Having read Thomas Carlysle's The French Revolution: A History, Charles Dickens was moved to a certain sympathy for the peasants of France, who, along with the disenfranchised merchants and lawyers of the Third Estate, revolted against the tyranny of the aristocracy.
- This sympathy is evinced in the rhetorical Chapter V of Book the First in which the wine casket is spilled and the starving people of St. Antoine come out to drink the spilled wine, desperately soaking the last drops in their handkerchiefs. This is a pivotal chapter as it foreshadows the Revolution when one man writes "BLOOD" on a wall with his red-stained fingers. Dickens writes,
For, the time was to come, when the gaunt scarecrows of that region should have watched the lamplighter...But, the time was not come yet; and every wind that blew over France shook the rags of the scarecrows [peasants] in vain, for the birds [aristocrats], fine of song and feather, took no warning.
- In this same chapter, the reader is introduced to the men who call themselves "Jacques"; a name taken by those who would later be called the bonnets rouges because they wore revolutionary blood red caps. These men maintain anonymity through the use of the same forename and through the wearing of the red caps and their culottes, they are easily identified by those in the know.
- In the wineshop, the sinister Madame Lefarge quietly knits, thus disguising her roll of aristocrats who will suffer beheading by the guillotine. Into this knitting, she places the name Evremonde, the family name of Charles Darnay along with Lucie Manette daughter of Dr. Manette who attended her sister years ago.
- Later, there is the discovery of the recorded tale by "the Bastille Captive," Dr. Manette, who has been called upon to attend a dying young man and woman whose entire family has been oppressed while the young woman has been sexually exploited by twin aristocrats of the family Evremonde.
- A repulsion of the aristocracy is demonstrated by Dickens in Chapters VII and VIII of Book the Second. In VII, "Monseigneur in Town," the aristocracy has become so removed from real life that they are incapable now of performing simple tasks. In a satiric piece, Dickens describes the morning routine of Monseigneur:
Monseigneur was in his inner room,...about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things..but, his morning's chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the Cook. Yes. It took four men, all four a-blaze with gorgeous decoration, and....it was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate.
Here, the aristocrat has become so decadent that he must have aides lift his cup and drink.
- Later in this same chapter, the Marquis orders his driver to race the horses pulling his carriage; then, when the carriage runs over a child, the Marquis does not bother to order the driver to stop, but one of the peasants catches up to the carriage. The Marquis throws a coin, but the coin is hurled back at his carriage:
"You dogs!" said the Marquis, but smoothly, and with an unchanged front..."I would ride over any of you very willingly, and exterminate you from the earth. If I knew which rascal threw at the carriage, and if that brigand were sufficiently near it, he should be crushed under the wheels."
His loathing for the peasants certainly fuels their resentment and hatred. Of course, when the father of the dead child exacts his revenge upon the Marquis, killing him in his chamber, tensions begin to increase and Madame Lefarge adds to the list of aristocrats which she knits.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is set primarily in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. This was a time of turmoil, discontent, and chaos, and many of the prominent figures and items of this revolution are familiar and even iconic, vividly representing this particular time and place. It would be impossible for me to give you very much information on any of them in the space I am given here; however, I can give you some clear direction about some of those elements.
One of the most significant places in the French Revolution is the place where it began: the Bastille. The Bastille was a massive fortress which became the symbol of oppression of the commoners by the aristocracy, though in fact many types of people were imprisoned there. What made the Bastille such a symbol of oppression was that people were routinely imprisoned there without a trial or any other opportunity to defend themselves. The great irony of the Bastille is that when the bloodthirsty Parisians stormed it, they only found seven prisoners, making the gesture more symbolic than anything. The Bastille was demolished soon after, but Parisians still celebrate Bastille Day. [link below]
Another dramatic symbol of this revolution was the guillotine, and again there is great irony associated with this device. The man who invented it, Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin, was against the death penalty and invented this machine to at least give those who were sentenced to death as quick and painless a death as possible. He was also satisfied that his guillotine would provide the same death for any class of people, which only seemed fair to him. Ironically, this is exactly what happened during the French Revolution, but it was not a good or a fair thing. The inventors link below provides some interesting information on some of the scientific experiments conducted by Guillotin and others as well as some interesting facts about the contraptions.
Many of the most significant people of the revolution led fascinating lives as well as intriguing and sometimes gruesome deaths. I do not have space here to talk about them all, but here are some names for you to consider: Marie Antoinette, Maximillien Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Louis XVI. Each of them plays a significant role in the French Revolution, and you will have no trouble finding information them.
A few other interesting components of this revolution include the following:
- The Reign of Terror: ten months of bloody executions and oppression led by Robespierre.
- The Tennis Court Oath, signed in 1789 on a tennis court, of course. It is a significant document signed by what is called the Third Estate, commoners who were both rich and poor but were not aristocrats.
- Versailles is the sumptuous palace of Louis XIV, and of course it is also symbolic of all the excesses of the aristocracy.
One of the greatest unifying symbols of the French Revolution was the cockade, a red, white and blue round ribbon which was generally pinned to a hat or lapel.
One last interesting and significant element unique to the French Revolution was the slogan: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” [link below] It was the rallying cry for the rebels as they called for "Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood." Of course we know that the revolution ends up differently than the commoners intended, as they began to turn on each other once they ran out of true aristocrats to fight against and kill.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.