Why did Charles Dickens write A Tale of Two Cities?

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In addition to the thematic reasons mentioned by other educators, Dickens also wrote A Tale of Two Cities to launch his weekly journal: All the Year Round. The novel was initially published in serial installments, which was the most common way that readers discovered long-form fiction in the nineteenth-century....

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In addition to the thematic reasons mentioned by other educators, Dickens also wrote A Tale of Two Cities to launch his weekly journal: All the Year Round. The novel was initially published in serial installments, which was the most common way that readers discovered long-form fiction in the nineteenth-century. He had recently left the Household Weekly journal that he had been publishing with for over two decades and wanted to use the journal and A Tale of Two Cities as a fresh start.

The timing of the publication for A Tale of Two Cities was also meant to distract the public from Dickens's personal life. He had recently separated from his wife Sarah for his mistress, and A Tale of Two Cities was popular enough at its release that it kept gossip from affecting his career.

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Previously, Dickens had written eloquently of the wretched condition of the poor and downtrodden in contemporary England. In writing A Tale of Two Cities, he sought to universalize the experience of those on the lowest rungs of society by expanding the setting beyond the bounds of the London he knew so well. In doing so, Dickens conveys the notion that exploitation of the poor is universal and is not just restricted to his native country.

In his detailed descriptions of the French Revolution, Dickens adds a novel twist to this theme. Here, the downtrodden poor have risen up against their aristocratic oppressors only to become subject to a tyranny far worse than they could ever have imagined. Dickens may be sympathetic to the poor, but he has no time whatsoever for sudden, radical change. In causing such widespread chaos and destruction, the rabble of the French streets are actively harming themselves and their own interests, making it impossible to achieve lasting emancipation.

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Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities as an exploration of love and sacrifice, and as a warning that the poor should not be ignored.

To understand why Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, we need to understand both his personal beliefs and the historical context.  Dickens believed that no individual or group had a right to victimize another, and that the poor are everyone’s responsibility.  At the time he wrote the story, he was concerned that the uprisings in the American colonies and France was a danger for England. 

[The] period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Book 1, Ch 1, p. 4)

Historically, England was suffering under the weight of industrialization.  The Poor Law and church charities were ineffective in keeping people fed and clothed and with a roof over their heads.  Dickens wanted to use the Russian Revolution as a cautionary tale because he saw the same conditions in England that led to revolution in France.

Dickens also wrote the book because he wanted to explore the redemptive power of love.  Dickens was definitively a romantic.  His view of love was not very pragmatic.  Sydney Carton demonstrates his love by dying so that the woman he loves can love the man she loves.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (Book 3, Chapter 15, p. 241)

Dickens appreciates Carton’s sacrifice and the purity of Lucie’s love.  The story is beautiful, but not very practical.  Love can be about sacrifice, but not the ultimate sacrifice.  Love redeems both Carton and Darnay, and Dickens desperately wanted love to be redemptive, because his personal love life was difficult.

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