Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

A few years ago, I read A Tale of Two Cities. Honestly, I had no idea what it was about before I picked it up. I only knew that it was one of my college roommate's favorite books. I was delighted to discover that it is about the French Revolution- a topic of fascination for me thanks to my high school World History class... and Les Miserables. 
I found the book's Introduction by Gillen D'Arcy Wood (Barnes and Noble edition, 2004) equally as fascinating. He pinpoints a few interesting observations made by Dickens about France's culture that contributed to the revolution. A theme that Dickens explores is mob mentality, which intrigues me- the whole concept of people not thinking as individuals but rather as a group. (I have included selections from the introduction below, more for my own reference than anything else).
I wonder if the passages about spectacle and paranoia could be relevant to our society? We may not attend executions or gaze at morgue windows, etc. but then again, the violent content shown on TV and in movies can be pretty close. Those outlets may justify their content by being "not real", but it still creates a fascination with the theme by audiences (ex.: the "Batman" gunner). And could our age of Twitter and Facebook lead to an expectation of "total visibility"? I am not suggesting that we are close to a revolution, just considering our culture and how it might compare to those in the past.

"A Tale of Two Cities... is only in part a 'historical' novel. On Dickens' mind was not so much the state of France in 1789, as the current state of England, and his fear of public riots and mob violence in the streets of London."

"In his novel of the Revolution, Dickens expresses pity, even outrage for the downtrodden individuals under the yoke of France's ancien regime and abhors that regime itself; but once its oppressed citizens transform themselves into a mob, he is filled with the same disgust and horror he experienced at the hanging at Horsemonger Lane [where he had attended a public execution in London to watch the behavior of the crowd]."

"...When Dickens expressed to A.H. Layard his fear of revolution in Britain in 1855, he only echoed many dozens of commentators over the preceding six decades, who wondered why mob violence could not simply cross the English Channel and turn the streets of London into a bloodbath of class retribution. The textbook historian's answer points to the bloodless coup of 1688, the so-called Glorious Revolution, which saw the tyrant James II forced into exile, and William and Mary inaugurate a form of managerial rule in Britain, a constitutional, 'mixed' monarchy where many absolute powers of the Crown were ceded to Parliament....
"But as a novelist, Dickens, who loved Paris and traveled there often, offers more intuitive, closely observed reasons for the untranslatable quality of that city's Revolution. In an 1856 article for his weekly magazine, Household Words, he calls Paris 'the Moon,' and describes a culture of spectacle implicitly alien to his London readers. On the grand Parisian boulevards, Dickens watches the upper classes put on a 'mighty show.' Later, he takes coffee and a cigar at one of Paris' ubiquitous cafes, and participates in a kind of collective voyeurism unfamiliar to the English capital:

The place from which the shop front has been taken makes a gay proscenium; as I sit and smoke, the street becomes a stage, with an endless procession of lively actors crossing and re-crossing. Women with children, carts and coaches, men on horseback, soldiers, water-carriers with their pails, family groups (coming past, flushed, a little late for the play) ... We are all amused, sitting seeing the traffic in the street, and the traffic in the street is in its turn amused by seeing us (Railway Dreaming," pp. 373-374).

"Paris is a society of spectacle, a glamorous outdoor 'stage' where citizens are both actors and audience. Later, in the article, however, Dickens describes a more sinister aspect of this culture of display when he is jostled by the crowds at the Paris morgue, whose 'bodies lie on inclined planes within a great glass window, as though Holbein should represent Death, in his grim Dance, keeping a shop, and displaying his goods like a Regent Street or boulevard linen-draper' (p. 375). Dickens is unnerved here, as he was at Horsemonger Lane, by a society that places no restraints on visibility, even to preserve the solemnity of the dead.
"It is a short step in Dickens' imagination from the peep-show atmosphere of the Paris morgue in 1856 to the ritual slaughter in the Place de la Revolution during Robespierre's 'Reign of Terror' of 1793-1794. A Tale of Two Cities shows the dark side of urban theatricality, that a public appetite for glamorous 'show' can rapidly degenerate into an insatiable hunger for 'scenes of horror and demoralization.' The essentially theatrical quality of Parisian social life produces a theatrical Revolution."

"...The dangers of a society of spectacle are summed up in [Dickens'] response: Whether it is the court of Louis XVI or Robespierre's revolutionary committee, no government that asserts its power in the form of public exhibition can guarantee control of its audience's reaction. The irrational fervor inspired by spectacles may distract the people from ideology... but spectacle may just as easily produce the murderous revolutionary..."
..."But the society of spectacle has a second, more sinister aspect from which England is not immune: paranoia. Dickens in Paris watching the passing crowds, who in turn watch him, might pass for a harmless afternoon's entertainment in the city, but when the opportunity for seeing and being seen is hardened to an expectation, or even a right to total visibility, it is a short distance to paranoia and a culture obsessed with secrets. When there is no escape from the social gaze, voyeurs quickly turn into spies and informants, and the least assertion of individuality or privacy is interpreted as a guilty secret that needs to be exposed." 

"Dickens drew much historical detail for the Paris sections of the novel from Louis-Sebastien Mericer's twelve-volume Le Tableau de Paris (1781-1788). In an essay entitled 'Spies,' Mercier describes how, in the 1780's 'the Parisian... was surrounded... by spies... it was the universal means of gathering secrets for the efficient use of the ministers.' Historians' estimates for the numbers of government agents in Paris alone range up to three thousand."


  1. I'm a little behind in my blog reading, but please tell me I'm the roommate you're referring to!

    I reread this book a year or two ago and was struck again by how amazing it is. I love how Dickens weaves all the characters together. I may just have to read it again now!

  2. Of course it was you! I finished it on a plane, and actually cried at the end.