BOOK THE FIRST
Thinking of the inequality with which Death chooses its victim, Stephen enters his room to find Rachael at his wife's bedside, treating the drunken woman's sores with medication from a bottle. Rachael has known Stephen's wife since they were young girls and was a friend to the couple when they were first married. She is helping the unfortunate creature because she can't stand to see anyone suffer.
Stephen's wife is close to unconsciousness, and according to the doctor, will be in this state until tomorrow. When Stephen spots the bottle of medicine, he trembles with fright to see that its contents are poisonous if swallowed.
It's easy to realize that Stephen is having morbid thoughts of killing his wife. When the opportunity is in front of him, in the guise of the bottle of poison, he is shaken with fear at what he has been thinking.
Stephen falls into a gradual sleep, interrupted by a disturbing dream. A wedding ceremony, in which he is the groom and an unknown woman is the bride, is interrupted by a great shaft of light that illuminates a line from the ten commandments to the altar. Suddenly the wedding turns into a funeral service and burial, with Stephen as the corpse and witnessed by a group that seems to represent the entire world.
Why does Stephen have this terrible dream? Which commandment- the one forbidding adultery or the one forbidding murder- is illuminated on the tablet? Whatever your opinion on which issue Stephen feels more guilty about, it's clear that he feels condemned by God for his thoughts.
When he awakens, he sees that Rachael is asleep. His wife stirs on the bed as he watches from the chair. She grasps for the bottle, perhaps thinking it's liquor, and begins to open it. He has no will to try to stop her, subconsciously hoping that she will drink the poison, but Rachael awakens in time and wrenches the bottle from her grasp.
Some readers fault Dickens for excessive emotionalism in scenes such as this; they find the scenes overly sentimental and melodramatic. Whether you feel that this scene is moving or overdone is probably a matter of personal taste. Remember that the readers of Dickens's day loved such sensational elements as long-lost wives, bottles of poison, warning dreams, tearful declarations of love. (And tastes haven't changed much, if we can judge from the popularity of today's soap operas!) As a popular novelist, Dickens gave the public what it wanted.
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