Five Books to Understand the Modern World Part Four: ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

We all live on the road between two cities – the city of God and the city of Man – between reality and a hopeful vision.

There’s a reason the Dark Knight trilogy is the only set of superhero films worth watching – they are more than comics on film – they contain and allude to a real literary mythology.

The best of them from a pure storytelling point of view, is the final film, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. What happens during times of revolution? How can true peace be achieved?

The answer is – by means of a hero.

And to tell the story, to recount a Gotham completely destroyed, the screenwriter Jonathan Nolan turned to the fourth book I think we need to read to understand the modern world, Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’:

“Chris [Nolan – Jonathan’s brother and the film’s director] … started developing the story in 2008 right after [‘Dark Knight’] came out. Before the recession. Before Occupy Wall Street or any of that. Rather than being influenced by that, I was looking to old good books and good movies. Good literature for inspiration… What I always felt like we needed to do in a third film was, for lack of a better term, go there. All of these films have threatened to turn Gotham inside out and to collapse it on itself. None of them have actually achieved that until this film. ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.”

And so the Nolan brothers turned to one of the great novels of our time as inspiration to tell a story of how personal redemption and self-sacrifice may be the only antidotes to times of political upheaval and trauma. To understand why and how they did this, we need to understand the book first.

Charles Dickens’ original classic recounted how inattention and callousness on the part of French elites brewed a storm of chaos and violence – a revolution – in which idealists attempted to start society again, and failed: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

French Royalist, Jacques Mallet du Pan, would famously note in the aftermath of the Revolution, that ‘all revolutions devour their children’. Within a decade, France had a dictator instead of a king, and Napoleon’s march on Europe would lay the foundations for total war in the twentieth century.

Napoleon and Louis XVI; the Ancien Régime and the terror of the Committee of Public Safety – history always plays itself out in doubles. That’s the great theme of the book. We always live in two cities.

Dickens brings the theme to life most vividly within the dual lead protagonists of the book: Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Darnay is a French aristocrat, trying to escape his connection to his cruel father and uncle in France by living a quiet life in London. Carton is a dissolute and depressed lawyer, who never lived up to the potential and nobility of his heart, and who is also Darnay’s doppelgänger.

They both fall in love with another French emigre, Lucie Manette, whose father is a tortured victim of the old regime, and, in particular, the family of Darnay.

Lucie marries Darnay, but Carton remains a friend and favourite of the couple’s daughter, and swears he will always be the protector of the family, having already rescued Darnay in court after being falsely denounced as a spy by some English agents working in France.

When the Bastille is stormed, led by former servants of the Manettes and Darnay’s old family in France, the infamous villains, the Defarges, Darnay finds himself drawn back to Paris, to rescue an old servant of his family, who has been caught up in the new wave of political persecutions.

There he is imprisoned and sentenced to death.

It is only by Carton’s daring journey to Paris, his use of his streetsmarts to sneak into Darnay’s cell, and his substitution of himself, Darnay’s double, as a sacrifice, that Darnay and Lucie are reunited, and some hope is restored to the story and the bloody history of the French Revolution itself.

Whilst being led to the guillotine, Carton’s identity is discovered by a condemned and frightened seamstress, and his great act of sacrifice comforts her, as Dickens concludes the story with these famous and celebrated prophetic lines from Carton:

“I see… the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.

“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace…

“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both…

“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.”

It is no surprise then that these very same words are used in eulogy of Bruce Wayne, after he has finished his journey with the bat, his own symbol of fear, trauma, and transformation, by dying to save the fallen city of Gotham. Watch it here and here.

Why is it that ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ remains so resonant to us today? I can think of three reasons.

First – self-sacrifice is encoded into the meaning of the universe. For some reason, when we see it, we find ourselves in awe – even if it is fiction. In this sense, Dickens’ novel contains just as much truth as history.

Second – what happened in Paris in the Revolution resonates with countries like South Africa. We know how injustice can lead to injustice. How people struggling for a good cause can be corrupted. How revolution always has casualties. The story of the French Revolution is still being told today. People still believe they can begin the world again, that society is a blank slate upon which they can write a masterpiece based on their own ideologies. Real life does not work that way. Power corrupts. Instead of leading political revolutions, we should rather emulate Sydney Carton, or Bruce Wayne, and find our own heroic paths to walk.

This leads to the third reason – the novel tells us there is always another city – another place – hovering in the infinite world which surrounds and contains our own. No matter the darkness of our Paris, or our Gotham, we can touch the infinite, we can serve what Tolkien’s Gandalf calls ‘the secret fire’, and what Dante, the father of modern poetry, named as ‘the Love which moves the stars and the planets’. In this way, heroes can bring little bits of heaven to earth.