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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Does Charles Dickens sympathize with revolutionaries?

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A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was published in 1859 but set before and during the French Revolution (the events before and after 1789). Dickens's attitude toward the French revolutionaries was shaped by his own experience as the son of a man imprisoned for debt and a person who suffered poverty, abuse, and child labor himself. While his sympathies with the "deserving" poor and outrage at social injustice (and especially mistreatment of children) were expressed in A Tale of Two Cities and other novels, he was somewhat ambivalent about the French Revolution.

Dickens felt sympathy with the sufferings of the French peasants and proletariat. On the other hand, he is writing with hindsight about the horrors of the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794 and is just as sympathetic to Charles Darnay as to the sufferings of the poor. Thus, one can say that while Dickens sympathized with the sufferings of the revolutionaries, he saw that their triumph led to excesses and injustices with which he did not sympathize.

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Dickens makes it clear that, while he does sympathize with the horrible conditions of the common people and deplores the attitudes of entitlement of the nobility, he does not approve of the reactions of the revolutionaries, embodied in the characters of Monsier and Madame Defarge. The vast difference in economic stability between the classes is made clear, especially in the actions of Monseigneur de Evremont when he runs over the peasant child. Dickens sees the Monseigneur’s death as well deserved and the imprisonment of his killer Gaspard as inhuman. These individual actions are understandable. It is the overthrow of the monarchy and the whole of French society that earns his condemnation. The fear of the mob was very real in this period of history (even in America) as an uncontrollable animal. Seeing it from the distance of two generations, Dickens can look beyond the fear that the same might have happened in England. As always, his heart is with the common people and reform of society, but he does not seem to advocate a complete overthrow of the government or British monarchy.

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