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A Tale of Two Cities is a popular, historic novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It was initially published as a serial in the weekly entitled All Year Round, from April 30 to November 29, 1859. The novel concentrates on the social and psychological crises more than on a retelling of the actual historical event of the war. Dickens' vision of the Terror encompasses aristocratic exploitation and neglect of the poor, public bloodshed, and private vengeance.
Dickens' source of the French Revolution is undoubtedly Thomas Carlyle's monumental work, The French Revolution. He is also indebted to Bulwer-Lytton's novel Zanoni and Watt Philips' play The Dead Heart, both having the French Revolution as their background. Even though Dickens relied upon other works, his vision and view in A Tale of Two Cities are clearly his own. He expresses his views most clearly when he shows how uncaring the aristocrats were to the plight of common people. But he is able to shift his sympathy away from the mob of French patriot revolutionaries to the plight of the aristocrats and their families. His dislike of the mob is seen in an earlier historical novel, Barnaby Rudge. There the mob storms the Newgate Prison, but the authorities are able to quell the violence. The vengeful, bloodthirsty mob that storms the Bastille cannot be restrained.
Dickens handles the historic event with maturity. He reveals the similarity between the behaviors of both aristocrats and the revolutionaries. Dr. Manette is thrown into prison without reason or trial in the same way that the patriots send innocent people, like Darnay or the seamstress, to death by the guillotine without a fair trial.
There is an autobiographical element in the story, for Dickens identifies himself with both Dr. Manette and Sydney Carton. He was in love with Ellen Terman, and the way Carton worships Lucie is the way Dickens loved Ellen. Like Dr. Manette, Dickens lived in two worlds--one of stark reality that he chose to forget and an imaginary one that made his bad experiences more acceptable.
The novel displays several literary influences. Dickens refers to classical legend in the chapter titled "The Gorgon's Head." His Themes and characters also seem to be influenced by the Bible, especially the New Testament and its concepts of resurrection and redemption. He finally draws on the techniques used in folklore, fairy tales, and fable to enrich the descriptive passages. The symbols, allegory, and irony thus become more effective.
Revolutions have occurred ever since the first oppressed people became tired of their tyrannical rulers. They have been the cry of the downtrodden since the beginning of time, symbolizing hope for a better future. The French Revolution, which occurred from 1789 until 1799, violently transformed France from a country ruled by a monarch with a rigid social hierarchy into a modern nation where the social structure was loosened and power passed increasingly to the middle classes. The weakness of King Louis XVI is regarded as a crucial factor that started the revolution. He ignored individual rights, rich and poor alike. During his reign, the ordinary French person was very poor, and food became scarce and expensive. The agricultural recession in 1776 forced property owners to exploit their sources of revenue; but the growing middle class threatened the established landed aristocracy.
When the lower classes refused to pay more taxes, the royal ministers attempted to tax all landowners. This plan led to the Aristocratic Revolt. Their first meeting in 1789, in Versailles, was paralyzed because the Third Estate (the Commons) refused to meet separately as a distinct inferior body. On June 17, the Commons took the very important revolutionary step of declaring their assembly to be the National Assembly and thus the States-General was destroyed. They asserted their power, and to show who really was in control, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille on July 14. Riots broke out everywhere. The failure of the 1788 harvest and an exceptionally severe winter aggravated the discontent of the peasants. They robbed and burned the chateaux of the aristocracy and destroyed all records. This episode is known as the Grande Peur (Great Fear).