A Tale of Two Cities Essay: The French Revolution and the Legacy

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The French Revolution and the legacy of A Tale of Two Cities

It is a commonplace of Dickensian criticism that the writer was influenced by Carlyle's The French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. Taking Dickens's comment that he read Carlyle's history "five hundred times" (I. Collins 46) as a starting point, many critics have discussed Carlyle's influence on several aspects of the novel, such as the narrative technique (Friedman 481-5), the imagery associated with the Revolution (I. Collins 52; Baumgarten 166; Lodge 131-2), and the narration of the historical episodes (Lodge 134; Friedman 489). And yet, Dickens's outlook on revolutionary violence differed significantly from that of Carlyle. As Irene Collins points out, Dickens "dislikes the violence of the revolutionaries, both in its popular form (the mob) and in its institutionalised form (the Terror). Unlike Carlyle, he can no longer see justice in the violence" (53). Moreover, it is Dickens's novel, rather than Carlyle's history, which is responsible for the popular image of the French Revolution in England in our century, not least due to the popularity of A Tale of Two Cities on film and television. The most famous adaptation of the novel is the 1935 MGM production, directed by Jack Conway. The film capitalised particularly on scenes depicting the revolutionary mob: the film critic Derek Winnert describes it as "a wildly extravagant production" with "17000 extras in the Paris street scenes" (1009). The novel was again filmed in 1958 by the British director Ralph Thomas. This production again used a "lavish staging" (Winnert 1009). The novel has proved to be a popular source for television adaptations as well: it was adapted in 1980 and 1989, the first being an ATV production directed by Jim Goddard and the latter an Anglo-French production directed by Philippe Monnier.

A Tale of Two Cities promoted the image of a stable England by using revolutionary France as a setting to highlight the contrasts between the two countries, although Dickens seemed to believe in the eighteen-fifties that England was heading towards an uprising on the scale of the French Revolution. In the twentieth century, we see the French Revolution used as a 'lavish' setting in film and TV productions of A Tale of Two Cities. In the preface to the novel, Dickens says "It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time" (xiii).
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