By Trudy A. Martinez
Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, a fictitious historical novel, presents a narrow view of history through fictional individuals who link real and imaginary individual figures and events. We are reminded immediately that the novel is historical by the authors use of the past tense. There is a theme of balance though out the novel, i. e. , a social commentary on rich and poor, a narrative between two cities, London and Paris, and two languages, English and French, which reign under two kings, “George III — on the throne of England,” and “Louis XVI — on the throne of France”. Charles Dickens, the author, designs the novel to give the reader a perception of confusion, chaos, and paradox while at the same time leaving the interpretation open. Dickens technique of linking fictional individuals and fictional events with actual figures and events in history is very successfully achieved as it gives the reader a strong sense of the attitudes and the beliefs of the individuals and the cultures, English and French, from the beginning of the novel to the end, as a result history comes alive. The atmosphere and tone of the whole novel is set in the opening line. Although the story begins in “the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred seventy-five,” the plot begins in the year one thousand seven hundred fifty-seven.
“It was the best of times”
The nobles had maintained their privileged status, the church continued to support the corrupt government; the bourgeoisie, the upper middle class, had prospered, increasing in wealth and status, some used foresight, purchased titles, thereby exempting them from taxes and the dual standards employed within the society of classes.
“It was the age of wisdom”
The scientific community had made discoveries in the 17th century that revolutionized the thought processes; those processes were carried further in the 18th century which saw further achievements in astronomy, chemistry, and biology. New ideas emerge resulting in inventions that progressively aid industry.
“It was the season of light”
Reaction to the age of wisdom and foolishness produce the age of reason; then subsequently a new idealism, in opposition to materialism, and finally humanitarianism and an increase emphasis on reform movements in answer to problems that face society.
“It was the season of darkness”
The upper-middle-class on down to the peasantry began to lose their faith in the system. Over population increased along with taxation. Oppression was on the rise, illness, disease, abuse, and death had increase dramatically. All hopes of improvement were fading rapidly. Louis XVI attempts through his ministers to initiate financial reforms by imposing moderate land taxes, cuts in royal household expenses, and abolishing some pensions, but met with opposition from the nobles of the court and the queen. The minister of finance. Robert Turgot was dismissed. Ministers that follow meet with resistance and fail. Louis XVI personal attempts to institute new taxes fail due to the strong opposition of the privileged class.
“It was the spring of hope”
Louis XVI saw the light and was attempting to change the system. Louis calls for an assembly of notables, he appeals to them for understanding. They strongly reject the request. Under duress and coaxing of the nobles, Louis XVI summons the “Estates-General,” delegates are selected; all tax-paying male householders are allowed to vote. Elected delegates are provided lists of wanted reforms. Middle-class intellectuals and politicians seek to create a constitutional monarchy using the English and American forms of government as examples. The states general assembly produce the “Tennis Court Act:, their promise not to disband until a constitution is produced. The assembly defies the king’s order to reconvene as separate estates and declare themselves the “National Constituent Assembly of France”. Louis XVI unwilling accepts the National assembly, but has troops move to the vicinity of Versailles. Fearing military interference, the middle-class panick and call for popular support, joined by shopkeepers and the working class, they storm the Bastille and liberate the prisoners.
“It was the winter of despair”
The previous winters had not been pleasant, in fact, they had been quiet rough for the oppressed with their subsistence existence, death, and the injustice within society. Their future had not promised much hope.
Dickens set the path of the characters in the novel by linking the two cities, London and Paris, through the business of a bank, Tellson’s Bank, and one of its employees, Mr. Jarvis Lorry. Mr. Lorry’s various duties with Tellson’s Bank brings him in contact with the lives of others within the two cities. One of his duties is to assist a customer of the bank who was liberated from prison, “Recalled to Life,” at the storming of the Bastille by angry mobs. Mr. Lorry is to reunite him with his daughter who is unaware of his existence and living in London. This liberated man’s story of arrest is the plot which begins in the year one thousand seven hundred fifty-seven. Through contacts with this man, his daughter, and others and their subsequent contact with others broadens the scope of the reader’s perception of the two separate cultures, English and French, within a society and the development of the two separate nation states, England and France. This approach encompasses the lives of the people of all walks, i. e. , the nobles, the middle-classes, the working class, and the peasantry, and adds to the perception of the reader as Dickens intends. Dickens goes on to give life and vitality to history when he interjects vivid physical descriptions and mental attributes which includes but is not limited to the dress, manners, status, style and the wants and needs of each class level. Dickens then brings into focus the attitudes and climate of society within the two nation states by focusing attention on the individuals of each class level. Dickens then brings into focus the attitudes and climate of society within the two nation states by focusing attention on the individuals of each class within the structure of each government, i. e., constitutional monarchy and absolute monarchy which is attempting to change. Thus, Dickens focus on individuals allows the reader to perceive the personal attitudes of the individuals which gives logic and reason to their level of self-esteem, their suspicions, beliefs, mastery, and behavior through the association of their religion, learning, achievement, and past experience. As a result of the perception of the individuals, the reader’s personal, general, perception of attitudes and behavior of the rich and the poor and the practices and developments within the two governments are conceived. Dickens literary maneuver gives the structure of justice and injustice which in turn defines and distinguishes the good and the evil in the nation states. The difference became the distinguishable quality of the two nations states. The quality of the two established nations reflects their ability to recognize and effectively change the states of the middle-class in a timely manner when they are faced with threats of revolution. The English under the reign of George III in conjunction with parliament manage to revitalize its middle-class with hopes of a better future, whereas, the French, under the reign of Louis XVI fails when attempts are made to change the system at the expense of the nobles and the clergy, because the nobles fail to recognize and act upon the need of “hope” in a timely manner. This ignorance of the “magic” ingredient “Hope” as a measure to pacify and avoid revolution results in their world-changing.
Then suddenly everything went “topsy-turvy”: the present is confronted with the past. The good, i.e., the king, the nobles, the upper-classes became the symbols of evil; the middle-class, the working class, and the peasantry became the symbol of good. The upper-middle-class members of the French National Assembly panick when all their hopes of reformation are lost; they appeal for popular support and are joined by the urban workers and the peasantry. Turmoil and violence ensue. The assembly moves to make concessions, but it is too little, too late. The fury had been unleashed; Moderates control to change the order of things was diminishing. The Radical voice of the Jacobins was growing stronger. The lower-classes were dissatisfied with their status, Louis is suspected of conspiring with the enemies when French armies suffer defeats. Proof of Louis conspiring brought down the limited monarchy when commander of the invading armies, Duke of Brunswick, threaten destruction of Paris if the king and his family are harmed. The ensuing fury brought control of the assembly to the Radicals. The moderates, Girondists, flee leaving the radicals, Jacobins, in control of the National assembly after debates result in the king’s execution.
“IT WAS THE WINTER OF DESPAIR;”
It was the season of darkness;
It was the age of foolishness;
It was the worst of times.”
The aristocrats found their abodes in the dark and dirty dungeons; their status symbols: knee breeches, beards, mustaches, titles, heritage, and manners became their condemnation, i. e., the oppressors became the oppressed. Their self-interest, greed, and ignorance prevent them from seeing the error of their ways.
when they tried to correct the situation, it was too late. Death became their heritage, La Guillotine their throne.
“IT WAS THE SPRING OF HOPE;
It was the season of light;
It was the age of wisdom;
It was the best of times.”
The middle-classes, urban laborers, and the peasantry organize and unite. Their cry, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death.” their colors, red and black, symbolic of blood and death. Blinded by revenge, they became the oppressor. They proudly took the titles of “Citizen” and “citizeness”. It was their age of reason coupled with hysteria. It is their “Republic of Virtue” that calls for submission to the “General Will”. Social violence, fear, defensive behaviors reflect the attitudes of the times. “The Committee for Public Safety” and the tribunals bring about the “Reign of Terror” which unleashes suspicion and hatred; neighbor against neighbor. An uncontrollable machine, headed by Robespierre. corrupts the wheels of progress,
Dickens set the atmosphere and the tone of the novel in the opening lines; this atmosphere and tone is maintained throughout the novel because of the “topsy-turvy” affect revolution plays upon its inhabitants. Dickens method of linking the two cities, London and Paris, the two languages, English and French, and the two nation states, England and France, through incorporation of fictional characters and fictional events into the historical setting gave perception to the reader of the times, the class divisions, the physical and mental attributes, the attitudes and climates of the two nation states, the injustice, revenge, the extremes, the good and evil, and the magic ingredient “hope” and the fury of revolution which resulted in mistrust, blood and death. Dickens made history come alive; feelings were brought to the surface as one of his characters is exposed to the “Reign of Terror”, imprisoned in an upside down world awaiting death by means of la guillotine. Dickens succeeds in giving the reader a perception of life in revolution as he intends: history is brought to life right before our eyes.