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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens
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What is Dickens suggesting with the following description? "In this respect the House was much on a par with the Country; which did very often disinherit its sons for suggesting improvements in laws and customs that had long been highly objectionable, but were only the more respectable."

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This passage from Book the Second, Chapter 1, entitled "Five Years Later," is part of a description of Tellson's Bank.  In the first paragraph, Dickens likens Tellson's to a prison:  "It is very small, very dark, very incommodious."  A very old-fashioned place, but the partners in the House are proud of its smallness and antiquity.  Comparing the bank to the country, Dickens draws a familiar parallel for him:  Society is also like a prison.  Despite laws being objectionable, there are no improvements made by the "old guard" who wishes to maintain traditional methods of punishment.  For instance, the death penalty is dealt to those convicted of such minor crimes as forgery and petty thief:  "Death was very much in vogue."

With wry humor, Dickens writes that Tellson's has become the triumphant perfection of inconvenience (like the country).  And, continuing the metaphor of the "old guard" for the partners of the bank and the interior as a prison for this bank, he writes that customers must burst through a door of "idiotic obstinancy" and fall into Tellson's and come to one's senses before the "oldest of men" who make the currency "shake as if the wind rustled it."  Like a prisoner, the customer is conducted to a

species of Condemned Hold at the back where you meditated on a misspent life, until the House came with its hands in its pockets, and you could hardly blink at it in the dismal twilight. 

 Your money came out of, or went into, wormy old wooden drawers, particles of which flew up your nose and down your throat when they were opened and shut. Your bank notes had a musty odour, as if they were fast decomposing into rags again. Your plate was stowed away among the neighbouring cesspools, and evil communications corrupted its good polish in a day or two....Your lighter boxes of family papers went up-stairs into a Barmecide room, that always had a great dining-table in it‚ and never had a dinner, and where, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty, the first letters written to you by your old love, or by your little children, were but newly released from the horror of being ogled‚ through the windows, by the heads exposed on Temple Bar with an insensate brutality and ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantee.

Clearly, Tellson's Bank has control over its customers.  Dickens, who had read Thomas Carlysle's history of the French Revolution, was concerned at the many restrictions placed upon the English during the Victorian period.  He felt that people were so restricted that society has become as he describes Tellson's Bank.  With such controls, Dickens worried that rebellion might occur in England, as well.


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