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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Historical Context

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Although A Tale of Two Cities takes place in a time some seventy years before Dickens was writing the novel, it does indirectly address contemporary issues with which the author was concerned. During the 1780s—the period in which the novel was set—England was a relatively peaceful and prosperous nation. Its national identity was caught up in a long war with France which the French Revolution first interrupted, then continued. The ideals of the French Revolution were imported to England by political and literary radicals such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Many people, especially the English aristocracy and middle classes, feared these revolutionary values, seeing in them a threat to their prosperous and stable way of life. However, although there were social inequities in England as well as in France, England also had a long tradition of peaceful social change. In addition, the country's political leaders were ven successful at uniting all classes of society in the struggle against Revolutionary France and its successor, the Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Despite these successes, fears of revolutionary rhetoric and struggle persisted in England down to Dickens's own day. Other changes also embraced the country: the Industrial Revolution created a new wealthy class and brought a previously unknown prosperity to England. That same industrialization, however, also created an underclass of laborers who relied on regular wages to survive. "Overcrowding, disease, hunger, long hours of work, and mindless, repetitive labor," explains Ruth Glancy in A Tale of Two Cities: Dickens's Revolutionary Novel, "characterized the new life for this new class of urban poor." This underclass was largely scorned or ignored by society. It had no rights, it could not vote in elections, and it could not legally form unions for its own protection. In addition, Glancy states, "many members of the upper classes feared even educating the poor, in case they would then become politically aware and eager to better themselves when it suited many people to have them as cheap labor." The English tradition of peaceful protest, expressed by public marches and meetings, continued throughout the early nineteenth century, but it was interrupted as the century progressed by riots and the destruction of property. "People feared that a revolution as horrifying as the French one could after all happen in England," Glancy declares. "A few political thinkers believed that such a revolution was actually the answer to Britain's problems, but most people, like Dickens, feared the actions of the mob, having seen the bloody outcome of the 1789 revolution."

The revolution that Dickens and many others feared in 1850s England did not arrive, in part because of the efforts of various reform parties. Although groups such as the Chartist movement had struggled for better conditions for English workers as early as the 1830s, by the 1850s many of the reforms they had sought were still not in place. The 1832 Reform Bill, introduced by Lord John Russell, had smoothed out some of the inequities in the parliamentary system, but it still left thousands of working poor disenfranchised and discontented. It was not until 1867 that Benjamin Disraeli introduced a Reform Bill that nearly doubled the number of voters throughout England, Wales, and Scotland. This reform, passed late in Dickens's life, helped smother the fears of bloody revolution that dogged the English upper and middle classes. "There was no bloody revolution," explains Glancy, "but Dickens and others deplored the snail's pace that the government took to achieve peaceful reform through the parliamentary process. If the time of the Revolution in France was 'the epoch of belief … the epoch of incredulity,'" she concludes, "so too were the 1850s in Britain."

Social Sensitivity

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It is difficult to imagine anyone objecting to A Tale of Two Cities. The novel does contain explicit scriptural references, especially near the conclusion. But these can easily be viewed as a means of making historically relevant comparisons.

Some have criticized Dickens's works for emphasizing grave social injustices but not offering any solutions. But such criticism misses Dickens's point: believing history has proved economic systems to be incapable of relieving poverty, Dickens stresses the importance of individual responsibility and compassion for the plight of the poor and disfranchised. Indeed, A Tale of Two Cities teaches the important lesson that individual efforts are worthwhile, even if they make but a small difference in an often violent and unjust world.

Although Dickens does not hesitate to portray the violence inherent in his subject matter, he in no way glorifies it. He depicts the mistreatment of the lower classes that spurred the French Revolution, but he clearly condemns atrocities committed in the name of revolution. For Dickens, no cause is great enough to justify abandoning all vestiges of sympathy for one's fellow human beings.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1780s: At the end of the period known as the Enlightenment, most educated people believed that the universe was essentially knowable and operated by fixed laws capable of being understood by human beings.

    1850s: With the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859), conservative Victorians launched a backlash of religious fervor that spoke against scientific progress.

    Today: With technological advances such as space travel and cloning, modern science appears to be able to correct almost any problem. As specialization within science increases, however, few people can know very much about a variety of sciences.

  • 1780s: French thinkers and philosophes such as the Marquis de Montesquieu recommended an enlightened system of government with powers balanced and divided among different bodies.

    1850s: After decades of political stagnation, England began to liberalize its franchise by extending the right to vote to all male citizens regardless of how little property they might own.

    Today: With the collapse of Communist governments worldwide, the democratic model established by the United States—on which the French Revolution was based—has become the model for most national governments.

  • 1780s: The science of anatomy was in such a primitive state that new bones were still being discovered in the human body. The German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe discovered one, later known as the intermaxillary bone, in 1784.

    1850s: By this time in England, Jerry Cruncher's trade of body-snatching had been extinct for over twenty years, thanks to Parliament's Anatomy Act (1832).

    Today: Modern medical science can replace portions of human anatomy with artificially-made bones, or through transplant surgery substitute animal organs for human ones that fail. Because of the success of transplants, a need for human organs has resurrected the trade of body-snatcher.

  • 1780s: English sailors on board H.M.S. Bounty mutinied in the South Pacific when their captain Bligh cut their water ration in order to water his cargo of breadfruit trees. The sailors concealed themselves on Pitcairn Island and remained undiscovered for years.

    1850s: Seafaring European explorers had identified most land masses and other Europeans were beginning to press into the continental interiors of Australia, North America, and Africa.

    Today: Modern satellite technology can map the entire world within the space of a few days. Very few corners of the earth are still unknown to Europeans or their cultural descendants, the North Americans.

  • 1780s: During the French Revolution, drinking was commonplace among all classes of society.

    1850s: A "temperance movement" centered in Protestant countries (mostly English commonwealth and the United States) vilified alcohol consumption and tried to eliminate drinking on moral grounds.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading