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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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What is the duality between England and France in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

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In A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Dickens outlines the duality and contrasts between England and France at the time. More specifically, he outlines the duality between Paris and London. The title, in fact, hints that Dickens will present the story of two cities. He establishes the parallelism and duality between the two cities at the very beginning of the novel:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness...

If it was the best of times, how could it simultaneously be the worst of times? We know that Dickens is writing about these two cities at the time of the French Revolution. It was the best of times in London perhaps, but it was the worst of times in Paris, where chaos reigned. Dickens writes, “Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh.”

Describing the respective monarchies, Dickens sets up the two cities as near mirror images of one another:

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

Dickens also writes, “we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” If you lived in London and came from a certain economic background, you had everything before you. However, if you lived in Paris and came from that same economic background, you had nothing before you but the prospect of prison or death.

While London is contrasted with the chaos of Paris, the prisons in both cities seem equally difficult to endure. Darnay and Doctor Manette discuss the Tower (of London). Darnay was imprisoned there, he recalls “with a smile, though reddening a little angrily.” Similarly, Doctor Manette was imprisoned in the Bastille, and it drove him mad for a while.

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There seem to be dualities and similarities between England and France. Both countries have monarchs and landed aristocracy, yet a number of differences set them apart. London stands for calm and order. Even though the poor in London suffer disproportionately to the rich, there is still due process of law, and even cruel sentences are not capricious. France, by contrast, stands for chaos. The same inequality between rich and poor exists, but the French aristocracy is not restrained from doing whatever comes into their minds. When the marquis runs over and kills the peasant child, the people of the village have no recourse.

Two revolutions are mentioned in this story, and they both illustrate the difference between England and France. The American Revolution does not affect life in London. Aside from his comment that "messages...had lately come to the English Crown and people from a congress of British subjects in America which have proved...important to the human race," Dickens does not speak of the American Revolution directly again. That struggle was initially carried out after orderly petitions to the Crown by people accustomed to an orderly way of life. The French Revolution was a result of centuries of oppression. There was little planning for what would come after a successful overthrow. The revolution convulsed Paris with mob violence and gruesome public executions. It took the reign of Napoleon to finally bring a stable government to France.

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The title of the novel signals the importance of two cities—London and Paris—during the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century. London represents calm and order in contrast to the overflow of violence and mayhem in revolutionary Paris. 

The Manettes's home in London most fully represents safety and happiness. There Dickens illustrates a major theme across his writing: that good, kind people treating others well are the surest basis of a humane society.

In Paris, on the other hand, tensions have long been simmering due to wealth inequality and the brutal exploitation of the poor by the rich. Dickens does not shy away from condemning the cruelty of the wealthy aristocrats. The marquis becomes a caricature of cruelty in his determination to keep peasants down and in his indifference at running over and killing a peasant child. Additionally, Dickens deplores the mob violence and bloodshed that erupts into revolution, including the barbarity of murdering the wealthy in their beds, and the seemingly endless working of guillotine.

The novel is also a cautionary tale for the English: unless the privileged in London change their hearts and actions, there is no guarantee similar violence will not erupt there.

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The duality of Paris (the capital city of France) and London (the capital city of England), comparing and contrasting the nature of the two cities, presents a foundational theme of the novel—order versus chaos. London is portrayed as a place of safety and peace. Its society is well-ordered and purposeful, personified in the character of Jarvis Lorry, the banker. There are rules to be followed, regardless of personal choice. Although the novel is set during the American Revolution, the war does not affect the life of the average person in London. All life goes on as usual, with the surface of society seeming to be unruffled.

In Paris, chaos is erupting on all levels. The nobility is desperately sheltering itself from the troubles of the poor, while the poor are beginning to simmer, ready to boil over. There is no peace, even though the beginning of the story depicts the people as living in their misery with no outward confrontation. This is especially personified in the characters of Monsieur and Madame Defarge as they talk of the change that is sure to come when the time is right. The breaking point is finally reached and the revolution breaks out, destroying poor and rich alike. The chaos leaks into London, but only in the sense of the nobility seeking shelter and protection. Charles Darnay and the others must willingly enter the chaos of the French Revolution, breaking through the symbolic barrier of peace separating the two cities.

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