A Tale of Two Cities provides a window into the terror and madness of the French Revolution. It immerses the reader in the abject poverty, hopelessness and powerlessness of the French working classes. Men and women scrabble in the mud to suck spilt wine from filthy cobbled streets, while the Monsignor sips hot chocolate and toys with his courtiers. A child is trampled under the wheels of a speeding coach, her death a momentary inconvenience to the Marquis galloping home. Dickens vividly presents the brutality and oppression that make the case for revolution incontrovertible. But once the embers of rebellion start to smoulder, the fire soon rages out of control, and things get very messy indeed. The descent into mob justice and bloodlust is rapid and horrifying.
Dickens traces the journey from oppression and righteous rebellion to madness and carnage through the experiences of an English banker and the exiled French family he adopts as his own. Jarvis Lorry is an elderly bachelor, a man of business who keeps his head down and does his duty. His employer sends him to Paris to retrieve a former client, Dr Manette, and bring him to safety in England. Manette, a citizen of France, has just been released from 18 years in the Bastille. Lorry settles Dr Manette and his young daughter Lucie in London, sees Dr Manette restored to the distinguished physician he once was, and over the years becomes part of the family. In time, Lucie marries Charles Darnay, a French emigrant who has forfeited his aristocratic birthright to build a more meritocratic life in England. Their close family circle prospers in London; Paris and its revolutionary rumblings seems distant and remote.
It is, however, all too close. In a wine shop in St Antoine, Ernest Defarge and his formidable wife, having patiently laid the groundwork for revolution, now lead the blood-thirsty mob through the streets, wreaking vengeance and lopping off heads. As the madness reaches its peak, Fate contrives to deposit Lorry, Charles, Dr Manette and Lucie back in Paris. As an aristocrat emigré, Charles is immediately taken prisoner. His incarceration throws his family and friends into the heart of the turbulence. Every day sees more prisoners carted off to La Guillotine. Injustice remains pervasive with the revolutionaries in charge - guilt or innocence is decided on the whim of a vengeful mob.
Fortunately, the best of humanity is also on display. It is exemplified in the selfless devotion of Dr Manette and Lucie, in the quiet courage and loyalty of Lorry, in the bravery and fortitude of Darnay, and in the unexpected manoeuvres of Sydney Carton, the secret hero of the book. Sydney’s role seems predestined. It's as if all his wasted years were necessary to bring him to this moment of sublime sacrifice. His heroic and audacious act transcends the brutality and madness around him, and allows us to believe that goodness and justice will eventually be restored.
A Tale of Two Cities is much more than a story about a particular place and time. It paints a powerful picture of the best and worst of human nature, and sounds an ominous warning that resonates across the centuries: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.” In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, disempowered and impoverished populations have risen up against their oppressors. While the guillotine is thankfully consigned to history, the macabre spectacle of Gaddafi’s death and the celebrations that followed is not very far off la Carmagnole.