How is Charles Dickens critical of his characters and society in A Tale of Two Cities?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator
  • Viewing society as a prison itself, Dickens criticizes it in the opening chapter of his novel and later in the metaphor of Tellson's Bank:

Having read Thomas Carlysle's: The French Revolution:  A History, Charles Dickens was concerned that oppressive working conditions in England were possibly coming to a similar outcome. He did not advocate revolution; on the contrary, he strove to illustrate the disastrous results of death and destruction that result from a working class revolt. In his first chapter, a masterful literary exercise, Dickens draws parallels between the civil upheaval in France and England as describes the prevalence of robberies and attacks by highwaymen. Also, Dickens satirizes the justice system of England as not unlike the revolutionaries of France in their solution to almost any crime as the sentence of death:

...the hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition; now, stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now, hanging a housebreaker on Saturday who had been taken on Tuesday; now, burning people in the hand at Newgate by the dozen, and now burning pamphlets at the door of Westminster Hall; to-day, taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer’s boy of sixpence.

Further, the motif of society as a prison is depicted in the satirical depiction of Tellson's Bank in which the young man enters and remains in the subterranean regions until he emerges as an old man:

Cramped in all kinds of dim cupboards and hutches at Tellson’s, the oldest of men carried on the business gravely. When they took a young man into Tellson’s London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old. They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue mould upon him. (II,1)

  • Dickens satirizes religious fanaticism and hypocrisy with characterization:

In his characterization of Jerry Cruncher's wife,who Jerry calls Aggerwater, the author ridicules the religious fanatic as the woman "flops" onto the floor, praying for the soul of her husband, who during the night robs graves for medical studies.

With Jerry Cruncher, Dickens creates a character of comic relief for his theme of Resurrection. His values are skewered as he considers himself an "honest-tradesman," but his wife's prayer as weakness. 

In his depiction of C. J. Stryver, Dickens satirizes the social climber who, lacking the attributes he needs, exploits others in order to promote himself; nevertheless, he believes that because of his achievements he is superior. Characterized as the "Jackal," Stryver employs the dissolute Sydney Carton as the strategist of his legal cases and then takes the credit for the success. As he "shoulders his way" through life, Stryver believes himself worthy of Lucie Manette and decides that she can do no better than to marry him. When Mr. Lorry suggests to him that his marriage proposal will be refused by Miss Manette, Styver is angered and bursts out of the Bank. However, when he returns from Soho, Stryver turns the rejection around as having been Miss Manette's folly and perplexes Mr. Lorry,

"Mr. Lorry, you cannot control the mincing vanities and giddinesses of empty-headed girls; you must not do it, or you will always be disappointed."

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A Tale of Two Cities

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