Dickens sets A Tale of Two Cities primarily in Paris and London during one of the most turbulent periods of European history, the French Revolution. The novel covers events between 1775 and 1793, referring also to incidents occurring before that time. The French Revolution began in 1789 and continued in various forms through at least 1795. Dickens takes most of his historical perspective from The French Revolution (1837), a three-volume description and philosophical discussion by his friend Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s view was not objective or well documented; his intention was argumentative and dramatic. He portrays vividly the suffering of the poor and especially the Reign of Terror, best symbolized by the guillotine. Dickens greatly admired Carlyle and his work, and he read The French Revolution many times. Like Carlyle, Dickens cared less for accurate history and factual presentation than for vivid descriptions and the meanings he found behind the events. He did not concern himself with the revolution’s immediate political or economic causes but focused on the human suffering that he believed warped the very humanity of individuals on both sides of the battle lines.
On the eve of the French Revolution, national debts and aristocratic unwillingness to sacrifice forced heavy tax increases on a populace already living at near-subsistence levels. Bickering between King Louis XVI and leading aristocrats revealed that the king could not effectively enforce his will through the military. In 1787 and 1788 excessive exports of already-scarce food caused near starvation among the poorer classes, and a bumper grape harvest depressed prices and further reduced the buying power of poor agricultural workers. Then came the winter of 1788-1789, probably the worst of the entire century. Inspired by political philosophers and the recent success of the American Revolution, many members of the middle and lower classes became increasingly hostile to the system that seemed to cause their suffering. During these years members of the poorer classes working toward revolutionary action referred to themselves as “Jacques,” as do the patrons of the Defarges’ shop in Dickens’s novel. On July 14, 1789, a large group of Parisian citizens attacked the Bastille, the large central prison that symbolized to the populace the worst aristocratic offenses. Dickens describes this event in part 2, chapter 21 of A Tale of Two Cities. Chapter 22, in which Foulon, an aristocrat, is captured by a mob and cruelly executed, illustrates what happened in France during the months that followed, as local bastilles were attacked and aristocrats murdered. In chapter 23 Dickens shows peasants burning the chateau of Charles Darnay’s uncle. Power struggles for control of the country-both political and philosophical-dominated the next few years. In August 1792, when Darnay leaves England for France, the dominant political group passed a series of laws renouncing monarchy and proclaiming death for any returning aristocrats. During the months that followed, this political group used the infamous guillotine to behead aristocrats and others who opposed their policies. As Dickens shows, it became very dangerous even to voice opinions contrary to the prevailing ideas. During this period approximately 300,000 people were jailed, and about 17,000 of these were executed.