I followed War and Peace with I think the next best book I could read – Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
Seems I went back in time and read the preface to the Napoleonic rise.
Beside that, “A Tale of Two Cities” is important just for the fact that it is the second-best-selling single-volume book of all time (200 million approx. sales). In other words, everyone should read it.
It is always interesting for me to try and find out what it is that makes a story so popular and not just popular for its own time but popular for generations past, present and probably future.
Like a fairy tail or a parable, the story must contain some archetypal themes that activate the parts of our souls that have a similar substance.
This is why reading and discussing another actual fairy tale, ‘Beauty and the Beast‘, at the same time is a great companion to A Tale and Two Cities and could be a preface to the preface as it were. (Disney thought so, more on that later)
Each gives cadence to the other and helps to expound the other.
One – they both are set in France and have similar characters and classes of people.
Two – they both have a similar over-arching theme – self sacrifice which brings about the redemption of someone else. (Carton for Crosby, Beauty for her Father)
Fairy Tales, tend to be a warning or give a moral reasoning why one way should be preferred over another. Seeing as Beauty and the Beast was written 40 years before the beginning of the French Revolution it seems the warning was not heeded.
Let’s look at the characters of Beauty and the Beast first:
Beauty – she is not just a beauty in her looks but she is one in her heart – ‘who she is’. She is naturally beautiful, pure, smart, enlightened, full of kindness, goodness, high in openness and conscientious. Even when her sisters (her enemies) despise her she doesn’t just tolerate them but loves them wholeheartedly wishing their best and giving more to them than she takes for herself. She is super human in her love. Very few people can love like she does. It would take a certain type of genius to think up a character better then her. (I think she is better than Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel). She is the true lady liberty. She is a Christ figure.
She is best summed up in
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
She represents the ideals of the reformation and the human race. She is smart, logical, brave and at peace with her Father.
The Father – Like another fairy tale, Pinocchio, Beauty’s Father represents a common theme – traditions and beliefs. That, what has kept us from anarchy so far. That, what is good and what works which has been passed down through the generations. True religion.
The father is kind, magnanimous and generous.
The Beast – Ugly and stupid. He has a special kind of ugliness, though, that type that causes dread. He is dangerous in that he has power to imprison the Father and give full vent to his anger. The beast represents the French culture of the day. The Monarchy specifically – brutal, ugly, beastly. The church was its prisoner. The only hope for it was progress, the only hope was love. Only Beauty could see some redeeming characteristics through the ugliness. Only love could change the beast.
Chesterton was spot on when he wrote:
“Beauty and the Beast deals with a very deep idea: that love creates beauty.”
The question and the warning is: Will the Beast embrace love and will the Beauty have enough love to overcome his ugliness? Could the ugliness of the French monarchy and the nobility be transformed into something beautiful? Could he be tamed? Could it have ‘checks and balances’ put on it?
How ugly is the Beast? Well Dickens helps us with that – Pretty ugly it seems. Ugly and wicked.
Fast forward 40 years… A Tale of Two Cities.
The brutal scene of Evrémonde running over a child in the street and nonchalantly throwing a coin out of the window as payment.
The same Evrémonde and his brother raping and then murdering two members of a peasant family and sending the doctor they commandeered to help to life in solitary confinement for telling on them. This is the reality of the beast. This is why he is hideous.
We see no signs that he is being wooed by lady liberty and so, in her place, another mistress arrives. Revenge, justice, jealousy, blood thirst – Defarge. There is no doubt in my mind that Disney added her to Beauty and the Beast as Gaston. The mob, anarchy, attractive at first but ultimately arguably uglier than the beast. Nietzsche’s ubermensche.
Complete lack of liberty for all but a few – ‘Citizens’ or ‘Comrades’? Complete and utter tyranny, and guess who stepped into that void? The first dictator instead of a King (Or Handsome Prince) – Napoleon.
The first in a long line of wicked, military dictators. (Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot). For all of the beasts problems he was just a shadow of the atrocities which were to come.
Even the unique horror of the guillotine has been dwarfed by the gas chambers of the Holocaust, the organized brutality of the gulag, the mass intimidation of Mao’s cultural revolution, or the killing fields of Cambodia – Doyle
You have to appreciate how Disney’s changes incorporated the eventual French Revolution and modified it just enough to ‘Disneyify’ it.
– The rose dying signified the time running out for the French nobility in its beastly form. Will it be reformed?
– Gaston mortally wounding the beast just like the guillotine mortally wounded the French nobility.
But then Disney switched back to the fairy tale happy ending and didn’t follow how history actually went. They let the beast’s death and resurrection provide the proverbial grain of wheat dying and rising to life producing good fruit in the end. True Love, True Romance, New Life, Salvation, Happily ever after. They hijacked the metaphor.
The real point is that revolution (personal and societal) requires sacrifice. Someone has to die. The Reformers in the The bloodless revolution of 1688 in England decades earlier based their revolution on the sacrifice typified by the Beauty and by Carton – a freely given, self-less act birthed out of love. That sacrifice rooted in love turns into something beautiful, something noble, something approaching perfection. This idea that we need to be reformed. That we (every one) is beastly and the loving thing to do is to place checks and balances on us.
It is not an accident that Dickens was a British writer writing about the difference between two cities (London and Paris) but really the difference was what blood would be used as the sacrifice.
Nietzsche put it best…
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto”
We did kill God but long before Nietzsche wrote this. What Nietzsche prophesies here is that either you use God’s blood or you use the blood of the masses. No matter how much human blood is split it will not atone for humanities ‘beastly’ sins. Only eternal blood as irrational as it sounds truly ‘washes’ us in the Nietzschean sense. It is an easy and profound thing to accept but difficult because of it simplicity.
We all are beasts sentenced to the guillotine and each of us needs a doppelganger to go in our place. It has been finished.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known”