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Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is rarely considered the best of his novels. Most commentators and critics consider the novel uneven, less character-driven than plot-driven, melodramatic. But the reason that A Tale of Two Cities carries as much weight as David Copperfield or Great Expectations is because it captures better than any other novel the rage and risk of revolution. Without flinching from the causes of the French Revolution or the shortcomings of contemporary England, Dickens draws a sharp contrast between the city of civilization and gradual change – London – and the uncontrollable sea of wrath represented by Paris, where the only religion is blood and safety can only be found in the mob.
The chief distinction between the two cities, Dickens makes clear, is a simple one: religion. That distinction lies behind the contrast between Sydney Carton and Madame Defarge. Carton is one of Dickens’ greatest creations: a man laid low by his own incapacity to control his appetites or his future, but who finds redemption through Christian, selfless love, going to the guillotine to redeem his soul. And Madame Defarge’s atheistic, indefatigable hatred makes her perhaps Dickens’ greatest villain: a woman driven by desire for revenge so strong it obliterates all limits, both personal and political.
Charles Dickens: A Short Biography
Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsea Island, Hampshire, and grew up in Kent and London. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office; he also had a bad habit of running up debts he could not pay. When Dickens was 12, his father was placed in debtors’ prison; so was Dickens’ mother, Elizabeth, and some of his younger siblings. Dickens himself was boarded with family friends, but took a job as a pot-labeler for boot black. When Dickens’ father received an inheritance that freed him from debtors’ prison, Dickens’ own mother apparently objected to him leaving the boot-blacking factory.
Dickens subsequently took a variety of jobs: at a law office, as a freelance reporter covering the court system, and then as a journalist covering Parliament. His first major hit as a writer came in 1836, when the 24-year-old Dickens wrote a series of stories known as The Pickwick Papers. His character Sam Weller became perhaps the most famous figure in mass literature.
That same year, Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth; the next year he launched Oliver Twist as a serial. This was followed by Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. All appeared as a series of stories; only later were they compiled into full books. In 1843, he published A Christmas Carol; in 1849, David Copperfield; in 1852, Bleak House; in 1854, Hard Times.
By 1857, however, Dickens had entered a tumultuous period in his life. He had worked with the great author Wilkie Collins on a play titled The Frozen Deep, which centered on a man who gave up his life so that his friend could be with the woman they both loved. During the production of that play, Dickens, 45, fell in love with 18-year-old Ellen Ternan and decided to leave his wife. Catherine never saw him again.
This was, however, a massively creative period for Dickens. In 1859, he released A Tale of Two Cities; in 1861, he released Great Expectations. An inveterate traveler and an indefatigable writer, Dickens spent the rest of his life writing and giving public readings, to extraordinary acclaim. In 1870, Dickens suffered a stroke; he died on June 9, and was buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.
In politics, Dickens was a liberal; he thought seriously of running for Parliament against the Tories, whom he felt were too ensconced in Victorian class distinctions. In religion, Dickens was non-sectarian, although he was deeply Christian. His reputation as a novelist was waxed and waned and waxed again. Today, it is safe to say that Dickens is generally regarded as the greatest English writer outside of William Shakespeare.
The Roots Of Revolution
A Tale of Two Cities, like much of Dickens’ work, is a piece of social commentary masquerading as a piece of fiction. The difference between Two Cities and other Dickens’ works is the obviousness of the commentary: Dickens isn’t hiding the ball. It is a self-conscious piece of historical fiction, which was a rarity for Dickens, who wrote only one other historical novel, Barnaby Rudge. In Two Cities, Dickens, relying heavily on the works of Thomas Carlyle, traces the origins of the French Revolution back decades before the storming of the Bastille. Contrary to popular perception, Dickens’ famous opening – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – does not refer to the French Revolutionary period itself. It refers to 1775, a period in which France and England are, according to Dickens, radically alike: “In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled forever.” What is more, according to Dickens, the year 1775 was in no way unique: “in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Dickens means for us to take from this that social upheavals are generally the result of historic evils. In that sense, Two Cities was meant as a warning: the year before Two Cities was published, France and England were on the verge of war. As Dickens scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst observes, “A Tale of Two Cities was a story about the past that was designed to shock its readers into a new consciousness of the present.”
Dickens explains the French class mentality that breeds revolutionary fervor in the form of two figures: Monseigneur, a senior courtier at the royal court, and the Marquis St. Evremond – who will end up playing a major role throughout the novel. Monseigneur is described as a purely selfish force:
Monseigneur had one truly noble idea of general public business, which was, to let everything go on in its own way; of particular public business, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way – tend to his own power and pocket. Of his pleasures, general and particular, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea, that the world was made for them. The text of his order (altered from the original by only a pronoun, which is not much) ran: ‘The earth and fulness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur.’
Dickens’ reference to Psalms in the last sentence – “A Psalm of David: The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” — is not coincidental: long before La Guillotine has taken the place of God in the public imagination of the French mob, the aristocrats see themselves as gods among men.
That attitude becomes even more obvious with the introduction of the Marquis, who leaves the presence of the Monseigneur and promptly runs down a child, killing it. When Ernest Defarge gives comforting words to the father, the Marquis throws him a coin; Defarge throws the coin back at the carriage. The Marquis responds with absolute disdain:
“‘You dogs!’ said the Marquis, but smoothly, and with an unchanged front, except as to the spots on his nose: ‘I would ride over any of you very willingly, and exterminate you from this earth. If I knew which rascal threw at the carriage, and if that brigand were sufficiently near it, he should be crushed under the wheels.’… [T]he woman who stood knitting looked up steadily, and looked the Marquis in the face.”
The woman, of course, is Madame Defarge. The Revolution has already begun in the hearts and minds of the citizens. But to the aristocrats, the status quo is unchanging and unchangeable. So long as they hold the power of compulsion, they can hold back the waters of chaos. As the Marquis explains to his nephew, Charles Darnay, “‘Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend … will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof,’ looking up to it, ‘shuts out the sky.’” But, as Dickens adds, “That might not be so long as the Marquis supposed.”
In fact, the Marquis has laid the seeds of the Revolution long before even his carriage runs down a child in the streets of Paris. As it turns out, two decades before Two Cities opens, Dr. Manette is summoned to the estate of the St. Evremonde brothers to treat a woman one has raped to death, as well as her wounded brother. That brother curses the Evremondes, unleashing hell on the nation:
“‘Marquis,’ said the boy, turned to him with his eyes opened wide and his right hand raised, ‘in the days when all these things are to be answered for, I summon you, and yours to the last of your bad race, to answer for them. I mark this cross of blood upon you, as a sign that I do it. In the days when all these things are to be answered for, I summon your brother, the worst of the bad race, to answer for them separately. I mark this cross of blood upon him, as a sign that I do it.”
The boy, who has transformed the cross from a sign of absolution into a sign of guilt, isn’t in the wrong – but he has unleashed the ultimate process by which the cross becomes the guillotine. That guillotine becomes, in human form, the boy’s sister: Madame Defarge.
The Psychology Of The Revolution
Revolution, Dickens argues, is by nature a collective phenomenon. It is touched off by individual incidents, but at its heart lies the mob. The first revolutionary incident we witness is the murder of the Marquis by a grief-stricken father. He stabs the Marquis to death in his bed, leaving a blood-chilling note:
Driven home into the heart of the stone figure attached to it, was a knife-Round its hilt was a frill of paper, on which was scrawled: ‘Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from JACQUES.’
The name here is crucial. We know the name of the murderer – Gaspard. But he fades into one of the nameless, faceless Jacques of the Revolutionaries. He becomes one of the mob.
The makings of the mob are always present, just under the surface of life. They act as a sort of Satanic force: where Jesus turned water into wine (John 2), the Revolutionaries turn both water and wine into blood. Long before the Revolution ever bursts forth, Dickens describes the hideous force boiling beneath the surface of French society when he describes the poverty-stricken populace’s reaction to a smashed cask of wine:
Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine lees – BLOOD. The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.
And when the Revolution finally explodes, Dickens’ language is exquisitely precise: it is the waters of chaos unleashed upon the earth: “With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began.” Soon enough, that water is transmuted into blood, just as the wine has been. Water and wine are the substances of sustenance and joy, respectively – and both become blood, which soon substitutes as both the sustenance and joy of the French mob.
But the mob requires leaders – and this is where the Defarges come in. Madame Defarge is the perfect revolutionary: fully dedicated, entirely unmerciful, absolutely unremitting. She sits each day, knitting shrouds; she knits into her work the names and crimes of those who have sinned against the people. As her husband, Ernest, proudly describes, “if madame my wife undertook to keep the register in her memory alone, she would not lose a word of it – not a syllable of it. Knitted, in her own stitches and her own symbols, it will always be as plain to her as the sun. Confide in Madame Defarge. It would be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase on letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge.”
The infamous knitting of Madame Defarge has a historic analogue: the infamous tricoteuses, who would sit at the Place de la Revolution, knitting as they watched the beheadings. But Madame Defarge’s knitting becomes much more in Dickens’ hands: it becomes the knitting of fates, the mark of the inevitability of the Revolution’s violence. Dickens writes of the women “knitting, knitting. Darkness encompassed them. Another darkness was closing in as surely, when the church bells, then ringing pleasantly in many an airy steeple over France, should be melted into thundering cannon …. So much was closing in about the women who sat knitting, knitting, that they their very selves were closing in around a structure yet unbuilt, where they were to sit knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads.”
Madame Defarge herself is a terrifying figure – righteously enraged, but utterly uncontrolled and uncontrollable: “‘[T]ell Wind and Fire where to stop,’ returned madame; ‘but don’t tell me.’” She is beyond the laws of nature. She is beyond the restrictions of man. And indeed, Madame Defarge, like the Revolution itself, has no limits. And soon enough, Charles Darnay, an innocent, will be engulfed by her fury: “The unseen force was drawing him fast to itself, now, and all the tides and winds were setting straight and strong towards it.”
Victims Of The Revolution
Dickens is sympathetic to the Revolutionaries in so far as they have suffered from the oppression of aristocratic tyrants. As he writes, “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression ever again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”
But if Dickens is unsparing in criticizing the Ancien Regime, he is just as gimlet-eyed with regard to the evils of the Revolutionaries. They have no mercy; they don’t even distinguish between friend and foe. Charles Darnay is innocent; he has denounced the sins of his relatives, given up his estate, moved to England, married the daughter of a former prisoner of the Bastille. But that is not enough. Madame Defarge wants only the fire. When Lucy Manette approaches her, begging her for her intercession to save Charles, she replies by referencing her own suffering – the same reply we see today from revolutionaries who wish to destroy institutions of decency in the name of their own pain:
Madame Defarge looked, coldly as ever, at the suppliant, and said, turning to her friend The Vengeance: ‘The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child, and much less, have not been greatly considered? We have known their husbands and fathers laid in person and kept from them, often enough? All our lives, we have seen our sister-women suffer, in themselves and in their children, poverty, nakedness, hunger, thirst, sickness, misery oppression and neglect of all kinds? … Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?’
This is the language of all true Revolutionaries, from the French Revolution to the Nazi Germans to the Russian Communists: eggs must be broken to achieve omelets. Or perhaps eggs must simply be broken to appease the fury of the onrushing mob. There is no rule of law; there is only La Guillotine. As Charles Darnay finds out when he returns to France, his life is not his own – the rules change randomly. In fact, it is precisely the lack of consistency that lends the Revolution its power:
‘That is what he meant when he said your life was not your own.’
‘But there are no such decrees yet?’
‘What do I know!’ said the postmaster, shrugging his shoulders: ‘there may be, or there will be. It is all the same. What would you have?’
Certainly this is the message of those who seek utopia: all men are either tools or obstacles. The rules change as need requires; social justice must be done, even at the cost of – particularly at the cost of – individual justice. Young peasant women go to the guillotine the same as old aristocrats. As the President tells Dr. Manette – formerly a victim of the regime, then a hero of the Revolution, and now once again a victim of the regime – “If the Republic should demand of you the sacrifice of your child herself, you would have no duty but to sacrifice her. Listen to what is to follow. In the mean while, be silent!”
Religion, The Savior
So, what can save society from the conflagration? Only the power of mercy, the power of life, the power of God. Death, says Dickens, lurks behind all of our actions: our fear of death drives our irrepressible quest to live; our fear of loneliness stems from our fear of death.
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other … every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!” Dickens writes. “Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this.”
People seek to end that isolation, that fear of death, by controlling death. Thus La Guillotine becomes a substitute for the cross:
Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world – the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine. It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache; it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a particular delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which saved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.
Those are man’s choices: solidarity and escape through La Guillotine, or through God. There is either one or the other. Nietzsche famously wrote in Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident … Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole …” Nietzsche believed that will could drive man to greater heights than God in God’s absence. But Dostoevsky feared the opposite: that absent God, man would collapse into nihilism, evil and infantilism. He wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all.”
Dickens made this point in Two Cities decades earlier. When La Guillotine replaces God, blood replaces wine and water. But when the possibility of God is made immanent for those who are already dead, they are recalled to life. Such is the story of Sydney Carton, a man who is a disappointment to everyone around him, including himself. He has an instinctive love for the good: we first meet him saving Charles Darnay from a charge of spying. But he cannot abide that love for the good, for it calls him to become. And so, instead, he speaks with the cynical voice of a man confident in his own sinfulness. He tells Darnay, “I am a disappointed drudge, sir. I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me.” But Dickens tells us angst at his own failures lies behind his cynical attitude: Darnay tells himself, “There is nothing in you to like; you know that. Ah, confound you! What a change you have made in yourself! A good reason for taking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from, and what you might have been!”
Carton sees in Darnay what he could have been. But instead of making Darnay his enemy, he decides to befriend him – specifically because he is in love with Lucy, Darnay’s fiancée. He sees her as his tie to something beyond the present, something of deep and abiding importance: “She was the golden thread that united him to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery: and the sound of her voice, the light of her face, the touch of her hand, had a strong beneficial influence with him almost always.” He knows that she is better off with Darnay than with him, and he begs of her only that she allow him to be a part of their lives.
But why doesn’t he change? Why doesn’t Carton simply better himself? What holds him back? He remains resigned to his failures: “Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance …. Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”
It is not until he realizes that he can reach God through his love of Lucy that he becomes the hero of his own story. Like Jean Valjean telling his adopted daughter and her beloved that God is to be found in the love of other human beings, Carton discovers God in his love for Lucy. Carton is generous from the start. But he cannot redeem himself for his failures until he turns toward God – and in doing so, is given the power to redeem others to life.
As he wanders the streets of Paris, mulling over his decision to sacrifice his life for Darnay’s, he stumbles upon the words of the New Testament that inspire him to fulfill that final sacrifice – and to comfort others on the road to the guillotine:
Long ago, when he had been famous among his earliest competitors as a youth of great promise, he had followed his father to the grave. His mother had died, years before. These solemn words which had been read at his father’s grave, arose in his mind as he went down the dark streets, among the heavy shadows, with the moon and the clouds sailing on high above him. ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.’
Conclusion: From Paris To London
Dickens’ extraordinary drama comes to its culmination with a hope and a prayer.
The hope: England.
The prayer: the future.
Dickens’ book is titled A Tale of Two Cities because it is indeed about two cities, Paris and London. Though Paris is by far the more fascinating and horrifying spectacle, it is to London that Dickens writes. Throughout the work, he contrasts the horrors of pre-Revolutionary France with those of its counterpart across the English Channel. Thus, he describes the treatment of criminality under the brutality of the Ancien Regime:
They even whisper that because he has slain Monseigneur, and because Monseigneur was the father of his tenants – serfs – what you will – he will be executed as a parricide. One old man says at the fountain, that his right hand, armed with the knife, will be burnt off before his face; that, into wounds which will be made in his arms, his breast, and his legs, there will be poured boiling oil, melted lead, hot resin, wax, and sulphur; finally, that he will be torn limb from limb by four strong horses.
And he describes the fascination with criminal punishment in England in the same shocking tones:
The sort of interest with which this man was stared and breathed at, was not a sort that elevated humanity….The form that was doomed to be so shamefully mangled, was the sight; the immortal creature that was to be so butchered and torn asunder, yielded the sensation.
Dickens’ London is filled with poverty and injustice. Jerry Cruncher, the porter for Tellson’s Bank, must supplement his income by digging up bodies and selling them to medical schools as a “resurrection man.” The irony is obvious: in London, resurrection is the art of corpse-stealing, not saving souls. Cruncher himself is a degraded figure, a child and spouse-abuser who dreads the prayers of his wife.
But Dickens has hope for London. His hope lies in the common goodness of the people – people like Miss Pross, Lucy Manette’s governess, who puts her own life at risk to save Lucy from Madame Defarge: “‘You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,’ said Miss Pross, in her breathing. ‘Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me. I am an Englishwoman …. I am a Briton,’ said Miss Pross, ‘I am desperate. I don’t care an English Twopence for myself.’” And even Jerry Cruncher is brought back to decency by the end of the book: he recognizes the merit of his wife’s prayers, and pledges to make a better man of himself.
And Dickens has hope in the future. Writing from the perspective of seven decades later, Dickens believes that France has bettered herself – and he hopes that London can do the same. The future, Dickens thinks, may represent Sydney Carton’s resurrection – a future in which he is part of Lucy’s golden thread, uniting past, present and future:
‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side int heir last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both. I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man, winning his way up in that path of life which was once mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, foremost of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place – then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement – and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.’
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.