My Friend, I will die perpetuating the system under which I have lived.
A Tale of Two cities is not a history of events; it is a novel about individual responses to historical events. As such, the individual responses take center-stage in the novel, and the historical events are used as a backdrop by which to judge the various individual responses of the characters. It is a chilling backdrop to every character on the stage, and a revealing one to every reader watching the characters react to it. All of the characters, despite which city they live in, face terrible oppression and injustice, some face the exact same injustices as others, but their responses differ with the power of their imagination; and those characters who posses powerful imagination rise above the terrifying backdrop, while those without it, become a part of the blood-thirsty mod.
In the first episode of the book, Dickens very intentionally calls the doctor, “Recalled to life,” and not, “Risen from the dead.” This is because the doctor is living the entire time, not needing to have his vitals restored, but needing to be reminded of life and its beauty; and he is reminded of this through the compassion of his daughter, which allows him to suppress any vengeful responses to his past, and imagine new ones as compassionate and beautiful as his daughters responses to his resurrection.
This response is quickly contrasted with the first portrait of the streets of France, soaked in wine. Dickens immediately paints the backdrop of the French peoples misery as they scrape muck-laden wine off the streets and shovel it into their mouths, momentarily reveling amongst each other, then going back to hating one another. Here, Dickens foreshadows that soon blood will fill the streets and have the same awful, temporarily exciting effect. But when one character in the crowd writer that word, “Blood,” upon the walls, one of the central question of the book is asked, “Why do you write in the public streets? Is there – tell me thou, is there – is there no other place to write such words in?” As the novel unfolds, the streets do run red with blood, that blood satiates the people no longer than the wine, and we are asked to image through which medium the revolution could have taken place more effectively, and we are answered, but not with another city.
London is portrayed little better than Paris in the novel. Though it does not explode the way France does, its system devours its people, as Dickens says of the state, “The country did very often disinherit its sons for suggesting improvements in laws and customs that had long been highly objectionable, but were only the more respectable,” and says of the people, who Cruncher happily takes his son rioting with, “A monster much dreaded,” and says of the law, it kills all criminals alike, even though, “It did the least good in the way of prevention – it might almost have been worth remarking that the fact was exactly the reverse – but, it cleared off (as to this world) the trouble of each particular case, and left nothing else with it to be looked after.” All of these things, intentionally, could be said about either of the two cities, because neither solves its citizens problems for them, neither gives them an alternative to blood, but we find that alternative in the imaginative characters of both cities, and find it wanting in the unimaginative characters who perpetuate their cities’ mob-like ways.
In a story so heavily pointing to the individual over the masses, it is very reflective that Dickens characterizations are so good. We understand the Lion, Stryver, very well from the moment we meet him outside the courtroom, with his comment, “I did as well as any man could,” which demands a response from one of the characters around him to tell him he is better than any man. But the contrast between his proposal to Miss Manet and Mr Darnet’s very clearly shows that he is not better than any man.
When Stryver introduces his desire to marry Miss Manet to the novel, he does so following a conversation of business with Sydney Carton, and his only fond words of her are, “She rot the admiration of the whole court.” It is this businesslike line-of-thought that draws him to marry her, and he entirely lacks the imagination to see that they’re may be complications: that she may not love him, or that he may hurt her relationship with her father. If there is not businesslike reason that would stop her from marrying him, than he cannot imagine any reason. Even Mr. Lorrie, previously characterized as a thoroughly businesslike man himself, has more imagination than Stryver, and uses it to talk him out of his proposal.
On the contrary, Darnay imagines full well the complications of his love for Miss Manet, but he also fully understands his own love, and so he beautifully expresses it to her father, first. Doctor Manet has his own imagination to struggle with in this proposal scene, and because of this, the scene contains some of the most powerful characterizations in all of the book:
It is the first time we see the Doctor at his full intellectual and energetic capacity, and he uses this to anticipate every question Darnay asks. Through this, we feel his energy, and because of that, when he becomes silent again, we feel how much the matter upsets him. When it is finally revealed to us why this was such a problematic situation for the Doctor, we see that in overcoming his past desire for vengeance, and allowing his daughter to marry the air of his jailor, the doctor has re-imagined his feeling that would have resulted in bloodshed, and instead result in happiness for himself, Darnay, and his daughter.
This is the sort of imagination lacking in the mobs of France, where, “from such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions.” In their vengeful passion, they ignore the want of their own family, the very want that caused that passion in the first place, and are as guilty as Monsignor for perpetuating it.
The imaginative Frenchman in Britain, Mr Darnay, upon hearing about this perpetuation and his place in it, speaks the truth Dr. Manet is living, and hopes, “To pursue some restraint,” in the French mobs. This is the only way the terror can stop, and real justice can be imagined, so both the mob of Paris and the imaginative people of the novel are tested, by placing the one in the other, and sending the happy family that has moved beyond its past, into the terrible Paris, which is incapable of doing so.
At first it seems that Paris will consume the good Frenchmen, as “The frightful deeds that were to be soon done, were probably unimagined at that time in the brains of the doers,” and Darnay is taken to be tried. But as Darnay five paces by four and a half paces through his cell, the Doctor arrives, and fully realizes the power he has cultivated in suppressing his vengeance, “For the first time the Doctor felt, now, that his suffering was strength and power. For the first time he felt that in that sharp fire, he had slowly forged the iron which could break the prison door of his daughter’s husband, and deliver him.” After the Doctor contemplated his vengeful passion, he gained compassion, and did free his wife’s husband. Unfortunately, Madame Defarge, who went through similar pains as Dr. Manet, lacks his imagination, and leads the mob to retake Darnay. When they do, they use the vengeful words of the young Doctor against Darnay to spill blood rather than make peace for the children of that letter, proving that the imaginative Dr. Manet could go beyond writing blood upon the wall, and write it on paper, which is the key to the novel – artful imagination over violence – while the angry mod cannot imagine such a peaceful resolution. They scream out his death-sentence in a cry that, “Had nothing articulate it in but blood.”
This death-sentence silences the Doctor, but another character steps up to confront Madame Defarge, Sydney Carton, and on their first meeting, we see his intellectual capacity not to shed blood, “He was not without reflections then, that it might be a good deed to seize that arm, lift it, and strike under it sharp and deep./But, he went his way.” In the same scene, Madame Defarge becomes more unnaturally removed from life, saying, “Then tell Wind and Fire where to stop…but don’t tell me,” reminiscent of the unimaginative Lady Macbeth’s unnatural speeches.
However, when pit against the simple character of compassion, Pross, Madame Defarge dies to her own devices because, “The vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate, clasped her tight,” and Sydney Carton lives on to sacrifice himself. And while the mob is willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause, Carton does it in a way no member of the mod ever could: for love. It is through his thoroughly imagining the good his death will do for everyone he loves that he can die in the place of Darney. And that one lonely man, in his act of compassionate sacrifice, does create a future of happiness for a whole family – in his death, perpetuating the system under which he lived – while an entire city of vengeful sacrifices creates nothing but more vengeance – and dies, perpetuating the system under which it lived.
In the beautiful moments between imaginative individuals in this book, like when Carton is releasing Darnay, the reader truly feels like it is the best of times; it is when the imagination is stifled, by a horrible self-perpetuating system of terror that we feel like it is the worst of times. And indeed it is both, depending on what your imagination can make of it.