A Tale of Two Cities–Part 2–The Rule of Law

[Note to the Reader:  This is the second of two articles taken from my old blog.  Both were written in 2010.  Perhaps I might be able to add a third article on this great book.]
A key to Dickens’ thought can be found in examining the two court scenes in the book. In both cases, Charles Darnay is on trial, and in the most powerful of Dickensian plot developments, in both cases, it is Sidney Carton who works to free the accused.The background of the trial was as follows: Darnay was on trial in England for treason. The charges were vague and oddly presented, and if Darnay were convicted, he would have faced a horrible death. The tortures given to felons convicted of treason were much worse than the swift close shave of Madame Guillotine. For unclear reasons, Darnay seemed to have little clear evidence to prove his innocence. Despite a character reference from Lucie Manette, Darnay seems doomed until Sidney Carton steps forward and displays his incredible likeness to Darnay. Carton did not prove Darnay’s innocence, but he introduced an element of doubt. English justice had its flaws; the English system was prone to error; yet there were still legal and binding precedents and patterns that were useful to procuring true justice. The element of doubt as to the guilt of Darnay, displayed by the fact that no one could be sure that he was the actual guilty party, led to his acquittal.

The courtroom scene in England included crowds milling around, anxious to see a show rather than being concerned for justice. The seriousness of the charge (treason) and the near certainty of a conviction and execution created more of a circus atmosphere than a serious judicial proceeding. The flimsy evidence not withstanding, justice is maintained because of the possibility that Darnay’s accusers might be mistaken. A preponderance of evidence was lacking and an element of doubt was introduced. Therefore, an innocent man was acquitted. While this is not quite a picture of the City of God, it is the City of Man restrained by common grace. Dickens’ theology was better than he knew.

In contrast to the near-run injustice in England, France during the Terror thrived on injustice. The court scene in France was chaotic. Dickens quoted the slogan of the French Revolution several times: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity…and Death. It was this slogan that best describes the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution (or the Glorious Revolution in Britain in 1688). It was this slogan that explains that violent, humanistic faith aptly described in James Billington’s political and historical book Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of a Revolutionary Faith. France, during the Revolution and the Terror, sought to remake the world through destruction. The liberty, the equality of the classes, the fraternity of all men were all ultimately achieved through death at the guillotine. The rolling of the tumbrels to the crowded areas around the guillotines became a national religion. And this religion was founded on the law and justice of the City of Man.

The law and justice of the French courts were guided by a presupposing that certain classes of society were “enemies of the people.” As vague as the phrase is, it was able to be applied to all. Aristocrats, church leaders, and those who prospered under the old regime were by definition, enemies of the people. So were any who ever associated with the condemned classes. So were any who ever strayed in the least from the political correctness of that day. This concept of “enemies of the people” has continued in the world since the French Revolution. The terrible regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Castro, and Pol Pot, practiced the same, with the addition of more modern and horrible methods of destroying these enemies. In our American society, “enemies of the people” have not been destroyed, but particular ideas, movements, and individuals are silenced if they are out of the political and socially accepted mainstream.

Charles Darnay was clearly innocent of any true crimes in France. He had believed in a true revolution for years, and that is why he had abandoned his patrimony. His guilt was due to his bloodlines, not to blood on his hands. The driving force behind his conviction was Madame Defarge. A person reading A Tale of Two Cities in the 1800s might have thought Dickens exaggerated her villainy. Rather than being overdramatic in his creation of this meaner-than-Lady Macbeth woman, Dickens was being prophetic. It would only be a few generations later that the world would experience revolutions and plenty of willing executioners, both male and female, who were far more ruthless than Madame Defarge.

There were no court procedures, legal statutes, or appeals that could prevent Darnay’s receiving of the death sentence. His prime advocate, the good old Dr. Manette, had written a letter during his imprisonment years before that used against Darnay. Guilty by virtue of his family’s past, Darnay was then an “enemy of the people” who deserved death.

The City of Man is built upon foundations of injustices, cruelty, and death. Yet grace intervenes even in the most unlikely of situations. And just as God uses the most unexpected of people to fulfill His purposes, so Dickens used Sydney Carton as the recipient and deliverer of grace. Carton’s sacrifice of himself and his further ministry to the frightened girl on the way to their deaths, showed what propels the City of God. In a world that is overwhelmed in chaos and injustice, a world filled with wicked men, a world where goodness and virtue are mocked, there are those whose hearts are turned to something beyond this world. It is the transcendent reality of the City of God.

Sidney Carton was a wicked man; his life in the City of Man was one of drunken self indulgence, wasted talents, and pitiful self-centeredness. But it was a remembrance of the past and a vision of the future that changed him. He remembered his father’s funeral, and he took hold of a verse from the Bible that changed the direction of his life. He had already witnessed the power of a pure life in Lucie Manette (a symbol of the church) and the beauty of a godly order in the family of Charles Darnay and Lucie (a symbol of a godly order). He could have neither, although he could—by his resemblance to Charles Darnay—preserve both. The Bible verse that changed him was John 11:25 (Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.) This was an answer to the injustices found in both England and France, to the terrors of the guillotine, to the restless surging of the masses. Far from being Marx’s “opiate of the masses,” the Christian ideal provides life for the masses. It was a revolution within the revolution. It is a tale of two cities, but the story extends far beyond France and England in the late 1700s.

 

 

 

A powerful and definitive study of the ideas that ignited the French Revolution and other similar movements.

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