Dickens’ Own Fleurs du Mal

Few if any novels have distinctly moistened my eyes, but Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities recently achieved that distinction in its last pages. I had read the novel perhaps forty-five years ago, and I now read the very same paperback copy that I had read so long ago, priced at an astonishing half dollar, marked with occasional underlinings and rare marginalia from that long-ago first read. I remembered that I liked the book, and I remembered a few essentials of its plot, but all of its intricacies and moral implications were long gone.

For some reason, however, I had remembered it portraying a more Burkean view of the French Revolution, that is, a view more from the aristocratic parapets than from the hollow eyes of the oppressed masses. Possibly I unfairly calumniate Burke, not having actually read his history of the Revolution. Twain, by contrast, defended the Revolution by comparing the relative drops of blood it spilled in the 1790s to the “hogsheads” of blood spilled by the church, crown, and nobility in the centuries preceding. Twain’s view would have found much sympathy with French atheist priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729), whose loathing of the unholy confederacy of church and state, especially in their joint barbarous extortion and grinding oppression of the wretched peasantry, was poured out in secret scribblings by candlelight.

This universal and all too human theme of the oppression of the poor by the privileged rich does finds its way, as I had forgotten, into Dickens’ historical masterpiece. Most of the plot inevitably focuses on the period of the Revolution and its lust for human heads provided by the National Razor. But only one of the sympathetic characters, Darnay, is aristocratic by birth, and he repudiates that heritage and its cruelties to earn his own way in his adopted England. More poignantly, Dickens eviscerates the contempt of the aristocracy for all of those unkempt and bestial masses who encroach upon the nobility’s privilege and entitlement simply by the masses’ wretched existence. Darnay’s father embodies this contempt in his wholly remorseless though unintended striking and killing of an infant by his reckless coach careening through the narrow Paris streets, condescending to be bought off by flinging a coin on the cobblestones to the child’s distraught but unappeased father. Darnay’s uncle, no less intoxicated by centuries of unearned privilege and entitled importance, rapes a young peasant woman, then kills her brave and youthful brother who presumes to draw a sword on him for the crime. Then father and uncle together, fearing the doctor whom they abduct to tend to both dying victims, conclude that he is not to be trusted with the truth and connive to have him thrown into the Bastille for twenty years.

Dickens is no friend of the guillotine, but he knows its gestation and birth in the long centuries of the highborn tyrannizing the downtrodden, and thus comes the Revolution: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit, according to its kind.” The tumbrils rolling through Paris streets carrying to their execution the newly humbled aristocrats side by side with the lowborn, contrived enemies of the Revolution were only a little while ago “the carriages of monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants!” Evil sown is evil reaped, and the brave Sydney Carton, just before the blade falls, peacefully envisions these “long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use.” But rather than an endless cycle of the oppressed supplanting their oppressors, only to become the new oppressors, Carton, and Dickens, see hope: “. . . a beautiful city and brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” The feckless and wastrel life of Sydney Carton is wholly redeemed by his love of Lucy and her family and the great sacrifice he makes to save them as he bows down on that “retributive instrument”: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

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