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Tale of Two Cities: Capital Punishment in 18th Century France

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Early on in A Tale of Two Cities, we learn the fate of criminals does not always seem to have a just outcome. “Humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pinchers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain” (Dickens 5) seems to be a bit much. Yet Charles Dickens uses sarcasm often when he is talking about these different punishments. He has no filter when he is stating these gruesome facts and his lack of concern helps to make it easier for the reader to be able to understand the harsh punishments that took place in 18th century France.

The most famous execution method that was used in 18th century France was the guillotine. It was used by multiple different revolutionaries to kill the aristocracy in the town squares and other public places. Not only was this method of execution seen as the most humane way to kill people at this time, but it was also the most efficient option (Walton). “Twenty-two friends of high public mark, twenty-one living and one dead, it had lopped the heads off, in one morning, in as many minutes.” (Dickens 337). In this quote, Dickens shows the reader just how bloodthirsty the people of France are by stating that they were killing all of the prisoners as quickly as they possibly could. This use of the guillotine leads to a common theme throughout the novel and gives the reader a sense of the pace of executions. The use of the guillotine was so efficient that there would be many executed by this method each day. The pressing urge to kill people lead to the popularity of quick executions such as the guillotine (Ward).

In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens mentions the guillotine many times and even personifies the object as if it were a living person. For instance he uses the phrase “La Guillotine” (Dickens 312) when talking about the guillotine and the use of this execution device. “‘the sharp female newly-born, and called La Guillotine,’ was hardly known to him.” (Dickens 312). He refers to the guillotine as a woman and makes it known that “she” is a new way to die. Dickens also uses an abundance of sarcasm and a joking tone when he describes the guillotine. “It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for a headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning gray, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine look through the little window and sneezed into the sack” (Dickens 337). This is another example of the sarcastic tones that he uses as a way to convey his thoughts and feelings about the guillotine.

When people were executed by the guillotine, it was seen as a sick form of entertainment for the crowd. Vendors would sell programs with all the victims’ names on it to the crowd before the executions (Walton). It was uncommon that the crowd who came to all of the beheadings to act respectfully, instead many cheered and yelled during the event. “An ominous crowd gathered to see him dismount at the posting yard, and many voices called out loudly,‘Down with the emigrant!’” (Dickens 306). Dickens shows yet again the vulgar nature of the spectators that watched these quick deaths. The guillotine was seen as an equal way for both aristocrats and commoners to be executed. Although before the revolution, prisoners actually had to pay to be beheaded by the guillotine instead of the other option which was being hanged (Walton). The guillotine was used in the execution of over 30,000 people until it was abolished by the French Government in the year 1981 (“Torture and Execution Methods”) .

The guillotine was by far the most famous execution device during this time period, but another unusual, but common torture technique was known as quartering. Quartering a person meant that each of his limbs would be tied to different horses and then quite literally pulled apart from the body. This was done to humiliate the prisoner even after his death, according to “Torture and Execution Methods.” Jerry Cruncher in A Tale of Two Cities is a grave robber, but punishments like these ruined his business. “‘I suppose they’ll be trying Forgies this morning?’/ ’Treason!’/ That’s quartering,’ said Jerry” (Dickens 72).

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Quartering was a method that was used in the case of capital punishment crimes such as treason or espionage for men. Women convicted of similar crimes would be burned at the stake (Ward). Being burned alive was a long and painful execution because in most cases the prisoner would burn for a long period of time before death. In these cases, death was from heatstroke, loss of blood or thermal decomposition of organs. If a large number of prisoners were being burned alive at the same time, many of those prisoners would die from smoke inhalation long before actually burning (“Torture and Execution Methods”).

The most usual and common technique for execution in the 18th century was hanging. Being hanged was usually a method for the poor because it was a slow and painful death. In France, people would be hanged for small minor crimes such as thievery as well as some other larger crimes (Ward). When a person is being hanged it is considered a public event and everyone gathers around the gallows to watch the event (Walton). “At length, on Sunday night when all the village is asleep, come, soldiers, winding down from the prison, and their guns ring on the stones of the little street. Workmen dig, workmen hammer, soldiers laugh and sing; in the morning, by the fountain, there is raised a gallows forty feet high, poisoning the water” (Dickens 210). It was common for gallows to be built in the night and set up the next day in a public place. These gallows seem like a dark and dreadful place because they would show up one day and then were gone the next. They would ruin what townspeople considered happy places and made them into a painful and scary memory.

For crimes that are more serious like murder or robbery the prisoner could be subject to the rack. “It consisted of a rectangular, usually wooden frame, raised from the ground, with a roller at one end or both ends, having at one end a fixed bar to which the legs were fastened, and at the other a movable bar to which the hands were tied” (“Torture and Execution Methods”). The rack dislocated the limbs of the prisoner, and was used to get a convicted criminal to give up their accomplices. It was such a painful and scary form of torture that many people confessed by just watching someone else being tortured on the rack (Ward). Dickens refers to the rack a few times in A Tale of Two Cities, but never goes into full detail about its horror like he does with many of the other forms of punishment. “Thus it was, however; and the last drop of blood having been extracted from the flints, and the last screw of the rack having been turned so often that its purchase crumbled, and it now turned and turned with nothing to bite,” (Dickens 279). This quote means that the rack was used so often that it broke and was in a sense retired. The reader should feel a sense of relief that Dickens didn’t go into detail because the terrifying nature of this device could be easily too graphic for many readers.

A less famous and gruesome form of punishment was the pillory used in 18th century France. “The pillory was a device made of a wooden or metal framework erected on a post, with holes for securing the head and hands” (“Torture and Execution Methods”). This form of punishment differs from the guillotine because instead of this being used as an execution device, the pillory was actually used more for torture and focused on the humiliation of a given prisoner. It was a form of entertainment for the public because anyone in the pillory could be there for hours and the public was allowed to throw different things at them while they were there. Every time that someone was put in the pillory the harm that the prisoner might endure was never known because the public might throw rotten fruit at the prisoner, or in some cases even choose to throw rocks and harm the prisoners severely (“Torture and Execution Methods”). The pillory also served as a whipping post in some cases because the prisoner was already restrained. “It was famous, too, for the pillory, a wise old institution, that inflicted a punishment of which no one could foresee the extent; also, for the whipping-post, another dear old institution, very humanizing and softening to behold in action;” (Dickens 73). Dickens understands the different uses of the pillory and conveys his opinion about the scale of damage it could do to a prisoner.

A Tale of Two Cities never outright mentions psychological torture, but it is a common theme throughout the book. Dr. Manette is kept in a prison cell for seventeen years with no contact with the outside world. The form of punishment Dr. Manette underwent is known as solitary confinement. Psychological torture isn’t as noticeable unless it affects the behavior of the prisoner (“Torture and Execution Methods”). An example of this would be the use of extreme stress in different situations such as mock executions, shunning and solitary confinement. Many times the prisoner would have no visually noticable signs for phycological torture because it required no physical pain unless self-inflicted (“Torture and Execution Methods”). The use of phycological torture is an underlying theme throught the book because many characters are affected by it in different ways. Another affected character is Charles Darnay because he too was confined in prison and Dickens shows that he is starting to lose it by describing how he was walking around the cells counting his steps to measure the width and length of the cell.

Dickens referenced and talked about many different types of torture and execution in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The use of capital punishment in 18th century France was a cruel way to end a person life. The justice system itself was unfair and led to the deaths of many innocent people. Dickens was very knowledgeable and credible when he talks about this topic because of the time that he spent as a court reporter. This knowledge led to a very in depth and factually correct description of the forms of punishment. His discriptions of the different forms of capital punishment made the novel more exciting to read and gave the readers a better senese of the grusome happening of the time.

Works Cited

  1. Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. McDougal Littell Inc., 1997.
  2. “Torture and Execution Methods.” Medieval Warfare, 24 Aug. 2012. Accessed 13 Dec. 2019.
  3. Walton, Geri. “Torture in 18th Century France.” 10 Oct. 2016. Accessed 10 Dec. 2019.
  4. Ward, Richard. “A Global History of Execution and the Criminal Corpse.” 2015. Accessed 15 Dec. 2019.

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Tale of Two Cities: Capital Punishment in 18th Century France. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 10, 2023, from
“Tale of Two Cities: Capital Punishment in 18th Century France.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
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