I’d like to be able to say that one of my favourite books by Charles Dickens captivated my imagination because of the writing style or the premise of the story. Alas neither of those are true.
The Tale of Two Cities has remained in a vivid memory box in my head for many decades now for a few reasons. One being the injustice and indignation I felt for Sydney and the victims of the brutal revolution, the other reason, and the main one I might add, being my first literary encounter with the weapon of extermination during the French Revolution. The guillotine.
Yes, I readily admit it is the first and last thing I think of when The Tale of Two Cities is mentioned.
“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”
When I read the book as a child, at about nine or ten years of age, I was both fascinated and appalled by this contraption of horror. A machine that cuts peoples heads off. The brilliance and simplicity of the cruel device was off-set by the crude baskets below it, their sole purpose being to catch the severed heads of the victims.
“The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet…one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees—BLOOD.”
Dickens rather cleverly uses wine to symbolise the bloodshed, violence and almost animalistic brutality of the French Revolution. Traditionally wine is seen as a symbol for the blood of Christ, ergo purification. So what is Dickens saying exactly? The French Revolution was not pure, perhaps even unholy? Interestingly something I believe when it comes to this particular revolution is that the in the end there is no difference between the revolutionaries and the oppressive regime they destroyed. Does the end justify the means?
BLOOD-The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.
The streets of Paris were soaked in blood. The oppressed become judge, jury and hangman. Waves of people are seeking vengeance for the injustice they feel the rich and privileged establishment have done unto them.
The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave, whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them.
Normal, calm upstanding citizens became bloodthirsty killers. They literally ripped men, women and children from limb to limb. Butchered, bludgeoned, trampled and or led them to the guillotine.
Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world—the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine. It was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack.It sheared off heads so many, that it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red.
Pushed, prodded and cajoled by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment, the crowds were only too happy to throw off their chains and rid themselves of years of frustration. Watching the rich squander wealth, food and lives, while they had to fight for an existence. Hmm sounds like something the oppressed Brits of our era should try their hands at, eh? Vive la Revolution!
And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. 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.
Sydney Carton’s last words say a lot about the man. His sacrifice allows another man to live a life in his stead, to love a woman who would never have been his.
It’s almost as if he feels he deserves to die or is his mind-set more on the level of a man expecting his deed to lead to some type elevation of his character. He becomes the martyr.
I know there is a lot of discussion about Sydney or rather what Dicken’s intent was. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the most obvious one. Sydney was created to be discussed, his actions and words to be scrutinised. A spotlight on the actions of the French Revolutionaries.
“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.”
How far would you or I go to help others? To the point of self-sacrifice? Can we be revolutionaries without becoming the oppressors ourselves?
This may not be Dickens best in terms of literary finesse, but it is certainly a memorable political statement. Drama entwined with righteous indignation and a great sense of injustice. Enjoy!
Read A Tale of Two Cities, The Cricket on the Hearth, Sketches by Boz, The Chimes, The Battle of Life, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations or Oliver Twist at Feedbooks. Nicholas Nickleby, Masterpieces from Charles Dickens or The Chimes and The Works of Charles Dickens at the Internet Archive. Alternatively you can listen to American Notes for General Circulation, A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge, Bleak House, A Christmas Carol, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield or Hard Times at Librivox.
Read King Arthur was a Gentleman, Twelve Stories and a Dream, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories from The Sun, The Tale, As You Like it, Diary of a Madman, The Mighty Batman, The Child that went with the Fairies, Love is Strange, Spooks run Wild, Dicken’s Other Christmas Tale, The Signal-Man, A Christmas Carol, Somebody’s Luggage, Hunting Down a Killer or Nosferatu right here on the blog.
To see the History of the Guillotine go to boisdejustice ( credit for pics 1 and 2)