A Tale of Two Cities | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities | Book 2, Chapter 22 : The Sea Still Rises | Summary

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Summary

The poor people of Saint Antoine quarter still look hungry and desperate but have added to their demeanor the knowledge that they can kill their oppressors. There is news that an official named Foulon, who is infamous for telling the hungry they can "eat grass," is not dead but only faked his funeral. He has been taken prisoner by the revolutionaries.

Monsieur Defarge rounds up the crowd, The Vengeance beats her drum, and the peasants stream through the streets, weapons in hand. They storm down to the Hotel de Ville, where Foulon is tied up with a bunch of grass on his back. They drag him out to the lamp and try to hang him there, while people stuff grass into his mouth. The first two times, the rope breaks, but finally, he is hung, and they put his head on a pike with grass in his mouth. They kill Foulon's son-in-law as well, putting his heart and head on pikes, and parade them through the streets with the head of Foulon.

The peasants still go home to nothing to eat and get in line at the bakery for bad bread; still, they sleep well because they have taken down yet another symbol of oppression and made him eat his words, literally. Even though they are still starving, they have a kind of cheerfulness they haven't had in years because they have prevailed together.

Analysis

The Vengeance and Madame Defarge shriek through this chapter, as do all the women, and they are wild-eyed with murderous rage. But the narrator points out that the trouble with causing so much bloodshed is that afterward, they haven't improved their lives. The feeling of power is fleeting, which can only mean that they're not done killing yet; they need to do more and change more to feel they have erased the evil that has oppressed them. Dickens evokes the powerlessness of the poor to effect real change through bloodshed alone. The themes of vengeance (and its uselessness) and injustice come through as the chapter reveals how the urge to kill takes over in a crowd once it starts.

It should be noted that Foulon was a historical character, as was his son-in-law. When asked how the people could feed themselves if a certain financial measure were passed, it was rumored that the government minister Joseph-François Foulon (1715–1789) said, "The people may eat grass." To save himself, Foulon spread rumors of his death. After his capture and execution, the crowd carrying his head met another crowd that had captured Foulon's son-in-law, a taxman who was similarly despised, and meted out the same punishment.

While it is clear from the narrator's comments that Dickens did not feel that the aristocracy were the good guys in France—as exemplified by the horrific abuses inflicted by the Marquis and his cavalier attitude about taking lives—he didn't see the revolutionaries as heroes either. This is because, instead of simply taking over and demanding a part in government, the revolutionaries don't stop at killing their oppressors. They adopt the same cavalier attitude toward human life that the aristocracy has shown for so long. By making the revolutionary characters so uncaring and by describing mob mentality in detail, Dickens made clear he believed the revolutionaries had become completely mad and as evil as their oppressors had been. In other words, two wrongs don't make a right.

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