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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Charles Dickens and Social Revolution

I just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time. I don’t know why I had never read it before—I have loved all the Charles Dickens books I’ve read: David Copperfield, The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Uncommercial Traveler, The Cricket on the Hearth, and A Christmas Carol. One of these days I keep promising myself to read the rest of his books.

But reading a Dickens book these days is not like it was when I was a teenager or college student. Back then I had huge blocks of uninterrupted time in which to invest in a Dickens book. Dickens takes a serious amount of commitment and concentration. I don’t know why that should be, necessarily, because he originally wrote most of his works, if not all, for magazines and published serially, so they could be read in serial fashion and not in large, gulping chunks.

The Knock at the Door (Illustraton by Boz)
Anyway, I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities very much, even as I was struck by the parallels to today’s racism and classism in the situations of the aristocrat who wants to escape the oppressions of his class as much as the oppressed French doctor and his daughter need to escape both that and their country in favor of becoming Britons.

The aristocratic Charles Evrémond realizes early in his life that his class is unfairly oppressing all classes beneath them, and unable to stand it, he renounces his title, his position, his family, and even his ethnic background in favor of becoming the relatively poor-but-gentleman-class British teacher, Charles Darnay. As such, he courts the doctor’s daughter whom he scarcely would have looked at were he still an aristocrat mindful of class and economic levels. Ironically though, she is as French as he is, though she is becoming a British woman with her ostentatiously British nurse/companion, Miss Pross, and her other British suitors beaten out by Charles Darnay, and her father, who is becoming as British as possible.

Lucie Manette’s father, Alexandre Manette, is the doctor imprisoned for no reason for nearly twenty years by the old, oppressive system of French pseudo-justice, and his suffering nearly costs him his reason permanently. As it is, he suffers from a species of what we would probably now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. He is subject to flashbacks and needs a lot of care to keep him out of danger, i.e, out of France. In essence, he needs to become British to heal.

[Spoiler alert!]
The motif continues in the contrasts between French revolutionary Madam Defarge and Lucie Manette Darnay, and also British companion/nurse Miss Pross. Madam Defarge is revealed to be the younger sister of the woman raped and killed by the father and uncle Evrémond, the daughter of the father who died of grief, the sister of the brother murdered for defending his sister, the sister-in-law of the husband murdered for defending his wife. Madam Defarge has every reason to seek revenge and to be a fervent revolutionary, but she is condemned for not being meek and forgiving of those who destroyed her family, like Lucie is of all responsible for her father’s imprisonment and torture. In addition, Madame Defarge is contrasted with her husband, who shows some pity for those whom Dr. Manette loves; his wife has no pity whatsoever. Madame Defarge is held up to ridicule against the staunchly British Miss Pross, although their actions are almost mirrored. Her major crime is a lack of pity, but another crime seems to be in her behaving autonomously, and of course she is French instead of British.
[End of Spoiler]

Well, all that was Dickens’ milieu. The French Revolution was of course of major concern to all British people—as easily as it seemed that France suddenly did away with its monarchy and class system, so too could Britain be overthrown. The American Revolution was still shockingly new, when actual British citizens threw off their monarchy and established a new order of things. Dickens was a product of thinking that these revolutions were ultimately huge mistakes. He was interested in showing that the ideal was to return to a settled, ordered society as it had existed for centuries. Not that he did not condemn the oppressions that the French people were throwing off; but he condemned the way they went about it.

All of his books contain vivid pictures of the oppressions of class and economics, but consistently Dickens is an advocate for a different kind of reform than revolution.

I have to ask myself, why do I cheer for revolutions that are centuries in the past, and condemn the revolutionaries of today? I am a lot like Dickens, I perceive, in that I am afraid of the upheaval of war, the shattering of societal institutions, the terror of violence and bloodshed. Of course I believe that the revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century were justified, although I disagree with the French mass slaughter of relatively innocent people. I cheer for the U.S. revolution, even though I decry the incidences of slaughter of innocent people within it. Today I want change for the better, but I want it relatively peacefully. In Dickens I find the type of social criticism that I believe can lead to badly-needed reform even today.

1 comment:

  1. I should have added that in this book, as in general British thinking, to be French was another crime in and of itself. The British had hated the French for centuries and were still locked into that kind of racism themselves.

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