Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” so begins Charles Dickens’ story of the French Revolution. For the ruling classes in 18th century France, it was indeed the best of times. The monarchs and many members of the First and Second Estates – nobility and clergy, respectively – enjoyed lives of great comfort, luxury, and often decadence. For members of the Third Estate – peasants, commoners – life was a constant struggle. Many people died of starvation and even more suffered from malnutrition while aristocrats grew fat and surrounded themselves with gilded opulence. It is during this time that Queen Marie-Antoinette famously responded to reports that the people had no bread, “Well, let them eat cake!”

Across the Atlantic Ocean, meanwhile, the American Colonies declared independence from Great Britain and pledged their lives and treasure to the cause. Hostility between Britain and France was long-standing and King Louis and other nobles, having been tutored on the strategic importance of an alliance with America by Benjamin Franklin, provided the vital naval force that the colonies lacked. Supporting the Americans’ bid for independence came at a price, however, and France’s national debt skyrocketed. Inspired by the success of the American Revolution, French commoners began to give voice to their discontent and sought greater representation in the nation’s General Assembly. Food shortages and low wages, a direct result of the national debt, brought long-simmering resentments to a head and the French Revolution began in April of 1789.

With this political backdrop, Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities partly to entertain his readers (and to pay his bills) but also to illuminate the cruelty and savagery of war and oppression. The story begins in a stage coach, carrying Jarvis Lorry, a manager of Tellson’s Bank, with offices in London and Paris, to Dover where he will take a boat to France. En route, a rider stops the coach and gives Mr. Lorry a message that he is to wait at Dover for a young lady who needs an escort to Paris in order to retrieve her father who has been released after eighteen years in The Bastille. The prisoner, Dr. Alexandre Manette, has been imprisoned for political reasons which are integral to the story, although never fully explained to the reader. Lucie Manette, his daughter, had believed herself to be an orphan until receiving word that her father had survived his ordeal but was gravely ill and near death.

The year is 1775 and travelers between England and France are viewed with great suspicion on either end, given France’s alliance with the rebellious American colonies. The French aristocrats and peasants are increasingly suspicious of each other and treachery is rampant. When Miss Manette and Mr. Lorry arrive in Paris, they make contact with Dr. Manette’s former servant, Monsieur Ernest Defarge, who has become a wine merchant in a poor section of the city. After passing the scrutiny of Madame Thérèse Defarge who keeps track of traitors – those who would crush the fermenting revolution – by knitting their names and descriptions into a shroud, Miss Manette and Mr. Lorry are led to the ailing Dr. Manette whose imprisonment has left him in a psychotic state. Two things had sustained the doctor during his ordeal: making shoes and caressing a lock of his baby daughter’s hair, the “golden thread”.

Between the time of Dr. Manette’s release from the Bastille and the storming of that infamous prison on July 14, 1789, the story of the French Revolution takes place. Dickens uses his characters both to represent certain factions as well as to provide a human dimension to the realities of this war. Monsieur Defarge represents the rational revolutionaries who were influenced by some of the great thinkers of the time, notably Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His wife, Madame Defarge, on the other hand symbolizes the pent-up blood lust that, after the fall of the Bastille, corrupted the revolution. Lucie Manette, a rather one-dimensional character, represents pure goodness and light in contrast to Madame Defarge’s vicious darkness. Charles Darnay, whom Lucie eventually marries, is also a mostly uninteresting character. His story, however, of expatriation and repatriation, of mistaken identity, and loyalty gives life to the difficulty of being a French nobleman with a conscience during a time when nobles were indiscriminately slaughtered.

Curiously, the most interesting characters in the book play supporting roles, and Dickens takes his time in developing them. Sydney Carton, a look-alike for Charles Darnay, spends most of the book being an underachieving, alcoholic with a brilliant legal mind. Dr. Manette starts out in a state of pathetic psychosis, regains his mind, loses it again, and by necessity becomes heroic. The Marquis d’Evrémonde is the villain we love to hate who gets his just desserts. Finally, Jerry Cruncher provides some comic relief in his role as a “resurrection man”, who literally raises the dead, although not in the biblical sense.

Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities as a serial which he published himself. In spite of the commercial nature of this work, akin to a TV mini-series, it is a compelling story well-deserving of the label “classic”, not only for its literary merits but also for the universal truths it reveals. The French celebrate Bastille Day the way we Americans commemorate Independence Day. King Louis the 16th and his predecessors used the Bastille, and other prisons, to house enemies of the state. These prisons were places of torture, where suffering was prolonged because death was considered too humane. The storming of the Bastille marked the end of the monarchy; the Revolution, however, had not run out of steam and in the years following Bastille Day, political instability and the invention of the guillotine led to a period known as the “Reign of Terror”. During this time, King Louis the 16th and his queen, Marie Antoinette, lost their heads along with as many as 40,000 others. The oppressors became the oppressed, the prey became the predators.

What A Tale of Two Cities illustrates better than anything else I have read is how the lust for vengeance can easily drown out the voice of reason, turning a fight against a repressive government into a vehicle for another, more brutal, form of repression. Madame Defarge slowly gains the upper hand in her marriage and in leading the revolution after the fall of the Bastille, causing hundreds, perhaps thousands, to line up for the guillotine. No one is safe from her vengeance; even her husband feels her scorn for his loyalty to Dr. Manette during “The Terror”.

From a literary standpoint, A Tale of Two Cities is about duality – as indicated by the title and the opening line – in life and human nature. Certain characters are purely good or evil to emphasize this theme. London is a place of civilized tranquility while in Paris, blood runs down the streets like one of Monsieur Defarges’ broken wine barrels. Charles Darnay, a Frenchman of noble blood, tutors the children of aristocrats in London to support himself and his family. He is hard-working and honest while his double, Sydney Carton, is a ne’er do well who earns enough to support his drinking habit by ghost-writing legal briefs for a prominent barrister. As time passes, however, certain characters develop an internal duality making them far more interesting than Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay, the superficial protagonists of the book.

A Tale of Two Cities ends as it begins, with a famous quote: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” The writing in between the first and last lines is worthy of such timeless brackets.

Copyright 2011, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

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