A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens
Where It All Goes Down
London, England; Paris, France; 1775-1790
Okay, this is a huge one. You can probably guess from the title of this novel (that’s A Tale of Two Cities, in case you’ve forgotten) that the actual events occurring in the cities are pretty important. If you guessed that, you’d be right. In fact, it’s so important that Dickens spends the first chapter of his novel laying out the broad-brush strokes of the similarities and differences between the two places:
There was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face on the throne of England; there was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face on the throne of France. (1.1.2)
And believe us, he’s just warming up.
Dickens, you see, places his novel smack-dab in the middle of a nifty little event called the French Revolution. You might have read about it in your middle school social studies classes. (We’ll get back to the French Revolution in a minute. We promise.)
For now, however, we’ll start with the first city on our list: London. It’s a safe haven in this novel, all things considered. That doesn’t mean that it’s all that great, but at least folks aren’t chopping off other folks’ heads every Saturday morning. Then again, Dickens makes it pretty clear that Londoners would really like to see some heads rolling… or at least a good drawing and quartering on occasion.
Take Charles Darnay’s first trial in London, for example: a whole crowd of drunken ruffians gathers to see the "condemned" man sentenced to death. As that scene demonstrates, there’s not that much difference between Londoners and Parisians. Given the situation that’s about to unfold in France, this is a pretty scary thought.
Actually, the courtroom in London is one of the three major sites that we get to know in the city. The other two, of course, are the Manettes’s house in Soho and the infamous Tellson’s Bank. In many ways, the court starts to stand in for the British government as a whole: it’s got lots of official-looking people scurrying about and important-sounding words like "law" and "justice" get discussed there every day.
Sadly, however, not too many laws are followed… and not that much justice is served. Dickens gets pretty explicit about just how crummy the court system is when Charles Darnay gets charged with treason. Everyone thinks he’s guilty before he even goes to trial, so the lawyers just spend a lot of time listening to the sounds of their own voices. The court is nothing more that a hall of mirrors. In fact, it’s literally a hall of mirrors: they hang big mirrors in front of the accused so the folks in the audience can watch him squirm.
Fortunately, of course, Charles gets acquitted—but it’s really not because justice works so well in England.
Would You Like a Spot of Tea, Gov'ner?
If the court is an extension of British government, then Tellson’s Bank is representative of British culture and economics. Tellson’s lives up to just about every stereotype of stodgy, tweed-wearing British businessmen that you’ve ever gotten from watching the BBC. Here’s a sample of how Dickens describes it:
Tellson's Bank by Temple Bar was an old-fashioned place, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty. It was very small, very dark, very ugly, very incommodious. It was an old-fashioned place, moreover, in the moral attribute that the partners in the House were proud of its smallness, proud of its darkness, proud of its ugliness, proud of its incommodiousness. They were even boastful of its eminence in those particulars, and were fired by an express conviction that, if it were less objectionable, it would be less respectable. This was no passive belief, but an active weapon which they flashed at more convenient places of business. (2.1.1)
Respectability, inconvenience, and a fierce pride in both the respectability and the inconvenience of Tellson’s makes it sound rather like… a stodgy old butler. Or a crotchety old aunt. Either way, it’s very old, very fussy, and probably not a very fun place to hang out for an evening.
Fortunately, Dickens allows Tellson’s to redeem itself through Mr. Lorry. (Check out his "Character Analysis" for further details on this fascinating chap.) For now, we’ll just say that Tellson’s may be old and stodgy, but Mr. Lorry also makes it kind of lovable.
That brings us to our last stop in this whirlwind tour of London: the Manettes’s house in Soho. It’s a perfect haven from the noise and bustle of the city. It’s even perfect-er because Lucie makes it such a very homey home. Everyone’s happy there. Even Sydney Carton is happy there. And believe us, that’s saying something.
When we stop to think about it, we realize that Dickens has actually been pretty crafty in choosing these three settings: we’ve got good descriptions of the British home, the British business, and the British government.
Paris When It Sizzles
Funnily enough, we get exactly the same sorts of settings in France. This time, however, things aren’t quite so pleasant. There’s the French chateau, where a young girl as raped, her brother murdered, and her husband worked to death. There’s the Defarges’s wine shop (a.k.a. the French business), which actually doesn’t function as much of a business at all: it’s a front for revolutionary activities.
And then, of course, there’s the Tribunals of the Republic. If the courts of England were bad, the French Tribunals are hell. Hundreds are brought to trial and sentenced to execution every day. Dickens makes it quite clear that the jurors are often drunk or otherwise not paying attention to the trials. There are no mirrors, but there sure are lots and lots of blood-thirsty audience members.
Which brings us to the one major missing puzzle-piece in this whirlwind tour of life in the 1700s: the French Revolution. Here are the basics:
- Poor people were very, very poor.
- Rich people were very, very rich.
- Rich people were often very rich because they exploited the very, very poor.
- Eventually, the poor got tired of being beaten, starved, raped, and killed.
- The King, Louis XVI, wasn’t doing too much to help alleviate the suffering of the poor.
- On July 14, 1789, mobs stormed the Bastille, the prison where political prisoners were held.
- Several factions (the aristocrats, the middle class, and the peasants) vied for power. Dickens tends to blur these transitions in A Tale of Two Cities.
- The new French Republic formed.
- It also quickly dissolved—but that’s beyond the scope of our story.
This may sound like a pretty simplistic rendition of a very, very complicated history. That’s because Dickens himself tended to focus on simple, heart-string-tugging images instead of detailing the political intrigues of the time. For example, one reading of A Tale of Two Cities could be that Defarge and his wife were patriots who opposed a regime that suppressed the poor. Another reading, however, could be that Madame Defarge simply wanted revenge for the ruin of her family.
Don’t worry—they’re both true statements. One, however, is political; the other is personal. In blending the two, Dickens allows us to feel the emotional impact of a revolution as a family drama. It’s a fairly tricky thing to pull off. When it works, though, we feel like the French Revolution is as close to us (and as emotionally taxing) as our own family feuds.