The Essence of a Revolution
There have been countless revolutions in the world, all having different causes and outcomes. Many are known for their violence, and the unnecessarily bloody way in which revolutionaries try to overthrow the system they disagree with. The French Revolution is widely known for its brutality and for the extreme rage that the revolutionaries felt because of injustice and oppression. Because the French Revolution is so fierce, memorable, and complex, many authors have tried to accomplish the challenging task of capturing the real character of it.
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Charles Dickens successfully captures the essence of the French Revolution in the novel by conveying to the reader the main causes of the revolution, the violence that took place, and the disgust and hostility that the people felt towards the aristocracy. All of these aspects come together to express the essence of the French as well as many other revolutions. Dickens does an excellent job communicating to the reader the main causes of the revolution, and this is a major element for capturing the essence of it.
The French Revolution was mostly caused by economic crisis and social injustice. Economic crisis was due mainly because of King Louis XVI’s investment of large sums of money for the American Revolution, which resulted in the bankruptcy of the French government. ‘The French Revolution’ packet states, “By supporting the American colonists in their war for independence, the French could help to separate Great Britain from its most valuable colonial possession,” (The). This seems like a well-thought plan, but the results of it were not as favorable as the King believed.
The same source states, “An audit in 1788 revealed to King Louis and his ministers that the crown was heavily in debt from the investment on the war and would continue to be so burdened without some way of raising new money,” (The). If the government wanted to raise money, they would need to enforce heavier taxes on the people. Unjust taxations impoverished the middle and lower classes extremely, and it became increasingly difficult to afford food. Hunger increased, and famines created riots and propelled the spread of revolutionary ideas.
It is clear from the book that poverty and need were prevalent everywhere in France. “Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomies in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil,”(26). Undoubtedly, the desperation of the lower class would eventually lead to the revolution. In a memorable chapter named ‘The Wine Shop’, an event takes place which helps the reader understand the hardships that the lower classes endured during the revolution.
A wine cask falls and breaks on the floor, and wine is spilled in the streets. In reaction to this, many people come filled with excitement to drink the wine from the ground, like animals. Because they usually cannot afford to buy wine, the scene is portrayed joyfully and in a celebrative way. “Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped, or tried to help women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads, which were squeezed dry into infants’ mouths… (24).
It is easily understood that these hardships were a great part of what caused the revolution by analyzing the clues that Dickens employs. An example appears in this scene. Here, there is a man who uses wine to write the word blood in a wall. This is strongly foreshadowing the change that is to come. The author is comparing wine to blood, and therefore he is relating the poverty of the people to the blood and change that will come. It is a powerful and effective way to explain why the revolution will happen and to foreshadow it.
All the methods that Dickens uses to explain the causes of the revolution help the reader understand one of the main aspects of the essence. Another aspect that caused the revolution to occur is social injustice. This social injustice rose because of economic inequality and cruel treatment of the poorer classes. Economic inequality was caused mostly by unjust taxations on the bourgeoisie. “This was the educated class which was heavily taxed whereas the ruling nobles and the clergy were exempted from taxation”, (Causes).
Because the ruling nobles and the clergy did not have to pay, the middle and lower classes were forced to pay more to support their fortunate lifestyles. This situation further worsened inequality between the classes. While the nobles had all types of extravagances and overwhelming amounts of fine foods, the middle and lower classes were suffering. The way that the upper classes took advantage of the lower class is seen in A Tale of Two Cities. Monseigneur, a powerful and rich aristocrat, is a representation of the injustice and economic difference in comparison to the lower classes.
His character does everything with great elegance and preparation, including taking his hot chocolate in the mornings. It states, “It took four men, all four a-blaze with gorgeous decoration, and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur’s lips” (94). The characterization that Dickens employs in this case is for the purpose of communicating one of the major reasons why the revolution happened.
On the one hand, people were suffering and hungry. On the other hand, there were people like Monseigneur, who made up a small percentage of the population, and who consumed and took advantage of all the riches of the nation. A source states, “The high-level members of the Catholic Church and the hereditary nobility included about 3% of the population in France. The remaining 97% belonged to the Third Estate,” (The). Not only did the upper classes enjoy unnecessary and unjust privileges compared to those of the lower classes, but there was also discrimination and cruelty towards them.
In the novel, Monsieur the Marquis, another nobleman of the time, represents the cold and cruel members of the aristocracy. The Marquis is traveling in a coach, and suddenly it runs over a child. The child is killed in the accident, but the Marquis does not seem the least bit moved because of this event. He even condemns them, saying, “It is extraordinary to me, that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children… How do I know what injury you have done to my horses? ” (101). He tries to compensate with a couple of coins, which he gives to the child’s father. When someone throws back the coins at him, he says, “You dogs!
I would ride over any of you willingly, and exterminate you from the earth,” (102). The cruelty of the aristocrats raised feelings of hatred and rage from the people. Once again, Dickens includes clues in his writing which change the point of view and lead the reader to think differently about a certain topic. For example, Dickens compares Monsieur the Marquis’ face with a Gorgon’s face. “The Gorgon had surveyed the building again in the night, and had added the one stone face wanting; the stone face for which it had waited through about two hundred years. It lay back on the pillow of Monsieur the Marquis,” (118).
In stating that the Marquis’ face is a stone face, Dickens is implying that the man is cold and heartless, like the Gorgon which he compares him to. The Marquis is indifferent to suffering, and his image is a merciless and pitiless one. As he represents the aristocrats in the novel, the reader feels more sympathy for the lower class. The social injustice that the reader is comprehending by reading about Monseigneur and the cruelty of Monsieur the Marquis gives the reader a sense of what one of the main causes of the revolution were: the economic inequality and social injustice.
In helping to understand the anger of the people, the causes of the revolution are better understood and thus the essence is transmitted to the reader effectively. Eventually, the people decided to stand up against the unjust system they were living in by rioting and protesting, and thus the revolution started. As it began, outbursts of violence took place, which marked the beginning of the revolution. For example, The Storming of the Bastille was an event which marked the first major act of violence against the old system of government.
It began the wave of revolutionary ideas and was a key event in which people expressed their anger and hatred for aristocrats and kings. In A Tale of Two Cities, this event is described in detail by Dickens and gives the reader a sense of how the people felt. The book states, “Every pulse and heart in Saint Antoine was on high-fever strain and at high-fever heat. Every living creature there held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it,” (199).
From this quotation, it is clear that the people were extremely enraged, as they were willing to sacrifice their lives to end the inequality. This shows that their feelings and goals drove them to act against the injustices they disagreed with. When the old system of monarchy was finally overthrown, there came much bloodshed. The period of time when many were killed in the Guillotine, was named ‘The Reign of Terror’. Dickens portrayal of The Terror in A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps what is best known about this novel. It makes up the main plot of the story, and it is as dramatic as it is accurate in historical events.
A source states, “All those men of talent or power who were seen as a threat to the new revolution were sent to the Guillotine. In the course of this Reign of Terror this ungodly regime managed to execute thousands of men who were considered as having the potential to stand up against the regime,” (Reign). Robespierre, the main leader of the Terror, led it by accusing and executing people (in most cases) for being aristocrats or for being part of counter-revolutions. In the novel, the reader gets a good sense of this through the trial and verdict of Charles Darnay, who is part of the Evremonde noble family.
He was denounced by a revolutionary, and in the trial the jury comes to the conclusion that Darnay will be executed by beheading in the guillotine, as many others were for the same reason. The reader understands the Terror in A Tale of Two Cities by reading about the many innocent people that were convicted with the charges of being against the revolution. By reading about radicalization in the novel, the reader comprehends how the people acted to obtain their goals with violence , and therefore learns about one the revolution’s major component and its essence.
The feelings of the common people gave life to this revolutionary era and have the same significance in A Tale of Two Cities. In the revolution, neighbors turned their backs on each other and denounced the aristocrats and counter-revolutionaries, wishing them dead even when they had committed no offenses. To them, being part of the nobility meant they were cruel and unjust. Because of all the hardships that the lower class had endured and all the commodities that the upper class had enjoyed, the common people felt that by exterminating all the aristocrats they would eliminate all injustice and inequality.
Similarly, A Tale of Two Cities communicates how desperate and oppressed these people felt. Through characters such as Madame Defarge and The Vengeance, the reader grasps the real feelings of the common people and is able to step into their shoes. Madame Defarge is consumed with hate for the nobility through the entire story, and the reader does not find out the specific reason why until later in the book: her sister was raped, driven insane, and killed and her brother was killed by a nobleman when trying to avenge his sister. Since then, Madame Defarge blames all the aristocrats for her loss and for all the peoples’ sufferings.
It states, “But, imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her. It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them,” (338). By reading about her character, the reader is able to imagine what some people felt and why they felt it. Another character that Dickens uses to convey to the reader the feelings of the people during the revolution is The Vengeance.
Dickens creates this obvious character to make the feelings of the people extremely clear, and he achieves this very successfully. The Vengeance is always near Madame Defarge, showing that her hatred comes from revenge. Like her friend, she is bloodthirsty and cruel. Charles Dickens uses these two characters to demonstrate the culmination of the feelings of the common people in their passion to eliminate an old oppressive system and install a better one, and to voice his opinion that the oppressed could easily and would most likely become the oppressors.
In helping the reader see the loathing that the people feel towards the aristocracy, Dickens successfully conveys to the reader what the people felt and hoped to accomplish, thus effectively conveying the essence of the revolution. Through A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens teaches the reader about the essence of the French Revolution and, at the same time, about the essence of all revolutions in general. Throughout the novel, it is understood that the revolution is for the better and is necessary. However, the way that the people act to achieve this revolution is often violent, pitiless, and cruel.
Apart from showing this to the reader, Dickens also writes in a way that changes the reader’s perspective of the world. The novel raises questions about the world around us and how people might act and have acted when unfair situations arise, and it leaves the reader pondering the current events and crises of their time. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens not only shows the reader why revolutions occur, but also exposes possibilities for the future and for ourselves.