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Background information for A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens Pinneo, 2012.

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Presentation on theme: "Background information for A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens Pinneo, 2012."— Presentation transcript:

1 Background information for A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens Pinneo, 2012

2 Charles Dickens ( ) Dickens came from a lower-middle class family, where he enjoyed a relatively enjoyable boyhood When Dickens was 12, his father and then the rest of his family was thrown in debtors prison, so without them Dickens was forced to work in a shoe polish factory, a run down building full of rats, which Dickens compared to a living grave Dickens’ experiences with poverty and hardship early in life account for his sympathy with the poor and working classes in most of his novels Dickens didn’t receive a formal education until he found a job as a law clerk at the age of 15, and his success came when he began publishing “serials,” or small portions of narratives as continuing series By 1859, when ToTC was first published, Dickens was the most popular British author of the time

3 1840s and 1850s London For the upper-middle and ruling class, “progress” meant an increase in tangible material and wealth – this meant more factories, more workers, more residents, larger, more organized cities for the new workers and residents, and of course new and nicer things for the upper-middle and ruling classes One factor propelling this “progress” was the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s But because progress had advanced so rapidly, London and other cities built too many factories and produced too many goods like textiles, and due to similar systems in America and other major European cities, the 1840s was a period in which over 1.5 million British were unemployed

4 1840s and 1850s London Due to unemployment and hard financial times for the nation as well as an influx of impoverished Irish potato farmers, high food prices, homelessness, overcrowded cities, horrible working conditions in factories, and pollution of the cities and adjoining rivers became serious problems  many people were frustrated with the wealthy ruling class Just a few years before the publishing of ToTC, Britain faced another national setback with embarrassing losses during the Crimean War in eastern Europe

5 1840s and 1850s London Violence broke out at massive political protests against the government and Queen Victoria in the late 1840s/early 1850s in response to the government’s lack of assistance during these troubled times Citizens were also protesting the fact that most working men and women couldn’t vote for members of Parliament The government, in fact, prepared the army during this period fearing a larger, widespread movement “While it was the best of times for England’s wealthy, with their town homes and country estates, Dickens believed that times had never been worse for the nation’s poor. Hunger, disease, poverty, and ignorance characterized the daily fabric of their lives. Dickens had little hope that a social upheaval, like the one that shook France just half a century earlier, could be avoided.” – McGraw-Hill study guide

6 Dickens’ feelings about 1840s/50s London Dickens wrote to a famous English parliamentarian at the time to express his personal view that the mood and feelings of the public was "like the general mind of France before the breaking out of the first Revolution” Dickens attended a public execution in London and recorded his observations and feelings: "I believe a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immune crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man... thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked to the ground, with every variety of fool and offensive behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general excitement. When the sun rose brightly - as it did - it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil."

7 Setting ToTC takes place in both Paris and London over the course of about 18 years beginning in 1775 and ending in 1793 This time frame is intentional, as the novel covers the years before and during the French Revolution So… what’s the connection between 1850s London and the French Revolution? During the 1770s and 1780s in both France and England, there were strong feelings by many citizens (especially among the lower classes) that their respective governments were corrupt and oppressive The actions and ideals of the American Revolution in the late 1770s gave rise to political organizations in both nations where these ideas were debated and strict divisions in the fabric of the countries were outlined In response, both nations’ governments suspended many rights and freedoms of speech and assembly

8 The French Revolution All social classes in France were resentful and angry with the absolute power exercised by the monarchy The king imposed unfair taxes on the lower class to cover debts incurred by the king’s wars, unemployment was high, food prices were high, and the king favored nobility while largely ignoring the needs of the general populace King Louis XVI and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette were symbols of wealth, luxury, and over-consumption The lower, middle, and upper class were part of one large political party of “commoners,” while the landed nobility were a separate political group, and finally the clergy were part of their own political group When the three parties met in the late 1780s, the “commoners” demanded their rights and freedoms be included in a new Constitution, and in 1789 when it appeared the king was interfering, riots erupted

9 The French Revolution The mobs gained control of parts of the French army and in order to gain arms and as a symbolic move against the government, they stormed the Bastille, a prison and armory Several months later the mobs stormed the royal palace at Versailles, forced the king and queen into hiding in Paris, where they were eventually caught, imprisoned, and later publicly executed By the early 1790s, much of the “organization” of the Revolution had splintered and disintegrated, and radicals took control of the movement and terrorism and mob mentality took over and obscured many of the original grand, lofty visions for a new, more democratic government  “Reign of Terror,” guillotine Eventually, Napoleon Bonaparte takes control of the country as “emperor” and lead France into more European wars in the early 1800s

10 Sources: “Introduction” of A Tale of Two Cities by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, from 2004 Barnes and Noble Classics edition Elements of Literature 6 th ed., Holt, Rinehart, and Winston “Study Guide” for A Tale of Two Cities, from The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.


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