illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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

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Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities as a sort of warning to Victorian England. After studying the French Revolution himself, Dickens saw much of the same rising contempt for the aristocracy in his own country. At the time the novel was written, England was experiencing a widening of its own social classes. By using the pronoun "we" in the opening paragraphs, Dickens was warning his own country not to push human hearts beyond their limits. His famous novel begins with a series of paradoxical terms—belief and incredulity, light and darkness, spring and winter, hope and despair—showing the contrast between the experiences of the nobility and the common people in revolutionary France. His portrayal of the French aristocracy is full of contempt, and he strongly ridicules the terrible conditions that the peasants endured during the time prior to the revolution. However, he is also condemning of the revolutionaries for reacting to their injustices by perpetrating a series of bloody injustices of their own. The paradoxes show that Dickens was doubtful about instigating a revolution whose triumphs, while offering hope to the working poor, are achieved by brutal means. His novel attempts to portray, through a fictionalized and perhaps exaggerated account, what the life of revolutionaries in France was like. The novel ends with another clue to Dickens's own feeling regarding the revolution when Carton envisions the "new oppressors" also dying via the guillotine and "the evil of this time and of the previous time . . . gradually making expiation for itself." This indicates that Dickens sees both the brutal violence of the revolution and the social injustices that led to the revolution as evil.

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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.

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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. 

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