Someone once said "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This is a compelling message upon which many writers have built their literature. One effective work which employs this theme is A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. This novel is set in Paris and London during the late eighteenth century. During this period, France was engaged in a revolution in which the otherwise common man rose up against the country's aristocracy. In its outset, the novel reveals the motives behind the plebeians' actions. Dickens focuses upon the strife the townspeople experience at the hands of the merciless nobility. By the novel's end, however, Dickens achieves an about-face. The working class wields its new source of power to reek vengeance upon the aristocracy. In an ironic twist, Dickens displays how power can corrupt those even were once threatened by it.
To convince the reader of the oppression the townspeople face, Dickens employs motifs. By providing a reoccurring phrase, the reader gains a sense of the distress which makes up every aspect of their lives. On such example of this is as follows:
"Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered...
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...nd the reader. One man in particular approaches Darnay. The narrator says,
"'In the name of the assembled companions in misfortune,' said a gentleman of courtly appearance and address, coming forward, 'I have the honour of giving you welcome to La Force [Prison], and of condoling with you on the calamity that has brought you among us. May it soon terminate happily!'" (p. 254-255).
Remarkablely, Dickens succeeds in turning the merciless noblemen into martyrs.
The ironic role reversal is very effective in displaying Dickens' theme. People naturally try to find a protagonist and antagonist in any story. The reader soon becomes perplexed, until finally she decides that it is simply human nature to both abuse positions of power and require them in society.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London: Orion Publishing Group, 1994.
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