Scholars describe A Tale of Two Cities as the least Dickensian of Dickens' novels, yet it remains one of Dickens' most widely read books. It was originally published in weekly installments in All the Year Round, from April 30 to November 29, 1859. From the book's inception, it received mixed critical reviews, but succeeded in capturing the imagination of general readers through its swift, exciting story and memorable rendering of the French Revolution.
The idea for A Tale of Two Cities originated in two main sources. Always interested in the interaction between individuals and society, Dickens was particularly intrigued by Thomas Carlyle's history, The French Revolution. He saw similarities between the forces that led to the Revolution and the oppression and unrest occurring in England in his own time. Although he supported the idea of people rising up against tyranny, the violence that characterized the French Revolution troubled him.
Dickens was also drawn to the themes inherent in The Frozen Deep, a play that Wilkie Collins wrote and in which Dickens acted. In the play, two men compete for the same woman, Clara Burnham. When she chooses Frank Aldersley over Richard Wardour, Wardour (played by Dickens) vows revenge upon his rival, even though he doesn't know who his rival is. While on an arctic expedition together, the two men get stranded. Wardour discovers that Aldersley is his rival, but instead of leaving him to die, Wardour overcomes his anger and saves Aldersley's life by carrying him to safety. Collapsing at Clara's feet, Wardour dies from his efforts while Clara weeps over him. The idea of Wardour's heroism and sacrifice strongly affected Dickens, and during the course of the play, as Dickens notes in the preface to A Tale of Two Cities, he "conceived the main idea of this story."
An examination of Dickens' personal life at the time he decided to write A Tale of Two Cities also reveals what may have motivated him to write this particular story. His marriage to Catherine Hogarth had been deteriorating for years, and in May 1858, they decided to separate. Meanwhile, he had met a young woman named Ellen Ternan while performing in The Frozen Deep, and began a clandestine relationship with her that would continue until his death. Additionally, a disagreement with his publishers at Household Words led to his resignation as editor and the creation of a new magazine, All the Year Round. Dickens used A Tale of Two Cities to launch the new magazine, and the themes of secrecy and upheaval that run throughout the book may be reflections of the experiences Dickens was encountering in his own life.
Dickens took a different approach to writing A Tale of Two Cities than to his previous novels and described the book as an experiment. Rather than relying upon dialogue to develop characters, Dickens instead relied upon the plot. Consequently, the characters are defined by their actions and by their place within the movement of the overall story. Critics have complained that this technique results in a loss of Dickens' strengths in his writing, including his sense of humor and his memorable characters. They agree, however, that Dickens' experiment created his most tightly plotted novel, in which the narrative moves along quickly and smoothly. The book's well-conceived structure neatly blends all of the storylines and characters, so that by the end of the book, no question remains as to how each element of the book impacts all the others.
Dickens' social ideas in this novel are straightforward: the French Revolution was inevitable because the aristocracy exploited and plundered the poor, driving them to revolt. Therefore, oppression on a large scale results in anarchy, and anarchy produces a police state. One of Dickens' strongest convictions was that the English people might erupt at any moment into a mass of bloody revolutionists. It is clear today that he was mistaken, but the idea was firmly planted in his mind, as well as in the minds of his contemporaries. A Tale of Two Cities was partly an attempt to show his readers the dangers of a possible revolution. This idea was not the first time a simple — and incorrect — conviction became the occasion for a serious and powerful work of art.
Violent revolutionary activity caught up almost all of Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century, and middle-class Englishmen naturally feared that widespread rebellion might take place at home. Dickens knew what poverty was like and how common it was. He realized the inadequacy of philanthropic institutions when confronted by the enormous misery of the slums. That Dickens turned to the French Revolution to dramatize the possibility of class uprisings is not surprising; few events in history offer such a concentration of terrors.
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