The central paradox of A Tale of Two Cities is that its action involves one of the most important political events of modern European history—and perhaps of its entire history—the French Revolution, while the values of the novel are ultimately antipolitical. Politics and history, neither of which Charles Dickens renders with great faithfulness, loom as a necessity from which his characters must flee to save their souls. Throughout the novel, Dickens reminds his readers that all acts, whether magnanimous or petty, shrink to nothing when viewed in a cosmic context. Indeed, for him, the goal of politics—the finding of a just community—is an absurd one in this world. To paraphrase Sydney Carton’s famous last speech: It is a far better thing to die and join such a community in heaven—the existence of which Dickens cannot with certainty assert—than to engage with society. A Tale of Two Cities demonstrates that Dickens’s political will, wan in his previous novels, is finally exhausted.
In this regard and in one of the first substantial essays dealing with Dickens’s art and thought, published a year before A Tale of Two Cities was completed, Walter Bagehot said, Mr. Dickens has not infrequently spoken, and what is worse, he has taught a great number of parrot-like imitators to speak, in what really is, if they knew it, a tone of objection to the necessary constitution of human society.
Dickens’s strength, Bagehot agreed, appears in the quality of his moral cry, his protest against the injustices of society; yet, as he said, the novelist never indicates how these inequalities might be removed.
By the time of A Tale of Two Cities, distinguished by its outrage against the tyranny of both the governors and the governed, Dickens clearly indicates that society cannot be made to progress or even be substantially ameliorated. For him, the great grasp for freedom by the French people, for example, goes finally unsung, drowned out by the terrible cacophony of the guillotine. To Dickens’s unwillingness to accept the “necessary constitution of human society,” then, must be added his refusal to understand and accept the necessarily slow and painful processes of history.
In his early comic and satiric novels, such as Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), and Oliver Twist (1837-1839), Dickens’s simple stance of protest carried with it a zestful anger that was both invigorating and liberating; but as he grew more serious in his artistic intent, beginning with Dombey and Son, completed in 1848, and continuing through David Copperfield (1849-1850), Bleak House (1852-1853), Hard Times (1854), and Little Dorrit (1855-1857), for many readers his masterpiece, he lost his sense of the efficacy of the human will to deal with the complexities of a modern, industrial society. His gradual loss of faith was accompanied by a diminishing moral energy; his imagination seemed unable to create viable and pertinent responses to a civilization increasingly encroaching on individual freedom. Particularly in Little Dorrit, the novel published immediately before A Tale of Two Cities, readers are stunned as well as enervated by the hopelessness of the conclusion.
There is a significant scene in A Tale of Two Cities that appears at the conclusion of book 1 and is relevant to Dickens’s social despair. After Dr. Manette has been saved from the Bastille and is on the way from Paris to London, his rescuer, Mr. Jarvis Lorry, asks him, “I hope you care to be recalled to life?” Dr. Manette answers, “I can’t say.” In some ways, the question is never answered by the doctor, for at the novel’s conclusion his mind clouds permanently from the effects of his sufferings. If to be “recalled to life” means to be called back into civilization and history, then the novel implies that the doctor’s answer is “No.” The quality of life in society is actually no better, Dickens seems to claim, than perpetual imprisonment in the Bastille, and humans are caught up in an undertow of events that leaves them helpless; their imagination, intelligence, and will are useless when pitted against politics.
Indeed, the novelist goes further than this in his view of the ineptitude of human beings. If they consent to join in the machinations of society, Dickens asserts, they must inevitably expect to be corrupted. It is a tragic view, unrelieved by a belief in human dignity, or in the human ability to attain nobility through exertion of will. The readers of A Tale of Two Cities, left with Dickens’s vision of unmitigated tragedy, remain unconsoled in their own existence, which is inextricably bound up with the demands of history and politics.
The consolation that Dickens does offer takes the form of a vague promise of supernatural communion and a picture of human fellowship and love. The fellowship, composed of Dr. and Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, and the minor characters of Mr. Lorry, Miss Pross, and Jerry Cruncher, provides a sanctuary within the confines of history. There affection, trust, and sacrifice stand opposed to the hate, treachery, and tyranny of the world.