Revenge in A Tale of Two Cities
Revenge is not something that is forced upon a person, but rather a choice that they make for themselves. This is something that Charles Dickens makes very clear in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. He provides motivation, means, and context for his characters who are going through a revenge arc. He gives reasoning that readers could consider to be justification for revenge. However, Dickens refutes the idea of revenge through the actions of Gaspard, the revolutionaries, and Madame Defarge. Gaspard is a character who takes revenge upon the Marquis, who killed his son. He does this by putting a curse on the Marquis and then later murdering him. The curse that Gaspard puts on the Marquis is something that is considered to be justifiable because of the Marquis' actions. However, when Gaspard later kills the Marquis, it is clear that this is not an act of justice, but rather one of vengeance.
The revolutionaries are another example of people who seek revenge. They are motivated by the unfair treatment that they have received at the hands of the aristocracy. They want to overthrow the government and put those who have wronged them to death. While their actions may be seen as justified, their methods are not. They resort to violence and terror, which ultimately leads to more death and suffering. Madame Defarge is perhaps the most clear example of someone who is driven by revenge. She spends the entire novel plotting the downfall of the aristocracy, and she is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to achieve her goals. In the end, she is successful in her revenge, but it comes at a great cost. Her husband is killed, her family is destroyed, and hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people are killed in the process. Madame Defarge's revenge is ultimately empty and unsatisfying.
Monsieur the Marquis is an emotionless stone mask toward the death of the child on the road. A child, the ideal figure of innocence, dies, and Monsieur the Marquis ignores it like it is an everyday occurrence. The man who addresses Monsieur the Marquis is described as submissive; he clearly believes that Monsieur the Marquis is of higher status. People do not cry out at the injustice toward Gaspard, but stay back and say nothing. It is obvious that Gaspard, as any parent would, cannot bear to watch his son die. Wanting the reader to fully grasp Gaspard’s total devastation and sense of grief, Dickens describes the sorrowful scene, writing, “As the tall man suddenly got up from the ground, and came running at the carriage, Monsieur the Marquis clapped his hand for an instant on his sword-hilt. ‘Killed!’, shrieked the man, in wild desperation, extending both arms at their length above his head, and staring at him. ‘Dead!’” (Dickens, 84).
Gaspard already knows that Monsieur the Marquis will not receive any reprimand for this, so he does not hold back in his anger. He wants Monsieur the Marquis to know what he had done to him, hence his violent, erratic screaming, “Killed! Dead!” at Monsieur the Marquis. Monsieur the Marquis is not punished for this event, but instead goes to his stone château in the country. Dickens playfully says that the château looks as if the mythological creature, the Gorgon, had surveyed the château. The theme of the Gorgon shows the heartlessness of Monsieur the Marquis and the overall class of the nobles. Dickens graphically portrays the mistreatment of peasants, so it does not come as a surprise to see Monsieur the Marquis murdered in his own bed. The murder of Monsieur the Marquis is obviously personal. Dickens vividly describes Monsieur the Marquis’ face before, during, and after the murder with a quote saying, “It lay back on the pillow of Monsieur the Marquis. It was like a fine mask, suddenly startled, made angry, and petrified. Driven home into the heart of the stone figure attached to it was a knife”(98). Clearly, the crime is done out of strong emotion. While Monsieur the Marquis had wronged many, this passionate crime showed this person’s true hatred of him. The nature of driving a knife into a man’s heart is cruel and vengeful. The man who did this wanted Monsieur the Marquis to suffer, just as he is suffering. Later, a man is apprehended for the murder of Monsieur the Marquis. While his apprehension takes place a year after the murder, this man is still deemed a highly wanted criminal. He is said to be a tall man, who was bound and escorted by six guards. The nobles perhaps suspect that he will have sympathizers, so they take him down a solitary path. They pass only one witness. That witness, the mender of the roads, says, “But when they advance near quite near to me, I recognize the tall man and he recognizes me”(129). This is the final piece of evidence the reader needs to confirm that Gaspard was the man who murdered Monsieur the Marquis. Earlier in the text, the mender of the roads describes seeing a tall man on the back of Monsieur the Marquis’ carriage. He supposed him a thief, but both he and Monsieur the Marquis thought little of it. Now the mender of the roads recognizes this tall man as the man he saw on the carriage. He knows he is not a thief but the murderer of Monsieur the Marquis. When the reader is first introduced to Gaspard, he is described as a tall man. This is the final damning evidence for Gaspard. He killed Monsieur the Marquis out of anger, wanting revenge for the death of his son. However, in doing so, he gave up his life.
The revolutionaries’ yearning for revenge is violent, merciless, and turns them into something far worse than what they hate. They overthrow the Bastille and soon after, the government of France. They then found the Republic. They soon begin arresting those that wronged them, including the Evrémonde’s servant, Gabelle. Gabelle writes to Darnay, imploring him to come save him from the prison La Force. Upon arriving in France, Darnay is thrown in prison. He proclaims he has done nothing wrong, but nevertheless is condemned to La Force. When he is put in his cell, Dickens says, “‘Five paces by four and a half, five paces by four and a half.’ The prisoner walked to and fro in his cell, counting its measurement, and the roar of the city arose like muffled drums with a wild swell of voices added to them. ‘He made shoes, he made shoes’ The prisoner counted the measurements again and paced faster, to draw his mind with him from the latter repetition”(199). Obviously, the reader is supposed to be reminded of Doctor Manette and the cruelty he faced in the Bastille. Darnay decides to pace and count to keep himself occupied and to drown out the noises of those being executed outside. He hears the drum roll and the cheers of the crowd when the prisoners are executed. Darnay is locked in solitary confinement, while other prisoners are crammed against walls and against each other in a more public area of the prison. This shows that the revolutionaries are throwing citizens in prison because they wish it, just as the nobles did. They do not care what someone did or did not do; they want revenge on anyone and everyone for the crimes committed against them. They keep people, especially the nobles, in a constant state of fear. The revolutionaries suppress the nobles by shoving them into prisons and stripping them of their rights. They do this by implementing the law of the Suspected. With the law of the Suspected, Dickens illustrates the hypocrisy of the Republic. Dickens says, “a law of the Suspected struck away all security for liberty or life, and delivered over any good and innocent person to any bad and guilty one”(211). No one could defend themselves or others. The revolutionaries soon begin to mercilessly punish the innocent to exhibit their power. They send hundreds of people to the Guillotine, most of them innocent. Soon, they turn on themselves. The law of the Suspected allows anyone to turn over any man, woman, or child to the courts for any reason at all. Once this happens, they are often condemned. It is obvious of the revolutionaries’ hate for the nobles, but the violence, heartlessness, and cruelty towards innocents shows them to be the monsters. They view those they execute less as people and more as animals being killed for sport. They cheer and dance in the streets when the Guillotine comes crashing down on the neck of its victim. Not only is the violence shown at the executions, but people proudly portray it around the city. Because Lucie cannot see Darnay, she often visits the wall of the prison. She has to walk through the city to get there, and as she walks, Dickens says, “she had seen the houses, as she came along, decorated with little pikes, and with little red caps stuck upon them”(215). They execute those at the Guillotine, stick their heads on pikes, put the Republic’s caps on them, and then show them off to the world in shame. They want not only Paris, not only France, not only the world, but Heaven to see how heartless they have become. However, they do not see themselves as heartless. They see themselves as just. They believe that they are right in their revenge, as well as the way they go about getting it. However, this is not the case. Dickens makes an effort to show that history remembers them as violent barbarians who would spare no one. He tells us that they are far worse in a few months than the nobles had been in 200 years.
Madame Defarge allows for revenge to consume her life, turning her into a pitiless, apathetic woman. She grew up knowing her sister, her brother-in-law, her sister’s child, her brother, and her father were all murdered by the Evrémondes. Madame Defarge now feels a burden to avenge her family. She wants anyone born of Evrémonde blood to pay the price. She has felt hurt, abandoned, and alone for many years and believes that killing Darnay, the last of the Evrémondes, is the only way to exact her revenge. She tells very few about her plan, but she decides to reveal it to the Vengeance and Jacques Three, two revolutionaries. In divulging her plan, it is clear she plans to have Darnay executed at the Guillotine. He is already publicly hated for leaving his estate in disarray, so his execution will be welcome and celebrated. When questioned about her personal hatred of Darnay, Madame Defarge replies, “‘that peasant family so injured by the two Evrémonde brothers, as the Bastille paper describes, is my family. Defarge, that sister of the mortally wounded boy upon the ground was my sister, that husband was my sister’s husband, that unborn child was their child, that brother was my brother, that father was my father, those dead are my dead, and that summons to answer for those things descends to me!’”(264). She saw her sister’s husband and her brother fight for her sister, and they both died in the effort. Now, Madame Defarge feels that weight of revenge and believes that it must be accomplished. Now, with the revolution on her side, she can fulfill her desire for revenge. However, she is not getting revenge on who wronged her but on his lineage. She allowed for her hate and hunger for revenge to drive away her sense of who she is punishing. She wants to destroy the idea of the Evrémonde family, not the specific men who harmed her. As she is making her way to where Lucie is staying, in an attempt to condemn her as well, Dickens says, “It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them. It was nothing to her, that his wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan; that was insufficient punishment, because they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live”(281). Here, the reader is shown that Madame Defarge wants to wipe the Evrémonde race out of existence. Her desire will not be hindered by gender or age. She has a firm resolution to kill the Evrémondes for what they did to her. She wants to take away their family as they took hers. Madame Defarge feels no pity or emotions for the family; she lines them up like cattle for slaughter.
Revenge is used as a justification for crimes by many. Gaspard wants revenge for his child’s death, the revolutionaries want revenge for their suppression, and Madame Defarge wants revenge for her dead family. However, Dickens shows that while many people can have a desire for revenge, the way they go about getting it is often worse than the wrong they had done to them. He uses the character of Gaspard to illustrate that revenge can turn itself back on oneself. Using the revolutionaries, Dickens shows how revenge can turn people into something worse than they could have ever imagined. Finally, with Madame Defarge, Dickens allows the reader to see how revenge can completely consume a person, leaving no room for a heart. Dickens wants to show that revenge doesn’t have any positives. He removes the idea of revenge from its pedestal and puts it into reality. Revenge will always lead someone down the wrong path.
- Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Dover, 1999.