An essay on A Tale of Two Cities

The book “A Tale of Two Cities” is a famous political novel by Charles Dickens that represents the Victorian political conflict. This article is an essay on A Tale of Two Cities that examines the impacts of political and religious conflicts on French revolution from the author’s perspective.

In the opening chapter of the book, Dickens allots about equal space to the problems of England and France in 1775, and he implies that the two cities, London and Paris, will be equally focused in the novel. In the prologue of the first book, Dickens outlines the general conditions of unrest in England and France, predicts the outcome, establishes the atmosphere of discontent and mystery, introduces some of the main characters, and suggests the main theme and symbols.

Dickens satirizes English justice, lawyers, and courts of law and divides the time between France and England and brings in the remaining principal characters, starts the story line, begins to enmesh the characters in personal and political complications. In book the third, Dickens lays no action in England and focuses almost entirely on the reign of terror. This is one of history’s most significant periods from its date to our modern era.

“It was the best of time, it was the worst of time. It was 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-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.”

The opening sentence of this novel establishes the pattern of contrast that is to characterize the novel. It is the contrast between England and France, London and Paris, between virtue and evil, between love and hate, between order and chaos, between decency and knavery.

The famous poetic lines that open the novel offer a dispassionate overview of the whole era of the French Revolution. With a mature and mellow perspective, Dickens sees all things at once, and accepts them as inevitable in the course of human events. In this way he sets the tone for the novel, a tone that will attend to be objective, historical and narrative.

Dickens satirizes the English belief in the supernatural. Dickens continues in this sarcastic vein, now directing his satire towards France. He refers to the economic inflation and the political and religious corruption rampant in eighteen century France. But “it is likely enough” he says, that fate and death, with their guillotine and tumbrels, already lark in the background, thus strongly foreshadowing the Revolution.

England is no better in 1775. Robbery and murder are everyday occurrences, and the law is mere mockery of the justice. Dickens’ zeal for social reform and his hatred of injustice, so evident in all his works shows clearly here.

The ‘steaming mist’ that roams ‘like an evil spirit’ introduced a kind of imagery that Dickens uses throughout the novel, imagery that deals with death. In addition, the ‘unwholesome sea’ becomes a dominant image, especially when the hordes of French peasants overrun France like a huge tidal wave. The mistrust and suspicion everyone feels for everyone else such as those aboard the coach show toward Lorry and Jerry in the second chapter of the book the first.

The wretched poverty in France is depicted in the fifth chapter of the novel “A Tale of Two Cities”. Dickens graphically describes an unfortunate historical fact. The privileged classes refused to share in France’s tremendous burden, and the peasants were taxed beyond endurance. With a precision to details that is no small part of his genius, Dickens moves in on with the pitiable and horrifying scene that continues in the other city of his tale.

Dickens continues to paint a dire picture of the eighteen century London in the second chapter of book the second, . We find that spectators pay an admission fee to see the trials at the Old Bailey, the criminal gate at Newgate prison, as they can pay to see the insane at ‘Bedlam’ a notorious asylum. Dickens again attacks the cruelty of the law in this chapter. Moreover, we learn that judges, themselves, died from diseases caught from the miserable prisoners. In retrospect, however, the picture of London pales in the more hideous glare of the atrocities in France.

Dickens viciously attacks the French aristocracy in the seventh chapter of the book the second. At this point, his sympathy seems to lie entirely with the French peasants. Later, however, his feelings shift when he describes the brutalities of the mob. He can even express pity as these same aristocrats are imprisoned and guillotined.

In the next chapter of the same book he says that the manner in which the Marquis Is lord over his village is a vestige of feudalism, the overthrowing of which was to be one of the major victories of the revolution. In this time the peasants were forced to pay the detested salt-tax called Gabelle in the French word.

Dickens tries to show what it is like to be imprisoned in the seventeen chapter of book the second . The whole gamut of imprisonment- trials, prisons, prisoners, execution-shows up frequently in Dickens’ novel. The whole episode must have left a deep impression on the heretofore sheltered, upper middle class boy. Little Dorrit describes the infamous Marshalsea prison.

In the 21st chapter of the book the second a great deal of the description of the storming of the Bastille, Dickens borrowed from Carlyle. For example, Dickens’ passage reads: “… 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…”
The role of the women during the siege also comes from Carlyle. We should note the tremendous sympathy that the peasants feel for the prisoners.

In the next chapter after the 21st of the book the second the terror continues. The firing of Chateaux owned by aristocrats was a familiar sight in the awful time.

There are so many descriptions of terror in the 1st chapter of the book the third. In this chapter the infamous reign of terror begins in which eleven hundred prisoners are slain. Many as innocent of crime against the French people as Charles Darnay are loaded into tumbrels and taken off the guillotine; some are butchered before they get there. The murder of Charles uncle probably struck us as just retribution, considering the type of he was, but the proposed execution of Charles Darnay, also a French aristocrat, is another matter. Dickens reveals the excess of mob rule and, at this point, the downtrodden masses become the villains of the novel.

Chapter the 2nd is the most horrifying scene in the novel, this chapter is one of the many that capture the fury and violence of the French Revolution. The Tale may lack the individual characterizations that first dickens fame, but it portrays briliantly in mood and setting man’s inhumanity to man.

In the fourth chapter of the same book, Dickens’ descriptions of anarchy raging throughout France and his satiric treatment of ‘La Guillotine’ and the Samson who works it take on a savagery seldom equaled in literature.

The theme of imprisonment: though A Tale of Two Cities ends with Carton’s execution, its beginning and middle are dominated by the sufferings of Dr. Manette, the Bastille prisoner. Dickens had considered calling the novel ‘Buried Alive’, and the theme of imprisonment runs darkly through it. Second in importance only to the theme of rebirth during the years to which A Tale of Two Cities belongs Dickens seems to have been obsessed by the notion of the prisoner buried alive, suddenly released to the light of everyday life, and having to reform his connections with free men, to learn again the meaning of love and responsibility.


In the simplest terms, capitalism can be defined as the condition of possessing capital — the original funds or principal of an individual, company, or corporation, which provide the basis for financial and economic operations. The term capitalism also describes an ideology which favors the existence of capitalists (individuals who accumulate capital which then becomes available for investment in financial or industrial enterprises).

Robinson Crusoe is a bourgeois Puritan, but on his island his preoccupations — labor, raw materials, the processes of production, colonialism (and implicit Imperialism), shrewdness, self-discipline, and profit — are (oddly enough, at first glance) those of the proto-capitalist. James Joyce would write that “The true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe, who, cast away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage who arrives on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races.” Karl Marx, noting that “Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favorite theme with political economists,” took the opportunity, in his Capital, to critique Defoe’s fantasy from his own very different perspective.

In light of what we know (and what Defoe himself knew) about the actual behavior of men like Alexander Selkirk who were marooned on desert islands, what are we to make of the fairy-tale fashion in which Crusoe’s mythic story unfolds? In what ways does Robinson Crusoe anticipate the imperialistic attitudes that we find in later British authors such as Kipling? How would Crusoe have defined a gentleman, and how would his definition differ from that which we encounter in a novel such as Dickens’s Great Expectations?

The French Revolution

The French Revolution compels Dickens to acquire of theory of history, however primitive: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms, the revolutionaries return evil for evil; the guillotine is the product not of innate depravity but of intolerable oppression.

If Dickens’ sympathies shift towards the aristocrats as soon as they become victims, he can also see a grim restraint; he underlines the horror of Foulon’s death, strung up with a bunch of grass tied to his back. Nevertheless, he never allows us to who Foulon was. Nor does he have any sympathy with those who talk of the revolution, “as though it were the only harvest under the skies that had never been shown,” although he himself is at times plainly tempted to treat as an inexplicable calamity, a rising of the sea or a rising of fire: the flames which destroy the chateau of St. Evremonde, “below from the infernal regions” convulsing nature until the lead boils over inside the stone fountains. However, cause and effect are never kept out of sight for long.

Dickens is always reminding himself that the revolution, though ‘a frightful moral disorder,’ was born of unspeakable sufferings, intolerable oppression, and heartless indifference. Society was diseased before the fever broke out; the shattered cask of wine which at the out set falls on the crippling stone of Saint Antoine is scooped up in little mugs of mutilated earthenware.

It is important that among the novels by Dickens A Tale of Two Cities only is written that has politics as a central theme. The main impression it leaves on its readers is of the horror and bloodlines of the revolutionary atmosphere, and the grim idea of vengeance epitomized in Madame Defrage. There in the most melodramatic form is an idea of the terror taken over by many from Burke; but its place in the scheme of Dickens’ work is with the mob. But in spite of the obvious hatred that Dickens had for the mad and uncontrollable fury of the mob, he uses the description of it to express, or to work off, something of his own neurotic impatient and anger. He danced and slaughtered with the crowd.

We get a plain thesis from this book: the aristocrats deserved all they got, but the passion engendered in the people by misery and starvation replaced one set of oppressors by another. One aristocrat can be rescued to repent and live in the decent quietude of England. One individual can assert his goodness against the double evil of the rest. But the concentration of emotion is never on Charles Darnay; it is all on the wild frenzy of people who have committed everything to violence. Dickens hated and feared such violence; there is not a sign of approval or defense of it. He attributes every kind of monstrous wickedness to its leaders; but he projects into his treatment of it his own feelings of desperate impotence in the face of the problem of political power.

Social and Cultural conflict

Victorian age was full of social and cultural conflict that we find in many novels of that age. Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, “Tess of the D’urbervilles”, and George Eliot’s “Silas Marner” are the best example of that type of books.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy emphasizes man’s responsibility for his actions. The protagonist can not escape the past and must acknowledge that he is responsible for his fate. He suffers and his actions cause others to suffer. We get a vivid description of many fairs, festivals, cultural activities and complete social picture of that age by reading this book. “Ay, ‘Tis fair day”.

“Though what you hear now is little more than the clatter and scurry of getting away the money of children and fools, for the real business is done earlier than this. I’ve been working within sound o‘t all day, but I didn’t go up not I. ‘Twas no business of mine.”1

These lines express that many kinds of festival were arranged at that time¬.
The contemporary people used to have wine very often. Women were considered as commodities. People did not bother about to sell their wives for getting wine.

The Mayor of Casterbridge expresses this event very vividly.
“I’ll tell ye what-I won’t sell her for less than five,’ said the husband, brining down his fist so that the basins danced.” “I’ll sell her for five guineas to any man that will pay me the money; and treat her well; and he shall have her forever and never hear aught o’me. But she shan’t go for less. Now then-five guineas-and she is yours. Susan, you agree?

These lines are the best example of the madness of the people of that time. Here the protagonist is selling his wife for some silly guineas to have wine. So, these lines express that the people were morally degraded.

The Victorian people were very fond of music. In the novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge we find this picture repeatedly. “The music is coming from outside the kings Arms, and through the window can de seen Henchard, Mayor of Casterbridge, in the chair at “A great public dinner.” Wine is flowing but Henchard’s glass is filled with water.”2 (chapter 5)

Another chapter we also get the information the people was very fond of music. “Elizabeth-Jane was fond of music; she could not help pausing to listen; and the longer she listen the more she was enraptured. She had never heard any singing like this and it was evident that the majority of the audience had not heard such frequently, for they were attentive to a much greater degree than usual.” (ch: 7)

Though people were morally degraded, they were very helpful to each other. They came forward to help the others while the were in danger. And the writer made a compromise by showing this picture.

The picture is “Believe me Farfrae; I have come entirely on your own and your wife’s account. She is in danger. I know no more; and they want you to come. Your man has gone the other way in a mistake. O Farfrae! Don’t mistrust me. I am a wretched man; but my heart is true to you still!” (ch: 4)

Hardy’s philosophy dramatizes the human condition as a struggle between man and man, and between man and his fate. Fate is all-powerful, and, in its blindness, pays no hit to human sufferings. The malevolence of fate suddenly seems to be demonstrated in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Yet the victim of fate, Henchard, is also the “man of character” refereed to in the sub-title. The suffering he endures is the result of his actions. Hardy quotes the same, “Character is fate”, to suggest the real nature of fate. The Mayor of Casterbridge is a solution to the dilemma: man will overcome because he has the nobility and strength to endure.

The social picture

The society of Victorian age was imbalance. There were many changes took place in that society. People became too much materialistic and self-centered. Thus came an end to lordship and middle class emerged. People started to get their asking rights like franchise power and they started to migrate themselves into the urban areas. So, there starts a conflict. This migration was regarded as a burden by the urban people. Women were very hard working. In the novel Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, we get this type of picture.

“She was inexpressibly weary. She had risen at 5 o’clock every morning of that week, Had been on foot the whole of each day, and on this evening had in addition walked the three miles to Chaseborough, waited three hours for her neighbors without eating or drinking, her impatient to start them preventing either; she had then walked a mile of the way home, and had undergo the excitement of the quarrel, till, with the slow progress of their steed, it was now nearly one o’clock.” (p-95 Tess of the D’urbervilles)

People were morally degraded. We get this picture from the speech of Alec, the protagonist of the novel Tess of the D’urbervilles. He says to Tess “We know each other well; and you know that I love you, and think you the prettiest girl in the world which you are. Mayn’t I treat as you a lover? “He settled the matter by clasping his arm round her as he desired and Tess expressed no further nagetive.”6 (Tess of the D’urbervilles, p-98)

These lines denote the moral degradation in people and how they used to make extra marital relationship without any hesitation.

Besides these conflicts there were many conflicts between science and religion, art and morality, which were compromised by Matthew Arnold and Alfred Tennyson. In the poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold we get the conflict between dogmatic idea or faith and development of science. The people lost their faith from religion. The first stanza of this poem we found a melancholic tone. in that time the people were in doubt and unbelief atmosphere. The poet then points out that once upon a time the sea of religious faith was full but now doubt and disbelief have combined to through back the waves of faith from the world, leaving the world barren and cheerless. He means that religion has lost its hold upon the minds of the people who have now become skeptical. The poet says,

The sea of faith
was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d:
These lines express that the people of that time lost their faith on religion and the religious belief had almost disappeared. Doubt and disbelief, skepticism and agnosticism have combined to force back the waves of faith from the shore of the world and the world is now like a coast on which naked pebbles lie cheerlessly.

But Matthew Arnold has done a compromise between these two conflicts. He says

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor piece, nor help for pain;

These lines express the poet’s feelings to compromise the controversial ideas. The poet feels that he and his beloved should love each other truly and sincerely, because only true love can be a source of comfort in this barren world that has lost all religious faith. This beautiful seeming world, he says is an illusion or a mirage. The world seems to be full of bright hopes and dreams; it appears full of garety and does variety; it looks beautiful and charming. But in fact, there is neither joy nor love, nor hope, nor certainty, nor peace of mind, nor relief for distress in the world. There is nothing to comfort or soothe a troubled human being. Without spiritual faith, without a genuine belief in god, the world can not have any peace and joy.

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