The great storyteller, Charles Dickens

when liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it is hard to shake hands with her.” ~Oscar Wild

As a novelist so much concerned with society and its ills and injustices, it is hardly surprising that Charles Dickens should have written two novels about social disorder in which the corrupt structure that looms up in so many of his books seems in danger of final collapse. The first of these, quite early in his career, was Barnaby Rudge (1840-41), in which the anti-Catholic Gordon riots formed the background to a rather conventional love story. The second, towards the end of his career, was A Tale of Two Cities, which first appeared during 1859 as eight monthly parts in Dickens’s own magazine, All the Year Round, and was later published as a novel. It is set in London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution, centering especially on the period of the Terror of 1793.

As a historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities has obvious limitations. It is highly derivative, mainly from Thomas Carlyle’s extravagant masterpiece, The French Revolution, for Dickens did little other research. Moreover, the attention it gives to the Revolution as a historic event is strangely restricted and evasive. Only two of the celebrated episodes of the Revolution are described at any length; the taking of the Bastille and the murder by the crowd of the old tax farmer Foulon, of which Carlyle also makes much. None of the celebrated revolutionary figures appear except for the executioner Samson, and even him we never see. The guillotine thuds away invisible, and though we are told of the great massacres in the prisons and shown a macabre scene of the killers sharpening their bloody weapons in the yard of the Paris branch of Tillson’s Bank, we do not see a single aristocrat actually being slaughtered by the people. We get only a limited glimpse of the slums of Paris, in the Faubourg St. Antoine, where the Terror has its birth, and even here our attention is mainly concentrated on the bloodthirsty Defarges who, it turns out in the end, are motivated to play their part in the action through thoughts of family revenge rather than of revolutionary zeal.

The central motif of the novel is in fact that of redemption through love rather than revolution through hate, and the central plot is a love triangle in which one of the two suitors for the heroine dies on the guillotine in the place of his rival. The heroine is Lucie Manette, daughter of a doctor formerly imprisoned in the Bastille, who at the beginning of the book is released, sheltered by Defarge who was his former servant, and brought to a refuge in England. Of the lovers one, Charles Darnay, lives in London as a French tutor, but is really a member of a particularly arrogant aristocratic family, whose pretensions he has already rejected before the Revolution. The other, Sydney Carton, is a brilliant but debauched lawyer. The two men meet dramatically at the Old Bailey, when Darnay stands falsely accused of spying for France, and Carton—who is Darnay’s double—stands up to confuse the identificatory evidence of the government spies. Darnay is acquitted—saved for a first time by his darker self—and courts and marries Lucie, whom his double also loved.

Then, when the Revolution starts and the Terror begins, Darnay foolishly returns to France in the hope that he can save the life of a faithful old servant who has been imprisoned. But he is himself arrested under suspicion of being an émigré aristocrat, and condemned when the Defarges reveal that his uncle and father were responsible for Dr. Manette having been sent to the Bastille and for crimes against the family of Madame Defarge for which she has vowed revenge.

It is now that the theme of the double, that gothic device which has been echoing throughout the novel, is completed; Darnay is again rescued by his darker self, Carton, who contrives to take his rival’s place in the cells of the Conciergerie and eventually at the guillotine, while Darnay is spirited back to England.

For Darnay it is a return to Lucie and his children and a long happy life. For Carton it means the transcendence of his own unworthiness, and as the book ends we recognize that the real theme is not revolution, though that is what gives the novel its local flavour in time and place, but redemption.

A Tale of Two Cities, in fact, takes its place not in the literature of political conflict, but rather in the literature of the kind of sentimental evangelical Christianity that permeated English life so deeply in the mid-19th century, at the height of the Victorian era. In this sense, it is a heavily didactic book, and to this didacticism we can attribute alike the awkwardness of the implausible and coincidence-ridden plot and the melodramatic stiffness of the characterization. Compared with Dickens at his best, a year later in Great Expectations, it gives the impression of an over-contrived but hastily written book, whose grasp on history is tenuous.

Woodcock, George. “A Tale of Two Cities: Literature Resource Center

“Every generation needs a new revolution”~Thomas Jefferson


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