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

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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It seems that, through the popular media, our century has fulfilled Dickens's intention, perhaps even more so than the previous century. What remains to readers and film/TV audiences is to decide whether this 'popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time' through A Tale of Two Cities does justice to that momentous historical phenomenon called the French Revolution.

 

Works Cited

Altick, Richard. Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature. New York: Norton, 1973.

Baumgarten, Murray. "Writing the Revolution." Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 12 (1983): 161-76.

Collins, Irene. "Charles Dickens and the French Revolution." Literature and History 1.1 (1990): 40-57.

Collins, Philip, ed. Dickens: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1971.

Conway, Jack, dir. A Tale of Two Cities. MGM, 1935.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. 1949. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Friedman, Barton R. "Antihistory: Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities." Dickens's Later Work: Assessments since 1870. Ed. Michael Hollington. East Sussex: Helm, 1995. 481-503.

Goddard, Jim, dir. A Tale of Two Cities. ATV, 1980.

Gross, John. "A Tale of Two Cities." Dickens and the Twentieth Century. Ed. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962. 187-97.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution. London: Verso, 1990.

Lodge, David. "The French Revolution and the Condition of England: Crowds and Power in the Early Victorian Novel." The French Revolution and British Culture. Ed. Ceri Crossley and Ian Small. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. 123-40.

Monnier, Philippe, dir. A Tale of Two Cities. Granada TV/Dune Production, 1989.

Thomas, Ralph, dir. A Tale of Two Cities. Rank, 1958.

Winnert, Derek. Radio Times Film and Video Guide 1995. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.

 
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