Justice: A Tale of Two Cities

“Do not avenge yourselves but rather give place to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord.” – Romans 12:19[1]

a-tale-of-two-cities-by-charles-dickensA Tale of Two Cities (1859),[2] Charles Dickens’ novel of the French Revolution, is filled with injustice. In the decades preceding the Revolution, many aristocrats, nobles, and church bishops oppress the people as they fill their coffers with gold and appease their carnal appetites. One such aristocrat is Marquis St. Evremonde, whose carriage kills a peasant boy as it flies through the streets of Paris in 1780. Annoyed at the delay, the callous Marquis offers the boy’s grieving father a little money. His returning it not only angers the Marquis but also seals his fate. That night in his chateau, miles from Paris, the elderly man is murdered by the boy’s father.

Readers later learn that this is not the Marquis’ only crime. In 1757, he and his twin brother worked a tenant to death so the Marquis could lie with the man’s pregnant wife. After her father’s heart broke at the news, her brother vowed revenge but was killed by the Marquis’ brother. The widow also died. Meanwhile, the Evremonde brothers hired Doctor Manette to tend the siblings’ dying bedsides. After he wrote a letter to the Minister to seek redress for the tenant family, Manette was condemned by the Evremonde brothers to the Bastille. Eighteen years later (1775), thanks to English banker Jarvis Lorry, a broken Manette is reunited with his daughter Lucie in Paris and then taken to England.

Like Ahab and Jezebel with Naboth’s vineyard, the Marquis coveted what was not his and killed innocent people for it (1 Kings 21). His compassionate sister-in-law hoped “to avert the wrath of Heaven from a House that had long been hateful to the suffering many” (Dickens 309). So she made her young son Charles promise to bestow all her property on the one remaining member of the injured family, a sister, after she died. What this woman did not realize is that, as with the Parisian peasant boy killed decades later, money and property are not enough to redeem people’s lives. The sister, later revealed as Madame Defarge, hated and attempted to destroy the house of Evremonde.

Seeking vengeance, the dying brother made the sign of a bloody cross on the Evremonde brothers. He prophesied, “In the days when all these things are to be answered for, I summon you and yours, to the last of your bad race, to answer for them” (Dickens 306). Manette also thought that the Evremonde brothers “have no part in His mercies” (310). In a letter hidden in his prison cell, he denounced “them and their descendants, to the last of their race” (310-11). Manette and the dying brother rightly sought divine vengeance on this family, since it belongs to God alone[3] and since they were unable to seek it for themselves. However, they erred in seeking vengeance on the brothers’ innocent descendants. God told Israel, in Babylon, that a righteous son “shall not die for the iniquity of his father. He shall surely live! … The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son” (Ezekiel 18:17, 20).

Unlike his father and uncle, Charles Darnay (born Evremonde) is a righteous man. He “sees all the sins which his father has done and considers but does not do likewise” (Ezekiel 18:14). Darnay knows his family “ha[s] done wrong and [is] reaping the fruits of it” (Dickens 119). So he tries to obey his mother’s last request regarding the injured tenant family, albeit unsuccessfully. After his uncle is murdered, Darnay renounces his title and property to work in England as a French tutor. He even tells the property steward to stop collecting rent and give tenants the fuel and food they need to survive. Manette recognizes Darnay’s goodness, knowing his real name, and allows the man to marry his daughter Lucie. They eventually have a daughter, also named Lucie.

guillotine french-revolutionNone of this is enough to save Darnay from the vengeance of Madame Defarge. Once the Revolution has begun in 1789, she, her husband, a woman named “The Vengeance,” and others in the St. Antoine district of Paris unjustly take vengeance on their enemies. First they denounce people to a revolutionary tribunal; then they watch their executions via guillotine. After Manette’s Bastille letter is read to this tribunal at Darnay’s second trial, the jury votes for his execution, which will take place the next day. Dickens writes that “the man never trod ground whose virtues and services would have sustained him in that place that day, against such denunciation” (311).

Madame Defarge wrongly believes that her dead brother’s “summons to answer … descends to [her]” (Dickens 319). Having forsaken God in the name of the Republic, she becomes a god unto herself. Madame Defarge is so hungry for vengeance that she will stop only “at extermination,” which endangers the lives of Manette’s daughter and granddaughter (317). Ironically, while “pursuing this family to annihilation” (336), Madame Defarge is killed in Manette’s Paris apartment after he and his family leave for England. Darnay escapes with them, having been drugged by his look-a-like English friend Sydney Carton just hours before his execution.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:21

Dickens provides some measure of divine justice in the novel’s closing chapters. The innocent Charles Darnay lives while Madame Defarge, his self-named judge, dies. Many other French families during the Revolution were not so blessed. History is filled with stories of people who either unjustly took vengeance on an enemy, instead of letting a just and righteous God do it, or killed their enemy’s innocent descendants. The church cannot point a finger at the world, for she is just as guilty. Vengeance belongs to God alone. Therefore, we must “give place to wrath” (Romans 12:19).

__________

[1] New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted
[2] Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday, n.d.
[3] See Deuteronomy 32:35, Psalm 94:1, Isaiah 35:4, 61:2; Nahum 1:2, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30.

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One thought on “Justice: A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Pingback: Monday Musings #1 – Head In The Clouds

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