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  • On Terrorism and Morals:Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities
  • Frances Ferguson

Critics have long read A Tale of Two Cities as a particularly egregious symptom of Dickens's vexed relationship to his own historical commitments.1 Although the French Revolution encompasses the action of the novel and affects all of its characters, to many Dickens has appeared to think that revolutions sometimes needed to be endured so that families might have a proper appreciation for the joys of domesticity.2 György Lukács, writing about A Tale in The Historical Novel, mentions the novel only to object that "the weaknesses of Dickens's petty bourgeois humanism and idealism are more obvious and obtrusive" in this novel than in those that Lukács admires and categorizes as the "truly social" [End Page 49] novels.3 For Lukács, it is a limitation of the novel that Dickens, "by giving pre-eminence to the purely moral aspects of causes and effects, weakens the connection between the problems of the characters' lives and the events of the French Revolution." In the novel, he continues, the Revolution "becomes romantic background," and the turbulence of the times is used as a pretext for revealing human-moral qualities" (243). And John P. McWilliams, Jr. extends Lukács's general view in arguing that Dickens eviscerated politics to defend individual morality, writing that Dickens attempted to "control the monster of revolution by devising a tale in which no political issue is finally pertinent either to the assumed certainty of social progress or to the conduct of the truly virtuous man."4

From one perspective the criticism is surprising, because Dickens continually speaks of revolution as an inevitable response to abusive social arrangements and vividly shows the French Revolution and its animating motives at work in the lives of otherwise ordinary individuals. Yet at least two features of the novel make the criticism telling. The first is that Dickens's reliance on Carton's love for Lucie Manette can make his self-sacrifice look like a celebration of the merely personal and generally domestic affections. (I say "generally" here to take into account Hilary Schor's argument that these happen to be adulterously domestic attachments, in that Carton manages to insert himself into the lives of the Darnay family as if he continued to be a rival for Lucie's affections.)5 The second is that Dickens's insistence on Carton's disguising himself as Darnay deprives him of a public and political voice. Carton cannot utter any statement aloud, lest he reveal that he is not Darnay. And he thus both appears to see the future and remains sphinx-like as he goes to his death, offering personal comfort to the touchingly unprotected young seamstress rather than denouncing either the Terrorists or those who had so oppressed the French people that Revolution had come to seem the only imaginable response.

Indeed, the most compelling feature of Lukács's objections is that they ultimately prompt us to remember the ending of the novel and the [End Page 50] way in which it does not so much deliver historical events as pass judgment on them. Dickens, ventriloquizing Carton's thoughts, accords them the authority of last words. Carton's prophecy seems all the stronger for having gone unuttered. In the far-seeing conditional in which Carton enjoys the endorsement of never having spoken and thus never having opened himself to possible contradiction, he seems to become the spokesperson for History—how things will ultimately have turned out. If one thinks particularly of Dickens's long view of "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" (389), it is easy to hear a biblical sonorousness about the passing of generations and regimes that treats politics as mere skirmishing. And it is not surprising to learn that many have heard those words harmonizing with smugly self-satisfied opinions about the "ultimate failure" of the French Revolution and its having, as it were, been doomed from the outset by its own extremism—shibboleths that resonate with recent claims that history has...


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