Study Guide

A Tale of Two Cities Justice and Judgment

By Charles Dickens

Justice and Judgment

Book the First: Recalled to Life
Chapter One – The Period

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (1.1.1)

Ah, the famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. This passage seems to create a sense of sweeping possibility: the age is everything and nothing all at once. Looked at closely, however, the passage also suggests that this is an age of radical opposites (with almost no in-betweens).

Volume I, Chapter Five – The Wine-Shop
Madame Defarge

There was a character about Madame Defarge, from which one might have predicated that she did not often make mistakes against herself in any of the reckonings over which she presided. (1.5.20)

Madame Defarge becomes her own form of judge and jury over the course of the novel. Her version of justice, which demands unremitting revenge, could be seen as the downfall of the new Republic as a whole.

Book the Second: The Golden Thread
Volume II, Chapter One – Five Years Later

Death is Nature's remedy for all things, and why not Legislation's? Accordingly, the forger was put to Death; the utterer of a bad note was put to Death; the unlawful opener of a letter was put to Death; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence was put to Death; the holder of a horse at Tellson's door, who made off with it, was put to Death. (2.1.4)

If the French system is bad, the English courts are not much better. Dickens satirizes and critiques a court system that can’t distinguish between the worst offenses and the most petty crimes.

Volume II, Chapter Three – A Disappointment

Mr. Stryver then called his few witnesses, and Mr. Cruncher had next to attend while Mr. Attorney-General turned the whole suit of clothes Mr. Stryver had fitted on the jury, inside out; showing how Barsad and Cly were even a hundred times better than he had thought them, and the prisoner a hundred times worse. Lastly, came my Lord himself, turning the suit of clothes, now inside out, now outside in, but on the whole decidedly trimming and shaping them into grave-clothes for the prisoner. (2.3.102)

The operating metaphor here is simple: an argument in court fits a story around an accused man in the same way that a tailor fits a suit. Dickens plays with this metaphor, stringing out the multiple possibilities of its usage until it becomes an almost farcical insight into the workings of the law.

Volume II, Chapter Four – Congratulatory

From the dimly-lighted passages of the court, the last sediment of the human stew that had been boiling there all day, was straining off. (2.4.1)

The "stew" of humanity that attends court becomes a marker of the sort of attraction that famous court cases had for the populace. All of England seems to have turned out to see Darnay tried for treason.

Book the Third: The Track of a Storm
Volume III, Chapter One – In Secret

It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them. It was nothing to her, that his wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan; that was insufficient punishment, because they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live. (3.14.40)

"Not him, but them." That’s the heart of this quote: Madame Defarge doesn’t care about the rights of individuals at all. Her determination to exterminate the entire race of the Evrémondes makes her as dangerous a force as the aristocrats who raped her sister.

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)

Dickens’s narrator makes his moral pretty obvious. The French Revolution wasn’t some freak accident in the course of human history. Any oppressed people will seek justice and perhaps even revenge.

Volume III, Chapter Two – The Grindstone

The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood.

Shouldering one another to get next at the sharpening-stone, were men stripped to the waist, with the stain all over their limbs and bodies; men in all sorts of rags, with the stain upon those rags; men devilishly set off with spoils of women's lace and silk and ribbon, with the stain dyeing those trifles through and through. (3.2.31)

The fantastic costumes that the grindstone sharpeners wear parallel the costumes of Monseigneur’s attendants earlier in the novel. Both are grotesque, an uneasy reminder of just how alike the two classes are in their viciousness.

The grindstone had a double handle, and, turning at it madly were two men, whose faces, as their long hair flapped back when the whirlings of the grindstone brought their faces up, were more horrible and cruel than the visages of the wildest savages in their most barbarous disguise. False eyebrows and false moustaches were stuck upon them, and their hideous countenances were all bloody and sweaty, and all awry with howling, and all staring and glaring with beastly excitement and want of sleep. (3.2.31)

We’re not given an actual account of the fighting that goes on during the revolution. The indirect accounts of men working the grindstone to sharpen weapons, however, might be more gruesome than the fighting itself. By not directly depicting the events of the day, Dickens forces us to imagine just how all of the weapons came to be stained with so much blood.

Volume III, Chapter Four – Calm in a Storm

A revolutionary tribunal in the capital, and forty or fifty thousand revolutionary committees all over the land; a law of the Suspected, which struck away all security for liberty or life, and delivered over any good and innocent person to any bad and guilty one; prisons gorged with people who had committed no offence, and could obtain no hearing; these things became the established order and nature of appointed things, and seemed to be ancient usage before they were many weeks old. (3.4.10)

The revolution quickly turns into a new Republic, one that has laws just as vindictive and unjust as those once established by the old aristocrats.

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