Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke. Specifically it will compare the two novels, answering the question: "Given that our two authors are English, what do Reflections on the Revolution in France and A Tale of Two Cities tell you about English attitudes towards revolution in general and the French Revolution in particular?" Both of these countries were in turmoil during the French Revolution. England, only a few years before, had given up her rights to the United States, and so revolution was not the most popular term. The French Revolution frightened many people, including many of the aristocratic English, who might even have feared revolution could spread to their own country.
Both of these English authors write of the French Revolution from different perspectives. Dickens writes of it from a distinctly English point-of-view while actually championing some aspects of the Revolution, while Burke was decidedly against the Revolutionary forces in France. It seems from reading these two works that Burke and many others in the English aristocracy were afraid of the Revolution and its aftermath. Dickens was clearly sympathetic to the Revolution, those who lost their lives, and the underlying reasons behind the French uprising. Late in his novel he writes, "There could have been no such Revolution, if all laws, forms, and ceremonies, had not first been so monstrously abused, that the suicidal vengeance of the Revolution was to scatter them all to the winds" (Dickens 313). Thus, he feels that the rulers in France, along with the rich aristocracy, were at fault for the abuses that finally led the peasantry to revolt. He shows this graphically when the Marquis callously runs over a peasant child and does not even stop to see if the child is injured or dead. The rich thought they were above everyone else, and could abuse people however they wanted. They were arrogant and unsympathetic. Dickens is not saying the English were like them, but that Revolution comes from mistreatment, and that the English did not have the best record of treating their lower classes with care and consideration, either. Therefore, Revolution could come to England too, and he knew that it would just bring more killing and confusion.
England had its own social problems that Dickens notes throughout his novel. Early on he writes, "In England, there was scarcely an amount of order and protection to justify much national boasting. Daring burglaries by armed men, and highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night [ ... ]" (Dickens 3). There was great distinction (and still is) between the classes in England. The rich, powerful, and ruling class was far removed from the peasants and working class in the cities. The poor were very poor, and the rich were very rich. This created tension, mistrust, and even hatred between the classes, and the English had to be worried about a similar uprising happening in their own country, because even though they were a different society, they had much in common with the French and French society. It had to be a difficult time for England, because they had just fought and lost the Revolutionary War with the United States, and now France was facing their own Revolution. It was a time when democracy and the republic were popular with the people, and England, with its long monarchy, had to be worried. It is easy to see that opinion was quite divided in England by reading these two books. It is also easy to see that the English aristocracy had to be afraid of the poor people around them. That is why Dickens mentions the highwaymen who ruled the roads and frightened the people. They were just a symbol of the unrest in England and how the English lower classes were dissatisfied with their hard work, poverty, and lack of opportunities.
Throughout his book, Burke paints a much different picture of the English reaction to the French Revolution. He argues for the Glorious Revolution that took place in England in 1688, and then begins to discuss the many "problems" with the French Revolution. He scolds the French for entirely recreating their government and their constitution. He writes, "You had all these advantages in your ancient states, but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into civil society and had everything to begin anew" (Burke 40). It is funny, but Burke in his disapproval of the French Revolution seems even more passionate about his beliefs that Dickens does. Dickens writes, "So much more wicked and distracted had the Revolution grown in that December month, that the rivers of the South were encumbered with the bodies of the violently drowned by night, and prisoners were shot in lines and squares under the southern wintry sun" (Dickens 272). He shows vivid pictures of the death and destruction the Revolution brought to France, but his writing does not seem as emotional as Burke's does, even when he talks about all the violence. It is clear Burke is passionate about his beliefs, and so is Dickens. The difference is that the two men have very different ideas about Revolution and what happens to a country after a Revolution. Burke continues later in his book, "To make a revolution is to subvert the ancient state of our country; and no common reasons are called for to justify so violent a proceeding" (Burke 193). It is clear that he is fearful and disapproving of a revolution in England, while Dickens is sympathetic to the underlying social conditions that can lead to revolt and revolution.
Dickens seems to think that England could have the same problems that France did, and could have a Revolution of its' own. He talks about how the British aristocracy really has no idea about what led to the revolt in France. He writes, "[A]nd it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the one only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown -- as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it" (Dickens 233-234). The British do not understand all the terrible things that the peasants suffered in France, and so they cannot understand what their own classes are suffering in England. Dickens wrote about that suffering in many of his other novels, like Oliver Twist, and he was a champion of the working classes. He shows that in this novel, too.
Dickens writes with sympathy for the French cause, while Burke defends England and England's monarchy quite fiercely. He asks, "Is our monarchy to be annihilated, with all the laws, all the tribunals, and all the ancient corporations of the kingdom? Is every landmark of the country to be done away in favor of a geometrical and arithmetical constitution? Is the House of Lords to be voted useless?" (Burke 62). Burke is a true countryman, because he believes that a fairer government rules England than France is, and this seems to be true. The English did not revolt, even after the French Revolution ended. They did not have all of the same problems that France did, although they did have some of them. Burke feels that to overthrow a government and totally change it is wrong, and he fears that if the same thing happened in England it would destroy the country.
While Dickens is sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause and creates characters that show his feelings, Burke is actually at times very critical of the people who triumphed in the Revolution. Dickens creates memorable characters, like the Marquis, and the fearsome Defarge and his wife to show the many different types of people who took part in the Revolution, and what they were fighting against and hoping to win. They wanted freedom, but they were not perfect, as the Defarges show. In their own way, they were as corrupt and evil as the rich aristocracy that the Marquis represented. In this, Dickens shows that he did not think the Revolution was perfect, but that it was still to be admired. That is why he kills off Madame Defarge in the end, because she should not live to see the Revolution be successful. On the other hand, Burke seems to look down his nose at the people who triumphed in France. He writes, "They [the winners] have a power given to them, like that of the evil principle, to subvert and destroy, but none to construct, except such machines as may be fitted for further subversion and further destruction" (Burke 79). He talks of the new government with contempt, and seems to be saying that the lower classes really do not have any idea how to govern. While Dickens seems to be more open to change, Burke seems like a snob that cannot believe mixing of the social classes can lead to social…
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