A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens
Summary

Book the Second: The Golden Thread Chapters 22–24

Summary Book the Second: The Golden Thread Chapters 22–24
Only with the third rope (for two ropes broke, and the quavering voice still pleaded) can he be so much as got hanged! His Body is dragged through the streets; his Head goes aloft on a pike, the mouth filled with grass: amid sounds as of Tophet, from a grass-eating people.

Dickens acknowledges his debt to Carlyle in A Tale of Two Cities’ preface, in which he states that he “hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding [the French Revolution], though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book.” Dickens’s debt to Carlyle, however, runs deeper than the level of historical detail, extending to the book’s philosophical outlook as well. Dickens believed, as Carlyle did, that history is an evolutionary phenomenon. In other words, one era must be destroyed before a new one can develop and thrive, or, as Carlyle noted, “each new age [is] born like the phoenix out of the ashes of the past.”

Yet although Dickens promotes this view of history in which the destruction of the old makes way for the new, he remains ambivalent about the violence accompanying the cycles of eradication. While he acknowledges the evils and oppression that motivated the peasant uprising—he does this most notably in the chapters chronicling the events that lead up to the death of the Marquis—he never goes so far as to romanticize the revolutionaries’ struggles or idealize their cause. Indeed, it is with great horror that he recounts the fall of the Bastille and the ensuing chaos in the streets. The violence may serve to cleanse society of the injustices of the French aristocracy, but it nevertheless creates its own sort of pollution. In describing the peasants’ carefree return to eating, playing, and loving after their bloodthirsty execution of Foulon in Chapter 22, Dickens points toward a fundamentally corrupt side of the human soul.