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The Historical Background And Themes Of The Novel A Tale Of Two Cities

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A Tale of Two Cities is one of a two historical novels written by Charles Dickens during the Victorian age. It’s one of Dickens most heavily plotted full length novels, and may be his best known. It is written in the third person omniscient point of view, and deals with themes of duality, revolution, and resurrection. It speaks of the best times and the worst times in London and Paris, when the economic and political struggles led to the American and French Revolutions. The leading characters of the novel (Doctor Alexandre Manette, Charles Darnay, and Sydney Carton ) are somehow recalled to life, or resurrected, in different ways as chaos erupts. Dickens originally published A tale of two cites in his own weekly magazine, All the Year Round. And despite its length, A Tale of Two Cities often gets described as rushed or fast-paced.

The Victorian Era and the Rise of Novel

The Victorian era of Britain was the period of queen Victoria’s reign from 20 June 1837 until her death, on 22 January 1901. It was a great, long period of peace, prosperity, progress and great social reforms for Britain but at the same time it was characterized by poverty, injustice and social unrest. Ideals of this period were marked by the birth of ‘Respectability’, which distinguished the middle from the lower class. Respectability was a mixture of morality, hypocrisy and conformity to social standards. It meant: The possession of good manners; the ownership of a comfortable house with servants and a carriage; Regular attendance at church; and charitable activity.

Moreover, the Victorians showed great interest in prose, since the greatest literary achievement of that age was found in the rise of novel, novels soon became the most popular form of literature and the main source of entertainment. The conditions that contributed to the rise of novel were:

  1. It was the favourite literary genre of the middle class
  2. The improvement in printing process
  3. The spreading of literacy
  4. The diffusion of landing libraries
  5. The publication of novels in installments in newspapers
  6. The stories, which represented the life of the middle class in a realistic way, but always with a happy ending
  7. The writers and readers shared the same ideas and values (since Victorian writers and also the readers often belonged to the middle class).

The Victorian Criteria in Novel

The novels were published in serial form, and the plot was usually thick, complicated and episodic, involving various subplots. The use of revelation techniques was often in order to keep the reader’s interest alive (since these novels were published in the newspaper the writers were aware of the reading public). As for their point of view, the novels were written in the third person omniscient point of view, the narrator judges people and actions, he makes the stories finish with a wise distribution of “punishment” for the evil characters, “retribution” for the good ones., he knew what was bad and what was right and the good always won over evil (like mentioned above these novels mostly had happy endings) The narrator wanted to show how men should behave, so he had a didactic aim. The setting was usually the city or the industrial town, which is the main symbol of industrial civilization.

The themes handled by the Victorian novels were often about conditions of the workers, exploitation of children, social problems (social novel). Novelists saw and denounced the evils of their time (such as exploitation, poverty), they used their novels in order to put in evidence these evils and to stimulate people to find remedies to them. In this sense didacticism was usually the dominating aim these novels. And that’s why in result, the narrator is generally omniscient as mentioned before. As for the characters, the novelist focused on making realistic characters so that the public can relate to. There were two methods of development and analyzing: the first method analyzed the character’s psychology, as in the characters from Dickens’s novel, the writer analyses their inner life to explain why they behaved in a certain way. The other method was used by the later novelists, it was similar to that of the European development of ‘Naturalism’, an almost scientific look at the human behavior, upon which the narrator no longer had power to comment on the action and thoughts of the characters.

It’s important to note that during the era of Victorianism, creative writing, art and public activity were considered to be masculine. Despite the fact that majority of novel-buyers and readers were women (since they had more time to spend at home). Surprisingly, a great number of the novels published during the middle period of Victorianism (1870- 1880) were written by women, considering the state of subjection of Victorian women, publishing was not easy. So some women had to use a pseudonym in order to publish their work and see it in print.

A Tale of Two Cities, As a Victorian Novel

The Victorian era is the most dynamic period in the history of Great Britain since on one hand, this period reaped the golden fruits of science and technology but on the other hand, this period also marked the birth of various social evil. A Tale of Two Cities deal with the toxic characteristics of this era through multiple points:

The French Revolution

A Tale of Two Cities can be seen as a warning to British society of the mid-nineteenth century. Dickens calls attention to the extraordinary violence of the French Revolution, while showing that the overthrow of a government by violent means inevitably leads to more killing. Many revolutionaries of his day failed to see that Dickens was more concerned with portraying the death and destruction that accompany revolution than with endorsing a working class revolt.

‘In the hunted air of the people there was yet some wild-beast thought of the possibility of turning at bay.’

After describing the hunger that is overtaking the poor neighborhood of Saint Antoine, Dickens compares the peasants to animals that are being driven mad by hunger and rage. The description of the people “turning at bay” suggests that, like animals, they have reached the end of their rope and have no choice but to fight back against their oppressors. This description illustrates the conditions that contributed to the revolution. Dickens deeply sympathizes with the plight of the French peasantry and emphasizes their need for liberation. The several chapters that deal with the Marquis Evrémonde successfully paint a picture of a vicious aristocracy that shamelessly exploits and oppresses the nation’s poor. Although Dickens condemns this oppression, however, he also condemns the peasants’ strategies in overcoming it, For in fighting cruelty with cruelty, the peasants effect no true revolution; rather, they only perpetuate the violence that they themselves have suffered.

Dickens’s most concise and relevant view of revolution comes in the final chapter, in which he notes the slippery slope down from the oppressed to the oppressor:

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“Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”

Though Dickens sees the French Revolution as a great symbol of transformation and resurrection, he emphasizes that its violent means were ultimately antithetical to its end.

The Social Classes and poverty

Social inequality and class conflict are sources of violent disruption and revolution in France. For generations, aristocrats like Monseigneur have thought of nothing else except their own pleasure and luxury. The narrator sarcastically parodies the pretentions of the upper-classes by describing how four servants are involved in serving an aristocrat his morning cup of chocolate, and noting that

“Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men”.

Not only are the French aristocrats presented as spoiled and lazy, but they are also shown to be heartless and lacking in any regard for the lives of the lower classes. Monseigneur cruelly tells the working class Parisians that

“I would ride over any of you very willingly, and exterminate you from the earth”.

The theme of class adds an important element of moral complexity to the novel because Dickens presents both the cruelty of the upper-classes and the brute violence of the lower-classes in equally damning terms.

‘ There was no drainage to carry off the wine, and not only did it all get taken up, but so much mud got taken up along with it, that there might have been a scavenger in the street, if anybody acquainted with it could have believed in such a miraculous presence.’

In this scene, a cask of wine spills in the street of Saint Antoine, a poor neighborhood. The narrator describes how the people of the neighborhood scramble to get some of the wine, and they are so desperate that they end up consuming mud along with the wine. Afterwards, the narrator notes that the street is so clean it appears as if a street cleaner had visited, though no street cleaner would come to this neighborhood. This scene is the first indication of the peasants’ severe poverty.

‘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 life, 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!’

The narrator describes the condition of France after the revolution begins. Although the upper class was meant to be a good thing for the country, their existence led to the bloodbath of the revolution. By blaming their elevated position on “Creation” and “eternal arrangements,” we can see that the upper classes are oblivious to their own actions in bringing about the revolution. While they believe that the world was designed for their happiness and comfort, they did not consider that depriving others of the same comforts might lead to their own demise.

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The Historical Background And Themes Of The Novel A Tale Of Two Cities. (2021, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“The Historical Background And Themes Of The Novel A Tale Of Two Cities.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2021,
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