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A Tale Of Two Cities
The focus of A Tale Of Two Cities concerns the impetus and fervor of 18th century European socio-political turmoil, its consequences, and what Dickens presents as the appropriate response of an enlightened aristocracy and just citizenry.
The tale opens with Dr. Manettte having spent the last 18 years of his life in the Bastille - innocent of all crimes save his disdain for the base actions of a French Marquis. The heinous nature of his confinement induced a madness remedied only by the devoted love of his Lucie.
We next encounter these characters five years later attending the trial of Charles Darnay - a nobly born French immigrant who relinquished his station rather than partake in the barbarous class structure of 18th century France.
The beautiful and virtuous Lucie Manette is admired by both Sydney Carton and his repugnant legal partner, C.J.Stryver. It is the inherently ethical Carton, not the aristocratic (and bellicose) Stryver who realizes that marriage to Charles Darnay would bring the greatest happiness to Lucie. Their bliss is short lived however,as the honor bound Darnay returns to Paris.
His prosecution is propelled by a vengeful and newly empowered Madame Defarge a "patriot of the revolution" who utilizes the revolutionary "People's Tribunals" to redress grievances committed by the Evremonde clan. Aided by her cohort (aptly given the code name of "Vengeance") retribution, not justice, is her sole concern. "...I have this race a long time on my register, doomed to destruction and extermination."(370).
This savage character - "Madame's resolute right hand was occupied with an axe,...and in her girdle were a pistol and a cruel knife"(244) - exhibits an anger so resolute and ferocious that its like may be comparable only to newly divorced female students here at N.Y.U. - but that is simply my experience.
Dickens does not portray Madame Defarge and her compatriots as morally bankrupt but rather depicts their inevitable creation in the oppressive aristocratic class structure of 18th century Europe. A Tale Of Two Cities is written in a perfectly linear progression of this theme. It initially portrays the oppressive nature of the aristocracy (the imprisonment of Dr. Manette, the accidental death of a child and the trite response of the Marquis - among other graphic illustration) which leads to the fervor of revolutionary assassins seeking justice.
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European aristocratic society is not doomed however. Carton redeems his wasted existence by sacrificing his life for the life of Darnay and thus insures the happiness of his beloved Lucie. This redemption brings honor to his name for generations to come. Charles Darnay's renouncement of his Family's ill gotten wealth results in his ultimate happiness. The implication is clear: the wastrels of the British aristocracy may yet redeem their virtue and save their love (Mother England) by pursuing societal equity and justice. It is only the noble pursuit of justice which can produce a society of the just. The hatred latent in oppressive societies results only in socio-political turmoil and the manifestation of evil.
Dickens harkens to the moral fiber of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton as a necessity for the preservation of British society and European aristocracies in general. The heroism displayed by these two characters would avert the horrors of a mob inspired rebellion in England - thus such sacrifices would be - to paraphrase Dickens, a far, far, better thing to do.
1. Dickens, Charles.A Tale of Two Cities. England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970