A Tale of Two Cities Essays: The French Revolution

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France and England in A Tale of Two Cities - The French Revolution

Introduction

In the eighteen-fifties, Charles Dickens was concerned that social problems in England, particularly those relating to the condition of the poor, might provoke a mass reaction on the scale of the French Revolution. In a letter written in 1855, for example, he refers to the unrest of the time as follows:

I believe the discontent to be so much the worse for smouldering, instead of blazing openly, that it is extremely like the general mind of France before the breaking out of the first Revolution, and is in danger of being turned … into such a devil of a conflagration as never has been beheld since. (qtd. in I. Collins 42)

At the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Dickens once again expresses his concern. The novel opens in 1775, with a comparison of England and pre-revolutionary France. While drawing parallels between the two countries, Dickens also alludes to his own time: "the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only" (1; bk. 1, ch. 1). The rest of the chapter shows that Dickens regarded the condition to be an 'evil' one, since he depicts both countries as rife with poverty, injustice, and violence due to the irresponsibility of the ruling elite (1-3; bk. 1, ch. 1). As the novel unfolds, however, England becomes a safe haven for those escaping the violence perpetrated by the French Revolution. In this paper, I shall argue that A Tale of Two Cities reflects the popular confidence in the stability of England in the eighteen-fifties, despite Dickens's suggestions at the beginning. A Tale of Two Cities thus becomes a novel about the England and the English of Dickens's time. And yet, many people today would believe that the novel is essentially about the French Revolution, which brings me to my second point. If in the nineteenth century the novel served to affirm the stability of Britain, in this century it has been greatly influential in the formation of the popular image of the French Revolution, mainly thanks to film and television adaptations. The purpose of this paper is to look at the popular reception of the novel from the time of its first publication in 1859 to the nineteen-nineties.
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