illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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In A Tale of Two Cities, what does "the mill" symbolize?

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The mill grinds, both literally and metaphorically. In metaphorical terms, it grinds down the French peasant workforce, stripping them of their humanity with hours of back-breaking, soul-destroying toil. The mill perfectly symbolizes the treatment of the poor in pre-Revolutionary France. The poor, especially the rural poor who form the bulk of the population, have no hope, no realistic means of improving their miserable lives.

Dickens may not present the French Revolution in a particularly flattering light, especially in relation to the wave of bloody violence it unleashed, but he certainly sympathizes with the plight of those who threw in their lot with the Revolution in hope of a better life. By the same token, Dickens, in his heart-rending description of rural poverty, is condemning the indifference of the French aristocracy to the immense suffering that they have inflicted on the peasantry.

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"The mill" is first mentioned in Book the First, Chapter Five, which gives us our first introduction to the poverty of French society and how life there for peasants was so terrible at this time. Note how the mill is described and presented to us:

Samples of a people that had undergone a terrible grinding and re-grinding in the mill, and certainly not in the fabulous mill which ground old people young, shivered at every corner, passed in and out at every doorway, looked from every window, fluttered in every vestige of a garment that the wind shook. The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sign, Hunger.

Notice the dictino of this passage, and the way that the grinding process of the mill is described as "terrible" and it "grinds young people old." The description of children with "ancient faces and grave voices" reveal the way that "Hunger" is such an evident result of the poverty, which is of course what the mill symbolises. We can therefore see from this description that the mill and its function symbolises the way in which lives are destroyed and slowly eaten away by poverty, which of course gives us a valuable insight into the background of the French Revolution and the very real inequality that existed in France at that time.

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