A Tale of Two Cities as a Historical novel | Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’ famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is regarded as a historical novel that is based on the events of the French Revolution. Through this novel Dickens not only condemns the inequality and oppression caused by the old system but also reveals the terrors prolonged by the Revolution.

Even before writing “A Tale of Two Cities”, Dickens had already written a historical novel titled ‘Barnaby Rudge”. So when Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens was very much interested in history. Although a Tale of Two Cities is not entirely based on the French Revolution.

Historical events and Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities”

Dickens’ one of the famous novels “A Tale of Two Cities” contains several such scenes and figures that are associated with historical aspects of the French Revolution. The French Revolution was a principal occurrence of the 1700s and its impact was still powerful when Charles Dickens was writing this novel. The French Revolution began with the assault in the Bastille in 1789. Most of the important events in the novel happens in Paris that conveys how the reign of terror of the French autocracy – unfair rules, and a total negligence for the welfare of the impoverished – bolster a fury among the mass that ultimately exploded in revolution. Dickens portrayed many of these incidents in the novel like the assailing of the Bastille, the insane fury of the mass and the brutal suppression. The guillotine in the novel signifies how rebellious madness gets regularized. Through the Bastille and the Guillotine, Dickens reveals how it affects the common man as we can see in the case of Dr. Manette. 

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Many critics censured Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” for highlighting the French autocracy and the brutal suppression but he himself does not give any solutions to all these. In spite of the fact that Charles Dickens does not in doubt describe the disorder implicit in his content, he by no means exalted or romanticized it. He portrays the injustices of the aristocracy that prompted the Revolution, but at the same time he plainly criticizes brutalities carried out on grounds of revolution. 

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Restrictions of “A Tale of Two Cities” as a Historical Novel:

As a historical novel, “A Tale of Two Cities” has certain restrictions. It does not provide an out-and-out portrayal of the political events that took place in England and France during the French Revolution. Rather Dickens narrates the rising resentment in France, the increasing discontent of the public with the aristocrats, and the disorder created by the crowd, anger and the brutalities executed by the revolutionaries during the French Revolution. Through this novel, Dickens wanted to show the terror and fear of the French Revolution.  

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Concurrently Dickens disregards and does not mention major historical and political names of the French Revolution such as Lafayette, Mirabeau, and Napoleon. Dickens has also not shown the money problem of the government, the struggles of parliament, and the philosophical thinking that caused the Revolution. Dickens’ chief purpose was to reveal the utmost injustices and corruption. In the initial section of the novel, Dickens supports and sympathizes with the revolutionaries but in the latter part of the novel when those same people become more violent, Dickens condemns them. 

Blending of Public and Private lives:

In “A Tale of Two Cities” Dickens has excellently blended the private lives with the incidents of the French Revolution. These special individuals are Darney, Lucie Manette, Carton, and Dr. Manette. Even though the main characters have no subjective enthusiasm in the Revolution. Yet they are drawn into the convolution and have to endure. For example, Dr. Mannette had to go to jail, and Lucie and Charlie, who did not want to get involved in the revolution, were confined in the political scams of that time. They are the sufferers of an unfair disorder that reigns in France. Charles Darnay makes every effort to avoid disturbance in France and live a peaceful life in England. Although it worked for some time, ultimately he got involved in the revolution because of his sense of responsibility. Furthermore, this revolution offers Sidney Carton an opportunity to attain some respect. After a life of defeat and self-disgust, he provides his life with value and significance by sacrificing his life for the sake of love. 

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Likewise, the letter of Dr. Mannette turns into the source of his son-in-law’s misery. Charles had to face many hardships due to the evil work done by his ancestors. However, Sidney Carton, who looks like Charles, physically saves him. According to a critic, there is no other fiction in which the private lives of some individuals have been so wonderfully linked with a public event.

Duality in Dickens’ portrayal of historical themes:

Dickens presents the historical themes in “A Tale of Two Cities” in a dual way. On the one hand, Dickens strongly empathized with the condition of the French people and insisted on their demand for freedom. For example, the multiple chapters that support and correspond with Evermonde’s illustration of brutal aristocrats’ painting that blatantly abuses and tortures the poor. On the other hand, Dickens criticizes their manner or plan in conquering it. According to Dickens, for in combating malice with malice, the peasant’s reaction is not a real revolution. Rather they only extend the cruelty that they themselves have endured. 


If we call Dickens’s novel “A Tale of Two Cities” only a historical novel then it will not do justice to the artistic superiority of the novel. Dickens includes some accurate or authentic events from the past like Bastille, but Dickens also constructs a well-off fictional world where the psychological experiences of the characters converge with past events. So, in the end, we can say that because Dickens was not a historian that’s why the facts or reality of the historical events are restricted. However, by combining history and fiction, Dickens was able to present the French Revolution in a new way in the minds of his readers. 

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