illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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In A Tale of Two Cities, chapters 14-24, how does Dickens describe the French mob?

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The French mob, although frightening and dangerous, is shown as a loud, volatile, and easily roused group of people. Dickens describes the crowd as loud, aggressive, and vulgar . He often uses words like "groaning," "hissing," or "deriding" to describe their noise. The mob has a demonic quality in which they cheerfully suggest things like dragging the corpse off the hearse to show their disdain for traitors. They are also easily susceptible to suggestion when one member suggests that they pull the corpse from the hearse. Later in this chapter Dickens describes them as being chaotic and grotesque , which does little to dissuade other characters from joining them in their fear of them.

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The mob is often presented as a hyper-violent hive mind where humans devolve to the point of sheer animalism.

In Chapter 14, Jerry Cruncher and his son watch a funeral procession go by. Much of the procession is actually a mob booing the corpse being conveyed to its grave (the dead man was a spy) and they teem with prospective violence. Dickens uses verbs like "groaning," "hissing," and "deriding" to describe the noise of the crowd, which, combined with the description of their "grimacing" faces, makes the mob seem near-demonic, even if they have not hurt anyone yet.

The crowd is also easily susceptible to suggestion. When one member suggests loudly that they pull the corpse from the hearse, much of the crowd starts cheering and attacks the vehicles. When the sole mourner manages to escape and some of his clothes are torn off, the crowd takes to "[tearing them] to pieces" and then scattering them to the winds.

Dickens' best description comes from a later passage in the chapter, where the crowd is described as a "beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, song-roaring, and infinite caricaturing of woe." It is a comical phrase but no less threatening. The mob is nothing short of chaos personified.

So even in this scene where no one is being dragged to the guillotine, the crowd is pregnant with potential danger and destruction. Dickens always shows mobs as places where people become crude, dehumanized, and much more wicked than they would ever be were they acting alone.

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Charles Dicken's diction inA Tale of Two Citiesstrongly conveys the the wildly reckless mood and the dangerous power of a mob.

In Chapter 21, Mr. Lorry and Mr. Darnay converse about the rising storm in France.  Dicken's diction describing the mob at Saint Antoine evokes imagery of untamed nature.  First describing the crowd as a "vast, dusky mass of scarecrows," Dickens adds a dangerous edge to the comparison, noting "gleams of light above the billowy heads."  The gleams of light are not halos of angels, but rather weapons, "steel blades and bayonets [that] shone in the sun" (Chapter 21).  His comparison to the dark figures of the mob to scarecrows has strong connotation, an unsettling image of dark-winged carrion birds poised for the feast.

In the same passage, Dickens uses another nature metaphor to convey the tumultous storm-like passion of the crowd.

A tremendous roar arose from the throat of Saint Antoine, and a forest of naked arms struggled in the air like shrivelled branches of trees in a winter wind: all the fingers convulsively clutching at every weapon or semblance of a weapon that was thrown up from the depths below, no matter how far off. (Chapter 21)

Diction choices like "shrivelled" and "convulsively" depict the mob not just as being physically unwell, but absolutely unhealthy, even possibly dying.  The mob in this sentence is desperate as suggested by Dicken's verbs: "struggled" and "clutching", as if the people are reaching out desperately for something to save them, and finding their hands empty, reach for weapons instead. 

Dicken's language describing the mob creates a mood that is angry and  unsatisfied.

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