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A Tale of Two Cities - Historical Approach

A Tale of Two Cities - Historical Approach



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Published by Shelemiah
A 13 pages term paper (including bibliography)entitled "Tracing the Interwoven Threads of History in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities," submitted as a requirement in the course, English Literature.
A 13 pages term paper (including bibliography)entitled "Tracing the Interwoven Threads of History in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities," submitted as a requirement in the course, English Literature.

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Published by: Shelemiah on Jul 25, 2009
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Raval, Stephanie R. March 16, 2009II-30 AB/BSE Literature English Literature
Tracing the Interwoven Threads of History inCharles Dickens’
 A Tale of Two Cities
Written in 1859,
 A Tale of Two Cities
takes us back to the events that transpired in thehomes and at the streets of London and Paris over half to almost a century before its birth. Inthe gulf of these years, Charles Dickens manages to lead the readers’ thoughts to the dustystoreroom of the past, giving them not only a taste of the period’s flavor but also anunderstanding of the lives, the beliefs, and the struggles of English and French societies duringthe time when the world heard the chaotic footsteps of the French Revolution.The first chapter entitled “The Periodis probably the section in the novel whereabounding historical background information is entwined. At this point, Dickens presents thestate of affairs in the sister countries of France and England in the year One Thousand SevenHundred Seventy-five. The first sentence of the novel reveals Dickens’ stance about the period:“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it wasthe age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, itwas 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 beforeus, we were all going 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 authoritiesinsisted on being received , for good and for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Dickens, 1859, p.1)
The late seventeenth century is marked by extremities. For the aristocrats in Franceand rising middle class in England, it was the best of times for they are living in the pleasuresand extravagance of life. For the poor, it was the worst of times for they are dying of poverty. InEngland, everything was going well and the people were generally happy while France was inneed of reform and was not a good place to live in. It was the birth of reason, rationality andscience. However, pseudo-science and new kinds of superstitions emerged alongside with it.The period was described as ‘so far like’ the present period (1859), which saw the scientific,technological and industrial achievements with the coexistence of the spirit-rappers, mediumsand phrenologist. To put it briefly, 1775 is a period wherein life’s contrasts coexist with oneanother, and whether it was the best of times or the worst of times depended on how the eyeslooked at it.Mrs. Southcott, the prophetic private and the Cock-lane ghost are true personages fromEngland’s history. Mrs. Southcott refers to Joanna Southcott who became a prophetess in 1792and was very popular among the readers of 1859. The prophetic private in the Life Guards wasthe man who predicted that London and Westminster would be destroyed. The guardsman wasproven prophetic not of the swallowing up of London and Westminster but of the birth of another prophet who is Joanna Southcott. The Cock-lane ghost
began to disturb the residentsof a house in Cock Lane, West Smithfield in London in the first few months of 1762. Itsknockings and scratchings were supposed to derive from the spirit of woman who had beenmurdered and was buried nearby. (A Tale of Two Cities: Notes on Issues, n. d.) Dickens’portrayal of England with a long list of superstitious beliefs reveals how irrational Englishpeople were during that period.In contrast to the colorful beliefs in England, France’s spiritual matters were clothed withdark shadows. “…such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off,his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled downin the rain to do honor to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a
distance of some fifty or sixty yards.” (Dickens, 1859, p.2) This is a troubling passage from thefirst chapter and it did happen in France’s history. This refers to the execution of Jean- Françoisde la Barre in 1766. He was accused of acting disrespectfully to a religious procession becausehe had not removed his hat when he passed within thirty yards that procession (A Tale of TwoCities: Notes on Issues, n. d.) Catholicism is the state religion in France and during thosetimes, de la Barre’s act was regarded as a heinous crime and was punishable by torture andburning at the stake.
Dickens’ Treatment of Peasants and Nobility in France
The French society then was divided into three classes, called estates. The First Stateconsisted of the clergy; the Second State, the nobility; the Third Estate, peasants, city workersand the rich and poor middle class.Members of the Second Estate were highly privileged. They owned about a quarter of theland of France and held the highest offices in church, the government and the army. Somenobles owned large estates but paid almost no taxes. In feudal times, nobles continued toreceived produce, labor and fees for various services of the peasants. The nobility expandedtheir privileges at the expense of the peasants. (Perry, 1985, p.442)Charles Dickens’ character of The Marquis Evremonde which portrays typical powerful andrich noble that time stands as a symbol of aristocratic cruelty. “The earth and the fullnessthereof are mine, saith Monseigneur.” The Marquis thinks that the earth was made for them. Heis completely indifferent to the lives of the peasants whom he exploits. This is highly evident inthe seventh and eighth chapter of the Book the First. He showed no sympathy for the father of the child whom his carriage trampled into death. He even cursed the commoners, saying thathe would willingly ride over any of them. Another instance that gives us a glimpse of his stoneheart is when he was unmoved by a peasant woman who stops him and beg him to provide hishusband’s grave with some stone or marker, lest he will be forgotten.

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