What was Charles Dickens attitude toward the French Revolution? Does he sympathize with the revolutionaries?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You have asked an excellent question. To answer it, how do you feel Dickens presents the situation in France under the French aristocracy? And then how do you think he presents the revolutionaries once the revolution is underway?

Answering these questions, for me, it is clear that Dickens regards the French Revolution with some ambivalence. He seems to support the revolutionary cause but also to condemn the way the Revolution was conducted, often criticising the evil of the revolutionaries themselves. 

It does appear clear however that Dickens shows great empathy for the situation of the French working class and highlights the necessity of a social change. We can see this through the heartless attitude of the Marquis Evremonde to the child his carriage has killed. The Marquis seems to be a symbol of the aristocracy that is used to shamelessly exploiting the nation's poor for its own ends. So whilst this is condemned, Dickens also equally frowns on the method of revolution employed by the peasants. The message seems to be that in fighting oppression with oppression, and acts of barbarism with acts of barbarism, there is no true revolution; rather they are only serving to continue the cycle of violence which they themselves were victims of. This fine line between oppressed and oppressor is perhaps best summed up in the following quote:

Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

So although Dickens viewed the Revolution as a symbol of resurrection and renewal (key themes within the novel), this focus is undercut through the constant emphasis on the violence that was associated with the Revolution, and ultimately did not contribute towards a favourable outcome. 

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dickens's attitude towards the French Revolution is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, his portrayal of the French aristocracy is far from flattering. He laments the great poverty, injustice, and exploitation that existed in France during the ancien régime. He understands why it was that so many people wanted to get rid of the old system. Despite this, Dickens was profoundly hostile to the violence and social upheaval caused by the French Revolution. This is explicitly shown throughout A Tale of Two Cities.

Nonetheless, Dickens still has enormous sympathy with the condition of those who felt they had nothing to lose and proceeded to turn the country upside-down. But what he won't tolerate is one form of violent repression being replaced by another. And he's incredibly anxious to avoid the same thing happening in England. Indeed, one of the running themes of A Tale of Two Cities is the enormous contrast between the relative peace and stability of England and the bloody chaos of Revolutionary France.

rer23 | Student

Charles Dickens' attitude to the French Revolution as portrayed in A Tale of Two Cities is a complex one. The early scene of a child being run down by a carriage establishes that the French aristocracy is heartless and overbearing. Some kind of change is long overdue. However the subsequent action of the novel shows that the Revolution becomes as cruel as the Old Regime and as as little able to render justice. The tribunal condemns Charles Darney for the crimes of his family, a family that he has rejected. Although some Englishmen of the generation before Dickens had great hopes for the revolution in France, those hopes were dashed when the Revolution turned to the Terror and was eventually superseded by the one man rule of Napoleon, who tried to bring all of Europe under his ruler-ship. The French and English nations are, in a way, represented by the contrasting characters of the English housekeeper, Miss Pross and the revolutionary leader, Madame Defarge. Miss Pross can be seen as a representative of English personal courage and loyalty, vs. the unhinged hatred of the mob as led by Defarge.

jmafleming | Student

Like the educators stated above, Dickens' attitude towards the French Revolution is fraught with personal tensions. While Dickens certainly does not condone the atrocities and abuse committed by the French aristocracy, he does not believe in the violence and chaos that resulted from the working class rising up (think of the way in which the narrator turns us to the Woodmen cutting the wood that would later be used as guillotines in the beginning of the novel). This puts Dickens in a bit of a bind as he works to display the abuse of the working class while discouraging the people from engaging in violent revolution.

Think, for example, about Dr. Manette as a character of great sympathy in A Tale of Two Cities. Dr. Manette is abused and held in prison for 18 years without recourse before being released. Although Dr. Manette has experienced inconceivable abuses at the hands of the French aristocracy, we do not see him turn to violence. Instead, he turns to the monotonous and consistent labor of making shoes. For Dickens, this was the solution. Rather than violently rising up, he is suggesting alternative coping mechanisms such as enveloping oneself in their craft.

For a second example, we can turn towards one of the opening scenes of the novel in which we see a casket of wine broken in the streets. The narrator describes the scene as chaotic but jubilant as the starved peasantry race to get a taste of the wine. However, Dickens curbs this joy by equating the wine with blood and using it as a moment of foreshadowing for the bloodthirsty scenes of the Reign of Terror to come.

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A Tale of Two Cities

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