I have never been an exceptionally “current” person. I often see movies way after they’ve come out on DVD, wear last season’s trends, and eat at restaurants that were posh in the nineties, but this is especially true with literature. With a few notable exceptions, I have trouble keeping pace with contemporary literature. I am constantly reading blogs talking about incredible new novels where I enthusiastically write down the names of ones that sound intriguing on my ever-growing “to read” list, but there they sit, and for many of them, there they stay. I don’t think that classic literature is necessarily better than modern. In fact, they are so different that comparison is futile. But I do know that my favorite stories, the ones that I return to over and over again, tend to have been written in or before the first half of the twentieth century. But to say that I enjoy all the designated “classics” would be presumptive and silly and there are some authors in whom I have relatively no interest, sometimes without reason. So to be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to the subject of this entry, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I haven’t read any other Dickens books since The Cricket on the Hearth in about 6th grade, so in my head were random words that I attributed to him: “musty, verbose, Wilkie Collins, bah humbug.” These were, for the most part, assumptions and associations that had little to do with his actual writing. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I was hooked from the beginning, as doesn’t often happen with novels from this period, that I became caught up in the action and romance of the story, and that I was almost (which for me is really something) brought to tears. But the thing that gets me, really deep down grab-me-by-the-heartstrings gets me, is the fact that, in essence, it is not a book about another time and place. It is about here and now. This is what makes classics classics, why the majority of people (in the Western world at least) know who Charles Dickens is even if they’ve never read a word: the conflicts in this novel, the characters he created, they haven’t died out or evolved. In both a sad and sometimes beautiful way, you realize how very little some things have changed. Let me explain.
The overarching conflict in A Tale of Two Cities is the French Revolution and the unrestrained monstrosities that resulted from it. Exacerbated by the ever-expanding gap between rich and poor, where the wealthy are painted as “exquisite gentlemen of the finest breeding… known by its fruits of indifference to every natural subject of human interest” (131), and the poor as broken, ignorant, and miserable, the latter’s boiling point is finally reached. This eruption is seen in the storming of the Bastille, a symbol of the corrupt elite power structure. Led to a degree by the fearsome Madame Defarge, a woman with a personal vendetta against the aristocracy, the people take over the city, throw every aristocrat they can get their hands on in jail without recourse to a fair trial, and then roll out that sinister symbol of the revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death”: La Guillotine. What happens then is chaos. Starting, as so many revolutions do, as a downtrodden people revolting against the boundless waste and apathy of the rich, it quickly devolves into a bloodbath in which blind revenge parades as justice, mob rule disguises itself as order, and all compassion and human empathy is washed away like blood in the gutter. In this environment, the good and honorable, like Charles Darnay née Evrémonde, who comes back to France to save a friend from being executed in his name (an aristocratic one which he gave up willingly), are presumed guilty simply because of their name and despite their actions, while the most savage and bloodthirsty of the “revolutionaries” are elevated.
What makes this novel interesting is that it is a warning, but not in the way you would think. It is not propaganda to promote or demoralize one side or the other. It warns against the upper classes (that incorrigible one percent!) sinking into wanton decadence and luxury while ignoring or displacing responsibility for the burdens on the middle and poor classes (you guessed it, the ninety-nine) that grow heavier and heavier. But the “bad guys” in A Tale of Two Cities are not the rich, not exclusively. The story also warns against the mob mentality that can easily become reality once the idealistic fervor of revolution wanes a bit. To put it into a modern setting, it begins when a class of people can no longer look the other way while their rights are stolen from them. Consider this context: a nation of people is guaranteed Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness and yet finds the tools needed to ensure these things taken away, such as the right to choose what happens to one’s body, the right to be paid the same as everyone else regardless of class, color, or gender, the right to be paid a living wage and provide for one’s family, among others. When diplomacy fails, when the democratic system fails, what path is left to the common populace but revolution?
Charles Dickens wrote about a dark time in European history, when the poor rose up and swallowed the rich, and yet the system they implanted was at least as corrupt, bloody, and inhumane as the monarchy that kept them in poverty. I think it possible that History will label this, the first decades of the twenty-first century, a dark time in American history. In the world I live in, where American cities go bankrupt and its people suffer while the rest of the country turns a blind eye instead of extending their hand, where the reticence to infringe on the right to bear arms overrides a school room of children’s right to life, where a young man is put on trial for his own murder because of the color of his skin, I sense a revolution coming. Like Jacques Defarge, I don’t know if I will see it in my own lifetime, but I know that the seeds have been planted and the fertilizer of mistreatment and unequal representation has been laid. The way this world is turning, I don’t think it is a remote possibility anymore, nor do I hope that it does not happen. I like the comparison Madame Defarge makes of revolutions to natural disasters:
“‘It does not take a long time,’ said madame, ‘for an earthquake to swallow a town. Eh well! Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?…. But when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything before it. In the meantime, it is always preparing, though it is not seen or heard…. I tell thee… that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats and never stops. I tell thee it is always advancing. Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know, consider the faces of all the world that we know, consider the rage and discontent to which the Jacquerie addresses itself with more and more of certainty every hour. Can such things last? Bah! I mock you” (221-2).
Things need to change. We need to start taking responsibility, not just for our own well-being, but for the overall well-being of our country, and our world. All I can hope for is that we learn from our mistakes, that we remember the blood in the streets of the French and American and Mexican and countless other revolutions. Rights are not won, not truly and not for long, with violence and hatred and vengeance. The Madame Defarges of the world cannot be the paragons of our revolutionary ideals, but neither can the laconic and apathetic Monseigneurs. It must be the people, but the people must maintain in their hearts the knowledge of their equal humanity and their capability for compassion and empathy. That is the only way that there can be hope for a better future.