A Tale of Two Cities

by: Charles Dickens

How is A Tale of Two Cities a critique of English society?

A Tale of Two Cities presents a nuanced view of the French Revolution. During the period preceding the Revolution, the aristocracy is abusing their power and bringing suffering to people as well as to France in general. The narrator describes how “on inanimate nature as well as on the men and women who cultivated it, a prevalent tendency… towards a dejected disposition to give up, and wither away.” However, while Dickens criticizes the social injustice and suffering created by the old system, he also shows the horrors perpetuated by the Revolution. In describing the fall of the Bastille, Dickens paints a vivid picture of “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.” Even if the Revolutionaries have good reasons to try to change the system, they become dehumanized in their violent struggle to do so.

By the time Dickens was writing, the events of the Revolution were over, but England was plagued by its own problems with social and class injustices. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens uses his critique of both the conditions leading up to the Revolution, and the Revolution itself as a warning to his English audience. He connects the cold and selfish behavior of the aristocracy to the revolutionaries’ violent demands for justice. On a political and also a personal level, the Evremonde family is punished for generations of exploiting others. This storyline serves as a cautionary warning to the English nobility not to become complacent or exploitative. At the same time, the negative representation of figures like Madame Defarge cautions against using violent means to achieve political goals. Through characters like Sidney Carton, Jarvis Lorry, and Miss Pross, the novel suggests that true change comes from individuals who act in unselfish ways, and prioritize loyalty to others.