When you watch a movie or read an article about the French Revolution, chances are it’s been influenced by A Tale of Two Cities. Together with Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens’s novel has helped to shape generations of readers’ understanding of one of the most pivotal events in modern history. Interestingly, both of these texts are fictionalized accounts of the events leading up to and following the birth of the new French Republic. Like Carlyle, Dickens put faces to the triumphs and struggles of the revolution. Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton may not have gone down in the history books, but they’re stamped in our cultural memory as key figures in the French Revolution. It turns out that good fiction can be as influential as history itself.
Written in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities was published in weekly installments in Dickens’s own journal, All The Year Round. It was an instant hit. Families read it by the firelight, crowds waited for the next edition to be released. Of course, the fact that Dickens was by this time one of the most prominent writers and editors in England didn’t hurt its selling powers.
Because it’s a bit more straight-forward plot-wise than many other Dickens novels, A Tale of Two Cities is also one of the most frequently-taught of Dickens’s novels today. Chances are you’re encountering it for the first time (or the second time, or the twenty-third time) in a classroom. That’s part of why we here at Shmoop are so taken with this novel: it’s an enduring testimony to the best and a searing critique of the worst of human nature. Dickens set out to make the French Revolution live in the hearts and minds of his readers. Take it from us, he’s done a pretty good job.
Dickens may be writing about the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities, but he’s also exploring human emotions and reactions that aren’t specific to any one historical event. As Dickens wrote:
Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. (3.15.1)
In other words, human suffering isn’t simply an 18th century French problem. A Tale of Two Cities, with all of the poverty and injustice it displays, is an exploration of conditions that will persist just as long as violence and inequity continue to flourish.
Although A Tale of Two Cities is a major social critique, it’s also an exploration of the limits of human justice. What is "justice," really? Is it murdering people who murder your family? Is it imprisoning people related to those people? When does justice start becoming…injustice?
These are big questions. And they’re still pretty relevant today. Ask yourself if you can imagine a country in which innocent people are locked up for their political views: South Africa? Nazi Germany? Or think about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during the 1940s, just because they happened to look like the folks the U.S. was fighting overseas. The closer we look, the more the false imprisonment of Dr. Manette or Charles Darnay becomes something that we deal with in the real world, not just the fictional one.