Ironically, given its immense fame and lasting popularity, A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps the least typically 'Dickensian' of Dickens's works. It lacks grotesques and contains little or no comedy or satire. His second historical novel (after 1841's Barnaby Rudge), it largely favours story over character development and action over involved dialogue. This is not to say that it is a purely plot-driven work, but it certainly contains fewer ancillary characters and incidents than are customary in a Dickens novel. Instead it is a very taut, focussed book whose morbidity and violence mirror the turmoil experienced by Dickens as he wrote it, fearing that his creative powers were diminishing, unhappily married and filled with longing for the actress Ellen Ternan. As Peter Ackroyd suggests, the novel represents 'the passion of his life transformed into fiction'.
Its major themes are self-sacrifice, compassion, forgiveness, renunciation in the pursuit of love and moral rebirth, although it is perhaps ironic that the situation Dickens tailors in order to demonstrate these broadly Christian concepts is so unremittingly bloody. The novel has been interpreted as a Christian work (albeit less explicitly so than Hard Times) but it is best read as a general statement of Dickens's personal moral beliefs than as a wider religious allegory. A Tale of Two Cities is concerned with the importance of confronting one's mistakes and facing the responsibility one has to resolve them. The most obvious example of this in the novel is Sydney Carton, whose overwhelming love for Lucie Manette embodies the novel's simple final idea- that love (expressed through sacrifice by Carton) is man's greatest capacity and should be our final aim. Loving individuals such as Carton and Darnay are contrasted with the fury and hatred of the mob to emphasise the importance of individual goodness. Examples include Darnay's return to Paris in the face of possible execution in order to rescue a loyal servant, Dr. Manette's desperate attempt to rescue Darnay from the seething mob (Book III, chapter 2), and (of course) Carton's self- sacrificial death, an act of superhuman, almost Biblical altruism.
There is much more to the novel than moral preaching, of course. It is also a powerful examination of mob violence and the potential for insurgence that Dickens always perceived as underlying class differences. He took very particular care over his research for A Tale of Two Cities, seeking the advice of his friend Thomas Carlyle (whose history of the French Revolution he claimed to have read hundreds of times) and ordering large quantities of books from the London Library on the subject. Although perhaps unreliable as a history in itself, it is important to bear in mind the factors in the revolution that so appealed to and appalled Dickens's imagination. Mob rule, disorder, overthrow of the status quo, bloodshed, violence, chaos- all of these ideas occur frequently in Dickens's writing (particularly prominently in Barnaby Rudge). The theme of chaos was very much in Dickens's mind as he wrote. He feared that uprising would be the outcome of current English problems, and wrote to a friend in 1855 that 'a bad harvest... aristocratic insolence or incapacity - a defeat abroad - a mere chance at home [could provoke]... such a devil of a conflagration as had never been beheld before'.
Yet it is a constant paradox in Dickens that whilst sympathising deeply with the lot of the underprivileged individual, any suggestion of mass uprising was anathema to him. In Book I, chapter 1 he angrily relates how France 'entertained herself with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards'. However, Dickens's righteous anger quickly dissipates at the first breathings of organised uprising. Rather like the confusing message of Hard Times, Dickens seems to be recommending in A Tale of Two Cities that the oppressors should be kinder, rather than that the oppressed should militate against them. Whilst appreciating the need for change the cynic in him suspected that violent revolution would quickly engender the very problems that it sought to destroy. Hence at the end of A Tale of Two Cities he presents the image of 'long ranks of new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old' alongside the famous statement of personal sacrifice spoken by Carton.
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