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History has not only been important in our lives today, but it has also impacted the classic literature that we read. Charles Dickens has used history as an element of success in many of his works. This has been one of the keys to achievement in his career. Even though it may seem like it, Phillip Allingham lets us know that A Tale of Two Cities is not a history of the French Revolution. This is because no actual people from the time appear in the book (Allingham). Dickens has many different reasons for using the component of history in his novel. John Forster, a historian, tells us that one of these reasons is to advance the plot and to strengthen our understanding of the novel (27). Charles Dickens understood these strategies and could use them to his advantage.
The main focus of Dickens’ novel is the French Revolution. This was a tragic time that took place between the years of seventeen eighty-nine and seventeen ninety-nine. It was the lower class revolting against the corrupt authoritarian government. The ideals that the French stood for were liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Dickens uses this for the background of his novel. Marie Shephard once said that Dickens was helped by his friend Carlyle for a background on the French Revolution, and tried to focus more on the plot than a character (51). Another historian said that “the French Revolution exists in the novel only insofar as Dickens’s characters vivify it, live through it, react to it, and make its reality manifest to the reader”(Allingham). Dickens understood this and used it to help him write the novel, and to help us in understanding it.
In the tale, the historical technique has been used quite perfectly. Dickens uses the element of history not only to advance the plot, but also to show connections between life in the eighteenth century and the novel. Another way Dickens’ uses history is to show the partnership between evil and history itself (Allingham). Dickens showed how the population felt about the government, how they acted, and what the end result was. He did all of this while advancing the storyline. He also continued to develop the many characters of the book. He also showed many connections between the novel and history including characters, events, places, and overall feelings.
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The novel starts before the revolution had begun. Even though it had yet to start, the feelings toward the government were definitely negative. In the novel, Dickens tells us that the rich were very ignorant and uncaring, and this is shown when the Marquis hits Gaspard’s son with his carriage and all he does is give Gaspard a coin (115-116). Another great example of this is the man named Old Foulon. He was a minister of the king, who was told many times that his people were starving. In a discourteous manner, he told those people to eat grass (Dickens 243). This just shows how terrible the noble classes acted to the poor. We are also told that the royalty at the time didn’t care about the lower classes at all. All they really cared about were themselves. The king, Louis XVI, had imposed severe taxes on the peasants. By doing this, he only spurred on the revolution. Dickens does a good job in the novel to explain how high and mighty the rich nobles were.
In France, the poor were living quite miserably and Dickens does a great job of portraying this. He shows us just how wretched their lives were. Towards the beginning of the book, Dickens wrote about the ‘wine game’. This was when one of the people from the market dropped a casket of wine in front of Monsieur Defarge’s shop. When this happened, Dickens tells us that people flocked from everywhere, stopped what they were doing, and ran to try and get a sip of the wine (20). This is a great example of just how poor and lowly these people were. In history, these people were treated very unfairly. As I already mentioned, they were taxed money until they went bankrupt. The people who did have jobs at the time were not paid enough money at all. These things and more made the lower classes of the French revolution very angry. After seeing what had happened in the new colony of America, they felt they needed to do something. After a while, they were pushed over the brink.
This brings us to the revolution itself. There were many people in the revolution that Dickens used in his story. They were based of the historical figures of the past. One of those people was Monsieur Defarge. One writer, Earle Davis, says that Monsieur Defarge came straight from Dickens’ historical source in Carlyle. He said that Defarge came from a man named Santerre who was a brewer that lived in France, who became a head figure in the revolution (98). Davis also tells us that “Carlyle attributes the worst exercises of the mob to the Jacobins, or the Jacquerie. Dickens creates types of revolt leaders from the lowest classes, giving them the names of Jacques One, Jacques Two, and Jacques Three” (98). These people played some of the largest roles in the revolution, as shown by Dickens. Another thing Dickens tells us is that on the way to the guillotine, Carton saw many things including people watching in chairs and women in the knitting in the front row (383). This directly correlates to something that Davis had said that the Jacobine women of the revolution were famous for their knitting at the guillotine, which can be directly related to the knitting of Madame Defarge, and the knitting of the women at the guillotine (98). As you can see, Dickens based many of his characters off of actual people in the French Revolution.
Another thing that Dickens uses is the events from the revolution. He shows some events as subtle parts of the book. One example of this is the September massacres. Davis tells us that this was one of the worst massacres that happened during the revolution. It happened outside of La Force, a prison that many of the nobles were being held in. This is described in A Tale of Two Cities, when the mobs outside of the French Tellson’s are sharpening their blades with their shirts dripping blood (99). This shows how Dickens put some major historical events in the book, without explicitly telling us about them. One event that Dickens tells us about is the storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison for many people that had been convicted of crimes in France. On , the revolutionaries attacked the prison. Many historians state that this was the date that the revolution actually began. In the novel, Dickens tells us that in four days, over ten hundred people had been killed (278-279). This was a very tragic event, but it was also necessary to show the royalty and noble class that the lower class wasn’t going to wait around any longer. Another point that Dickens makes is about the trials that took place in France. Many nobles were convicted of crimes of treason. Dickens tells us that these trials were unfair, like that of Charles Darnay’s, and that this lead to the execution of many people in France (328). Of course some people may have deserved it, this was a very unjust way to show that you wanted a reform in the government.
“The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd , so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. Twenty-three” (Dickens 385). This is how the lives of many people ended during these harsh times. Dickens used that line to show Sidney Carton’s last observations and feelings as he was put to death by the guillotine. Just as Sydney Carton died, so did the king and remaining royalty of France. The French Revolution was coming to an end, and thus began the time known as the Reign of Terror. This was a time where the people of France wanted to establish a republic of virtue, remake France, and to crush the counter-revolution. Many evil things had happened during these times such as the tradition that Dickens refers to at the end of his novel. He talked about a terrible thing in which people dance around in a crazy manner. It was a called a devilish parade by Dickens (288). This is actually the French tradition known as the Carmagnole. It showed the evil that was living throughout France at the time. . These were incredibly hard times that lasted until Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in December of seventeen ninety-nine.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Dickens 1). This quote truly holds meaning in the story and in history. The people of France were being treated unfairly and felt it was time to revolt against the corrupt French royalty. Dickens used these events and more in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. This helped to show many different things in his writing. They helped to reinforce our understanding of the novel. They also served as a good plot and background story for Dickens’ characters. Dickens understood these things and more when he wrote his novel. He used the strategies to help make A Tale of Two Cities the book that it is today.