Study Guide

A Tale of Two Cities Politics

By Charles Dickens

Politics

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

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever. (1.1.2)

The two countries don’t seem that different, do they? Both seem pretty stable and, well, calm. That’s the underlying tension in this novel: if the two countries aren’t that different, why couldn’t a revolution start in England?

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

Any one of these partners would have disinherited his son on the question of rebuilding Tellson's. In this respect the House was much on a par with the Country; which did very often disinherit its sons for suggesting improvements in laws and customs that had long been highly objectionable, but were only the more respectable. (2.1.2)

Tellson’s is the sort of quintessentially English bank that produces fine, upstanding citizens like Mr. Lorry. If there’s any hope for England as a country, then, it’s probably got to do with the fact that Mr. Lorry isn’t always a complete businessman.

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

"What I have been thinking as we came along, and what I am still thinking now, as I look into your kind strong face which gives me so much support, is this:—If the Republic really does good to the poor, and they come to be less hungry, and in all ways to suffer less, she may live a long time: she may even live to be old." (3.15.35)

The words of a young woman about to be beheaded testify to the good that still remains in the people of France. The fact that she’s able to imagine a future based upon the injustice of her own death becomes a sort of sublime hope for a time that will eventually see an end to violence.

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day's wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. (3.15.1)

Dickens carries the metaphor likening wine to blood through the entire course of the novel. Are the "devouring and insatiate Monsters" here superhuman forces or the grasping, drunk crowd in Saint Antoine at the beginning of the novel?

The ministers of Sainte Guillotine are robed and ready. Crash!—A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One. (3.15.23)

The mass execution of the innocent and the guilty becomes a spectacle. As readers, we anticipate and dread the counting of heads that eventually adds up to Carton’s death.

Sydney Carton

"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out." (3.15.46)

Sydney’s last thoughts become a vision of more than just new life for Lucie and her family: they offer up home for a new political future for France, as well.

Volume III, Chapter Two – The Grindstone

"My dear friend, I have a charmed life in this city. I have been a Bastille prisoner. There is no patriot in Paris—in Paris? In France—who, knowing me to have been a prisoner in the Bastille, would touch me, except to overwhelm me with embraces, or carry me in triumph." (3.2.23)

Doctor Manette’s lack of agency changes overnight. He becomes a strange sort of celebrity in the first days of the Republic, when the prisoners of the old regime become the heroes of the new.

Volume III, Chapter Four – Calm in a Storm

It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. (3.4.11)

The guillotine becomes more than a national symbol, it becomes a national religion. The ability of a people to make mass death into a running joke testifies to the corruption of even the best ideals.

Doctor Manette

What private solicitude could rear itself against the deluge of the Year One of Liberty—the deluge rising from below, not falling from above, and with the windows of Heaven shut, not opened! (3.4.8)

The rallying cry of "Liberty" becomes blind to the struggles and the rights of individuals. As everyone tells Doctor Manette, individual sacrifices for the good of the Republic should be welcomed—even if those sacrifices include the unfair execution of family members.

Volume III, Chapter Eight – A Hand at Cards
Sydney Carton

"In short," said Sydney, "this is a desperate time, when desperate games are played for desperate stakes." (3.8.73)

As the new Republic quickly descends into chaos, Sydney’s back-door dealings become the only way to change the political situation of the time.

Volume III, Chapter Nine – The Game Made

"How goes the Republic?"
"You mean the Guillotine. Not ill. Sixty-three to-day. We shall mount to a hundred soon." (3.9.67)

The conversations of the crowd explain the sudden corruption of revolutionary zeal better than any of the main characters ever do. Once the Republic becomes synonymous with the guillotine, things can’t really be headed in a very good direction.

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