A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Journalistic and Moralistic
Fanboy-ing out on Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, Dickens decided to try his hand at historical fiction. It wasn’t something that he often did. In fact, A Tale of Two Cities is one of two historical novels that Dickens wrote... and he wrote a lot of novels. His style in A Tale of Two Cities is actually pretty remarkable, if only because it’s so different from most of his other works.
Dickens has gone down in history as a writer whose skill with humor and satire allowed him to make all sorts of social critiques. A phrase from Mary Poppins might just describe Dickens’s method best: "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Because they were funny social critiques, audiences ate them up.
On Fire With Satire
The first volume of A Tale of Two Cities does contain some of this satire: see, for example, Dickens’s description of the court case in England. It’s so over the top that it begins to be ridiculous (and ridiculously funny). Here’s an example of the lawyer’s argument in favor of executing Charles Darnay:
That, for these reasons, the jury, being a loyal jury (as he knew they were), and being a responsible jury (as THEY knew they were), must positively find the prisoner Guilty, and make an end of him, whether they liked it or not. That, they never could lay their heads upon their pillows; that, they never could tolerate the idea of their wives laying their heads upon their pillows; that, they never could endure the notion of their children laying their heads upon their pillows; in short, that there never more could be, for them or theirs, any laying of heads upon pillows at all, unless the prisoner's head was taken off. (2.3.1)
It’s a serious subject, sure, but it’s also good for a laugh. More important, spinning out court procedures to ridiculous lengths allows Dickens to demonstrate how, well, ridiculous the judicial system actually is.
Once Dickens moves into describing the events leading up to the French Revolution, however, his tone takes a 180º turn. He’s building up the work of Carlyle, who tried to make the French Revolution into something of a family drama. For Dickens, this means that there aren’t too many funny characters whom he can satirize (like, for example, the Crunchers) in France.
We know that spousal abuse isn’t actually funny. For Dickens’s readers, however, it was. It’s sort of like a Punch-and-Judy show. Want to know what a Punch-and-Judy show is? Basically, two puppets (a husband and wife) beat up on each other. Everyone thought it was hi-larious.
France Ain't No Laughing Matter
Back to our discussion, though: in France, no Crunchers. No laughs. Instead, we get a pretty journalistic approach to the oncoming violence. Here’s an example of his language in the last volume:
One year and three months. […] Every day, through the stony streets, the tumbrils now jolted heavily, filled with Condemned. Lovely girls; bright women, brown-haired, black-haired, and grey; youths; stalwart men and old; gentle born and peasant born; all red wine for La Guillotine, all daily brought into light from the dark cellars of the loathsome prisons, and carried to her through the streets to slake her devouring thirst. Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death;--the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine! (3.5.1)
Perhaps the most startling aspect of Dickens’s depiction of the revolution is his insistence on recounting the violence just as it occurred. There are rarely any moments of comedic relief in the last sections of the novel.
What we do get, however, are some bird’s-eye (or God’s-eye) views of the scenes playing out below us. See our analysis of "Narrative Voice" for more details on this one. Briefly, though, we’ll just say that Dickens can’t seem to resist throwing in a few moral opinions every now and then. Since he can’t satirize mass violence and death, he chooses to offer us a few short lessons on the subjects, instead.