French Revolution and Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”

Charles Dickens is believed to be one of the most prominent writers of the so-called Victorian Era. He is renowned for his style, creation of unique and unforgettable characters, but the overwhelming majority of literary critics focus attention on his social sensitivity because undoubtedly, the authors works often concentrate on such issues as poverty and social injustice.

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First, it is worth mentioning that Charles Dickens novels are to a certain degree autobiographical, which means that the author had to suffer many hardships, especially in his childhood. His first twelve years appear to be practically ideal, but after the arrest of his father, Dickens was compelled to work ten hours a day at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, earning just six shillings per week. He was a witness to all those sufferings of the working class and the way in which they were oppressed. Thus, it stands to reason that these themes were reflected practically in all his books.

As far as “A Tale of Two Cities” is concerned, we should say that it is the second historical novel, written by Dickens. It is set in Paris and in London, probably it explains the name of the book, the author wants to compare and contrast these two great cites. The major theme of this book is the French Revolution, especially the way in which it affected and changed the lives of many people.

It should be taken into account that the main historical source that the author used in this novel was the book “The French Revolution. A History” written by Thomas Carlyle. Dickens says in the foreword, “no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle’s wonderful book”(Sanders, 99). According to Carlyle, history can be defined as an ever-lasting circle of destruction and resurrection. This idea has a strong impact on the novel itself. This point can be illustrated by such a character as Sydney Sheldon.

Nevertheless, we cannot say that the author entirely shared Carlyles views and ideas, mostly because any form of violence was entirely abhorrent to Dickens, and he could not find any way in which it is possible to justify massacre and bloodshed. Naturally, he sympathized with the oppressed working class but not with the revolutionaries, whose sole purpose was to seize power for their own benefit (Ackroyd, 123).

As it has already been mentioned before, the novel focuses on the events of the French Revolution, which undoubtedly brought a drastic change not only in France but also in all of Europe. The novel gives an eloquent portrayal of pre-revolutionary France; it shows how the lower classes were oppressed by the French aristocracy and what results in this oppression lead to. However, it is not quite possible for us to say that the author idealizes the working-class.

It is one of the most prominent representatives of Realism Dickens was always inclined to give a realistic description of life (Glancy, 105). Thus, the novel shows the whole brutality and violence of revolutionaries because any revolution may result in bloodshed, especially it goes for the French Revolution, which is considered to be one the most brutal and violent in the history of mankind.

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This statement can be proved by the example of Charles Darnay, who belongs to the aristocracy by birth, but being a noble and righteous person, he resents that regime of injustice and cruelty, which was dominant in France before the revolution, therefore he chooses to leave France for Great Britain.

It is quite possible for us to observe the sharp contrast that exists between Darnay and his family, especially his uncle Marquis Evremonde, the person who is unable to show any signs of compassion or empathy to the peasants. He says, “Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,” observed the Marquis, “will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof,” looking up to it, “shuts out the sky” (Dickens, 125).

It does not occur to him that a human being has a deep-rooted “the whip” and will eventually overthrow the person who holds this whip. Thus, it is quite possible for us to say that the French aristocracy was sowing the seeds of its destruction.

If we discuss the novel “A Tale of Two Cities” within the context of the French Revolution, it is of crucial importance for us to mention that in the overwhelming majority of cases, it is based on sharp contrast.

As a rule, critics describe this stylistic device as the so-called doubling technique, which means that the author is inclined to draw oppositions. In fact, it can be applied not only to this particular novel but also to every work of the author (Biedermann, 256).

If we attempt to trace the use of this stylistic or literary device throughout the text, we will easily find a great number of examples. First, at the very beginning of the story, the author says, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” At first glance, these words can seem a little bit controversial to say the list, but if a person gives this matter some consideration, he can easily arrive at the conclusion that the author was quite right.

On the one hand, the French Revolution symbolized the wind of change not only in France but also in the Western world. However, we cannot disregard the bloodshed and the lives of many innocent people who suffered from the Revolution.

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This phenomenon can also be traced to the setting of the novel. There is a sharp contrast between the stormy prerevolutionary Paris, which was on the point of the outbreak at that moment, and relatively calm and cozy London.

For example, Lucy Manette tells her father, Dr. Manette, “go to England to be at peace and at rest” Charles Darnay also refers to England as a certain kind of shelter or refuge, whereas France (and Paris in particular) is becoming more and more dangerous.

As far as the characters are concerned, we can also say that they are, to a certain degree, diametrically opposed. For instance, noble and honest Charles Darnay in contrast with his vicious, malignant, and callous uncle Marquis Evremonde.

It is also quite possible for us to contrast loving and nurturing Lucy with bloodthirsty and hateful Madame Defarge, whose vengefulness only creates this vicious circle of oppression. This character reminds “like a shadow over the white road.” She is unable to change her attitude to life, probably because of her selfishness, which is devouring her.

The impact of the French Revolution is also extremely noticeable in the concept of “imprisonment,” which is recurrent throughout the novel. First, it is worth mentioning that one of the major characters is literary trying to escape from prison. The author brilliantly describes the feelings of a person who is confined within a cell. Thus, we can say that the Revolution is, to some extent, an attempt to break this jail of social injustice.

As it has already been mentioned before, Dickens always cried against brutality and violence. He depicts the crowd killing the governor of Bastille “with a rain of stabs and blows” Dickens emphasizes the fact that people literary got used to death and violence.

The author depicts it in the following way “solemn interest… in the streets along which the sixties rolled to a death which had become so common and material, that no sorrowful story of a haunting Spirit ever arose among the people out of all the working of the Guillotine”.

Dickens believes that overall, the revolution brought only new oppressors. Nevertheless, all of them are doomed to failure because violence can beget only violence.

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One of the main characters, Cartoon, predicts that all these people will be executed on the guillotine as those people whom these new “villains” slaughtered. He says,” I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use” (Dickens, 425).

The author emphasizes the fact that for the revolutionaries, or perhaps it would be better to tell new tyrants, the end always justifies the means, and they are ready to do practically everything to achieve their purpose.

Depicting the mob, which is exceedingly prone to violence, Dickens says that these people have forgotten that violence only spoiled the very image of revolution. Naturally, their aims are righteous, but the methods they employ cannot be exonerated.

Dickens clearly airs his views as to their behavior “Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind” (Dickens, 428).

Thus, having analyzed the novel “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens within the context of the French Revolution, it is quite possible for us to arrive at the conclusion that the main message that the author wanted to convey to people must remain humane under every circumstance.

Moreover, we must not forget that even good intentions can be entirely spoiled by vile and brutal actions.


Ackroyd, Peter. “Dickens” Vintage, 2002.

Charles Dickens. “A Tale of Two Cities”. Penguin, 1997.

Biedermann, Hans. “Dictionary of Symbolism”. New York: Meridian, 2004

Glancy, Ruth. “Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: A Sourcebook”. London: Routledge, 1998.

Stone, Harry. “Dickens’s Working Notes for His Novels”, Chicago, 1987.

Sanders, Andrew. “The Companion to A Tale of Two Cities”. London: Unwin Hyman, 1999.

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