Set in the late eighteenth century against the violent backdrop of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, depicts the disparate but not entirely dissimilar world of two cities, London and Paris. Right from the title and the oft-quoted opening lines of the book,“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—”, Dickens explores dichotomies of evil/ good, darkness/light, despair/hope and rebirth/ death.
A Tale of Two Cities is as much a personal drama as it is a political story. The novel narrates the story of Charles Darnay, an exiled Frenchman who is spared from execution for treason in London by the testimony of a young English lawyer, Sydney Carton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to him. Both Darnay and Carton are in love with Lucie Manette who has just been reunited with her Dad, Dr. Manette, who was unjustly imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille. Darnay wins her hand in marriage and the couple lead a harmonious life with their young daughter until Darnay returns to Paris to save a falsely accused servant. Dr. Manette, Lucie and her little girl, and Lucie’s guardian, Miss Pross follow Darnay to Paris and are eventually joined by Sydney Carton and Mr. Lorry, a family friend and bank employee. They are all caught in the whirl of the Revolution in France as Darnay ends up in jail and awaits execution.
In Paris, revolutionary fervor is high among the aggrieved inhabitants of the poor neighborhood of Saint-Antoine. The wine shop of Ernest Defarge serves as a hub of the activities of a group of revolutionaries who go by the name ‘Jacques’. They want to uproot the existing social order characterized by the absolute power of the monarchy and feudal privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy and clergy. The Marquis Evrémonde heartlessly crushes a child under his carriage and reacts with indifferent arrogance to its death. The people have suffered at the hands of the aristocracy for far too long and are filled with a desire for revenge. They want to establish a new society based on more egalitarian ideas. Defarge is their leader and will eventually lead the mob to the storming of the Bastille.
In the character of Madame Defarge, Dickens creates the female face of the revolution, albeit a sinister one. Women, hitherto, confined to their domestic space, took to the streets in large numbers to air their grievances and played a pivotal part in the uprisings. Madame Defarge sits quietly in the wine shop knitting but nothing escapes her watchful eye. In the pattern of her stitches, she knits the names of her victims whose death is imminent. She is the leader of the ‘tricoteuses’ and represents the brutality of the Reign of Terror with her radical and extreme views. She reminds us of the Greek Fates, the ‘moirai’ who spin the thread of life determining the fate of human beings. While M. Defarge is ambiguous about killing innocent people, his bloodthirsty wife is unflinching in her desire for vengeance. She hates the Evrémonde family with a passion. Charles Darnay has a connection with the Evrémonde family and Ernest Defarge once worked for Dr. Manette. That is how the lives of the English get entangled with the Defarges in France. I don’t want to delve too much into the plot. There are a lot of plot twists, some of which quite improbable, creating a melodramatic climax and ending with the memorable last lines: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.
Dickens makes you live the revolution with the characters. I was quite horrified by how the oppressed become the oppressors. All the bloodshed eventually led to the establishment of a modern democracy and capitalist country but at the cost of innumerable lives. It is a cycle of oppression where the oppressed internalize the oppression of the oppressors and end up becoming like them despite their desire for social justice and quality. Though Dickens’ sympathy lies with the oppressed, he knows they can get carried away and highlights how people died often for no reason: “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!”
The polarities I brought up in the opening paragraph can be seen in the portrayal of the characters too. Sidney Carton and Charles Darney are set up as mirror images of each other and Miss Pross is a foil to Mme Defarge. The characters of Lucie and Madame Defarge are set up as stark contrasts to each other; one compassionate and angelic and the other vengeful and unforgiving. Lucie is the golden thread that holds the family together while Mrs. Defarge seeks to tear their family apart. Most of the characters represent extreme goodness or evil and end up being one dimensional except for Sidney Carton who is more complex and reveals a dual nature.
Dickens uses powerful imagery in his writing to evoke the tension in the atmosphere. The image of a wine cask broken and spilling its contents on the streets of Paris foreshadows the bloodshed that will take place in that very neighborhood. He describes the storming of the Bastille in a very powerful and dramatic way personifying Madame La Guillotine. A Tale of Two Cities is also a love story and I was struck by the exquisite and heartfelt prose in the scene when Carton visits Lucie Manette and explains that while he expects no return of his love, he would do anything for her or for anyone whom she loves. I think these are among the most romantic lines ever penned in literature:
“For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything. If my career were of that better kind that there was any opportunity or capacity of sacrifice in it, I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you. Try to hold me in your mind, at some quiet times, as ardent and sincere in this one thing. The time will come, the time will not be long in coming, when new ties will be formed about you—ties that will bind you yet more tenderly and strongly to the home you so adorn—the dearest ties that will ever grace and gladden you. O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father’s face looks up in yours, when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!”
The title of the first Book of the novel is ‘Recalled to life’ and it could be extended to the whole novel as one of its major themes is the theme of resurrection. In fact, Dickens had even considered it as an alternate title for the novel. Charles Darnay is saved twice from a terrible fate. Dr. Manette never had the opportunity to know his daughter while in prison and missed out on that joy. She enjoys a father’s love for the first time and they are both thus recalled to life. In a morbid way, Jerry Cruncher, the grave thief resurrects bodies from graves and sells them to doctors and surgeons. In the end, he is willing to ‘resurrect’ himself by making 2 promises to Miss Pross- he vows to stop the criminal activity of grave digging and to treat his wife better and not interfere in her prayers. The person who most embodies redemption through sacrifice is Sydney Carton who led a life devoid of ambition and meaning, but eventually finds purpose by renouncing his life for the happiness of the other characters. His ultimate sacrifice makes him a hero and an almost Christ- like figure.
Last but not the least, the resurrection takes place on a societal and cultural level as the dismantling and death of the ancien régime in France leads to a new era ushering in freedom and equality. Dickens was indebted to Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution in writing this novel with historical accuracy. Dickens wrote this story perhaps as a cautionary tale for his own country to avert the tragic fate of its neighbor. Many of the issues raised continue to be relevant today as glaring injustice and the conflict between classes is not just an 18th century issue specific to France. In that sense, the novel is timeless as it serves as a warning of what can happen when injustice goes unchecked, and as a lesson in how to avoid history from repeating itself.
- Illustrations above are by Hablot Browne ( Phiz) from A Tale of Two Cities, which was released in parts between April and November 1859.