A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens
Historical Fiction; Family Drama
Well, A Tale of Two Cities is largely a tale of the French Revolution. That’s about as historical as you can get. Here’s the difference between "history" and "historical fiction," though: history will tell you how many people stormed the Bastille or how many folks got executed by the guillotine. Historical fiction can delve into the minds of characters like The Vengeance or Madame Defarge and try to piece together reasons for what might otherwise seem like senseless bloodshed.
Interestingly, however, the only reasons that Dickens can come up with don’t have anything to do with the revolution, precisely. Madame Defarge reacts so violently against the Evrémonde family because she’s re-enacting her own family revenge story. Her father and brother were killed; her sister was raped. Let’s face it: the woman has reasons to be angry. They’re not, however, reasons that the history books would ever cite as the impetus for the French Revolution. Using fiction allows Dickens to construct a world that blurs the line between real events (like the Storming of the Bastille, the Tribunals of the New Republic) and ones that are, well, fictional. Madame Defarge’s history is a weird overlap of personal and public dramas. That’s why it’s so disturbing…and so convincing.
Talking about Madame Defarge brings us to our next point: A Tale of Two Cities is about history. It’s full of political intrigues, governmental scandals, and well-documented violence. It’s also, however, a tale of families. The Evrémondes, the Manettes, and the Defarges become woven together through marriages, family alliances, and friendships. The bonds which exist between Lucie and Charles allow Dr. Manette to move past the burden of his own history. We could even say that the failure of Madame Defarge lies in her inability to look beyond the shattering consequences of history. As she says, "In a word, my husband has not my reason for pursuing this family annihilation, and I have not his reason for regarding this Doctor with any sensibility" (3.14.12). In other words, her relationship with her husband means next to nothing compared to the need she has for avenging the past.
When it comes right down to it, for Dickens, people matter more than the past. Characters that are able to form relationships despite the burdens of their histories are those that become the most heroic. Think about Sydney Carton, for example: although he’s not able to change his own masochism, he is able to channel that self-destructive impulse into a form of action which helps those he cares about most. He recognizes this, saying, "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done […]" (3.15. 50). See our analysis in "What’s Up with the Ending?" for more of the dirty details of this particular phrase. OK, OK, death isn’t a great solution. But it’s better than living a life that’s locked in the past.