A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is one of Dickens’ most tragic works. The novel is set in the time before and during the French Revolution. The story revolves around Lucie Manette, a young Frenchwoman living in London and her family and friends. Lucie is loved by a British lawyer Sydney Carton and French expatriate Charles Darney, whom she marries.
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Darney is of a noble French family and gets in trouble with the French revolutionaries on a trip to France to rescue an old family servant. The novel paints a vivid picture of the French Revolution, the fervor and radicalism of the revolutionaries and the terror and bloodshed spread by the revolutionaries.
However A Tale of Two Cities is not a rabidly anti-revolutionary and pro-monarchy sort of work unlike, for example, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Dickens makes the causes of the revolution clear through his vivid portrayal of the corrupt and brutal aristocracy which dominated the monarchical government prior to the revolution.
Dickens portrays the corrupt nature of the old order primarily through the various acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Charles Darnay’s father and his uncle the Marquis St. Evrémonde. Due to them Dr. Alexandre Manette, Lucie’s father, is arrested and secretly kept in prison for eighteen years, where he loses his mind (Dickens 54).
It is revealed that the Marquis killed a peasant and kidnapped his wife, with whom he had become infatuated. He also killed the wife’s brother and of her family, only one little sister survived.
Dr. Manette was imprisoned in order to prevent him from exposing the crime (Dickens 383). The Marquis St. Evrémonde runs over a peasant’s child while driving in his carriage, killing him. The Marquis is not much bothered by what has just occurred a just tosses a gold coin at the child’s father as compensation (Dickens 123).
The corrupt state of the old regime can also be seen in the disgust with which Charles Darnay, one of the heroes of the novel, regards his inheritance (Dickens 141).
While Dickens seems to agree that the old French order was corrupt and that the ruling class deserved to be removed, he does not agree with the radicalism and extremism of the French revolutionaries. He portrays the revolution as starting from a justified anger; events like the murder of Marquis St. Evrémonde by Gaspard, the father of the child who the Marquis ran over in his carriage provide early signs of the coming violence against the upper class (Dickens 212).
However, once the revolution occurs, Dickens’ sympathies with the rebels ends and he portrays them as irrational fanatics out to kill any member of the aristocracy who they can get their hands on, regardless of whether that person has committed any injustice against the peasantry in the past or not.
A central character in the depiction of the madness of the revolution is Madame Defarge. The Defarges are old servants of Dr. Manette and seem, in the beginning to recognize their debt to him. They shelter him when he is released from prison.
However Madame Defarge’s hatred for the aristocracy is so intense that she has her old benefactor’s son-in-law condemned to be executed and wishes to have his daughter and little granddaughter killed as well, so that the bloodline is completely wiped out (Dickens 313).
Looking at the novel from a holistic perspective, it seems right to say that A Tale of Two Cities portrays the French Revolution in an evenhanded manner. The evil and corruption of the old regime is made clear and the fanaticism and extremism that characterize the new order are portrayed as well.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Clayton, DE: Prestwick House Inc., 2005.