Social Decadence in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities

The French Revolution stands as one of the most significant moments in the history of the western world.  In the late eighteenth century, the people of France fiercely rebel against the authority of Louis XVI, an authority they deem corrupt. The revolution slowly makes its way to the forefront of the country, and, until Napoleon assumes power, will dominate the climate of France in every way.  The British novelist Charles Dickens takes the liberty to illustrate his views of the revolution in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. As the revolution’s beginning stages are developing, Charles Darnay, a man tied to an evil aristocracy in France, is arrested for his connection to the condemned ruling class. His punishment consists of being beheaded by the vicious, but ever-popular guillotine. Lucie, Charles’ wife, can only despair and watch her husband die early. But Sydney Carton, a drunken lawyer who is also in love with Lucie, decides to make a bold move; he switches places with Charles and sacrifices himself to the dreaded punishment.  As a result, Dickens preaches that love will outweigh any revolutionary effort, but not until he has had his say about the revolution’s inherent corruption. Throughout the novel, Dickens criticizes both the abuses of the French ruling class as well as the revolutionaries who caused so much chaos trying to stop them. 

            Troubles begin for France whenever a nasty national debt arises in the country, sometime around 1789. This debt is mostly due to the fact that France had financially assisted the American colonists against the British crown during the American Revolution.  The French citizens are now left with the burden of paying unnecessary taxes.  Dickens describes this financial state in the early pages of his novel when he famously talks about the “best of times and the worst of times:” “France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it (Dickens 7).  Compared with Great Britain, the French ruling class has been abusive in financial matters. The “smoothness” of their spending suggests that they hardly take any consideration as to how their spending will affect their people. They recklessly use money for their own pleasure and all the while going “downhill” on a moral level.  Such abuses call out for reform to the struggling and impoverished French men, women, and children.  These financial matters lead to burdensome taxations, which usually take around ten to fifteen percent of a peasant’s gross product (Doyle 11).  How can people be expected to make a living if taxes drastically take every penny that they own? The fact that the ruling class imposes this tax seems to be a slap in the face.  The poor, meaning those without adequate employment or other assured means of support, number at the best of times one-third of the population: eight million people (Doyle 14).  Dickens even goes out of his way to emphasize the results of poverty a tourist would behold: “Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses…Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves…” (Dickens 33).un ger HungerHH  With so many people struggling with unfair taxes and starvation, it is only a matter of time before a revolution is sparked in the nation.  People demand a system that addresses reform for France, and Dickens agrees with such thoughts.

            If a person doesn’t pay their taxes, then they are sent from their impoverished farm to an even more impoverished jailhouse.  Prison systems in France are terribly handled in how they are constructed, leading to the misery of prisoners.  Dickens describes a typical jail in France as to its living conditions: “…gloomy vaults where the light of day had never shone…hideous doors of dark dens and cages…” (Dickens 215).  The words “gloomy,” “hideous,” and “dark” not only capture the tone of melancholy in the chapter, but also explain the dismal atmosphere that prisoners are subject to by the ruling authorities.  The prison vaults are not the happiest places to live in to say the least: they have little food and water to sustain their subjects and sleeping in a decent place is simply an illusion.  There could very well be diseases brooding in such ill kept dungeons, probably killing the prisoners off sooner.  Louis XVI exercises his tyranny by making rebellious prisoners suffer as much as possible for wanting to a new society to arise in the name of liberty and justice.  Whether or not the crimes are actual conspiracies against authoritarian abuse doesn’t matter; if you are a suspect, then you’re thrown into whatever dark pit the king sees fit.  In 1842, Dickens publishes “American Notes” in which he condemns the prison system in America.  This piece of non-fiction becomes one of his inspirations for the harsh details of prison life in A Tale of Two Cities.  Prison life is unfathomable; “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers… (Cotsell 27).  To endure the king’s wrath takes endurance that is not common to a human and not for a short time either. Why should people be subject to such torture?  Suffering already becomes the reason why people resort to crime to feed their families.  Yet the efforts fail, and, as a result, they suffer more than ever before.  Those who would rebel against Louis XVI cry out for a more humane and charitable society, one founded on human rights.            

            But Louis XVI ignores the pleas of the people, even going as far as to subject them to forced labor.  Doctor Manette, Lucie’s father, has a secret that is revealed during the trial that sentences Charles Darnay to the guillotine.  He recounts a tale in which a dying young man is telling him about the harsh abuses of the nobility: “…obliged to work for him without pay, obliged to grind our corn at his mill…and forbidden for our lives to keep a single tame bird of our own” (Dickens 323).  The people are virtual animals of the French nobility; not only are they required working for countless hours, but they can’t even keep their own earnings.  Those in power reap all the benefits that the lower classes produce, a very unfair system.  The people are in desperate need of the right to have their own property.  The nobility have become tyrants over the actual living of French subjects.  This forced labor even goes so far as to become slavery.  Slavery exists through many parts of France, unlike Great Britain, which begins to outlaw the institution during the late 1700’s.  France holds several colonies outside of the country, such as the Caribbean, amounting to a total of five-hundred thousand slaves that are responsible for transporting sugar (HistoryWiz).  The institution of slavery, though cruel and inhumane in many ways, provides France with a power structure in the world, particularly against their enemy, England.  But the French do not put up with these abuses for long. Efforts are made to abolish slavery in France.  Blacks from around France send their petitions for freedom to the National Assembly; however, even though blacks have support in the National Assembly, the revolutionaries are not behind the cause all too much.  Slavery slowly makes its way out of France, but not through easy solutions.  Dickens opens people’s eyes to a very real historical problem in that of slavery, one which, in the eyes of the people, ought to give way for African Americans to have as much civil liberties as their white counterparts.       

Even religion is susceptible to abuses in eighteenth century France, for the corrupt ruling class steeps itself in traditional Christian practices.  Dickens describes a character by the name of Monseigneur Evremonde, who is related to Charles Darnay.  He abuses the citizens of France, even leaving the scene of an accident involving his carriage running over an innocent child in the street.  Yet how the man is portrayed is significant: “‘The earth and the fullness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur’” (Dickens 106).  This statement is originally applied to God in the Psalms of the King James Version of the Holy Bible.  Therefore, Dickens implies that France has a nobility that is reverenced even for their pious religiosity. But in the second half of the century, the citizens of France begin to lose their trust in religious authority.  The Church oversteps its boundaries with the people in ways that become problematic in nature.  Most of the criticism directed towards the church comes from The Philosophies such as Denis Diderot (Betros).  Religious matters, according to these writers, should be based more on reason and not superstitions and theological matters that serve no purpose for the country.  It seems as if the Church does not have valid concerns for France, even though the French satirist Voltaire commends nuns for their charity to the sick and the poor (Betros).  True religion, according to the revolutionaries, ought to be a matter for claiming civil rights and equality for man and women of all ages. Failure to do so only serves to show the Church’s hypocrisy.  There is also the troubling fact that religious authorities hold around six percent of the land, leaving people with less space to have farms and homes of their own (Betros).  Why does the Church claim love yet take as much land form the needy as possible? Do they not care for those who struggle under tyranny?  Balance between religion and secular life becomes the ideal that the revolutionaries will follow as they rebel against Louis XVI, though there will be a tendency to push religion further away from life later on in French history.         

When the people have been oppressed for too long, then they begin to rise and rally to further their cause of liberty.  This rebellion in France results in mob violence that horrifies Dickens.  He describes the chaos that erupts when the citizens of France come together in their wrath: “Every living creature there held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it” (Dickens 212).  Ironically, even though the people are rebelling in the name of liberty and prosperity, their actions are so violent that innocent lives are swept away in their fury.  The people only serve to increase the pain that Louis XVI brought upon the people due to his own tyranny.  “Demented” is the word that expresses Dickens’ emotions about the revolt; it is chaotic in nature and at its worst, demonic.  People are not acting according to Enlightenment values of reason and respect but rather like animals.  The word “sacrifice” sounds patriotic, yet in this context, sacrificing has nothing to do with honorable intentions but meaningless bloodshed. “Passionate” describes the misplaced zeal the people have for a revolution. It would be more pure, according to Dickens, if it wasn’t so violent. But as things stand, the revolution has gotten out of control.  Thomas Carlyle, a deep inspiration Dickens has to write A Tale of Two Cities, describes how the people come together to rage: “Raging multitudes surround the Hotel de Ville crying ‘Arms! Orders!’” (Carlyle 187).  The people’s strength comes from their large numbers, and their strategy is to rush straight towards the people they despise so much and get rid of them.  A new order must be imposed, and an attempt is made to ratify a new constitution for France. The ruling class does not stand a chance against this new brute strength. But the revolt is mindless all the same.  Dickens would rather the people work out a peaceable solution to reform, for he is always an opponent of mob violence. 

The storming of the Bastille, France’s most important prison system, often serves as a picture of the people’s violence during the French Revolution.  There are a variety of reasons the people wish to take over the Bastille; one is so prisoners who are not guilty can be free as well getting their hands on any stored weaponry they can handle in order to increase the power of their rebellion. Dickens condemns the harsh rioting when he speaks of the chaos that ensues at the Bastille: “‘The Prisoners The Records! The secret cells! The instruments of torture! The Prisoners…the billows rolled pass, threatening death if any secret nook remained undisclosed” (Dickens 214).  The people are running through the streets of Versailles, shouting cries of reform, yet they oddly punish anyone who gets in their way. The “billow” comparison allows the reader to visualize a sea that is raging on a shore; the people propel themselves to the Bastille, climbing over its walls and slaughtering the soldiers who stand guard to protect it.  The persons that eventually take over the Bastille number to around nine-hundred and fifty-five citizens (Godechot 221).  Though the prison system is guarded by a number of cannon systems that flank the walls, the people still manage to siege the Bastille (Godechot 218).  Such a victory for the revolutionaries gives them an insurmountable advantage over the ruling class. But at the same time, they have become just as vicious as their oppressors.  What will keep them from tyrannizing the people who they deemed as evil now that the weapons are in their hands? Dickens is not convinced of any innocence regarding this monumental rebellion.

The people’s fanaticism begins to rise to a destructive pitch in that the guillotine becomes the sole instrument for punishing people that are deemed treacherous to the progress of the Revolution.  Charles Darnay, by attempting to stand up for a friend in France, ends up being arrested by the revolutionaries.  Because he is tied to the ruling class that gave France so much trouble, he is sentenced to death by the guillotine (even though he has avoided being sentenced to death twice).  Dickens describes the immanency of death in France: “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 one realisation, Guillotine” (Dickens 367).  The “day’s wine” is the general service France receives each day, services that are supposed to be seen by the revolutionaries as ample patriotic acts. But Dickens refers to the guillotine as a “Monster” that is so demonic that even the mind cannot conceive of its horrors.  They cannot even be “recorded” in history since history has never witnessed bloodshed on such a monumental level before.  All of life ends up leading to death for anyone opposed to the reforms in France, so one must be careful of whom one crosses.  Yet the violence is so widespread that avoiding being labeled as a traitor is almost impossible.  One such person who serves in using the guillotine is Robespierre.  Robespierre has considerable political influence in France to the point to where he is able to assemble his own squad of people to further the violence.  Robespierre’s legacy is famously referred to as “The Reign of Terror.”  Thousands of royalists, bourgeoisie, moderates, and even a few of the revolutionaries themselves are beheaded (Streich).  Among the many people executed is Louis the XVI himself and his wife Marie Antoinette.  Marie will die shortly after her husband, after being mocked by the torturers. The reason was that she is claimed to have told the people to “eat grass” as a response to their needs. In 1794 however, Robespierre’s regime will come to a halt. Most scholars speculate that his downfall results from his having no strong base of support; he has no generals or army men to further his causes of revolution (Streich).  Yet even though the vengeful politician is out of the scene, the damage has been done. It is estimated that thousands died due to the guillotine under Robespierre.  For Dickens, how can the revolutionary cause be seen as a positive change of realities when clearly there is only more despair and bloodshed? 

Even women take their share in the French Revolution in order to create more equality for females everywhere.  British writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft have already argued for women’s rights and the movements of feminism spread to France over the years.  Compared to Great Britain, women gain rights quicker, for France, overall, is more liberal than England at the time.  In fact, England grows distrustful of French women and men for their violent tendencies to untraditional liberties. Females in the eyes of Charles Dickens can sometimes be seen as vicious women furthering a destructive cause.  One character in the novel, Madame Defarge, helps the Frenchmen storm the Bastille and murder as many enemies as possible with a deadly knife.  She exemplifies the typical female revolutionist: “…she did not often make mistakes against herself in any of the reckonings over which she presided” (Dickens 35).  Women have more control over matters than they have had in the past. The furor of women to rebel against the ruling class is so that they can have equal rights.  In this sense, they mirror the efforts of African Americans to have their own freedom.  Their main goal is to halt the ant-revolutionary efforts of the royalists, who want the people to remain loyal to the French crown (Rose). The numbers are against the ruling class and they can only sit and wait as their absolutist society is dragged down by both men and women.  Madame Defarge becomes a symbol of women who rebel in France; when the revolution first breaks out, militant women storm Versailles on October 5th, 1789, armed with murderous clubs and pickaxes (Rose).  They are no longer seen as inferior to men in the act of causing and leading a revolution. Anyone who is ready to revolt against Louis XVI is more than welcome to do so.  The French Revolution marks the beginning of political organizations for women, such as The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women (Rose).  Yet with all the “progress” for women’s rights, why resort to cruel measures whenever women themselves sometimes complain about harsh abuses from males (at least in Dickens’ view). Dickens would rather women to hold to the old code of womanhood in that a woman should be peaceable and gentle to her fellow man, like Lucie Darnay, and not in the excessive revenge as Madame Defarge.

So if the ruling class, with its insistence on order and stability, creates a hell for the people of France through vile abuses, and the revolutionaries rebel with violent revenge, how can there be any positive change? There is only continual death, symbolized by the Guillotine. Yet Dickens believes he has found a solution to the problem France faces: Love. Only love can be the bond that unites people in the name of peace, prosperity and happiness. To illustrate this view, Dickens gives the reader Sydney Carton, the drunkard who sacrifices himself due to his love for Lucie Darnay.  He takes Charles Darnay’s place in punishment by disguising himself as Lucie’s husband. Lucie gives him a farewell kiss, blessing him for his deep generosity.  Dickens imagines Sydney giving a final epitaph: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known” (Dickens 372).  Sydney makes up for his drunken lifestyle by his love for Lucie and all the people of both France and Great Britain. He also holds a view that makes its way into many of Dickens’ novels: the theme of religion. In this case, Dickens preaches the doctrine of the resurrection, in that souls are made eternal and will rise once again. This occurs through the love of God Himself.  When one loves their neighbor, they possess a power far greater than any revolution.  What Sydney does is “better” in that it avoids needless abuses and bloodshed. The French Revolution need never have happened if people had been willing to care about one another; the ruling class would have governed with respect and dignity, and the subjects wouldn’t have resorted to extreme measures to insure the demands of justice.  When humans fail to see one another as important as themselves, then war and despair will be their only consolation.       

Works Cited

Betros, Gemma. “The French Revolution and the Catholic Church.” History Today.com. History Today Ltd., 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004. Print.

Dickens, Charles. “The Solitary Prisoner from American Notes.” Critical Essays on Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. Ed. Michael A. Cotsell. New York: G.K. Hall and Co., 1998. 23-32. Print.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Print.

Godechot, Jacques. The Taking of the Bastille July 14th, 1789. Trans. Jean Stewart. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970. Print.

Rose, R.B. “Feminism, Women, and The French Revolution.” Australian Journal of Politics and History 40. Supplement s1 (1994): 173-186. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.

Streich, Michael. “The Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.” Suite101.com Suite101.com Media Inc. 2 Jul. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

 

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One response to “Social Decadence in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Pingback: Social Decadence in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities | The World According to Devin Stevens

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