How is collective guilt represented in A Tale of Two Cities?

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The theme of collective guilt is certainly present in A Tale of Two Cities . It is this concept that fuels the terror that Paris descends into during the French Revolution. We see it wielded as a blunt instrument by the likes of Madame Defarge as she seeks revenge on...

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The theme of collective guilt is certainly present in A Tale of Two Cities. It is this concept that fuels the terror that Paris descends into during the French Revolution. We see it wielded as a blunt instrument by the likes of Madame Defarge as she seeks revenge on all members of the French aristocracy no matter how insignificant their own offenses may have been.

Indeed, Charles Darnay is caught up in this. Throughout the novel, we see him as an overall good and innocent man. However, this matters not to the leaders of the Revolution. As far as they are concerned, men and women like Darnay are just as guilty and deserving of punishment as the cruel aristocrats who would callously run down peasant children in the streets. It is simply because of his bloodline that Darnay is sentenced to death. Because the very system of class stratification is guilty of permitting and promoting cruelty, all those who have ever benefitted from it are guilty as well.

Conversely, since all aristocrats are deemed to be just as guilty as their worst examples, and revolutionaries are considered to be innocent no matter what they may do. Dickens strikes an interesting juxtaposition in which collective guilt for the upper classes stands side by side with collective innocence for the peasantry. Private and individual actions are irrelevant in this arrangement, and people are only judged by the part of society in which they are from.

By showing the cruel and even asinine nature of collective guilt as practiced during the Paris Terror, Dickens is issuing a warning. He seems to be telling his readers that collective punishment is just as tyrannical, cruel, and unfair as the systems which revolutions often seek to topple.

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