A Tale of Two Cities

Despite the ending spoiled by a sermon illustration and not loving Great Expectations previously, I was blown away by A Tale of Two Cities. It’s incredibly moving, and definitely one of my favourites of the year! As usual, I’ll link my video at the bottom of this post.

Lucie Manette grew up as an orphan until she was about 20. She got a message from her family bank, Tellson’s, about her father who died a long time ago. She met up with a gentleman working for Tellson’s bank called Mr Lorry in Dover. Mr Lorry told Lucie her father did not actually die but was secretly imprisoned for 18 years. Now he was released, they were going to Paris to bring him home to London. Mr Lorry became a family friend. Lucie and Miss Pross her governess looked after Dr Manette and nursed him back to life. They lived peacefully together in London for five years.

A court case in the Old Bailey (the criminal court in London) introduces two key characters. Charles Darney was on trial as a spy and was declared innocent because of the second person, Sydney Carton, a barrister. They both fell in love with Lucie. Lucie married Darney.

When their daughter was six, Mr Lorry volunteered to look after the bank’s business in Paris even though the situation in France was getting dangerous and stormy. Darney also went to Paris because of a letter – an old servant was imprisoned because he was the servant of a Marquis. The Marquis was assassinated and the Marquis was also Darney’s uncle so Darney now was the heir to this title and land – an aristocrat. As soon as Darney got to Paris he was arrested and put into prison. The rest of the story is about everyone’s effort to get Darney out of the prison while living in the eye of the hurricane.

The French Revolution was a real historical event which I don’t know much about. I’m looking at it through the narrow lens of just one novel. My understanding is limited, Dickens’ understanding was limited too. I’m just analysing the story in this novel.

Whose side was Dickens on?

One question that keeps coming back to me is Dickens’ attitude towards the French Revolution, the people and aristocrats. I kept wondering which side was he on? Dickens was famous for writing working-class people’s life and hardship. I assumed he’d be for the people and against the aristocrats.

In the first half of the novel, he laid out case after case condemning the aristocrats for their corrupt lifestyle, their indifference to people’s lives, treating them worse than animals. I’ll give you a few examples.

We see the Monseigneur’s disgustingly luxurious lifestyle, needing four servants every day for a cup of hot chocolate. The Marquis’ carriage sped through crowded streets and killed a child on the spot. He did not even get off the carriage and would never have dreamed of apologising, just tossed a gold coin out of the carriage window and drove away “with the air of a gentleman who had accidentally broke some common thing, and had paid for it, and could afford to pay for it…”

There was a direct description of a village in poverty:

The village had its one poor street, with its poor brewery, poor tannery, poor tavern, poor stable-yard for relays of post-horses, poor fountain, all usual poor appointments. It had its poor people too. All its people were poor, and many of them were sitting at their doors, shredding spare onions and the like for supper, while many were at the fountain, washing leaves, and grasses, and any such small yieldings of the earth that could be eaten. Expressive signs of what made them poor, were not wanting; the tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general, were to be paid here and to be paid there, according to solemn inscription in the little village, until the wonder was, that there was any village left unswallowed.

It’s heartbreaking to read. Dickens condemned the corruption and ugliness of the aristocrats, and showed open and strong sympathy for the poor. We 100% sympathise with the poor as well.

Among the French poor, Dickens singled out Monsieur and Madame Defarge. We like them because they quietly took Dr Manette in when he was released from the prison and helped them to leave France. They persevered and waited patiently and intelligently for the time to ripe.

Then there was a shift. We see the first instance of Madame Defarge committing a violence, “she put her foot upon his neck (the governor of Bastille), and with her cruel knife—long ready—hewed off his head.” It was so fast and chaotic that it took me a while to realise wow this is the storming of the Bastille. This was a “whirlpool of boiling waters (p252)”, “headlong, mad, and dangerous” crowd. A powerful, angry and bloodthirsty mob started to emerge.

I give you one frightening image of lynching and mob violence. The angry mob captured a particularly hateful politician Joseph Foulon:

Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see; now, a log of dead wood drawn through a forest of legs; he was hauled to the nearest street corner where one of the fatal lamps swung, and there Madame Defarge let him go—as a cat might have done to a mouse—and silently and composedly looked at him while they made ready, and while he besought her: the women passionately screeching at him all the time, and the men sternly calling out to have him killed with grass in his mouth. Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.

The mob also killed his son-in-law later that day “set his head and heart on pikes, and carried the three spoils of the day, in Wolf-procession through the streets.” This was a real historical event – Dickens hardly needed to dramatise it. It was shocking to see the submissive villagers from a few chapters ago so quickly turned into bloodthirsty beasts and monsters.

But I still felt sorry for them because they’ve been oppressed for so long, they wanted to see justice and they were punishing the enemies, who told the starved people to eat grass.

The deciding factor that Dickens’ was not on the side of the people was when we first saw through Darney’s eyes the coarseness of the patriots and jailers against the beauty and gracefulness of the aristocrats in prison.

When Darney was arrested, he was taken into a room,

smelling of common wine and tobacco, where certain soldiers and patriots, asleep and awake, drunk and sober, and in various neutral states between sleeping and waking, drunkenness and sobriety, were standing and lying about.

On the way to his prison cell,

… they came into a large, low, vaulted chamber, crowded with prisoners of both sexes. The women were seated at a long table, reading and writing, knitting, sewing, and embroidering; the men were for the most part standing behind their chairs, or lingering up and down the room.In the instinctive association of prisoners with shameful crime and disgrace, the new-comer recoiled from this company. But the crowning unreality of his long unreal ride, was, their all at once rising to receive him, with every refinement of manner known to the time, and with all the engaging graces and courtesies of life.

So strangely clouded were these refinements by the prison manners and gloom, so spectral did they become in the inappropriate squalor and misery through which they were seen, that Charles Darnay seemed to stand in a company of the dead. Ghosts all! The ghost of beauty, the ghost of stateliness, the ghost of elegance, the ghost of pride, the ghost of frivolity, the ghost of wit, the ghost of youth, the ghost of age, all waiting their dismissal from the desolate shore, all turning on him eyes that were changed by the death they had died in coming there.

“In the name of the assembled companions in misfortune,” said a gentleman of courtly appearance and address, coming forward, “I have the honour of giving you welcome to La Force, and of condoling with you on the calamity that has brought you among us. May it soon terminate happily!

… There was a murmur of commiseration as Charles Darnay crossed the room to a grated door where the gaoler awaited him, and many voices—among which, the soft and compassionate voices of women were conspicuous—gave him good wishes and encouragement. He turned at the grated door, to render the thanks of his heart; it closed under the gaoler’s hand; and the apparitions vanished from his sight forever.

Dickens lamented the destruction of the beauty and orderliness, especially shocking when contrasted with the coarseness and ugliness of the mob. they were all dead and lost, “vanished forever”, wives, young daughters, old mothers, for no crime except that was what they were born into.

They treated Darney with care and compassion despite their own circumstances. These prisoners have now become the vulnerable, their life and death depended on the drunken words and half-awake brains, depended on the mood of the mob who put heads on pikes. Dickens describes one of the patriotic jury as “A life-thirsting, cannibal-looking, bloody-minded juryman, the Jacques Three of St. Antoine. The whole jury, as a jury of dogs empannelled to try the deer.”

I felt utterly sorry for the aristocrats, waiting calmly in dungeons for the “sharp female newly-born, and called La Guillotine”.

One more thing shocking to see was the people’s indifference to human life, making the guillotine a show and sport:

“Go and see him (refering to the executioner called Samson) when he has a good batch. Figure this to yourself, citizen; he shaved the sixty-three to-day, in less than two pipes! Less than two pipes. Word of honour!” meaning they executed 63 people in a time period that’s shorter than it took this spectator to smoke two pipes.

The ministers of Sainte Guillotine are robed and ready. Crash!—A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One.

The second tumbril empties and moves on; the third comes up. Crash!—And the knitting-women, never faltering or pausing in their Work, count Two.

Just as I thought Dickens was actually firmly on the side of the aristocrats, we heard Dr Manette’s story. emphasising again the oppression of the poor and corruption of the rich. As Darney said to his uncle the Marquis, ”We have done wrong, and are reaping the fruits of wrong.”

After seeing all these, I hope you agree that Dickens was not on either side but fairly presented the case of both sides.

Aristocrats were wrong because they cared only for themselves, they oppressed the poor, no justice and no respect for human life. But there was beauty and goodness in polite society, music, literature, medicine, and technology. And aristocrats were not one person and should not be generalised and stereotyped, e.g. Darney didn’t want his wealth and he could see it was wrong, so did his mother who tried to correct the injustice done.

People were presented as utterly poor, oppressed and helpless, but as soon as the tide was turned, they were equally capable of murder without distinction, brutality, madness, and hatred. There was also no justice and no respect for human life, “prisons gorged with people who had committed no offence, and could obtain no hearing…”

There was a “seamstress of twenty, whose poverty and obscurity could not save her”. Her case is particularly telling that the Revolution has gone wrong. Before she bowed her head under the guillotine,

“Citizen Evrémonde,” she said, touching him with her cold hand. “I am a poor little seamstress, who was with you in La Force.”

He murmured for answer: “True. I forget what you were accused of?”

“Plots. Though the just Heaven knows that I am innocent of any. Is it likely? Who would think of plotting with a poor little weak creature like me?”

The forlorn smile with which she said it, so touched him, that tears started from his eyes.

“I am not afraid to die, Citizen Evrémonde, but I have done nothing. I am not unwilling to die, if the Republic which is to do so much good to us poor, will profit by my death; but I do not know how that can be, Citizen Evrémonde. Such a poor weak little creature!” 

Her question was an accusation. Her life and no doubt many, were sacrificed “on the altar of the dawning Republic one and indivisible of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death”.

Dickens presented both sides in good and bad light. what was his point? Can a society become better through revolutions? I believe Dickens’ point was that society and life become better not through violence and bloodshed but through love. How do I come to that conclusion?

I’ll show you one of my favourite scenes towards the end, the stand-off between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge.

Madame Defarge now was established as the leader of the patriots, the most blood-thirsty and merciless woman. She was the personification of hatred and revenge. She came with a knife and a pistol to arrest them all, to send the whole family to prison and the guillotine.

Miss Pross, the loyal, faithful protector and friend, was the personification of love. She wanted to detain as long as possible to gain more time for her mistress and the family, despite the danger to herself. Miss Pross had no weapon but her arms and legs.

And there was a struggle, it was the only physical struggle of two equal sides. By which I mean, there were lots of physical violence done by both the aristocrats and the people, but they were never done on an equal footing, e.g. when the Marquis killed the child, the people didn’t protest or even look up because of fear; when the mob dragged aristocrats out, stabbed them to death, they had no ways to defend themselves. Except in this scene, there was an equal struggle, face to face.

But note the struggle was not the poor against the rich. Miss Pross was a governess, not one of the rich. Dickens gave a clue in the middle of this struggle, “the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate”. This was a struggle between love and hate.

The family was delivered through friendship, self-sacrifice and love. Love triumphs over hate and will win out at the end of the day, and yes with great cost – “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Categories READING, VICTORIAN LITERATURETags ,
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