In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens at first seems to sympathize with the plight of the peasants. How is this shown in the movie? When and why does the author’s sympathy seem to shift to the plight of the aristocrats? Give examples from the film that show this.
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The article on Media Adaptations in the eNotes Study Guide refers to two film versions of A Tale of Two Cities, one made in 1935 and the other made for television in 1991. Both follow Dickens closely in depicting the plight of the lower class sympathetically at first and then later depicting the plight of the aristocracy and those associated with the aristocracy, much of it seen through the eyes of Sydney Carton, the English alcoholic lawyer who sacrifices his life to save a French nobleman.
The plight of the poor is shown in such scenes as the one in which the starving Parisians are drinking wine that has been spilled onto the cobblestones and the one in which the nobleman's carriage runs over a little boy and kills him to the annoyance of the bewigged and perfumed passenger who is being delayed. The plight of the aristocrats and of people connected to them, such as servants, is shown in trial scenes, prison scenes, and many scenes in which terrified people are being executed by that horrible invention the guillotine. The executions are always attended by bloodthirsty and pitiless mobs of the poor who want revenge for years of suffering. There is no justice for anyone, male or female, identified as an aristocrat, and many innocent people are executed along with them.
Dickens expresses his ambivalent attitude towards the French Revolution in the magnificent opening sentences of his novel, including the following:
IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Dickens felt like many others. He found the Revolution inspiring with its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. He felt pity for the poor and sympathy for their outrage. Many Englishmen felt the same way, including the poet William Wordsworth. Many Americans also felt the same way. What happened, however, was that the Revolution turned into a frightening orgy. The Revolution evolved into the Reign of Terror. It seemed as if the bloodshed would never end, as if the lower classes would never be satisfied with revenge. Then many people like Dickens changed their minds.
The French Revolution led to the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, who conquered much of Europe and made his relatives kings and himself Emperor. One aristocracy was replacing another. A new tyranny was replacing the old tyranny. The French got rid of a king and gained an emperor. Napoleon tried to carry the spirit, or the momentum, of the Revolution into Russia and suffered a humiliating defeat which led to his eventual overthrow. At first, many foreigners admired Napoleon, and he was adored by most Frenchmen. But his insatiable ambition caused people to lose respect for him. The greedy pig who becomes the leader of the animals in George Orwell's Animal Farm is appropriately named Napoleon.
Dickens declares his mixed feelings about the French Revolution in the famous opening sentences of his novel A Tale of Two Cities. He may have expressed the general atitutde of thoughtful people in Europe and America when he wrote: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." It was inspiring and disheartening. It was full of promise and full of disappointments. The French failed to live up to the high ideals of their leaders and sent many to them guillotine.
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