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"It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings collected together are not under the same moral laws which bind themselves separately." —Thomas Jefferson
"All [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." —The Declaration of Independence
"For it has become apparent to us that it is never just to harm anyone." —Plato

Consequences of Civil Unrest (Essay on A Tale of Two Cities)

December 12, 2020


Warning: contains spoilers 

    The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about war is the immediate impact, but any form of disquiet affects far more people than those directly involved. The novel A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens describes the French Revolution and how the lives of the Manette family become entangled with it. Even though revolution seems to be the only solution to the struggles of the oppressed, it rapidly becomes uncontrollable. Dickens utilizes a motif—shadows—to illustrate how civil unrest has harmful effects that reach beyond its target and threaten the lives of innocent people, as demonstrated through Charles Darnay, Dr. Manette, Sydney Carton, and Lucie Manette. 

    First of all, civil unrest forces Darnay to return to France, where he must face the consequences of the dark shadows of oppression that his family has left behind. Darnay receives a letter from France regarding a servant, Gabelle, “whose only crime was fidelity to [Darnay] and his family,” rousing “uneasiness in Darnay’s mind” and convincing him to visit France (250). When Lucie finds Darnay imprisoned there, she prays “for one dear prisoner especially, among the many unhappy souls… [under] the shadow of death” (285). Darnay knows that Gabelle’s “only crime was fidelity,” a paradox that summarizes many of the outcomes of the French Revolution: virtues are considered crimes by the revolutionaries. Darnay’s motive for returning to Paris is a noble one, and there is no fault in Gabelle’s loyalty to him either. Darnay is innocent because he is ignorant about the circumstances in France and had previously attempted to help the poor. Lucie’s prayers for Darnay and the other prisoners demonstrate how Darnay is one of many who were wrongly convicted, destined to remain under the inescapable shadow of the guillotine. Thus, Darnay is incriminated by revolutionaries, though it is his heritage that has cast a shadow upon his life—he has done nothing deserving of condemnation. 

    Similarly, Dr. Manette also has a past full of painful shadows rooted in the civil unrest in France. He works hard to minimize the impact his own suffering will have on his daughter. When Dr. Manette spends time with Lucie before her wedding to Charles Darnay, he is worried that “‘the dark part of [his] life [will] cast its shadow beyond [himself], and… [fall] on [Lucie]’” (195-196). Lucie does not know anything about her father’s past; she is blameless and does not deserve to share the weight of his suffering. Furthermore, Dr. Manette himself is innocent: the Evrémonde brothers are responsible for the depression that threatens to overtake him. His worries serve as foreshadowing; later on, the letter he wrote while imprisoned as the shadowy, prisoner version of himself is discovered and ends up harming his family because it condemns Darnay. Later on, as Dr. Manette and Lucie are escaping Paris following Darnay’s death sentence, “the same shadows that are falling on the prison, are falling… on the Barrier” (369). Shadows literally follow a person, and figuratively, the shadows of Dr. Manette’s past follow him out of France. The mention of shadows indicates that if Madame Defarge had not died, she would have followed them to destroy the Evrémondes’ bloodline. At this moment, Dr. Manette feels unbearable guilt because he is under the impression that Darnay is dead because of him, even though Darnay is innocent. In short, Dr. Manette’s past in France during times of civil unrest continues to overshadow his and his loved ones’ present life, even in their innocence. 

    Continuing on, Sydney Carton had been living in shadows of complacency for all his life; however, he steps out of those shadows to step into the shadow of the guillotine that had been cast over Darnay. While walking in the streets to prepare himself for his sacrifice, he is “swallowed up in the shadow of the prison wall” (354-355). Carton is innocent because he had not been living in France and had played no role in oppressing the revolutionaries. In fact, he is far from wealthy and has a low social status, yet he suffers the ultimate punishment—death. The Revolution not only caused Darnay to suffer but also those around him, who had no relation to aristocrats. Though there is a literal shadow cast by the prison wall, the figurative one is more significant—Carton knows that his choice will lead to his imprisonment and death, despite his unrelatedness to the previous oppressors of the revolutionaries. Therefore, Carton dies under the shadow of unjust bloodshed caused by the Revolution, brought about through no fault of his own. 

    Most importantly, Lucie and her young, guiltless daughter fall under the shadowy influence of the Revolution. When Madame Defarge and other revolutionaries visit Lucie and her daughter, “the shadow attendant on Madame Defarge and her party seemed… to fall… threatening and dark, on both the mother and the child” (278). Madame Defarge is the personification of the Revolution’s shadow; she seeks revenge on not only Darnay and Lucie, but also their daughter. Little Lucie is oblivious to everything around her and is innocent as only a child can be. She has done nothing deserving of punishment; however, Madame Defarge’s literal shadow falls on her and Lucie, illustrating how her desire for revenge affects many who have done nothing wrong. As seen above, the shadow of Madame Defarge’s revenge is taken beyond those who deserved blame and ends up threatening the lives of Lucie and her daughter. 

    In times of civil unrest, the people’s vengeful attitudes can cause destruction, affecting far more people than those originally at fault, as Dickens highlights with a motif, shadows. Through this, audiences may realize the danger of conflict, as fighting often creates more problems than it solves.
This is an essay that I wrote for my English class (I have already submitted it). I thought I would post it to see if anyone has feedback—I'm stressing out about my English final on Monday. Anyway, edits or general comments would be very much appreciated. Have a nice day! 


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1 Comment
  • Cosmogyral

    I loved that you published it, and I love the book! Honestly, I really love how you pointed out civil unrest affecting the individual characters, but I really would have liked to see what civil unrest means in society and how it grips the European society of a ToTC

    3 months ago