A Tale of Two Cities | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities | Book 2, Chapter 23 : Fire Rises | Summary

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Summary

The chapter opens with a description of the difference felt in the villages after the storming of the Bastille: In place of the aristocrats showing their faces periodically, peasants from the city come through on a regular basis. One particularly ragged individual arrives in the village over which the Marquis had once lorded, and meets up with the mender of roads. They exchange the familiar greeting, calling each other Jacques, and each one asks the other to touch, or take hands, as code. The ragged man, who is wearing tattered clothes, has leaves and grass in his shoes, is blistered and covered with sores, and needs a rest, as he hasn't slept for two days. He asks the mender of roads to wake him when it's time. Then the mender of roads, on awakening the man, tells him where the chateau of the Marquis can be found.

Later, as night falls, the mender of roads keeps looking toward the chateau. Gabelle, who is now the Marquis's representative in the village, also comes out of his house to look up at the chateau on the hill. People stay outside after supper and whisper to each other instead of going to bed. Four lights move toward the chateau and then away again until they disappear. Suddenly, there is a glow from within the chateau, and then a flickering light, and then a sudden burst of flames. A rider from the chateau hammers at Gabelle's door, but Gabelle has bolted the door and climbed up on the roof, determined to throw himself off it if his door is breached. The messenger shouts for help from the villagers, but no one moves; he rides to the prison, but even the soldiers there refuse to budge. The villagers start ringing the bell—not as an alarm but as a celebration. The chateau burns all night. Gabelle is lucky because, though the villagers hammer at his door for hours, he is still alive in the morning.

The same thing is happening throughout the country. On some estates, the functionaries and the military defeat the rebels; but on others, the rebels kill anyone associated with the oppressors.

Analysis

The chapter begins with several paragraphs of trademark Dickensian verbal irony (saying the opposite of what one means). For instance, the narrator says, "Monseigneur (often a most worthy individual gentleman) was a national blessing"; what he actually means, as the description of the village and lands around the chateau shows, is that the greedy aristocracy has ruined France and starved its people. Dickens often used irony to make his points because it amused his readers while driving home his point.

Dickens uses an interesting technique to keep readers engaged in this chapter: He never says what, exactly, is planned or happening. Instead, sentence after sentence describes only in the most superficial fashion what is being said and done. There's only a glow from the chateau, then a flickering light, for instance—the reader isn't told the chateau is on fire until the flames are visible from outside. The secrecy of the plots against the aristocrats is mirrored by the way Dickens tells the tale of this particular plot: He keeps the main objective secret until the moment it becomes deadly.

The burning of aristocrats' homes was part of the peasant uprising, a way of eradicating anyone who opposed their revolution. It seems strange, though, that they hung the servants of aristocrats, people who were only workers, much like themselves. By highlighting this, Dickens adds to his message regarding the revolution. Gabelle is safe for now, but other functionaries were hung, and yet these people were probably treated nearly as badly by "the Monseigneur" as the peasants themselves. But the denouncing of the servants and functionaries of the aristocracy happens anyway because the killing gets out of hand. This idea will be explored further in the last book of the novel, where Dickens shows even more graphically just how vengeful and unjust the revolutionaries become—more bloodthirsty than those they are rebelling against.

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