A Tale of Two cities – As Historical and Tragical Novel

Limited view of the French Revolution: A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a historical novel pertaining to the period before and during the French Revolution. CHARLES DICKENS had always written one historical novel, Barnaby Rudge which dealt with the period of English History. By the time, he wrote A TALE OF TWO CITIES he was vitally interested in history. In FR, he found a subject worthy of his broad conceptions a great nation ripening its own destruction – literally France of course, but by implication England, too. However, it must be kept that CHARLES DICKENS’s novel doesn’t by any means depict the enormous sweep and drama of the French Revolution in all its complexity.

CHARLES DICKENS has condensed the basic threat of the Revolution and the basic lesson that can be drawn from it by depicting the effects of the Terror, or the revengeful side of the revolution, on small group of people who get involved in these public events against their will.  A number of sources supplied to Dickens the inspiration of his story of the FR. The main source was Carlyle’s French Revolution which Dickens had studied many times. In this book, he found a perfect source for the principal historical scenes and events that he needed for his purpose. The basic idea for the plot was derived by Dickens from a play called the Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins. A novel called Zanoni written by Lytton in a similar context also supplied help to CHARLES DICKENS. The core of the story of the play is the sacrifice which a character called Wardour makes in order to save the life of Aldersley. When this play was staged the role of the self-sacrificing lover was played by Dickens himself with great zest and passion.  Dickens transferred the involvement which he had experienced in the acting of The Frozen Deep to the writing of A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Dickens has identified himself completely with the part played by Sydney Carton in the story. This is one aspect of the link between the novel and the personal feelings of the author.

Crisis and Revolution in his personal life: While A TALE OF TWO CITIES was maturing in his mind, Dickens was passing through a series of dramatic personal events. His married life with Catherine had never been happy since the marriage took place. There were two reasons for this unhappiness. One was incompatibility with his temperament. Second was that Dickens was deeply interested in a girl before and during the marriage.  In his early youth, he had successfully courted a young girl named Maria Beadnell, but she died causing a great shock and grief to Dickens. Later his feelings were taken up by an actress named Ellen Ternan who played the role of Clara in the Frozen Deep with Dickens. Catherine could no longer bear this relationship and got separated. Such was the personal crisis in his life which were externalized into A TALE OF TWO CITIES. The French Revolution which deeply affected the destiny of the characters in A TALE OF TWO CITIES overtook Dickens as a man, as a husband and as a lover. A TALE OF TWO CITIES enabled Dickens to combine his bent toward social criticism and warning with the technique and point of view of the historical novel, and it also enabled him to find an escape from the torments of his personal struggles and at the same time expose those pains in a symbolic form.
Elements of a tragedy: It is not a full historical or personal novel. It is basically a tragedy written in the background of French Revolution. It depicts the fortunes and misfortune of some individuals who are drawn into the public events. It is impossible to take the French Revolution as the theme of the novel. Despite all its melodramatic, injustice, barbaric and historical scenes of the Revolution, we can, unhesitatingly, state that A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a genuine and realistic tragedy. A true tragedy in literature depicts suffering and misfortune and shows human beings struggling against the whirlpools of life. Pathos is the chief emotional effect of a tragedy, but not pathos alone because pathos alone means sentimentality. In a tragedy, the feeling of pathos is essentially noble and capable of rising to great heights. A true tragedy produces an exhilarating effect upon the reader by showing the lofty and heroic side of human nature while also taking cognizance of the mean, evil and wicked manifestations of human nature. Pity and Fear are the two dominant emotions aroused by a tragedy, but a true tragedy must effect a catharsis of these and kindred emotions. Though a novel written with a great deal of objectivity and detachment is yet one having a great personal and autobiographical significance. It was written at the time when Dickens was passing through a great crisis and a mental struggle in his life. The crisis and the mental struggle are reflected in the troubled lives of the characters. The revolution in Dickens’ own mind shows him struggling with himself not only as a man but also as an artist in order to evolve a new method and technique of expression. So far his life as a man is concerned, three of the main characters, namely Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton and Lucie Manette become projections of Dickens himself. At the time this novel was written, Dickens wanted an escape from the torments of his personal struggle and this novel helped him.  
Limitations of A TALE OF TWO CITIES as a historical novel: A TALE OF TWO CITIES does have obvious limitations as a historical novel. It attempts no really panoramic view of either the English or The French political world of those critical years (1775-1793). Barnaby Rudge was even more comprehensive in nature as a historical novel. In A TALE OF TWO CITIES, CHARLES DICKENS depicts the beginnings of popular discontent in France; the rising dissatisfaction of the people, the turmoil caused by public fury, and the excesses and barbarities committed by the revolutionaries during the years of the FR. CHARLES DICKENS gives us no connected account of the FR, its progress, and its culmination. He gives us brief and shattered accounts of some of the principal episodes. He doesn’t give us systematic analysis of the causes of the FR, but he manages to convey to us all the horrors of the FR. Similarly, he takes no notice of the historical personalities and their contribution such as Mirabeau and Napoleon. Nor did he attempt to do what Tolstoy might have attempted. Dickens’s main concern so far as FR is concerned, was to show that extreme injustice leas to violence and violence then leads to in human cruelty as shown by the Reign of Terror in France. In the first part, Dickens’s sympathizes with the poor and downtrodden, but at the end these people become the villains who therefore repel him.
Historical scenes in A TALE OF TWO CITIES:  Dickens’s first reference to the outward causes of the FR comes in the chapter, “The Wine-Shop” in which he uses the symbol of the mill to convey the grinding poverty though which the people of Saint Antoine are passing. Other chapters such as, “Monseigneur in town”, “Monseigneur in the country” and “The Gordon’s Head” Monseigneur, Marquis Evremonde symbolizes the entire privileged class and his assassination by Gaspard, Gaspard’s hanging and the registration of the Evremonde family and of the spy, John Barsad are the pointers in the same direction. One of the best-known episodes of the French Revolution is then briefly described by Dickens in the Chapter; “Echoing Footsteps” That episode is the storming of the Bastille Madame Defarge’s cutting off the head of the governor with her own hands prepares us for the excess which will be committed by the revolutionaries. But the real brutalities and excesses are described at the end when the prisoners in La Force are waiting to be cut off, a frightening description of the weapons by the revolutionaries on the grindstone and the awful working of the La Guillotine (The National Razor which shaved close). None of the great historical leaders are mentioned, only the executioner Samson is mentioned. In the final part of the novel, Dickens has followed Carlyle very closely.  However, Dickens’s debt to Carlyle is much greater than has been indicated above. Dickens’s accounts of trials, prison procedures, the tumbrels and the guillotine have all come from Carlyle.
The interweaving of personal life with the FR: A TALE OF TWO CITIES essentially the story of a group of private individuals, but this story has been told against the background of the French Revolution which shook France in the years 1789-93. Dickens’s main achievement lies not only in giving us graphic and stirring accounts in the manner of Carlyle, but also in interweaving the personal lives of a group of private characters with the events of the FR. (a brief summary that how the characters are slowly drawn into the FR. The real identity of Charles Darnay, wrongs done to Dr. Manette by Evremonde family. Their sexual harassment of a girl and Dr. Manette’s evidence so that he had to stay under prison. Why Madame Defarge is revengeful because she is the sister of the girl raped by the Evremonde family. Etc. describe Darnay’s visit to France, the arrest and acquittal of Darnay linked with the revolution, the death sentence against Darnay, the substitution of Sydney Carton and conclusion of the whole incident.).
The Tragedy of Dr. Manette: This man was a promising young physician, leading a quiet and peaceful life with his wife in the city of Paris. His life was blighted by the cruelty of the two Evremonde brothers who took him to attend upon a young girl and her dying young brother. Give his story of suffering…to the end…
Sufferings of Lucie and Darnay: Life is not very kind to Lucie and her husband either. Lucie lost her mother when he was still a child. She had never seen her father who lay in the Bastille. She falls in love with Darnay and marries him though she doesn’t leave her father. Describe their sufferings. Lucie’s sufferings as a wife and daughter. Darnay’s trial at the Bailey and later imprisonment at the Bastille and his rescue etc.
The Tragedy of Sydney Carton: Describe his profligate and depressed life. He himself says to Lucie, “I am like one who died young.” He is a frustrated individual who sinks lower and lower in life and who is without any hope of improvement. Describe his resurrection and sacrifice for Darnay.
The Tragedy of People in General: The grim instance of Marquis’ running over a child, the drinking of spilled wine. The storming of the Bastille, Defarge’s cutting the governor’s head, the sharpening of the weapons, the carmagnole and the National Razor and all tragic incidences. (Describe them in detail from the precious answers.)
Dickens’ own Tragedy: Finally, this novel also conveys indirectly and in a veiled manner the tragic conflict that had been going on in Dickens’ own mind just before he wrote this novel. In 1855 he separated from his wife because of his love for Ellen Ternan, an actress.
The Moral and the theory of revolution: Although Dickens doesn’t present any systematic theory of revolution, he certainly reveals a well-defined attitude towards the revolution and seems to have formed certain definite views about it. In writing this novel, he was he was very particular about integrating the personal lives of his characters with wider pattern of history. It is the principal scheme of the novel to show the individual fate mirroring the social order. The lives of both Dr. Manette and Sydney Carton are parables of the revolution, of social regeneration though suffering and sacrifice. (Describe suffering of Manette and sacrifice of Carton and theme). According to one critic, there is no other piece of fiction in which the domestic life o a few simple private people is in such a manner integrated and knitted with the outbreak of a terrible public event, so that one seems to be a part of it. Although Dickens was obsessed with the revolution and its massacre, but he was no revolutionist. It is true that certain Marxist critics have treated A TALE OF TWO CITIES as the text of revolutionary intentions. A revolution, according to Dickens, fills prisons, just as the just social order fills them. Madam Defarge is the ultimate personification of the FR in A TALE OF TWO CITIES; and she is a person whose uncontrolled desire for revenge has changed her into a monster or pure evil. The final struggle between her and Miss. Pross is a contest between the forces of hatred and of love. It is love that wins when Madam Defarge is self-destroyed thought the accidental shooting off her own pistol. This incident shows that Dickens feels no sympathy for the revolutionaries of Madame Defarge type. The actual fact is that Dickens regarded the revolution as a monster. The scenes painted in A TALE OF TWO CITIES are a nightmare it is Dickens’s own nightmare. He teaches us that violence leads to violence, that prison is the consequence of prison and that hatred is the reward of hatred. If all French noble men had been as willing to give up their class privileges as Darnay and if all French intellectuals had been so as keen to expose social abuses as Dr. Manette, there might have been no revolution or at least no revolution of this intensity. His conclusion about the French Revolution in the final chapter is as follows:   
Crush humanity out of shape and once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist        itself    into the same tortured forms. Sow the sameseed of rapacious license and             oppression over again and it will surely   yield the same fruit according to its kind.

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