunger and suggests that they are impaired of nourishment. The peasants are described as ‘men with bare arms, matted locks, and cadaverous faces, who had emerged into winter light from cellars’ (p. 31). Their ‘cadaverous faces,’ imply that the peasants look like living corpses. The peasants’ travelling across the spatial distance between the cellar below to the street above alludes to the image of corpses rising from the grave, to the ‘light’ of the land of the living. The peasants return from the cellar to remedy their impairment of nourishment, by drinking the wine. After the wine has been drunk, the peasants ‘descend again; and a gloom gathered on the scene that appeared more natural than sunshine’ (p. 32). The repetition of the peasants’ journey to the streets demonstrates that they are caught in their own ghostly cycle. The fact that Saint Antoine is more accustomed to ‘gloom’ than ‘natural sunshine’ suggests that the town is devoid of vitality, which is confirmed by the presence of the ghostly peasants.

While the town is devoid of vitality, Madame Defarge is devoid of family. Madame Defarge tells Sydney Carton that several of her relatives were murdered by the Marquis St. Evrémonde, explaining that ‘those dead are my dead, and that summons to answer for those things descends to me!’ (p. 354). Madame Defarge’s repetition of personal pronouns demonstrates that she takes ownership of the plight of her relatives and is fiercely protective of them. She recognises that the responsibility of avenging her dead relatives ‘descends’ to her. The use of ‘descends’ likens this desire for revenge to an inheritance, which has travelled down the familial line to her. This inheritance drives Madame Defarge throughout the novel and has done so since ‘childhood’ (p. 375). Although Madame Defarge does not return from a different setting or time as other characters do, by retaining the same desire for revenge in the present as she did in the past, and by living for the purpose of avenging her family, Madame Defarge herself lives in the past. She returns from this past to remedy her impairment: the family that was taken from her.

It is Madame Defarge’s continual desire to avenge her family that generates her own ghostly cycle. Madame Defarge demands that the ‘Evrémonde people are to be exterminated’ (p. 373). ‘People’ demonstrates that Madame Defarge views the Evrémondes as collectively responsible for the sufferings of her family, and therefore requires them to be ‘exterminated,’ meaning totally destroyed.[4] Madame Defarge’s revengeful wrath is directed at Charles Darnay throughout the novel. Darnay is a member of the Evrémonde family, and although he has relinquished all ties with them, Madame Defarge fights for his execution, and that of his ‘wife and child’ (p. 373). Madame Defarge’s desire to destroy the Evrémondes blinds her to the fact that Darnay and his family are not responsible for the murder of her relatives. Madame Defarge’s plans to eradicate the Evrémondes demonstrate that she possesses a ferocity that is synonymous with the French revolution itself, making her appear like an unrestrained force of nature, that could be likened to the Horseman. In wishing to execute Darnay and his family as compensation for the death of her family, Madame Defarge desires the completion of her own ghostly cycle of revenge.

Sydney Carton enters into his own ghostly cycle by sacrificing himself for Darnay at the end of the novel. When swapping places with Darnay in jail, Carton describes himself as ‘the resurrection and the life’ (p. 325). Dickens likens Carton to Jesus, as like Jesus, Carton is dying for the sins of others: the Evrémondes (p. 483, n. 4). Like Jesus, Carton believes that he will be resurrected. On the scaffold, Carton speaks about Darnay and Lucie’s future, including a child ‘who bore my name, a man, winning his way up in that path of life which was once mine’ (p. 390). Carton assumes that Lucie and Darnay will name a son after him, and that this will facilitate Carton’s resurrection. As well as this, Darnay’s son will take the ‘life which was once mine,’ indicating that, Darnay’s son will live the life that Carton has surrendered for his survival. This will allow Carton to live vicariously through Darnay’s son, meaning that Darnay’s survival means Carton’s survival. Carton believes that he will be ever-present in the lives of the Darnay’s following his death. This presence can be likened to a haunting. However, Carton does not wish to torment the Darnay family, as the Horseman torments the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow. Carton merely wishes to be included in the Darnay’s’ life, as recompense for his sacrifice. In continually returning to the Darnay’s, Carton would possess the ghostly trait of being able to return, and would be caught in his own ghostly cycle.

Carton’s words on the scaffold suggest that some of the revolutionaries will be caught in their own ghostly cycle. Carton condemns the violence of the revolutionaries, saying that they will meet their end by the ‘retributive’ Guillotine (p. 389). Carton mentions The Vengeance, who is first introduced as a ‘lieutenant’ who ‘had already earned the complimentary name of The Vengeance’ (p. 231). It was common for revolutionaries to be named after concepts of the revolution (p. 231, n. 1). Her being referred to as a ‘lieutenant’ implies that the vengeful force that she possesses is greater than the vengeful force of her fellow revolutionaries. She is seen ‘uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, tearing from house to house, rousing the women’ (p. 232). The verbs ‘flinging,’ ‘tearing’ and ‘rousing’ emphasise the erratic and volatile nature of her movements. Her comparison to the ‘Furies,’ the Greek deities of vengeance, emphasise that she personifies vengeance. As the reader can only use her name and behaviour to identify her, she appears not as a person, but as a symbolic force of the revolution. If Carton were correct in predicting that The Vengeance would be guillotined, in death she would mirror the Headless Horseman. Like the Horseman, the Vengeance would be impaired of a head and identity, and therefore would appear as a faceless, force of violence. Although the Horseman did not possess any political affiliations, The Vengeance, like him, would be a casualty of a revolutionary war, who would continually return to the present to retrieve her lost head, and thus be caught in her own ghostly cycle.

Miss Pross’s killing of Madame Defarge means that Madame Defarge could be caught in another ghostly cycle. This altercation occurs at the end of the novel, when Miss Pross fights Madame Defarge to protect Lucie and her child. After Madame Defarge’s gun goes off, ‘the smoke cleared, leaving an awful stillness, it passed out on the air, like the soul of the furious woman whose body lay lifeless on the ground’ (p. 383). Dickens notes that the smoke dissipated much like the way in which Madame Defarge’s ‘soul’ exited her ‘lifeless’ body. It is unclear where Madame Defarge has been shot, meaning that she could have been shot in the head, perhaps entirely removing it. If this were the case, Madame Defarge’s story would resemble the Horseman’s. Madame Defarge would be impaired of a head, like the Horseman, and will also still be impaired of her family. She would return in search of her head, but also to remedy the impairment of her family by avenging them, an endeavour that she failed to accomplish in life. In facilitating the creation of another ghostly cycle, Miss Pross condemns herself to a ghostly existence.

Due to the sound of the gunshot, Miss Pross ‘never will hear anything else in the world’ (p. 384). Miss Pross is left impaired of her hearing. As well as this, just as Carton believes he will be ever present in the minds of the Darnay’s, the significance of the loss of Miss Pross’s hearing suggests that Madame Defarge will be ever present in Miss Pross’s mind, because it was the altercation with her that caused Miss Pross’s deafness. The idea that Madame Defarge will forever haunt Miss Pross only strengthens the formers likeness to the Horseman. Although Miss Pross’s impairment renders her as ghostly, she does succeed in preventing Madame Defarge’s ghostly cycle of revenge from coming to completion, by stopping Madame Defarge from taking the life of Lucie and her child.

Miss Pross is able to do this because she is driven by the ‘vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate’ (p. 383). By personifying love as tenacious, Dickens implies that Miss Pross’s devotional love for Lucie is what gives her the strength to kill Madame Defarge. Michael Slater claims that Dickens associates Madame Defarge with hate because her devotional love for her family has transformed into a desire for revenge, whereas Miss Pross’s devotional love for Lucie does not change, and remains as devotional love.[5] This makes Miss Pross ‘stronger’ than Madame Defarge. Miss Pross’s devotional love for Lucie is strong enough to stop the completion of Madame Defarge’s ghostly cycle of revenge, as is Carton’s.

Like Miss Pross, Carton also halts Madame Defarge’s ghostly cycle of revenge, by ensuring that other revolutionaries do not complete it after her death. Carton’s sacrifice was foreshadowed when he told Lucie that he ‘would give his life to keep a life you love beside you!’ (p. 159). Although his love is unrequited, Carton is so devoted to Lucie that he is willing to die so that she can live her fullest life. ‘A life you love’ may refer to Darnay, as his life is vital to Lucie’s life, as her ‘love.’ As the crowd believe that Carton is Darnay, their appetite for revenge is satisfied, thus freeing Darnay and Lucie from further persecution. It is Carton’s devotional love for Lucie that motivates his sacrifice. Devin Griffiths argues that once the violence of revolution has erupted, the wound that it causes cannot be ‘closed, only adjusted.’[6] Miss Pross and Carton validate this idea, as, although their devotional love for Lucie is able to halt Madame Defarge’s ghostly cycle, it does not prevent them from becoming ghostly, and generating other ghostly cycles.

However, Griffins views are invalidated by the presence of devotional, daughterly love, which breaks the ghostly cycle. When wandering through his village, Rip comes across his son, also called Rip. In his son, Rip sees his ‘precise counterpart’ (p. 44). As Rip senior is looking at himself in Rip junior, the latter does not inspire any memories for him, as at this point Rip is unsure of his own identity. Rip then sees his daughter, whispering ‘hush Rip’ (p. 45) to her child. ‘The name of the child, the air of the mother, the tone of her voice all awakened a train of recollections in his mind’ (p. 45). The sight of Rip’s daughter encompasses four generations of Rip’s family: Rip himself, his daughter, grandchild, and wife. In recognising his family, Rip is able to identify himself, by reasserting himself back into the familial structure as patriarch, which is shown by his exclamation of ‘I am your father!’ (p. 45).[7] Rip’s realisation of who he is, prompted by the sight of his daughter, resolves his identity crisis. Rip’s daughter then takes ‘him home to live with her’ (p. 46). Although Rip’s daughter does not cure the ghostly cycle of storytelling, as Rip himself chooses to continue this, her devotional love for him is enough to cure his ghostliness, allowing him to be fully ‘recalled to life.’

Lucie’s devotional love for Doctor Manette recalls him back to life. When meeting him in France, he ‘took off a blackened string with a scrap of folded rag attached to it […] it contained a very little quantity of hair: not more than one or two long golden hairs’ (p. 47). The hair belonged to Doctor Manette’s wife, Lucie’s mother. It is his recognition of Lucie’s golden hair that prompts Doctor Manette to realise that his kin that stands before him. Elizabeth Gitter likens Lucie’s hair to a halo which secures Doctor Manette within the ‘vital family network.’[8] Gitter implies that the sight of Lucie’s hair allows Doctor Manette to recognise himself, as Lucie’s father, and it is this that reintroduces him into the family network. This restores part of his lost identity. Gitter’s use of ‘vital’ also emphasises the importance of familial love, due to its role in healing Doctor Manette. After returning to England, Lucie is recognised as the ‘the golden thread that united him to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery’ (p. 83). This metaphor implies that Lucie is representative of the happiest parts of Doctor Manette’s life: the time before and after his imprisonment. The memories in-between are negated by Lucie’s presence, as she was absent from him during his imprisonment. When Lucie departs for her honeymoon, Doctor Manette relapses into shoemaking. Miss Pross and Lorry destroy the shoemaker’s bench to end this relapse. It is only in Lucie’s ‘name’ (p. 212) that Doctor Manette allows this. This demonstrates that only Lucie’s love is able to cure Doctor Manette’s ghostliness and break his ghostly cycle.

In crafting characters that have the ability to return, but do so with some sort of impairment, Dickens and Irving have created novels that are populated with ghostly characters. The repetitive actions of these ghostly characters confirm the presence of multiple, impenetrable ghostly cycles within the authors’ works. The action within these works centres around people’s ability to affect the ghostly cycle. Dickens and Irving use the ghostly cycle to discuss the consequences and implications of historical revolutionary violence. The very nature of revolution requires a total upheaval of the previous regime, and as demonstrated in these texts, revolution mirrors the violence of the regime that preceded it. The ghostly cycles reflect the cyclical nature of revolution, and demonstrate the futility of revolution, by recognising its inherent destructiveness. Instead of advocating revolutionary war to end tyranny, Dickens and Irving advocate the power of devotional, daughterly love, as it is this force that frees people from their ghostly cycles, allowing them to be fully ‘recalled to life.’

Thanks for reading!


[1] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (London: Penguin Classics, 2004).Subsequent references will be given in parentheses in the text.

[2] Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories (London: Penguin Classics, 2004) p. 313. Subsequent references will be given in parentheses in the text.

[3] Robert Hughes, ‘Sleepy Hollow: Fearful Pleasures and the Nightmare of History’, Arizona Quarterly, 61(3) (2005), 1-26, (p. 15).

[4] Cates Baldridge, ‘Alternatives to Bourgeois Individualism in A Tale of Two Cities’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 30(4) (1990) 633-654, (p. 639).

[5] Catherine J. Golden, ‘Late-Twentieth-Century Readers in Search of a Dickensian Heroine: Angels, Fallen Sisters, and Eccentric Women, Modern Language Studies, 30(2) (2000), 5-19, (p. 14).

[6] Devin Griffiths, ‘The Comparative History of A Tale of Two Cities’, ELH, 80(3) (2013), 811-838, (p. 829).

[7] Michael Warner, ‘Irving’s Posterity’, ELH, 67(3) (2000), 773-799, (p. 788).

[8] Elisabeth G. Gitter, ‘The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination,’ PMLA, 99(5) (1984), 936-954, (p. 944).

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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