Revenge: The Inescapable Condition of Humanity
At the Treaty of Versailles, the allies chose to punish Germany to the full extent for the immense damages caused during the war. Taking out the anger that existed towards the enemy during the war while determining peace in Europe was a consequence of acting on revenge to successively abusing power. The negative consequences of these actions were clear: the start of WWII. Along with many historians, Charles Dickens would argue that this exploitation of power was one of great adversity.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens expresses these ideas through the use of blood and wine imagery. By showing the turmoil caused by the revolution with blood and wine imagery, he proves that the situation in France isn’t actually better when the third estate is in power, but perhaps worse. Despite originally containing good intentions, Dickens argues that the revolution gets out of hand. Wine is used to not only show the thirst and hunger of the people but also to show how disorderly society becomes as wine, the fuel of the revolution, turns into blood.
Perhaps Dickens does not believe countries should undergo radical change and swing from one extreme to another, creating a chaotic society.
Primarily, it seems as if Dickens is disgusted by the French middle and lower class before the start of the revolution; yet, it is quite the opposite. Dickens acknowledges the horrible living conditions created by the greedy nobles and clergy along with the need for change.
Early on in the book, Dickens shows his opinion of his neighboring country: “[France] entertained herself […] with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have […] his body burned alive” (6). Dickens uses irony to establish the unjust isolation of power present in France before the revolution. By stating that such horrible activities were present and describing them as “humane achievements,” he shows the reader the absurdity of the condition of France. Dickens shows his sympathy with the common people again when Doctor Manette’s letter reveals how her brother says, “we were so robbed, and hunted, and were made so poor, that our father told us it was a dreadful thing to bring a child into the world, and that what we should most pray for, was, that our women might be barren and our miserable race die out!'” (337) Madame’s family’s miserable past is shown to illustrate the hopelessness that the common people faced before the revolution. While displaying the oppression of the third estate in a more personal perspective, his sympathy becomes ever more apparent. He does this again during the road rage of the Marquis after he runs over Gaspard’s son as the people of the town gather around the horse carriage: “Monsieur the Marquis ran his eyes over them all, as if they had been mere rats come out of their holes” (115). Again, Dickens shows his sympathy with the French people by exhibiting the horrible way in which the upper class abuse their power. He adds to his adverse perception by as well when showing the apathetic sense of the upper class. Dickens does sympathize with the French people in the regard that life under the elite is indeed dreadful; however, his view on how the revolutionaries deal with change is disparate.
As the revolution commences, Dickens hints at France’s haunting future. By using wine imagery, he shows the peoples’ figurative thirst for wine and more literally, their thirst for justice. He also uses this imagery to propose that their potent thirst for justice will in some way have negative ramifications. In one of the most famous scenes in the novel, a wine cask is spilled on the streets of Paris as “[Men and women] devoted themselves to the sodden and lee-dyed pieces of the cask, licking, and even champing the moister wine-rotted fragments with eager relish” (31). Through describing the excessive thirst of the people by the wine shop, the narrator creates a foreboding tone. Dickens is proposing that this severe thirst for justice augurs a ruthless society. He makes a more important distinction about what this means when in the same scene, he describes “One tall joker … scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees blood. The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there” (32). By virtue of the disturbing action of the “joker,” Dickens shows an example of the superfluous nature of the commoners in the sense that their thirst for wine will turn into a thirst for blood. In other words, Dickens foreshadows the consequence of their ravenous state and the transformation of reasonable human beings to ruthless: a transition from thirst for justice to thirst for power. But Dickens does not stop here, he proves his suspicions later as the revolution hits its stride.
Following his foreshadowing of the revolution, Dickens turns his expectations into reality during the storming of the Bastille and the gruesome execution of Foulon. By showing how violent the revolutionaries become after they gain power, he justifies his belief that revenge is detrimental. At the storming of the Bastille, Dickens continues his blood imagery when describing the mob: “Headlong, mad, and dangerous footsteps to force their way into anybody’s life, footsteps not easily made clean again if once stained red” (222). Describing the relentless mob as a force so powerful, Dickens shows that his predictions were right and that once a group fueled by so much revenge gains power, chaos is destined. His statement that the footsteps were “not easily made clean again” illustrates the inevitability of disarray. In the same scene, Dickens further shows the barbaric mob through their harsh insensitivity: “Every living creature there held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it” (223). It is important to note that Dickens’ description of events like these are not totally historically accurate; however, this only magnifies the blatancy of Dickens’ opinions. While discussing the mob, Dickens does not only descriptively show the excessiveness of the revolution’s violence by showing their brutality, but he most importantly continues his ongoing story of wine imagery. As the idea evolves, it becomes clear how Dickens feels about the way the revolutionaries abuse power because of their potent desire for revenge: it is destructive. Describing the mob as a potent force is not only showing the obvious abuse of power but is as well foreshadowing the use of the guillotine. The people are so uncaring about the loss of an individual life, in similarity with the guillotine which slaughters endlessly, day and night.
Dickens brings back a stronger imagery of wine and blood after the display of the revolutionaries’ abuse of power in a literal way through the storming of the Bastille and the execution of Foulon. By exhibiting the guillotine’s insatiable desire wine and blood, he shows the ruthlessness that the revolution has encircled. At one of many scenes where the guillotine is prominent, the narrator likens the mob’s brutality with that of the guillotine: “Lovely girls; bright women, brown-haired, black-haired, and grey; youths; stalwart men and old; gentle born and peasant born; all red wine for La Guillotine, all daily brought into light from the dark cellars of the loathsome prisons, and carried to her through the streets to slake her devouring thirst” (285). With a long list of victims for the guillotine, Dickens creates a disgusted tone because these people seem so innocent. Dickens creates a powerful image using a disgusted tone. He shows the guillotine in a way that makes it seem devilish by describing her unquenchable thirst. Continuing the wine and blood imagery, Dickens shows that the guillotine is thirsty for figurative wine but literal blood. The thirst in general — whether the revolutionaries’ or the guillotine’s — is excessive. Dickens strengthens his argument as he recalls one of the main slogans of the French Revolution: “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; – the last, much easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!” (285) Dickens did sympathize with the French people before the revolution started and acknowledged that there was need for “[l]iberty, equality, [and] fraternity,” but he does not believe that the third estate deals with their obtainment of power in a beneficial way. Instead, they chose to take out their desire for revenge by abusing their power. In short, Dickens is contrasting the seemingly good intentions of the revolution to the harsh reality that is has become.
Throughout the novel, Dickens leads the reader through the transformation of an oppressed group of people to one that oppresses. With this process, often using the imagery of blood and wine, he shows that after gaining control, the revolutionaries’ desire for revenge causes their misuse of power. At the Treaty of Versailles, the allies fell victim to the same desire, punishing the Germans ruthlessly. They created an unstable scene in Europe which engendered the environment for another world war. Had the allies created an open discussion with the Germans, perhaps a solution that would have prevented war and rebuilt Europe could have been found. The same idea applies to the French Revolution: imagine had the revolutionaries had created a sustainable solution and a more stable society instead of resorting to violence. Through his limited instances of optimism during the novel, Dickens explores the same concept. He suggests a rather cynical mindset: man has an insistent desire for revenge, inevitable and impactful, that will exist unconditionally.