Study Guide

A Tale of Two Cities Society and Class

By Charles Dickens

Society and Class

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

Thus did the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—along the roads that lay before them. (1.1.6)

Dickens is famous for his ability to create an entire world within his novels. This passage shows the sorts of telescoping of perspective (first showing the masses of people, then the small ones on which the novel will turn) that allow him to concentrate on both individual lives and the big picture.

Volume I, Chapter Five – The Wine-Shop

Samples of a people that had undergone a terrible grinding and regrinding in the mill, and certainly not in the fabulous mill which ground old people young, shivered at every corner, passed in and out at every doorway, looked from every window, fluttered in every vestige of a garment that the wind shook. The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old [ ...] (1.5.6)

Society becomes an impersonal, mechanized force which the poor of France cannot control. They’re no longer citizens of the nation: they’re grist for the mill that churns up the poor.

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

I am like one who died young. All my life might have been. (2.13.17)

Why is Sydney Carton so sure that he can never deserve Lucie? Perhaps this quote offers an explanation: he’s convinced that his lower-class background makes him unfit for the life that he is capable of leading. He sees himself as one who died when his parents did. He’s never been able to believe in his own ability to transcend the circumstances of his youth.

Volume II, Chapter Two – A Sight

Monseigneur (often a most worthy individual gentleman) was a national blessing, gave a chivalrous tone to things, was a polite example of luxurious and shining fife, and a great deal more to equal purpose; nevertheless, Monseigneur as a class had, somehow or other, brought things to this. Strange that Creation, designed expressly for Monseigneur, should be so soon wrung dry and squeezed out! There must be something short-sighted in the eternal arrangements, surely! (2.23.3)

Whose opinion is this? Although it’s represented as a sort of universal observation of the narrator’s, he’s clearly channeling the opinions of "Monseigneur" himself. The irony of this ventriloquism is, of course, that the narrator seems to have no sympathy for the rich at all.

[…] the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions. Villain Foulon taken, my sister! Old Foulon taken, my mother! (2.22.19)

The poor become a terrifying force during the uprising and the storming of the Bastille. Their anonymity early in the novel adds to the eerie sense that they’re a sort of natural force—unknowable and utterly unstoppable.

[…] the miserable bakers' shops were beset by long files of them, patiently waiting to buy bad bread; and while they waited with stomachs faint and empty, they beguiled the time by embracing one another on the triumphs of the day, and achieving them again in gossip. (2.22.29)

After storming the Bastille, the poor must still fall back into their normal routine. The stark contrast between the fierce power that they were able to wield in the morning and their utter submission in the bread lines at night is an unsettling reminder of how little the violence of the day has actually achieved.

Volume II, Chapter Seven – Monseigneur in Town

The leprosy of unreality disfigured every human creature in attendance upon Monseigneur. (2.7.9)

Not only is Monseigneur unimaginable, but his followers are inhuman. They’re described as costumes—fancy, hollow shells of rich (and worthless) people.

Monseigneur had one truly noble idea of general public business, which was, to let everything go on in its own way; of particular public business, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way—tend to his own power and pocket. Of his pleasures, general and particular, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea, that the world was made for them. (2.7.4)

The laziness of the aristocrats only turns into action when their own direct self-interest is concerned. Dickens satirizes the choices of the "Monseigneurs" without ever allowing us to see them as real people—a sign that, before the violence of the revolution at least, he sympathizes with the revolutionaries.

Yes. It took four men, all four ablaze with gorgeous decoration, and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur's lips. (2.7.2)

The absolute decadence of the aristocracy prior to the revolution is satirized here. Note how we’re never given Monseigneur’s name. It’s almost as if he’s not a person at all but a placeholder for the entire aristocratic class.

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

But, imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her. (3.14.39)

The almost inhuman wrath of the Vengeance is chalked up to a strange combination of political situation and fate. The aristocrats regarded the poor as less than human, and the Vengeance becomes an ironic affirmation of their views. She’s utterly without human sympathy for the fates of any who fall victim to the Republic.

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