A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789

One shouldn’t read Dickens quickly, rip-roaring through the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. To do so is to lose out on the pleasure of the experience, as well the track of what’s happening, fast. Dickens constructs his narratives so that readers are to become immersed in the story, and his language is so ornate and complex that plot points can easily be overlooked. And so it is that the magic of Dickens is in the absorption of the text, savoring each paragraph, each line, for the rich symbolism and the imagery he seeks to convey.

On that note, there seems a strange irony that occurs when considering a novel like A Tale of Two Cities. We find modern university English departments filled with reasonable people doing reasonable things, studying the art of storytelling, learning about language and critical thinking, all the while advancing the aspect of being human — a rather peaceful affair, wouldn’t you say? But how contrasting is all this compared to the novel’s subject matter? The “French Revolution” comes off nowadays as a modern catchphrase that recalls a certain period in history, but can anyone truly realize the horror and terror of which it was comprised? There is symbolic tension that extends between the idyllic study of the novel and the inherent violence it contains.

The Massacre at Paris (1792)

I imagine members of the notorious 1% of our age reading this book, anxiety meds on hand lest the topic be taken to heart, like it could be some terrifying thing that could happen again. Thank goodness for modern technology and how it protects properties, right? Think Louis XVI and his lovely young wife Miss Antoinette would have been brutalized by the common populace had their palace been wired with cameras and lasers, and electric fences and traps, and automatic guns and drones, and whatever else billionaires can afford to protect themselves?

Food provision programs may contribute somewhat to the prevention of uprising in the modern age, but the French revolutionaries back in the day were straight up hungry (though it was only part of the problem). Still, what may be on the horizon for the future of Planet Earth may well have been prophesied by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), where the flying city-island of Laputa hovers safely in the sky, the threat of protests kept at a distance.

Consider the potential modernization of cities in which skyscrapers are connected at heights where the poor cannot access. People could live and work at elevations far above the street for their entire lives while the situation at ground level, its rapidly expanding tent cities, turn from bad to worse. What might a revolution look like in this case?

But I digress. What about the novel? It is most certainly one that has been scrutinized to all eternity, the critical commentary spanning volumes, speaking to the power of Dickens and his imaginative capabilities, with room for plenty more commentaries as the years press forward. It is a novel that couches a domestic story within one of history’s most unimaginable phenomenons, and begins with literature’s most famous opening lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Apart from other notable themes and occurrences, the Carmagnole is a thing difficult not to notice. The “collective behavior” of the revolutionaries is chilling, a paradoxical rampage of irony in which the success of the revolution’s onslaught is bound up in a frenzied rage conducted by “demons,” as Dickens terms them. The scene is terrifying because the onlooker is not certain whether to applaud or abhor the group, the picture of humanity as grey as one could possibly imagine. But there is no point in trying to describe what the author describes for us:

“But, he was not far off, for presently she heard a troubled movement and a shouting coming along, which filled her with fear. A moment afterwards, and a throng of people came pouring round the corner by the prison wall, in the midst of whom was the wood-sawyer hand in hand with The Vengeance. There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five thousand demons. There was no other music than their own singing. They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison. Men and women danced together, women danced together, men danced together, as hazard had brought them together. At first, they were a mere storm of coarse red caps and coarse woollen rags; but, as they filled the place, and stopped to dance about Lucie, some ghastly apparition of a dance-figure gone raving mad arose among them. They advanced, retreated, struck at one another’s hands, clutched at one another’s heads, spun round alone, caught one another and spun round in pairs, until many of them dropped.”

“While those were down, the rest linked hand in hand, and all spun round together: then the ring broke, and in separate rings of two and four they turned and turned until they all stopped at once, began again, struck, clutched, and tore, and then reversed the spin, and all spun round another way. Suddenly they stopped again, paused, struck out the time afresh, formed into lines the width of the public way, and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped screaming off. No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport — a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry — a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost-child’s head thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time.” (Book III, Chapter V)

No cursory glance at A Tale of Two Cities is complete, however, without honorable mentions to one of literature’s most dastardly villains, the insidious Madame Thérèse Defarge. Having read the novel, the name is enough to send chills up the spine. She is vicious. She is cold-blooded, beyond vindictive. She is cunning and she is hateful. She holds onto her pain as though it were her life-force, the opposite of love in every capacity. We know she is a product of vengeance and the problems of society, and empathy should rise somewhere in our hearts, but her actions leave us no room but to marvel at the nature of her spite. Humanity has passed from her spirit so that she has become the pure embodiment of evil.

When she is not knitting the names of those who will come to learn the score, her imagination is stoked by the implements of her vengeful desires:

“‘Eh, well! Here you see me!’ said madame, composed as ever, but not knitting to-day. Madame’s resolute right hand was occupied with an axe, in place of the usual softer implements, and in her girdle were a pistol and a cruel knife.” (Book II, Chapter XXI)

Our understanding of femininity takes on skewed shapes when we observe the ease with which Madam Defarge is able to commit heinous forms of murder:

“In the howling universe of passion and contention that seemed to encompass this grim old officer conspicuous in his grey coat and red decoration, there was but one quite steady figure, and that was a woman’s. ‘See, there is my husband!’ she cried, pointing him out. ‘See Defarge!’ She stood immovable close to the grim old officer, and remained immovable close to him; remained immovable close to him through the streets, as Defarge and the rest bore him along; remained immovable close to him when he was got near his destination, and began to be struck at from behind; remained immovable close to him when the long-gathering rain of stabs and blows fell heavy; was so close to him when he dropped dead under it, that, suddenly animated, she put her foot upon his neck, and with her cruel knife — long ready — hewed off his head.” (Book II, Chapter XXI)

Dickens couldn’t have known the effect his choice of words would have on readers 150 plus years into the future, but it was probably just as harrowing then as it is now:

“‘Well, well,’ reasoned Defarge, ‘but one must stop somewhere. After all, the question is still where?'”

“‘At extermination,’ said madame.” (Book III, Chapter XII)

A Tale of Two Cities ends with what is intended to be a thought-provoking denouement that has us contemplating noble actions, what it means to sacrifice for others, and does well at achieving that end; yet the events of the revolution are too difficult to shake. On setting the book down after completion, how one side of human nature has treated another, the aristocrats to the peasant classes and vice-versa, seems to outweigh notions of a happy ending. Instead we are left to ponder how relevant “group think” processes are as the ages come to pass, the relation to and the effects it has on the individual. Without care, the future takes on a sense of unpredictability, and we come to thank the power of literature for opening our eyes to the world around us in ways that the mere documentation of history cannot.