Historical Context in A Tale of Two Cities

Though published in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities concerns the events that took place in Paris and London leading up to (and during) the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Charles Dickens highlights the similarities between both cities, depicting varying degrees of corruption and oppression. The novel, which was published in three books, questions several major Enlightenment-era ideals, including technological progress (which contributed to rapid population growth, a consequence that made food shortages far more impactful) and constitutional government.

Historical Context Examples in A Tale of Two Cities:

Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter I 1

" age of wisdom..."   (Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter I)

A Tale of Two Cities is set during the Enlightenment, a period marked by significant advances in science and technology. Religious faith and superstition were in decline, but social unrest (ranging from mugging to outright revolution) was becoming commonplace. Therefore, Dickens invites the reader to decide whether these changes are for the better.

"“Gentlemen! In the king’s name, all of you!”..."   (Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter II)

The coachman, along with his passengers, is afraid that they are about to be robbed (or worse) by a highwayman. Highway robberies were relatively common, as the narrator tells us in the first chapter, so it would not have been unreasonable to fear assault. The coachman invokes the name of King George III.

"Tellson’s Bank..."   (Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter III)

Tellson’s Bank is likely the real-life Child & Co. that used to be on Fleet Street in London. Child & Co., which was one of the oldest independent financial institutions in the United Kingdom, rented rooms above Temple Bar as a storage space for its records. The mail coach in A Tale of Two Cities was likely transporting money from Tellson’s, which makes it even more vulnerable to robbery.

"faintness of solitude and disuse...."   (Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter VI)

Dickens strongly opposed solitary confinement, especially as a means of punishment. He was appalled when he discovered the prevalence of this method during an 1842 visit to a Philadelphia prison. He attributed the popularity of solitary confinement to the ignorance of “those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution.”

"Farmer-General..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter VII)

French peasants, who were already starving, had to pay an exorbitant amount of taxes to government coffers. Farmers-General were responsible for “farming” these taxes and were widely distrusted. Among other offenses, Farmers-General were suspected of “fleecing,” which involved over-collecting taxes and keeping what was not paid to the government.

"the merry Stuart..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter VII)

The “merry Stuart” refers to King Charles II from the royal House of Stuart, who figuratively “sold” England to France because he wanted England to convert to Roman Catholicism. The treaty, called the Treaty of Dover, required England to support France’s war with the Netherlands. In return, France provided a subsidy that freed King Charles II from his financial dependence on Parliament. The religious stipulations of the alliance were spelled out in a second treaty: the Secret Treaty of Dover.

"All its people were poor..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter VIII)

The poorest French peasants paid the highest tax rates during the time of A Tale of Two Cities. Conversely, French aristocrats paid very little or resisted taxation altogether. Unfair taxation was a key contributor to the advent of the French Revolution.

" “Oh, the men, the men!”..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XVI)

Madame Defarge seems frustrated by Saint Antoine’s men: specifically, their general lack of action and their tired impatience. Dickens grants a surprising amount of agency to Parisian women; although, he often does so to emphasize mass unruliness and overpowering violent sentiment. Market women actually instigated one of the first defining moments of the French Revolution because they were outraged by the high cost and scarcity of bread. In October 1789, they stormed the Palace of Versailles (where the king and queen lived). The protest turned into a riot that ended with the king and queen being forced to return to Paris.

"registered..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XVI)

Madame Defarge’s process of “registering” aristocrats may be an ironic reference to the official registration of French peerages in regional parlements (provincial appeals courts in pre-revolutionary France). Prior to the French Revolution, being registered was a mark of nobility; for Madame Defarge and the revolutionaries, it is a mark of death.

"faces of low caste..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XXIII)

The phrase “faces of low caste” suggests a parallel between the French Revolution and the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which took place two years before the publication of A Tale of Two Cities. The Indian Rebellion was an uprising that violently and unsuccessfully protested the rule of Britain’s East India Company in India. One of the primary causes of the rebellion involved Indian resentment against the British for imposing high taxes, forcing social reform based on Western European customs, and stripping the traditionally high-caste nobility of their land.

"Monseigneur..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XXIII)

Dickens is critical of the brutal violence of the revolutionaries. However, he attributes the causes of the revolution to starvation and high taxation—and the peasants’ abject poverty is augmented by the excessive greed of the French aristocracy (which Dickens sarcastically refers to as “Monseigneur”).

"she may identify them..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter III)

Mr. Lorry assumes that Madame Defarge intends to identify Lucie and her daughter in order to protect them from the violent revolutionaries. However, it is possible that she wishes to evaluate Lucie’s loyalty to the French Republic. It is illegal to mourn the punishment of a prisoner, so Lucie would be judged an enemy of the republic if she appears concerned about her husband.

"eleven hundred defenceless prisoners..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter IV)

Dickens refers to the September Massacres that took place in Paris for five days in early September, 1792. The revolutionaries were afraid that foreign armies would storm Paris and liberate prisoners who would join them in dismantling the republic. Radicals called for the preemptive execution of prisoners; as a result, more than 1200 prisoners (including women, children, and priests) were executed.

"gaoler-joke..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter VI)

The gaoler-joke of reading the “Evening Paper” emphasizes the public craze surrounding execution. Public beheadings were a form of entertainment, even for children. Small guillotine toys, which were capable of beheading dolls or small animals, were popular. Dickens’s criticism of widespread public mania is palpable throughout the entire novel though it is most apparent after the revolution begins.

"instrument that was to terminate his life..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XIII)

Although the guillotine is more recently associated with the French Revolution (and was nicknamed the “National Razor” of France), its invention far precedes the 18th century. A beheading machine called a “planke” was used in the Middle Ages in Germany and Flanders. The English—specifically Halifax in West Yorkshire—had used a sliding axe called the “Halifax Gibbet” for many centuries. La Guillotine may have been designed based on the more modern “mannaia” in Italy and the “Scottish Maiden” of Scotland, though primitive beheading machines were used in France for centuries.

"instrument that was to terminate his life..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XIII)

The modern guillotine (also called the “louisette”) was designed by surgeon and physiologist Antoine Louis; however, it was named after physician Joseph Ignace Guillotin. Guillotin called for a more humane method of performing executions, which usually involved beheadings by sword or axe. The highly efficient guillotine soon became a national symbol for the French Revolution and was used extensively throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The last execution by guillotine in France took place in 1977.