Raval, Stephanie R.

II-30 AB/BSE Literature

March 16, 2009 English Literature

Tracing the Interwoven Threads of History in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

Written in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities takes us back to the events that transpired in the homes and at the streets of London and Paris over half to almost a century before its birth. In the gulf of these years, Charles Dickens manages to lead the readers’ thoughts to the dusty storeroom of the past, giving them not only a taste of the period’s flavor but also an understanding of the lives, the beliefs, and the struggles of English and French societies during the time when the world heard the chaotic footsteps of the French Revolution. The first chapter entitled “The Period” is probably the section in the novel where abounding historical background information is entwined. At this point, Dickens presents the state of affairs in the sister countries of France and England in the year One Thousand Seven Hundred 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 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 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 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 France and rising middle class in England, it was the best of times for they are living in the pleasures and extravagance of life. For the poor, it was the worst of times for they are dying of poverty. In England, everything was going well and the people were generally happy while France was in need of reform and was not a good place to live in. It was the birth of reason, rationality and science. 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, mediums and phrenologist. To put it briefly, 1775 is a period wherein life’s contrasts coexist with one another, and whether it was the best of times or the worst of times depended on how the eyes looked at it. Mrs. Southcott, the prophetic private and the Cock-lane ghost are true personages from England’s history. Mrs. Southcott refers to Joanna Southcott who became a prophetess in 1792 and was very popular among the readers of 1859. The prophetic private in the Life Guards was the man who predicted that London and Westminster would be destroyed. The guardsman was proven 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 residents of a house in Cock Lane, West Smithfield in London in the first few months of 1762. Its knockings and scratchings were supposed to derive from the spirit of woman who had been murdered 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 English people were during that period. In contrast to the colorful beliefs in England, France’s spiritual matters were clothed with dark 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 down in the rain to do honor to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a 2

distance of some fifty or sixty yards.” (Dickens, 1859, p.2) This is a troubling passage from the first chapter and it did happen in France’s history. This refers to the execution of Jean- François de la Barre in 1766. He was accused of acting disrespectfully to a religious procession because he had not removed his hat when he passed within thirty yards that procession (A Tale of Two Cities: Notes on Issues, n. d.) Catholicism is the state religion in France and during those times, de la Barre’s act was regarded as a heinous crime and was punishable by torture and burning at the stake.

Dickens’ Treatment of Peasants and Nobility in France The French society then was divided into three classes, called estates. The First State consisted of the clergy; the Second State, the nobility; the Third Estate, peasants, city workers and the rich and poor middle class. Members of the Second Estate were highly privileged. They owned about a quarter of the land of France and held the highest offices in church, the government and the army. Some nobles owned large estates but paid almost no taxes. In feudal times, nobles continued to received produce, labor and fees for various services of the peasants. The nobility expanded their privileges at the expense of the peasants. (Perry, 1985, p.442) Charles Dickens’ character of The Marquis Evremonde which portrays typical powerful and rich noble that time stands as a symbol of aristocratic cruelty. “The earth and the fullness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur.” The Marquis thinks that the earth was made for them. He is completely indifferent to the lives of the peasants whom he exploits. This is highly evident in the 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 that he would willingly ride over any of them. Another instance that gives us a glimpse of his stone heart is when he was unmoved by a peasant woman who stops him and beg him to provide his husband’s grave with some stone or marker, lest he will be forgotten. 3

“All the people within reach had suspended their business, or idleness to run at the spot and drink the wine… Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands, joined and sipped and tried to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip, before the wine had all run out between their fingers.… others devoted themselves to the sodden lee-dyed pieces of cask, licking, and even champing the moister wine-rotted fragments with eager relish. There was no drainage to carry off the wine, and not only did it all get taken up, but so much mud got taken up along with it, that there might been, a scavenger in the street….” (Dickens, 1859, pp. 2425) This passage came from one of the most memorable events from the novel – the spilling of the wine. By writing this, Dickens was able to paint a pitiful picture of the life French peasants lived. The peasants make majority of the Third estate. Even though peasants owned about half the land in France, often their farms were too small to support their family. Reasons for the revolting of their stomachs include the old-fashioned ways of farming and heavy taxation. During those times, an army of government tax collectors terrorized peasants into paying by threatening them with loss of their homes, whipping, imprisonment or forced labor. Dickens views the peasants as people in the basest status of poverty and extreme hardship. He portrays them as those who have a righteous hatred for the aristocrats for their greed in money and power around the peasants’ necks. At first, Dickens’ treatment of peasants and nobility is stereotypical. The nobles are the oppressors and the peasants are the ones oppressed. The nobles are the embodiment of cruelty while the peasants are the embodiment of pitiful hardships. However, with the characters of Charles Darnay and Madame Defarge, Dickens reveals his non-stereotypical portrayal of nobility and peasants. He brings to light that not all aristocrats are cruel. Some aristocrats like Darnay do not want oppression nor possess a lust for money and power. Some peasants, on the other hand, can be more cruel than the aristocrats as what was exhibited by 4

the character of the blood-lust Madame Defarge. As the grindstone of fate masterfully made its turn, aristocrats are the ones that receive the cruelty of the peasants at the end of the novel.

Dickens’ Faithfulness to the Historical Period “Hallo you!” “Well! Hallo you!” said Jerry, more hoarsely than before. “Come on at a footpace! D’ye mind me? And if you’ve got holsters to that saddle o’yourn, don’t let me see your hand go nigh ‘em…” (Dickens, 1859, p.7) Part of the flavor of a period is the language the people speak. (Russel, 2001, p. 221) Certainly, a 17th century Frenchman would not speak the same way as Frenchmen speak nowadays. The sample conversation above is from the second chapter entitled “The Mail.” It is a dialogue between the guard and Jerry Cruncher. Notice that ‘Hallo’ was used instead of ‘Hello.’ The guard also used contractions in his speech. If it would be translated in plain English, this becomes: “Come on at a footpace. Do you mind me? And if you’ve got holsters to that saddle of yours, don’t let me see your hand go near them.” “Very orderly and methodical he looked, with a hand on each knee, and a loud watch ticking a sonorous sermon under his flapped waistcoat… his brown stockings fitted sleek and close, were of a fine texture; his shoes and buckles, too, though plain, were trim. He wore an odd little sleek crisp flaxen wig… was made of hair, but which looked far more as though it was spun from filaments of silk or glass…. ” (Dickens, 1859, p.14) These lines are from the fourth chapter entitled “The Preparation.” This is from Mr. Lorry who notice the man’s portrait. The portrait exhibits the seventeenth to eighteenth century fashions like the flapped waistcoat, brown stockings, shoes with buckles and wig. Among these, the wig has the most significance. Wigs are regarded in the seventeenth and eighteenth 5

centuries as an aristocratic ornament of Old Regime Europe. It was an exclusive marker of high birth and status word by privileged few. (Seventeenth Century Fashion, n.d.) “It was a heavy mass of building, that chateau of Monsieur the Marquis, with a large stone court-yard before it, and two stone sweeps of staircase meeting in a stone terrace before the principal door. A stony business altogether, with heavy stone balustrades and stone urns, and stone flowers, and stone faces of men, and stone heads of lions, in all directions. As if Gorgon’s head had surveyed it when it was finished, two centuries ago.” (Dickens, 1859, p.108) Since the year was 1775, the chateau of Monsieur the Marquis was probably erected in 1500 if it was finished two centuries ago. This was encompassed in the Renaissance period. Looking at the history, chateaus are indeed associated with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The massive late medieval stone chateaus like that of Monsieur the Marquis were built for military attack. Anyone living in a chateau is rich, and most of the time, the lord of the manor.

Dickens’ Portrayal of Women In the Chapter 3 of Book the Third entitled “The Shadow,” Lucie, her daughter, and Miss Pross were sent by Mr. Lorry to a nearby lodging under the protection of Jerry. When Darnay was arrested, all they can do is to mourn and pray for him. England sees women as someone who is not that capable of defending themselves and must be protected. In France, women are depicted as equal to men. They were not left in the house hiding. They joined in the battles. They carried weapons. They took away lives. France sees women strong and fearless. Moreover, the villain of the novel, Madame Defarge is a Frenchwoman. Looking through historical perspective, American Revolution transpired before the French Revolution. The American struggle had a significant influence on the minds of many Frenchmen. (Frank, 1969, p 406) Tremendous enthusiasm had been aroused throughout France when 6

people read the texts of Declaration of Independence and various state constitutions. Many women had taken part in the events on the Revolution in hope for a share in the ”equality” promised in the Declaration of Rights of Man. They urged better education for girls, marriage and divorce laws that were fair to women. (Perry, 1985, p.448) Dickens, however, did not end up the novel with a weak portrait of Englishwomen. The character of Miss Pross proved that women of England can also defend themselves, can also hold a gun and fight. As a whole, Dickens sees women of the seventeenth century as capable as men at that time when women seek for equality due to the influence of the Declaration of Rights of Man.

The Guillotine …a certain moveable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history. (Dickens, 1859, p.2) One of the most troubling aspects of the French Revolution as portrayed in A Tale of Two Cities is the use of guillotine. Many believe that this is very brutal, that the French revolutionaries have a diabolic passion in taking the lives of the aristocrats and those who go up against their plans. Shifting our eyes to the Old Regime of France, members of the nobility at that time were beheaded with a sword or axe. In the process of decapitation, it sometimes took repeated blows to sever the head completely. The condemned or the family of the condemned would sometimes pay the executioner to ensure that the blade was sharp in order to provide for a quick and relatively painless death in which one’s head is cut off. Other gruesome methods of executions were hanging, the wheel and burning at stake. (Frank, 1969, p.412) In the light of this ghastly information, the use of guillotine seems tame indeed. As a matter of fact, the guillotine was then the only legal execution method in France.

Real Places 7

As a historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities includes people and places that are true in history. Among these real places are the Westminster Hall, Oil Bailey Courthouse, Tellson’s bank, Bastille and Tuileries Palace. The Westminster Hall appears in the first chapter of the novel. It was erected in 1397 and still stands. It was used as a royal banqueting and coronation hall. In the 18th century, Westminster Hall contained the courts of Chancery, King’s-bench, and Common Pleas. (Swain, 2001) The Old Bailey where Charles Darnay was tried on treason is a real court in London. Prisoners were kept in the gaol, brought next door for trial, and hung on the street outside, until 1866. It is now known as Central Criminal Court. “Tellson’s Bank by temple bar was an old fashioned place even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty.” (Dickens, 1859, p.46). There was actually no Tellson’s bank that time, but a Thelusson’s Bank from which Dickens got the idea of Tellson’s Bank. The Bastille is definitely true in history. This fortress had long been used as a prison and had become a hated symbol of oppression to the Parisians. The Palace of the Tuileries was the home of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. It was the object of hatred to the French revolutionaries, and was eventually burnt down during the last days of the Commune in 1871. (Perry, 1985, p. 445)

Historical People in A Tale of Two Cities “There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.” (Dickens, 1859, p.1) The only historical characters in England in A Tale of Two Cities are King George III and Charlotte Sophia – the persons to whom ‘a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face on the throne of England’ refers. George III was an honest and well-intentioned man, but his 8

limited educational power confounded his efforts to rule well. Charlotte Sophia, on the other hand, had made many important contributions to Britain during her reign though it was not well publicized. Charles Dickens’ did not, however, put much emphasis on them. ‘A king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face on the throne of France’ refer to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI had the virtues of an admirable private individual but not that of those required for a successful ruler. His vices are overeating and hunting. He was indecisive, easily influenced and lacked strength. His wife Marie, Antoinette, is remembered in history as the arrogant and apathetic monarch who said “let them eat cake” when the peasants were starving because they have no bread. Dickens’ portrayed this royal couple as someone who deserves to be drowned in the wave of the people’s rage. Although Monsieur Defarge is a fictional character, he is based on a famous personality named Lafarge who played an important role in the French Revolution. He is the head of the Jacobin society. The Jacobins were a political club organized in the Convent of Saint-Jacques, built by Jacobin or Dominican friars from which their name came. (Perry, 1985, p. 449) In A Tale of Two Cities, Defarge and his companions call themselves as Jacques. The reference of this name, I believe, is the Convent of Saint Jacques.

Historical Events in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens’ inclusion of some historical events in France makes A Tale of Two Cities truly a historical fiction. One of these events is the storming of the Bastille by the Parisians. The event had taken place on July 14, 1789. The Parisians masses outside the Bastille, with guns and gunpowder. As the guards fired into the crowd, hundreds of them were killed. The angry crowd stormed into the fortress and killed the commander and some of his men. (Perry, 1985, p. 445) This is exactly the same horrible incident that transpired in the novel. However, history does not say that it was Madame Defarge who cut of the man’s head. 9

The novel encompasses the Reign of Terror which was started by the Jacobins. A tribunal was set up to arrest, try and execute anyone judged to be an enemy of the republic. This is the same tribunal that arrested Charles Darnay and condemned him to death. Between the dark days of September 1793 and July 1794, at least 20,000 lives were taken by the Reign of Terror. Huge crowd watch these executions, shouting insults at the victim. When a famous person is to be guillotined, men and women left their jobs to be present at the spectacle. (Perry, 1985, p. 451) Since Charles Darnay is a famous person, Sydney Carton who was executed in his place was eyed by a forest of faces. It has been mentioned that there were a number or women knitting while he is being executed. ”In front of it, seated in chairs, as in a garden of public diversion, are a number of women, busily knitting.” This is also what happened during the executions of the French Revolution. Jacobin women were well known at the guillotine, they would knit while observing the executions. (Swain, 2001) Another historical event present in the novel is the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Charles Dickens made an accurate portrayal of history as Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793 while his wife was guillotined on October 16, 1793. They were beheaded eight months apart as what is stated in A Tale of Two Cities .“Now, breaking the unnatural silence the whole city, the executioner showed the people the head of the king and now, in it seemed almost in the same breath, the head of his fair wife which had had eight weary months of imprisoned widowhood and misery to turn it gray.” (Dickens, 1859, p.302)

The Novel’s Resolution The story ended with Sydney Carton dying in Charles Darnay’s place because of his love for Lucie. It was stated that those who have witnessed him die saw a prophetic look on his face, and speculate on Carton’s final thoughts. Below is one of his supposed prophetic utterances: 10

“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen in the destruction of the old, perishing by the retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” (Dickens, 1859, pp. 351-352) Charles Dickens did not include in the A Tale of Two Cities how the French Revolution ended. However, the resolution he bestowed in the novel brings a hint to the readers of what must have become of France after the Reign of Terror. The death of Sydney Carton also imbeds the Christian paradox prevalent in those times: Life is achieved trough death.

Conclusion Charles Dickens gives A Tale of Two Cities an outstanding portrayal as a historical fiction. He does this through faithful depiction of the historical setting in order to give us a clear sense of what it was like to live in that time period. He casts England and France into parallel light to show that though they have many differences, they are similar in their terror and troubles. He uses historical events during the French Revolution like the storming of Bastille, the Reign of Terror and the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as part of the story. The historical details, however, do not overshadow the story itself but are unobtrusively included in the description. Charles Dickens was able to avoid anachronisms and was able to give the readers enough details about the language, architecture and clothing at that time to suggest the flavor of 11

the period. The characters seem to be products of their own time and not modern individuals living in the past: their values, beliefs and attitudes are faithful to the historical period. Charles Dickens provided a carefully balanced view of the French Revolution, depicting all sides on the issues, and avoiding stereotypes and hasty generalizations. Dickens’ objectives in creating A Tale of Two Cities are to educate the readers about the French Revolution and to warn any society where an oppressor and oppressed exists that if they do not change their ways, a revolution like that of France might exist. Since this novel not only gives the readers aspects of setting and events accurate in history but also introduces them to humanity’s past while insisting to look at the present with an enlightened point of view, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities can therefore be regarded as a magnificent product of the marriage of history and literature.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Books: Davis, R. C., & Schleifer, R. J. (1998). Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies. Ferris: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc. Dickens, C.H. (1859) A Tale of Two Cities. London: Chapman and Hall. Frank, A. L. (1969) New Dimensions of World History. New York: American Book Company. Meyer, M. C. (1993) The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press. Perry. M. B. (1985). A History of the World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Russel, D. L. (2001). Literature for Children: A Short Introduction. Ferris: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc. 12

Internet Sources: A Tale of Two Cities (n. d.) Retrieved March 7, 2009 from http://www.sparknotes.com/ATaleofTwoCities.html A Tale of Two Cities: Notes on Issues. (n. d.) Retrieved March 5, 2009, from http://dickens.stanford.edu/archive/tale/print_issue1_gloss.html Seventeenth Century Fashion. (n. d.) Retrieved March 12, 2009 from http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/European-Culture-17thCentury/The-Seventeenth-Century.html Swain, S. A Tale of Two Cities – A Historical Fiction. (2001) Retrieved March 8, 2009, from http://www.essaydepot.com/essayme/975/index.php


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